Comparability and Competition Among Consumer Products: a Typology For Specifying Hierarchical Comparison Structures

Kim P. Corfman, New York University
ABSTRACT - This paper presents a typology for identifying the levels of comparability and competition among consumer products. Two dimensions of comparability are described: utility and investment. It is proposed that consumers make comparisons on the utility dimension at the lowest level of abstraction at which products have attributes in common. This comparison level determines the level at which the products compete.
[ to cite ]:
Kim P. Corfman (1987) ,"Comparability and Competition Among Consumer Products: a Typology For Specifying Hierarchical Comparison Structures", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 29-31.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 29-31


Kim P. Corfman, New York University


This paper presents a typology for identifying the levels of comparability and competition among consumer products. Two dimensions of comparability are described: utility and investment. It is proposed that consumers make comparisons on the utility dimension at the lowest level of abstraction at which products have attributes in common. This comparison level determines the level at which the products compete.


Consumers make comparisons among brands, products, and product classes in order to allocate their budgets. They compare items on price and on the utility they expect to derive from the items' features. The most specific level at which two items can be compared on this utility dimension determines both the abstractness of the concepts required to make the comparison and how difficult the comparison is to make. For example, two automobiles may be compared on the concrete attribute of fuel efficiency, while an automobile and a vacation must be compared at a higher, more abstract level such as the fun provided. The theory presented here hypothesizes that the lowest (least abstract) level of comparison possible for two products will be the level at which consumers compare the products in making a choice between them. Thus, the level of comparability also determines the level of competition, which can range from the brand level, to the level of functions or abstract values, or even to the overall utility provided by the products.

The paper proceeds with a review of literature concerning comparability and levels of competition in consumer choice. The section on theory outlines a typology for identifying the levels of comparability and competition among consumer products. Two dimensions of comparability - utility and investment -- are described in detail.


Making comparisons among brands in the same product class is a relatively simple task primarily because it is easy to identify the attributes upon which the products are to be compared. Faced with limited budgets, consumers are often placed in the position of having to choose among and, thus, compare products from different product classes. This is a more difficult task. Consumers could do this by taking a holistic approach and evaluating the relative overall utility of the alternatives, but research suggests that they prefer to find comparable representations ar intermediate levels of abstraction (Johnson 1984). In this way a consumer may compare two apparently noncomparable alternatives (such as a video cassette recorder and season tickets to the ballet) on abstract values (such as potential for fun and enjoyment).

Few studies have addressed the issue of choice among products with sets of descriptive attributes that do not completely overlap and fewer have been concerned with how the choices and implied comparisons are made. Work on consumers' purchase priorities for durables has focused on identifying the order in which consumers in aggregate tend to purchase major durables, but this research has been descriptive rather than attempting to explain the patterns uncovered (Beckwith and Lehmann 1980; Clarke and Soutar 1982; Hebden and Pickering 1974; Kasulius, Lusch and Stafford 1979; McFall 1969; Paroush 1965). Similarly, recent research on competition and the identification of product-markets has been more concerned with identifying boundaries and describing competition among products in different situations than in the levels at which they compete and why (Srivastava, Alpert, and Shocker 1984).

A number of studies have been concerned with the concreteness versus abstractness of product attributes, although not in the context of comparability. In their discussion of product constellations, Solomon and Assael (1986) are concerned with the symbolic values of products and their association with social roles. This perspective, although focusing on complementarity rather than competition, also requires analysis of acquisition and consumption across product classes. In other studies, Paivio (1971) relates abstractness to verbal learning, and Rosch (1975; 1977) discusses its relevance to categorization.

In his theory of consumer behavior Howard (1977) proposes that consumers have hierarchical evaluative structures corresponding to their semantic and memory structures. Further, at each level of these structures there are values which generate that level's choice criteria. He makes Rokeach's (1973) distinction between instrumental values and the more abstract terminal values (related to the value level of comparison specified in the typology presented here) and associates them with choice at the brand and product class levels, respectively. Boote ( 1975) found empirical support for this association.

The most recent and immediately relevant work has been tone by Johnson (1984; 1986) and Johnson and Fornell (1986). The focus of this research is on the cognitive representations and choice strategies employed at different levels of product comparability. These authors tit not specify the distinctions among alternative pairs at different levels of comparability and used judges to provide measures of similarity as an indication of comparability. The typology presented here will provide theoretical guidelines for identifying the level of comparability which may then be tested by comparison with the decision processes used by consumers.


This theory proposes that consumers use within attribute choice strategies at the lowest possible level of attribute abstraction. At the highest level of abstraction, where utility is the only common attribute, this amounts to an across attribute strategy (e.g., a compensatory additive utility strategy). As this implies, attention is limited here to high involvement choices among small numbers of alternatives -- tasks in which compensatory strategies are both appropriate and possible. Phased strategies are not considered.

Consumer value depends on the utility derived from an item and the investment needed to acquire it. Thus, comparability is defined here in two dimensions utility and investment. Five basic levels of comparability are identified for the utility dimension (Table): technology, micro-function, macro-function, basic value, and overall utility. A pair of products is classified as comparable at one of these levels if that level is the lowest common denominator -- the most specific level at which the items may be compared. It is this level of comparability or similarity in needs satisfied and methods used to satisfy them that determines the degree or level of competition (Weitz 1985). The extremes of the investment dimension are comparable or identical prices and noncomparable or very dissimilar prices.

It is important to remember that while discrete levels of comparability are discussed, they represent segments of a continuum. Thus, an infinite number of levels within levels could be specified. The objective here is to identify and describe a useful number, which may be larger or smaller in applications.



The most obvious level of competition on the utility dimension and the one that has received most attention in the consumer behavior literature os brand competition. At this level products share a technology and set of objective attributes or features upon which they are easily compared. To use the example in Table 1, Amana and Panasonic microwave ovens use comparable technologies and compete on such attributes as power, size, and ease of use. They may also compete on higher levels, such as convenience, but the focus is on the objective features they share that affect how relatively convenient the brands are.

Products that use different technologies, but share a specific function or micro-function compete on how they perform that function. Microwave and toaster ovens both cook food, but have fewer attributes in common than two brands of microwaves.

The lowest level of comparability of products that compete on micro-function is their more general function or macro- function. The macro-function of both microwave ovens and food processors is foot preparation, although one cooks and the other mixes and chops. Choice among products from different product categories, of which this is an example, has been called generic competition (Kotler 1984). (It will not always be possible or useful to make the fine distinction between micro-function and macro-function.)

Products that do not share objective attributes or a definable function may have the same higher level, more abstract attribute or value. A microwave oven and a telephone answering machine have entirely different functions, yet they both provide convenience. Products will usually provide more than one value: microwaves may be fun as well as convenient. The number of values two products share will determine their similarity within this level of comparability, just as the number of attribute levels or functions two brands share determine their similarity within the level of technological or functional comparability.

These values are related to Rokeach's (1973) personal terminal values. They are self-centered and refer to end-states of existence. Boote (1975) found that terminal values are more closely associated with product class choice (within the same micro-function) than with brand choice. This theory suggests that if even higher level choices were examined (macro-function or higher) we would discover that terminal values are even more closely associated with these choices.

Finally, if products do not provide any of the same values, they must be compared on overall utility. A microwave oven and a Disney World vacation, for example, might compete on which value has greater utility -convenience or fun. This holistic level of evaluation is simply the extreme of this dimension of comparability, not an entirely different approach to processing product information. Making a comparison at the value level involves the same across-attribute processing at lower levels of abstraction in order to judge each product's merit on the abstract value.

Another way of viewing this comparison process is represented in the Figure. In this illustration the consumer works his or her way from the top to the bottom of the tree, stopping to make comparisons at the lowest level possible. For example, in choosing between a microwave oven and a food processor comparisons are easily made at the level of utility, basic value (compare on convenience), and macro-function (compare on contribution to food preparation ability). At the micro-function level, however, the products are not comparable -- how the microwave cooks cannot be compared with how the food processor mixes. Thus, the comparison must be made at the macro-function level and the products compete on whether the cooking or the mixing assistance provided contributes more to food preparation ability.



Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) advocate an experiential perspective when studying products whose symbolic meanings are important (such as entertainment, art, and leisure activities), which would lead to focusing on subjective or abstract attributes. The reason for the importance of this perspective, placed in the context of this study, is that sometimes comparisons either cannot be made or do not have meaning at the objective attribute level because attributes have value almost exclusively in interaction with each other. The amount of yellow pigment used in an abstract painting contributes to its aesthetic appeal only in relation to the shapes, textures, and other colors used by the artist. In choosing between two paintings, the lowest level of comparability might be micro-function -- provide aesthetic appeal through a two-dimensional work of fine art. If the chooser is also considering sculpture, the level of comparability might be macro-function -- provide aesthetic appeal through a work of fine art. Alternatively, the level might be a value such as beauty or excitement if the chooser is also considering the consumption of other sources of beauty or excitement such as a view from a cliff.

The more abstract the level of comparison, the more difficult it is to make the comparison. The difficulty arises from the need first to identify the salient abstract attributes (functions or values) and then to ascertain each alternative's position on those attributes. Neither of these tasks is as simple as evaluating a brand's possession of clearly defined objective attributes. Because decision-making at abstract levels is more difficult it should take longer.


The investment or price dimension of comparability is independent of the utility dimension. If two products require comparable investments (such as a microwave and a convection oven) they may have any level of comparability on the utility dimension (micro-function) and will compete only as determined by that level (technology). If they have very different prices (such a microwave and a toaster oven) they will compete on price in addition to any other level determined by the utility dimension (technology).


The typology described here is intended to be a useful representation of the way consumer products are related in terms of comparability. It provides an outline of the basic relationships among products which may appear to be noncomparable and noncompetitive. Further, if this typology allows consumers' hierarchical comparison structures to be specified fairly accurately a priori, then it will be possible to identify the level of comparison and, thus, the level of competition of two products Although marketers will be most concerned with products that compete at more concrete and direct levels, structures of this kind provide an indication of other levels of competition that may be important and the bases upon which more distantly related products compete.


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