A Framework of Psychological Meaning of Products

Roberto Friedmann, University of Georgia
V. Parker Lessig, University of Kansas
ABSTRACT - The psychological meaning that products elicit in the consumer's mind is shown to be a function the bundle of attributes found in the product, the consumer's perceptual mode, and the context in which the perceptual process takes place. As such, the psychological meaning of product stimuli is argued as being an area of consumer research that warrants attention. In developing this idea, a Framework of Psychological Meaning of Products is proposed, and directions for research into this framework are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Roberto Friedmann and V. Parker Lessig (1986) ,"A Framework of Psychological Meaning of Products", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 338-342.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 338-342


Roberto Friedmann, University of Georgia

V. Parker Lessig, University of Kansas


The psychological meaning that products elicit in the consumer's mind is shown to be a function the bundle of attributes found in the product, the consumer's perceptual mode, and the context in which the perceptual process takes place. As such, the psychological meaning of product stimuli is argued as being an area of consumer research that warrants attention. In developing this idea, a Framework of Psychological Meaning of Products is proposed, and directions for research into this framework are suggested.


The major purpose of this paper is to highlight the importance and need of focusing on the development of the meaning that consumers derive from, and ascribe onto product stimulus. As argued below, the concept of psychological meaning (PM) of products is believed to be an important component in the analysis of consumer behavior. For the discussion which follows, (PH) will be defined as a person's subjective perception and affective reaction to stimuli.


Perception in Consumer Behavior Paradigms

In recent years, numerous articles have been written on the information processing perspective of consumer behavior (e.g. Bettman 1979). An important and complementary alternative to information processing is experiential consumption. Experiential consumption views consumption as being a subjective state of consciousness heavily dependent upon symbolic meanings, hedonic responses and esthetics criteria (Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982).

Two manifestations of experiential consumption are symbolic consumption (Hirschman 1981) and esthetics consumption (Holbrook 1981). The underlying notion of symbolic consumption is that products may be evaluated, purchased and consumed based upon their symbolic content (Zaltman & Wallendorf 1979). The central notion of aesthetic consumption is that consumers may attend to, perceive and appreciate a product for itself, without regard to the utilitarian functions of benefits it may provide the consumer (Holbrook 1981).

One can regard consumer behavior as a continuum ranging from information processing to esthetics consumption. On the one extreme we can see a logical, methodical information-processor using choice heuristics. At the other extreme we see the consumer aesthetically consuming based upon such feeling as fun, elation, and hedonic pleasure.

An important element commonly shared by all paradigms along this continuum is that of perception.

Role of Meaning in Perception Research

One of the earliest conceptualizations of perception can be found in Locke's (1690) proposed paradigm for the study of epistemology, the philosophy and science of knowledge. As discussed by McConville (1978), Locke's seminal idea was that knowledge enters the mind by first passing through the person's senses. Once inside the mind, these "sensations" are organized, compared and compounded into "complex ideas." Accordingly, Locke sees knowledge building as a two-stage process involving primary sensory experiences and secondary cognitive elaborations.

Locke's influence can be seen in the work of Wilhelm Wundt (considered by some to be the main architect of the school of perceptual research and the theory known as Structuralism). Wundt postulated that a perceptual experience is comprised of unitary sensations. These sensations constitute raw material from which complex ideas and images develop. Wundt then postulated a second stage where "meaning building" from these raw sensations takes place. This is through the synthesizing of elementary sensations to form complex aggregates. or structures (thus the name of Structuralism)

Contemporary perceptual psychology can (for the most part) be labeled as Neo-Structuralism. While many researchers believe there are shortcomings in the two-stage theory, few have challenged its underlying assumptions (McConville 1978). An example is the work of Forgus (1966) who presents a model with four basic stages: input, sensory transduction, intervening brain activity and output.

There are, however, exceptions to the Neo-Structuralist approach. Gibson (1966), for example, holds that perceptual meaning is not deduced or inferred through non-perceptual secondary operations; rather perceptual meaning is directly caused by the combined effect of the totality of stimuli patterns an individual perceives.

Perhaps the most salient role of meaning within the perception process can be found in Existential-Phenomenological psychology (Valle and King 1978). This paradigm does not view individuals as objects in nature. Rather, there is a total, indissoluble unit or interrelationship between the individual and his environment in which the individual and his environment co-constitute one another. This notion of co-constitutionality is directly related to our interest in perceptual meaning. According to the Existential-Phenomenological psychological viewpoint, "it is via the world that the very meaning of the person's existence emerges both for himself and for others. The converse is equally true". (Valle & King 1978, p. 8, emphasis added).

The implications of Existential-Phenomenological psychology are that the meaning of a product can not be thought of without the existence and active participation of the individual (perceiver). Thus, phenomenology takes meaning as the starting point of the perceptual experience (McConville 1978), as opposed to traditional psychology which, for the most part, has treated meaning as a by-product of the perceptual process.

Meaning and its Categorizations

In this section, our focus is at the stage where perceptual stimuli have been perceived, organized, and interpreted and are now undergoing the process of being ascribed a particular meaning.

Researchers in different fields (for example, Szalay and Deese (1978) in sociology and Hirschman (1979) in consumer behavior) advocate classifying meaning into three types: lexical meaning, philosophical, and psychological. Lexical meaning addresses the relation between words and referents, in which the base for its determination is a generally accepted cote of labeling (Bloomfield 1933). Philosophical meaning focuses on the concept-referent relationship; here meaning becomes synonymous with rational knowledge (Katz 1972). Psychological meaning focuses upon "a person's subjective perception and affective reactions" to stimuli; "PM characterizes those things that are most salient in an individual's reaction while describing the degree and direction of its affectivity" (Szalay and Deese 1978).

Our interests lie with the psychological meaning of products. The reason is that the nature of buying behavior is not fully conventional or rational.

The major underlying problem in identifying and describing the composition or structure of PM is that the study of PM has been chiefly empirical. According to Szalay and Deese (1978), what little theory there is can be exemplified by the work of Osgood (1952).

Osgood's basic conceptualization of meaning was explained as being "that process or state in the behavior of a sign using organism which is assumed to be necessary consequence of reception of sign-stimuli and a necessary antecedent for the production of sign responses" (Osgood, Succi & Tannenbaum 1957). Osgood's work, then, presents the notion of a cognitive state with both representational and mediating roles.

A major contribution that Osgood's work provides in explaining meaning is his idea of meaning being a "bundle of components."

Components of Psychological Meaning

The conceptualization of PM as a "bundle of components" allows us to visualize these components as the basic structural elements of the construct. Building upon Osgood's work, the components of PM may be seen as representing a person's: understanding and evaluation of the concept/ stimulus; his direct and/or vicarious experiences, images, feelings and associated behavioral responses that have been accumulated over time.

Osgood's idea of meaning reflecting the individual's stimulus-associated feelings is also compatible with Szalay & Deese's notion of the "affective reaction" characteristic of PH. Within the perceptual process, it is a well accepted notion that individuals engage in a series of cognitive mechanisms such as selective exposure and affective distortion. If one looks at the affective distortion element of perceptual processes (Holbrook and Huber 1979), one can see that lt indeed is a simple manifestation of the affective reactions contained in PM. Within consumer behavior research one can find evidence that affective distortion, both in its common and idiosyncratic forms, has been addressed with the goal of separating lt from the perceptual processes and thus obtaining clearer measures (Holbrook & Huber, 1979). Nevertheless, Hirschman (1979) points out that while this may be a valuable goal in areas such as employee performance evaluations, this research purpose should not be pursued indiscriminately in consumer research. If we were to eliminate affective distortion from the consumer's perception of a product, how do we know that we are not eliminating a crucial component of the perceptual process, whose absence or presence, could drastically change the particular meaning of that product in the consumer's mind?

One can then see a structure of PM. This structure may be explained in terms of components of meaning derived from a subjective elaboration within the individual's perceptual process. This elaboration is conceptualized as being suffused with affectivity (or affective distortion).

Characteristics of the Components of PM

The components of PM described above exhibit certain generalizable characteristics. These characteristics can be described as salience, commonality, tangibility and context. and are discussed below

Salience is a measure of the relative importance of components in explaining individuals' reactions to stimuli. In an analysis of cross-cultural, sociological differences, Szalay and Deese (1978) agree that in the control of goal-oriented human behavior by subjective meaning, certain components, such as those involving anticipated behavioral consequences, will be of particular importance. Certain components of PM also play a heavier role than ignoring this idea of component salience, PM overcomes the primary weakness of lexical and philosophical meaning-type analyses (Hirschman 1 979) .

Commonality and tangibility are also important characteristics of meaning. It is a widely accepted notion in consumer behavior that culture is the primary determinant of consumer wants and needs. An extension of this notion is that our socialization, learning, attitudes and evaluative criteria will also be culturally bound. The individual is indeed operating in a society which can be described as homogeneous only in that it may represent a particular mix of heterogeneous subcultures which may be integrate/blend if one takes a molar perspective. Hirschman (1979) defines the relationship between culture and the individual as a "layer of meaning" paradigm. The underlying concept of the paradigm is that the meaning of a product stimulus consists of associated layers that vary in both their commonality and tangibility among members of society. The paradigm thus provides a framework for classifying the associations of product meaning within the minds of consumers. In the PM of products commonality and tangibility exist as continua that range from idiosyncratic meaning to commonly held cultural meaning and from intangible to tangible.

Context is a characteristic derived from the work of Peter and Olson (1983), who propose that the concept of meaning must always be considered as meaning in a given context. The assertion of meaning being always meaning in a given context is not incompatible with the representation of the components of PM as provided above. If the meaning associated with a particular stimulus is explained to consist in part of the person's evaluation the stimulus, it is then necessarily arrived at within the context and characteristics of the evaluation. Therefore, the evaluation is partially a determinant of the context, while at the same time the context (or the situation) can affect the evaluation, and thus PH. It is felt it would be unrealistic to think of a one way causal relation between context and PM.

A Framework of Psychological Meaning of Product Stimuli

The preceding sections highlight the interactive approach to perception as an issue that needs to be addressed in developing this framework. The two major units of perception are the perceived and the perceiver, or as McConville (1978) points out, what psychologists have traditionally referred to as distal and proximal stimuli. Briefly, distal stimuli refer to the objective, real physical world surroundings, reflecting energy (e.g. light) towards the perceiver. Proximal stimuli refer to the effects, processes, and outcomes resulting from the impingement of this energy upon the perceiver's sense organs.

Even though there has been some research on the perceived (Gibson 1966) and slightly more on the perceiver (Hochberg 1964), the bulk of the research on perception focuses on the interaction between the perceiver and the perceived. Clearly> (though perhaps at a somewhat abstract level of discourse) a product not being perceived has no "meaning." The notion of co-constitutionality (explained in the previous section within the contributions of experiential-phenomenological psychology) specifically addresses this. Given a consumer behavior perspective, it is imperative to focus on the interaction between the perceiver and the product stimulus if the meaning of that stimulus to the consumer is to be understood.

Addressing this interaction between the perceiver and product stimulus, this section of the paper develops a framework intended to describe the process through which consumers tend to derive, and ascribe meaning to products. The development of this framework of psychological meaning of products (FPMP) builds upon prior perceptual research and has as its main elements the product stimulus attribute bundle characteristics, the consumer's perceptual modes, and a trichotomy of variables (i.e. individual, social and situational) representing the contexts within which consumers operate. These elements and their relationship are described below.

Tangibility and Product Attributes

The first element of the FPMP addresses the nature of the bundle of attributes that characterizes the product stimulus being perceived. Marketing literature has often defined a product as a bundle of need-satisfying components, a bundle of expectations, or a bundle of attributes. Using the 'bundle of attributes' notion in our proposed framework allows us to fully develop the idea of tangibility. To do this we must first digress to the concept of cognitive structures since developments in cognitive psychology support the relevance of the tangibility issue.

We agree with Olson's (1983) assertion that the most generally accepted conceptualization of a cognitive structure is that of an associative network where each mental representation or cognition represents a node in a network, with all the nodes being linked through associations or arcs. Recent work in this area has addressed such issues as: (1) the development of hierarchical models of cognitive structure (e.g. Olson & Reynolds, 1983) and (2) the use of cognitive structure as the basis for the consumer's heuristics in retrieving and processing information stimuli from cognitive "schemas" (Graesser & Nakamura 1982). It is suggested that PM is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the development of cognitive structures and schemas. We believe that without the individual's perceptual meaning responses, several (if not all) of the cognitive structural nodes would be "meaningless."

Observing many current consumer behavior models of cognitive structures, one can see labels for components of a product such as: product attributes physical and pseudophysical characteristics and concrete attributes and abstract attributes (Olson & Reynolds 1983). In spite of differences in semantics, we will look at attributes as the product's unit of analysis (as opposed to need-satisfying components or expectations). The categorization of product attributes in terms of tangibility has also been discussed by Hirschman (1979, 1981), Garner (1978), and Holbrook (1978).

Based on the previous arguments, we define tangible product attributes as objective, verifiable features of the product stimulus. Intangible product attributes are defined to be subjective impressions of the product under consideration, ascribed by the consumer onto the product stimulus.

Perceptual Modes

The second element of the FPMP addresses the perceptual modes--ways people tend to perceive--that consumers exhibit. Hirschman (1979, p. 10) states that: "After years of empirical investigation, there is substantial evidence which suggests that the recognition and identification of a stimulus by an individual are both 'data driven' and 'concept driven' to use the terminology of Norman (1976)." "Data driven" refers to features of the perceptual stimulus that are acquired through the individuals' senses from the outside, physical environment (i.e., the product) and "concept driven" refers to the cognitive data that are the result of the individual's processing of the information received through the senses. and then ascribed onto the stimulus.

In developing the psychological meaning of a particular product stimulus, the consumer gathers the product's tangible attributes through his/her five senses. Here, data driven perception is at work, given the objective, verifiable elements of the product under consideration. In the same manner, the consumer's cognitive associations or abstractions bring about intangible attributes that are ascribed onto the product in question. At this stage, we have concept-driven perceptual modes bringing about the subjective impressions associated with the product stimulus.

Meaning in Context

The last element said to be influential on the process whereby individuals derive the psychological meaning of products, was said to be a trichotomy of context variables. The basis for this contention is the work of Peter and Olson (1983) who state that when considering meaning, one should always think of meaning in a given context. In order to formalize then, the idea of the meaning of a product having always to be considered as meaning in context, we can turn to models of consumer behavior.

Models of consumer behavior (e.g. Nicosia (1966), Howard Sheth (1969), Engel, Blackwell & Kollat (1978)) as well as the general developments in marketing and consumer behavior theory (e.g., Lutz 1981) of the last twenty years, allow us to identify three major categories of intervening or determining variables that are proposed to have an influence in the development of the consumer's PH. These categories of variable are: individual characteristics, social characteristics, and situational characteristics.

Individual characteristics manifest themselves primarily within the individual. Variables that reflect the social reality of the consumer's immediate environment may be labeled social characteristics. Situational characteristics refer to the general situations that the consumer is confronted by and interacts within.

These purposefully widely labeled categories are each clearly representative of a vast array of issues/variables/constructs currently accepted as related to consumer behavior. The proposed FPMP does not attempt to list all the variables in the above categories. The framework, however, does highlight the typology of variables seen as formalizing the notion of meaning in a given context.

The proposed framework is graphically represented in Figure 1, and is intended to reflect how the psychological meaning of products comes about. The psychological meaning that consumers hold about product stimuli is dynamic in nature. This dynamism can be observed in Figure 1. The consumer gathers information about the product's tangible attributes through data-driven perception. At this stage, the consumer's senses are at work. The consumer can also operate in a concept driven mode. In such mode, cognitive associations and abstractions bring about intangible attributes which the consumer ascribes onto the product. At the same time, the context within which the perceptual process is taking place affects the consumer's derivation of psychological meaning. The consumer's individual, social and situational characteristics as the relevant elements at this stage.

The end result of the process depicted above, is that bundle of components derived earlier on this paper, which is said to represent a person's subjective perception and affective reaction to a product stimulus--the psychological meaning of products.



Research Questions

The FPMP is thought to highlight the typology of variables affecting the process of how the psychological meaning of a product stimulus is derived by the consumer.

Close examination of the major labels presented in the framework permit us to visualize a number of possible general research questions. Several of these research questions are now presented to illustrate the variety of issues the FPMP is believed to be applicable to, as well as serving as a foundation from which to develop specific. testable hypotheses.


This first research question addresses the very core of PM. It does so by tapping into Osgood's (1952) conceptualization of meaning as a bundle of components as well as the salience of the components of meaning previously discussed.

The next three research questions are closely related:




Questions 2 through 4 address the interaction between the product's attribute bundles and the individual's perceptual modes. Given that intangible attributes are the result of cognitive associations and/or abstractions, one could assume that if we were to appropriately manipulate the latter, the relationship and thus impact on PM should be observable. That is what R.Q.2 asks. Addressing the other half of the interactive process between the individual and the product stimulus, R.Q.3 proposes the manipulation of the tangible attributes. These are the attributes captured through the consumer's data driven perceptual mode. R.Q.4 is a logical corollary, questioning the effect that joint manipulations could have on PM.


This question addresses the postulate and arguments that meaning is always derived in a given context. A natural inquiry, therefore, would be to observe the effects that manipulating the context variables would have on PM. This is a particularly rich area of research due to: a) the vast array of potentially relevant context variables within each of the categories presented in the FPMP and b) the possible interactions among the variables.


From a managerial perspective, this question addresses one example out of a variety of marketing concepts that may be researched in terms of their potential impact on the PM of product stimuli.


If the above framework is theoretically sound, then the consumer's continuum of meaning described earlier (corporation, product, brand, product attribute) could be addressed without major adjustments in our conceptualization (for instance, focusing on a specific brand name as the stimulus cue versus the product stimulus currently being proposed).


Arguing that the psychological meaning of products demands more attention than consumer behavior researchers have given it up to now, a Framework of Psychological Meaning of Products was derived borrowing from several research fields. The theoretical foundations of the FPMP were also addressed by research questions provided to suggest the perceived opportunities for scholarly investigation in this topic.


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