The Creation of Product Symbolism

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University
ABSTRACT - A novel perspective of the process of product symbolism and symbolic communication is proposed. Based upon the sociological model of culture production systems, the flow of product meaning through institutional and consumer subsystems is described. Consumers are viewed as active contributors to product symbolism, instead of mere recipients of product meaning.
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1986) ,"The Creation of Product Symbolism", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 327-331.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 327-331


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University


A novel perspective of the process of product symbolism and symbolic communication is proposed. Based upon the sociological model of culture production systems, the flow of product meaning through institutional and consumer subsystems is described. Consumers are viewed as active contributors to product symbolism, instead of mere recipients of product meaning.


During the 1950's there was substantial discussion concerning the symbolic aspects of products (Gardner and Levy 1955, Levy 1959). As Levy (1959, p. 118) noted, "People buy products not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean." This line of thought was extended forward during the 1960's to incorporate the notion of congruence between the lifestyle a consumer chose and the symbolic meaning of the products s/he purchased (Levy 1963). However, during the 1970's there was a hiatus of research and discussion regarding product symbolism and the ways in which meaning may be ascribed to products. This dearth of interest was possibly due to the excesses of the Motivation Research era, yet there is much to be gained -- both pragmatically and conceptually -- from inquiries into the processes underlying product meaning and consumption (Levy 1980).

The purpose of the present paper is to extend prior ideas on product symbolism in some novel directions. A central proposition is that marketing systems (Bucklin 1970, 1972) may also be appropriately conceptualized as culture Production systems (Crane 1976). For our purposes, a culture production system may be defined as a system of specialists whose task it is to create, manage, and disseminate cultural symbols (Peterson 1979, Becker 1974, 1978, Hirsch 1972, Clignet 1979). Let us outline what is meant by each term [see Figure One].

Specialists are individuals whose occupation is the development of cultural symbols. For example, apparel and automobile designers, composers, architects, food chemists, and motion picture directors are members of the creative subsystem (Hirsch 1972). Such individuals originate product concepts, i.e., innovations, which are then selected for development by the managerial subsystem (Hirsch 1972). The managerial subsystem consists of specialists in the manufacture and distribution management of cultural products. Examples include Warner Brothers Records, Procter & Gamble, Paramount Pictures, General Motors, and Sears. In some of these examples, the creative subsystem is incorporated into the managerial subsystem (Procter & Gamble, General Motors); while in others it is separate (Warner Brothers Records, Paramount). Sears operates in both modes -- contracting with creative subsystems for some of its products and generating others internally. A third group of specialists is found in the communications subsystem, which functions to provide information about products to consumers. Examples include advertising agencies and public relations firms, professional critics, the industrial/trade press, and consumer-oriented, specialized media.

Through the integrated efforts of these three specialized subsystems, cultural products are produced and disseminated to consumers. A cultural product is defined within this context as a collection of tangible and intangible attributes, and is conceptually analogous to a marketing product in the sense implied by Kotler (1972) and Bagozzi (1975, 1979). For example, a bottle of aspirin, a motion picture, an automobile, and a concert performance are all products emanating from various cultural production

Culture Production Systems and Product Meaning

Culture production systems are responsible for providing products with meaning prior to their dissemination to consumers. A closer examination of how this meaning-formation process functions can provide some useful insights into new product development.

In Step 1, a product is conceived within the mind of a specialist in the creative subsystem. At this stage, the product is composed of intangible (i.e., idealized) attributes. These intangible units must then be translated into an external, tangible form to make possible the transference of the product to decision makers in the managerial subsystem. For example, a musician may record a demo-tape, a chemist may formulate a sample of a new food supplement, a playwright may write a new scriPt, and so forth.

Of interest in Step 1 are the criteria used by creative subsystem specialists in formulating new product concepts. It has been proposed (Hirschman 1983; Polanyi and Prosch 1976) that some individuals responsible for originating novel product concepts may follow a set of personal aesthetic/ideological criteria which are not congruent with consumers' wants or managerial subsystem selection criteria; whereas other creators may be much more responsive to both consumers' and managers' values. Thus, new product originators may be ordered along a continuum based upon their willingness to comply with consumer and managerial demands regarding the types of products they create. The dual objectives of being true to one's own creative values, while at the same time achieving large-scale commercial success for one's creations, may be a difficult dilemma for some creative specialists (Michelson-Bagley 1981).

In Step 2, managerial decision makers examine the products emanating from the creative subsystem and select those to be commercially disseminated. As Hirsch (1972) notes, many cultural symbols are filtered out of the system at this point. Many more novels are written, dresses are designed, and foods developed within the creative subsystem than ever are made available to consumers. Further, products that are selected for dissemination usually undergo some modifications in their tangible form, while being prepared for mass distribution by the managerial subsystem. This process is commonly termed commercialization (Hirschman 1981). Such changes may alter the attributes of product so that it no longer resembles the concept Originating in the mind of its creator.

Of importance here are the selection criteria used by managerial specialists for procuring novel material. Two tentative propositions may be suggested. The first is that in industries distributing primarily utilitarian products (e.g., aspirin, detergent), [By 'utilitarian' is meant products used to achieve functional, extrinsic objectives (e.g., relief of headache pain)] feedback from the consumer may be sought more extensively during the commercialization process. For example, consumers' responses may be sought during the successive stages of concept testing, prototype development, new product test marketing, and regional expansion.

There are several reasons supporting this proposition. First, such products lend themselves to the inexpensive development of multiple options, each of which can be tested for consumer acceptance. For example, the color, scent, and density of a new detergent can be manipulated relatively easily at the concept and prototype testing stages. Second, consumers can likely provide more reliable data regarding their reactions to alternative treatments of this type of product, because the results are more directly observable (e.g., relief of headache, cleaning of clothes).

Third, the creators of utilitarian products are likely to be more consumer-oriented than their creative counterparts in such areas as ballet or cinematography. In perhaps the majority of industries producing utilitarian products, the creative subsystem is integrated into (and dominated by) the managerial subsystem (e.g., Procter & Gamble, General Foods). Hence, creative specialists in such industries may experience less conflict between their own goals and those of the company for which they work.

Conversely, a second proposition is that for primarily aesthetic [By 'aesthetic' is meant products which are consumed for their intrinsic qualities, e.g., their ability to communicate beauty, awe, or arouse emotion.] products, such as motion pictures, artworks, and literature, consumer's reactions will be less frequently sought during the selection and development process, and those of creators and managers will be more extensively relied upon. There are several rationales for this: First, products such as musical compositions, sculptures, novels and plays lend themselves less readily to alternative treatments. Their constituent elements combine synergistically to form a unique gestalt (Hirschman 1983; Polanyi and Prosch 1976), and altering even one element of the composition may act to create another gestalt that differs in many, unpredictable ways from the original alternative.

Second, consumers are likely to be less able to predict their reaction to such products in advance of experiencing them in their final form. Hence, concept testing is likely to possess less predictive value (Hirschman 1983). For example, to be given story outline of a potential movie would likely provide consumers with insufficient information with which to gauge their reaction to the finished product. Additionally, developing realistic prototypes of alternative versions of aesthetic products is likely to be almost as expensive as producing each in final form. Finally, the creators of such products would likely be uncooperative in such testing efforts. Many architects, authors, directors, and designers, it is believed, are to be found at the self-oriented end of the creative continuum mentioned earlier. To the extent that they view a song, novel, or painting as arising from some inner vision, they are likely to resist attempts at altering it in order to increase its commercial marketability (Hirschman 1983).

Hence, it is posited that in selecting aesthetic products for commercial production, managerial specialists rely primarily on their own intuitive response to the creator and his/her ideas. Such intuitive decision-making is not uncommon in the motion picture, legitimate theater, and recording industries, where objective criteria are few and consumers' a priori reactions are believed unreliable or very difficult to obtain. In such situations, the most common approach to new product selection is likely to be the track record of the creator and the procuring manager in originating and selecting successful products. [Based upon author's communications with Bob Krasnow, Vice President-Talent for Warner Brothers Records.]

The final product forthcoming from the managerial subsystem may be viewed as a composition of formal, con- trolled, tangible attributes. By formal is meant that the attribute is created by institutional specialists; that is, it is incorporated within the product by persons in the creative, managerial, or communication subsystems. This distinction is useful to segregate those attributes added to a product by institutional personnel from those added by consumers, which are termed informal. The term controlled refers to attributes incorporated within the product which are under the jurisdiction of managerial decision makers. This would constitute the portion of product meaning which they control either through the manufacturing process, or by control over advertising/promotional messages emanating from the communications subsystem.

Finally, the term tangible refers to objectively verifiable elements of the product - its chemical composition, size, weight, color, density, height, length, etc. Hence, the product output by the managerial subsystem consists of a physical entity, whose form and content are the result of decisions made within the managerial subsystem. For example, a bar of soap, a motion picture film print, a record album, and an automobile are formal, controlled, tangible products at their point of departure from the managerial subsystem.

In Step 3, the communications subsystem issues messages which provide the product with additional meaning. There are several important points regarding this phase. First, the content of some communications subsystem messages is influenced by the managerial subsystem, while others are beyond its control. For example, the content of advertisements, publicity releases, package labels, and sales promotion displays are largely controllable by the managerial subsystem. However, the content of other messages is largely uncontrollable. For example, the published reactions of professional critics, reporters, rating services, and so forth are not generally controllable by the managerial subsystem.

Further, in keeping with the controllable/uncontrollable nature of messages output from the communications subsystem, some of the information may be desired by the managerial subsystem, while some is not. For example, Columbia Pictures in distributing a movie may instruct its advertising agency to describe the product as "erotic" and "exciting." We could rephrase this to say that the managerial subsystem wanted these two intangible attributes [Intangible attributes are those which do not alter the physical form of the product, but do help to determine its symbolic meaning, e.g., banal, prestigious, masculine.] to be associated with the product and instructed members of the communication subsystem, which it controlled, to undertake this task. At the same time, professional critics view the movie and issue their reactions in the form of reviews. These may contain several additional intangible attributes (e.g., wonderful, boring), which also become associated with the product, but which are not controllable by the managerial subsystem. Because they are not controllable by managerial decision makers, such messages may contain negative evaluative information regarding the product.

Using our earlier nomenclature, two types of attributes emanating from the communications subsystem can be identified. First are the formal. controlled. intangible attributes, which are added to the product by communications specialists controlled by managerial decision makers. Second are the formal. uncontrolled, intangible attributes added to the product by communications specialists not under the control of managerial decision makers. These two types of attributes provide the consumer with the means to make a symbolic interpretation of the tangible product. In other words, they tell the consumer what the physical entity represents, i.e., what it symbolizes.


A fourth group of participants in the creation of product meaning is consumers. Despite the fact that consumers are often viewed merely as recipients of product meaning, they may also be active contributors to symbolic meaning, as well. A consumer's participation in creating product meaning begins when s/he associates intangible attributes with it, which were not derived from culture production system sources. For example, in reading an advertisement about a new home computer, the consumer may mentally generate a set of product associations, for instance, "complicated" and "expensive", which are not contained in the advertisement. These intangible associations constitute his/her personal contribution to the meaning of the product. These attributes may be unique to the consumer - being derived from idiosyncratic life events -- and do not necessarily resemble those generated by other individuals (Hirschman 1981).

A second way consumers may influence a product's symbolic meaning is by communicating their idiosyncratic interpretations to other consumers. This type of interPersonal communication represents the spread of uncontrolled intangible attributes from one consumer to another, and has two related effects. First, it decreases the proportion of managerially-controlled symbolic meaning assigned to the product. Second, such interpersonal communication serves to increase shared, uncontrolled symbolic meaning among consumers. In other words, interpersonal communication causes more consumers to share symbolic product beliefs, which are beyond the control of product managers. This can have major implications, especially if interpersonal communication consists of the transmission of negative beliefs concerning the product, and if the sharing of those negative beliefs by consumers leads them to take collective action contrary to managerial objectives. Using the nomenclature previously proposed, attributes associated with products by consumers through personal interpretation and interpersonal communication would be labeled as informal. intangible, and uncontrolled.

Thus, there are two potential sources of informal product meaning (idiosyncratic consumer associations and shared consumer associations) versus three for formal product meaning (managerial subsystem, controlled communication subsystem, and uncontrolled communication subsystem). Also of interest is the fact that there are three potential sources of uncontrolled product meaning (idiosyncratic and shared consumer associations, uncontrolled communication subsystem associations), suggesting the pragmatic problems encountered by managers trying to manipulate product meaning through the formal channels they control. Finally, it should be noted that the proportionate shares for each source could conceivably have a range of 0% < x < 100% of product meaning. The actual proportion contributed by each is subject to a variety of factors (e.g., advertising budget, word-of-mouth activity, personal interest, etc.).


Application to Planned Social Change

The flow of product meaning outlined above depicts the social movement of the product through four subsystems, each of which increments and/or alters its meaning. The process described is somewhat like that of a pearl which begins as a grain of sand and is transferred through subsequent oysters, each of which coats it with attributes, perhaps disrupting underlying layers in the process. This conceptualization depicts the meaning acquisition path followed by a novel product from its inception through its mass dissemination among consumers. Within the diffusion paradigm such a product would be termed an innovation (Robertson 1971). There are two sources of change inherent in a product: (1) its tangible attributes, and (2) its intangible attributes.

It is proposed that by creating a product that is completely novel in both its tangible and intangible structure, the culture production system brings forth a radical innovation. By altering the tangible or intangible structure [Or by altering both to a relatively minor degree.] of an existing product, the culture production system can create a lesser (continuous) innovation. For example, annual model changes in the Mercedes Benz 450 may alter its tangible structure somewhat, but leave largely intact its intangible attributes (e.g., prestige, high quality). Conversely, the chemical structure of Arm & Hammer baking soda was left intact, but its intangible meaning was altered in the campaign to reposition it as a deodorizing compound. Both the new model Mercedes Benz and the newly-positioned Arm & Hammer baking soda are examples of continuous innovations (Robertson 1971). However, their innovativeness was brought about using distinctly different mechanisms.

We may also use this framework to isolate and identify the various cultural subsystems responsible for creating novel products. To create a radical innovation, for example, the integrated efforts of the creative, managerial, and communications subsystems are required. The creative subsystem originates the novel, tangible prototype of the product; the managerial and communication subsystems are responsible for disseminating additional controllable and uncontrollable product attributes to consumers who, of course, may supply attributes of their own.

To create a continuous innovation that is novel in its tangible form (e.g., the new model Mercedes), cooperative efforts between only the creative and managerial subsystems are required. Conversely, to create a continuous innovation that is novel in its intangible form (e.g., deodorizing Arm & Hammer baking soda), cooperative efforts between only the managerial and communications subsystems are required.

Application to Informal Social Change

The foregoing discussion of innovation creation refers to planned social change--that is, changes in product meaning that are undertaken by formal (institutional) channels in the culture production system. A less explored phenomenon is informal social change--that is, changes in product meaning resulting from non-institutional sources. Consumers, themselves, are among the foremost progenitors of this sort of social change (Hirschman 1982).

Consumers can control a substantial amount of the symbolic meaning attributed to a product. If through interpersonal communication, consumers define a novel social meaning for an existing product, they can in effect, originate innovations by themselves. This phenomenon has occurred several times in recent years and is especially common among sects or subcultures. For example, during the 1960's jeans and t-shirts were socially redefined as "hippie" apparel. More recently, adherents to the "punk rock" subculture have symbolically redefined razor blades and safety pins as jewelry (Hirschman 1982).

In the past, little research has been conducted on instances of consumer-generated symbolic innovation, likely because of a perceptual bias by researchers that products come into society only through formal, institutional channels. However, with the shifting emphasis in consumer research from marketer-dominated to consumer-dominated phenomena (Belk 1984) it is likely that more interest will be directed toward this type of symbolic innovation.

Such activity by consumers constitutes an example of use innovativeness, although not in the sense that this term has traditionally been applied (Hirschman 1980). Use innovativeness refers to consumers' modifications of or extensions to a product's managerially intended function, for example, use of a plastic credit card to jimmy open a door lock. use of mayonnaise as a hair conditioner, use of coat hangers as television antennas, and so forth. However, in the present context of creating product meaning, use innovativeness by consumers could also be applied to the consumer-originated redefinition of a product's social meaning by assigning new symbolic attributes to it.

As noted earlier, such cases of symbolic redefinition are perhaps most common in sects and subcultures. Such sects are often centered around an ideological core (e.g., hippies - > anti-materialism, personal freedom, communalism; punk rockers - - > nihilism, anarchism) that they may desire to communicate to others and also which may serve to set them apart from the values present in society at large.

The redefinition of existing products as symbols may help sects to attain both these goals. For example, hippies wore patched jeans, t-shirts, and sandals to identify themselves and communicate to others their subcultural value of anti-materialism; similarly, punk rockers wear razor blades, metal spikes and engage in self-mutilation to identify themselves and communicate their values of anarchism and self-destruction to the surrounding society. Ideological subcultures and sects may, in effect, operate as mini-culture production systems - self-contained sources of symbol creation, management, and communication. Consumer researchers, especially those who desire to implement the humanistic research methodologies of ethnography and participant-observation, would likely find the subcultural generation of product symbolism a rewarding avenue for research.


A novel theoretical perspective has been presented concerning product symbolism and symbolic communication. This perspective argues that the flow of products from producers to consumers may be characterized as a culture production system. A culture production system is responsible for the creation, management, and dissemination of cultural products. Acting through three successive and interactive subsystems, the culture production system makes available to consumers various sets of tangible and intangible attributes, which are termed products. The meaning of these products is controlled by various sources - the managerial subsystem, the communications subsystem and consumers. Product meaning may be decomposed into a series of dichotomies, depending upon its source and content: tangible/intangible, formal/ informal, and controlled/uncontrolled. Each of these dichotomies carries implicit assumptions regarding the interpretation, evaluation, and diffusion of the product.

It was proposed that consumers are active contributors to product meaning, utilizing both idiosyncratic interpretation and interpersonal communication to supplement the meaning provided by the culture production system. Because of their contributions to product meaning, consumers should not be viewed merely as recipients of products, but as producers of product symbolism in conjunction with the marketing system.

It was also proposed that innovations be recast as novel assemblages of tangible and intangible attributes. While most radical innovations are brought forth via formal institutions in the culture production system, it was also noted that some continuous innovations of a symbolic nature may be generated by consumers. This phenomenon is a frequent occurrence among sects and other consumer subcultures who create symbols to differentiate themselves from society and may operate as self-contained culture production systems.




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