Bringing History Into Consumer Research

Session Chair: Katherine Sredl, Univ. of Illinois
Discussion Leader: Russell Belk, Univ. of Utah

Special Session: “Historical Perspectives on Consumption”


“Cultural Prejudice and the Construction of Rhetorical Pasts”

Katherine C. Sredl, University of Illinois (presenter) and Linda M. Scott, University of Illinois


Short Abstract

Individual choices in a variety of domains from clothes to soap to cell phones are formed by the past experiences, personal and collective, of consumers.  Yet consumer research has given little attention to the influence of history on purchase behavior and use.  The 2004 Journal of Consumer Research Thirty Year Cumulative Subject Index lists five articles under “Historical Analysis”—out of 930 total JCR articles published since 1987.  Even these few articles tend to focus on the history of producers rather than of consumers.  During this same period, the field of history has turned its attention to questions of consumption for the first time.  Yet this work, too, tends to focus on the roles of producers and focuses on providing broad-brush explanations for large-scale social change, glossing over the need to first understand the ways that ordinary people in any given time have actually used goods to live their lives.  The very few exceptions, such as Richard Bushman’s Refining America, have shown tantalizing potential to upend common assumptions about how consumers of the past really behaved—and, by extension, challenge the way we frame behavior in the present.  Further, because so little history has been written on the actual practices of consumption, cultural theory across a variety of domains tends to be based on an imagined past; thus, cultural criticism is sometimes grounded in an assumed trajectory of material culture, rather than an actual one.  The basis for policy and expectations for the future are, in turn, profoundly affected by the vacuum of historical knowledge on past consumer practice.  This presentation will focus on some of the theoretical and evidentiary challenges that an actual history of consumption would pose, as well as pointing out the ways in which such an effort might illuminate thought or debunk prejudices in contemporary work.


“Brands as Historical Actors”

Douglas B. Holt, Said Business School, University of Oxford

Short Abstract

I draw upon a brand genealogy of Budweiser beer to critique the way in which brand symbolism is treated in the dominant theory of branding in American marketing—the consumer-based brand equity (CBBE) model—and to advance an alternative model.  I challenge two CBBE assumptions: that brand symbolism consists of abstract associations, and that the needed stability of brand “knowledge structures” suggests that consistency is central to successful branding.  Instead, I demonstrate that Budweiser’s symbolism is dependent upon the historical fit between the brand’s particular cultural expressions (usually in advertising) and the social contradictions of the day.

Brands as Historical Actors

 From the work of Dichter, Levy, and other motivation researchers nearly a half-century ago, through countless studies by academics and practitioners, we know that symbolism is a central aspect of consumption, and of brands in particular.  Yet marketing’s brand theories have largely ignored brand symbolism, yoking symbolism to the dominant psychological models without considering its distinctive qualities, one of which I will argue is historical specificity. In this presentation I will use a case study of Budweiser beer to critique the way in which brand symbolism is treated in the dominant theory of branding in American marketing—what Kevin Keller calls the consumer-based brand equity (CBBE) model—and to advance an alternative model.

The CBBE Model’s Anti-Historicism

Kevin Keller’s exposition of the CBBE model (Keller 1993, 1998, 2002, 2003a, 2003b) offers the most widely accepted and comprehensive treatment of branding in American marketing.  Keller’s CBBE model is a more formal academic treatment of similar ideas that David Aaker has developed in managerial texts (1991, 1996, 2000). In this presentation, I will challenge two of the central axioms of CBBE:

Axiom #1: Brand symbolism consists of abstract associations. The core of the brand—what Keller calls the core brand values and, in short form, the brand mantra, and what in industry is more commonly referred to as the brand DNA or brand essence—is defined as the set of abstract associations (attributes and benefits) that characterize the most important dimensions of the brand (Keller 2003, 151).  In the CBBE model, brand symbolism is treated as a subset of these associations, part of the brand’s intangible associations.  Like other associations, brand symbolism is conceived as a transcendental entity, a property of the mind that exists outside of history and society.

Axiom #2: Brand associations exist as cognitive “knowledge structures” that act as heuristics; so the stability of this knowledge (via consistency) is key to the brand’s success. 

Following the logic of many industry gurus before them (from Rosser Reeves to Trout and Ries), both Keller and Aaker assume that consumers value brands because they provide a distinctive and stable heuristic.  So both insist that brands can be successful over time only if they maintain consistency in the brand’s associations—brand symbolism included.  The CBBE model argues that the brand exists as a trans-historical timeless entity abstracted from the ebb and flow of social and cultural changes.  The CBBE model yanks the brand and consumer out of history to posit a brand-consumer connection that is not dependent upon historical context. 

Budweiser Case Study

I have conducted historical research on over a dozen brands to develop a new conceptual model of branding conceived specifically to explain how brands create value through their symbolism (Holt 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2005).  This presentation will further develop one particular aspect of this model—the centrality of history.  In my research, I conduct what I term brand genealogies of iconic brands (described in methods appendix of Holt 2004). Iconic brands are brands that, for extended periods, have extremely valuable symbolism.  Budweiser is one such brand.

Budweiser’s revenues are driven largely by advertising, according to senior managers at Anheuser-Busch.  Budweiser was a competitive but not dominating brand in the 1970s, strongly challenged by Miller, Schlitz, and Lite Beer from Miller.  Anheuser-Busch struggled to find advertising to respond to Miller’s successful “Miller Time” campaign.  Finally, in 1983, Anheuser-Busch launched “This Bud’s for You,” a campaign that showcased men working cheerfully and industriously in artisanal trades, men whom Bud saluted with a baritone-voiced announcer proclaiming “this Bud’s for you!”  The results were startling.  American men, particularly working class men, flocked to the beer.  By the middle of the decade, Budweiser was unchallenged as the most desirable beer in the country, dominating the premium segment.  Anheuser-Busch successfully extended the campaign for seven years, but around 1990 the advertising stopped working, sending Bud’s brand equity into a tailspin.  For the next seven years, management tried a variety of very different campaigns to revive the brand, all of which failed.  Finally, two new campaigns very different from This Bud’s For You—“Lizards” and “Whassup?!”—combined to rekindle Bud’s iconic stature.

My analysis explains Budweiser’s failures and successes using the techniques of the cultural historian: I conduct a close interpretation of Bud’s ads and seek to explain why different content resonated differently in terms of both changes in society (economy, politics, demographics, etc.) and in the responses to these changes found in the major culture industries (film, television, music, books etc.). 

Brands as Historical Actors

I demonstrate that the CBBE model cannot explain why different ad campaigns either substantially enhanced or denigrated Bud’s brand symbolism.  To address this weakness, I develop a model that emphasizes the historical fit between particular cultural expressions and the major societal contradictions impacting the brand’s target customers.    In the case of Budweiser, symbolism consists not of masculinity, but, rather particular expressions of masculinity: men reclining after a hard day’s work, manual laborers teaming together to get the job done, guys chasing girls, buddies having a laugh.  The brand’s value is located in the particulars of the brand’s cultural expression.  For Bud, some expressions of masculinity work well, others worked terribly, driving down sales.  The expressions that work are those that address the identity needs created at particular historical junctures by cultural disruptions—dramatic shifts in society that challenges people’s identities.

I also demonstrate that Budweiser branding succeeded only when it violated the CBBE model by dramatically shifting its supposed brand associations.  Brands must perform as historical actors, shifting their stories as society changes, or else fade in relevance. Iconic brands are built using a philosophy precisely the opposite that espoused by the CBBE model: the brand is an historical entity whose desirability comes from performing myths that address the most important social tensions that pulse through the nation. For identity brands, success depends upon how well the brand’s myth is modified to fit historical exigencies, not by its consistency in the face of historical change.

The CBBE model is a distilled model that denies the brand a role as an historical actor in society.  In its insistence that brands forge a transcendental identity lodged in consumers’ minds, the CBBE model ignores that identity value is created and transformed in particular historical contexts.   A model of brand symbolism must detail the brand’s stakes in the transformation of culture and society and the particular cultural expressions the brand uses to push for these transformations.  


“Historicizing Consumer Culture Theory”

Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Short Abstract

This presentation will discuss two ways in which consumer culture theory (Arnould and Thompson 2005) can be enriched by the use of historical methods: 1) facilitating the analysis of macro-level relationships between consumption, marketing, and society and 2) by providing new venues for theorizing micro-level consumption phenomena.  These implications will be illustrated through a historically informed analysis of consumer health risk perceptions.

Long Abstract

This presentation will discuss two ways in which consumer culture theory (Arnould and Thompson 2005) can be enriched by the use of historical methods: 1) facilitating the analysis of macro-level relationships between consumption, marketing, and society and 2) by providing new venues for theorizing micro-level consumption phenomena in a manner akin to what Michel Foucault (1979, p. 31) characterized as the “history of the present.”

Macro-level issues and problems are ritually (re)cited by ACR presidents and other disciplinary thought leaders as critically important yet woefully understudied topics within the Association for Consumer Research community. Despite these repeated admonishments, year in and year out, consumer research remains anchored to micro-level questions. One consequence of this orientation is that ACR tends to be isolated from broader academic and public policy discussions on the marketing-consumer culture-society triad. In contrast, some of the most influential studies of consumption have been undertaken by historians whose analytic perspectives are attuned to macro-level issues (e.g., Cohen 2003; Lears 1994; Leach 1993, Marchand 1987). These historical analyses tease out complex institutional relationships and confluences of sociological, cultural, and economic forces that have set consumer culture on particular historical trajectories and thereby, they provide a broader viewpoint from which to assess the societal impacts of consumption.

The academic training of most researchers in the ACR community, however, is geared toward micro-level analyses of cognitive structures, preference utilities, and consumer-object/brand relationships. For example, PhD programs seldom provide (or encourage) students to immerse themselves in exemplary historical studies of consumer culture or to gain training in historical methods. Rather, the sphere of history is glossed (and ghettoized) as some version of the “history of marketing thought” (Bartels 1976). I will argue that dry treatises on the writings of pioneering marketing theorists are poor substitutes for a historical perspective on the development of contemporary consumer culture. Consumer research’s ahistoric predilections have also shaped the development of CCT.  The vast majority of CCT studies remain wedded to micro-level orientations such as ethnomethodologies and phenomenological modes of analysis. CCT analyses can easily remain at a superficial level unless they are in fact historically grounded. An historical perspective encourages consumer researchers to see various domains of consumer culture, and their specific meaning systems and practices of interactions, as historical contingencies that have become more or less institutionalized and exert more or less binding path dependencies. This shift in analytic orientation would push aspiring CCT researchers to think beyond descriptive levels of analysis and situate their findings in broader institutional-historical contexts.  

An historical-institutional perspective also offers considerable potential to advance CCT through studies that blend macro and micro-level modes of analysis. The second part of my presentation will discuss how a historical perspective can be integrated into a more micro-level CCT analysis. I will illustrate this idea through an historically informed analysis of the social construction of consumer health risk perceptions (Thompson 2005). Studies of consumer risk perceptions, with scant exception (see Celsi, Rose, and Leigh 1993), have been steeped in theories deriving from cognitive psychology, most particularly Tversky and Kahnemann’s (1982) prospect theory. This family of cognitive studies marshals extensive evidence indicating that consumers’ health risk assessments are often skewed by their reliance on simplifying cognitive heuristics or their susceptibilities to self-positivity biases (Block and Keller 1997; Keller, Lipkus, and Rimer 2002; Luce and Kahn 1999; Raghubir and Menon 1998). I will show how an historical perspective can open up very different venues of theorization than suggested by these micro-level conceptualizations. I focus on the case of home births and the question of how can consumers come to understand the act of having a child in their home (without direct medical supervision) as a safer and less risky alternative than laboring in a hospital setting. To address this question, I turn to the contested historical constructions of pregnancy, women’s bodies, labor, and birth technologies that have coalesced in the present as two competing cultures of birth: the technocratic medical model and the romantic midwifery model. It is through the appropriation of these discourses by various proponents of home birth, that consumers become socialized in a meaning system that renders the hospital (and standard medical interventions) as forms of avoidable risk. I show how these consumers’ unconventional risk perceptions are logical consequences of the historical narratives which frame their perceptions. Rather than being a function of ahistorical cognitive constructs (such as judgment heuristics), consumer risk perceptions are shown to be grounded in a particular cultural genealogy and a corresponding set of interpretive predispositions.
[ to cite ]:
Session Chair: Katherine Sredl and Discussion Leader: Russell Belk (2006) ,"Bringing History Into Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 33, eds. Connie Pechmann and Linda Price, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 248-250.