Involvement and Perceived Brand Similarities/Differences: the Need For Process Oriented Models

James A. Muncy, Clemson University
[ to cite ]:
James A. Muncy (1990) ,"Involvement and Perceived Brand Similarities/Differences: the Need For Process Oriented Models", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 144-148.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 144-148

INVOLVEMENT AND PERCEIVED BRAND SIMILARITIES/DIFFERENCES: THE NEED FOR PROCESS ORIENTED MODELS

James A. Muncy, Clemson University

The construct of consumer involvement has received a substantial amount of attention by consumer researchers in the past few years. Now, this research appears to be at a crucial point in its development. The current paper discusses the factors that have brought involvement research to this point. It further discusses how the results presented by Brisoux and Cheron (1990) could potentially provide direction in this area so as to keep it from becoming just another passing fad in consumer research. From here, the focus is turned to the area of perceived brand similarities. It is argued that this area will eventually become an important topic within consumer research. It is proposed that the results presented by Lefkoff-Hagius and Mason (1990) have the potential for providing direction to this area in a way that will avoid many of the pitfalls seen in involvement research.

INVOLVEMENT: ARE YOU GETTING OLDER OR BETTER?

Less than ten years ago, involvement was potentially the most researched topic in consumer behavior. The yearly attitude research conference focussed exclusively on involvement. There was a highly influential workshop on involvement at NYU. Every ACR conference had numerous papers on the topic and the major journals were publishing several papers per year which discussed involvement. If consumer research had "in" topics, consumer involvement was "in." If my perceptions are correct, just as fast as involvement came "in," so is it going "out." Journal editors are not as interested in involvement papers. We don't see as many papers at ACR discussing involvement. I sincerely doubt if one would get much support for having a workshop on consumer involvement.

When involvement first started out, a number of people were asking the question "what is it?" After a tremendous amount of work was done defining involvement (see for example, Antil 1984; Muncy and Hunt 1984; Stone 1984), Rothschild (1984) called for people to quit trying to define it:

We don't need more [definitions] at this time. Let's call a ten year moratorium on definitions of involvement; let's go collect data on interesting aspects of involvement and then, in ten years, see if we can (or need to) devise a better definition. (p. 217)

I did not agree with Rothschild's assessment at the time (probably because his comments came in a critical response to one of my papers defining involvement). In retrospect, however, Rothschild was accurately voicing the opinions of the majority of those working in this area it was time for the definition stage to end and the measurement stage to begin.

And so the measures came. Numerous researchers worked diligently on measuring involvement. This resulted in several good involvement scales (see, for example, Laurent and Kapferer 1985; Slama and Tashchian 1985; and Zaichkowsky 1985). However, there are those who feel that involvement research is now at a place where better measures are not needed. For example, in the current volume, Zaichkowsky (1990) makes the following plea:

I hope the researchers continue to do work in this area, but I implore them to move on from measuring involvement to discovering relationships between consumer behavior and levels of involvement.

Perhaps Zaichkowsky is voicing the opinion of those currently working in this area: it is time for the measurement stage to end and the theory building stage to begin.

This is a crucial time for involvement research. Can we move "from measuring involvement to discovering relationships between consumer behavior and levels of involvement"? I am not sure. I do know that unless such a move is made, this area that has been studied so hard by so many talented people is destined to die a premature death. It is my perception that reviewers and editors are already writing involvement's eulogy;

Such a death is not inevitable. One need only look to the social psychology/communication literature to see that frameworks that are based in large part on involvement have maintained long and sustained interest . Social Judgement Theory (Sherif and Hovland 1961; Sherif, Sherif, and Nebergall 1965; Sherif and Cantril 1947; Sherif and Sherif 1967) was a viable stream of research for years and is still discussed today. The Elaboration Likelihood Model (Cacioppo, Petty, Kao, Rodriguez 1986; Petty and Cacioppo 1981, 1984) seems to be stronger today than it was when it was new. Thus, there is no reason why involvement-based research streams in our discipline need to end before they make substantial contributions to our understanding of the behavior of consumers. We should borrow insights from research in social psychology and communication to see how involvement research can be sustained.

What is the difference between involvement theories that have sustained interest over a long period of time (such as those is social psychology) and involvement theories in consumer research that seem to be dying on the vine? I would argue that the models in consumer behavior are quantity oriented whereas the models in social psychology are process oriented. Let me explain the difference.

In consumer research, a typical hypothesis regarding involvement has been "as the level of involvement increases, the quantity of information search increases." Since this is simply a hypothesis about the relationship between the quantity of involvement and the quantity of information search, I would call it "quantity oriented." An example of such a quantity oriented hypothesis in social psychology and communication would be "as communication involvement increases, attention to the communication increases." The problem with these quantity oriented hypotheses is that they really are not that interesting--I would be very surprised if higher levels of involvement were not associated with higher levels of information search, attention, etc.

In contrast, the process oriented models in social psychology and communication focus on fundamentally different modes of processing based on the level of involvement. For example, the Elaboration Likelihood Model discusses two fundamentally different "routes to persuasion" based on the receiver's motivation to process the communication. Further, it shows differences in the resulting persuasion based on involvement (e.g., central route processing results in more enduring persuasion). One could see the same type of process modeling in Social Judgement Theory. Note that this type of process oriented modeling is inherently more interesting than simply postulating quantity differences based on the level of involvement.

Thus, what might keep involvement theory from dying a premature death in consumer behavior is the development of some truly interesting process oriented models. What we need is a theory that will show not just that people process more or less depending on the level of involvement, but that they process differently. This brings me to my discussion of Brisoux and Cheron (1990). As I see it, they have provided a potential starting point for a truly interesting theory of consumer involvement. I strongly disagree with their statement that "the main contributions of this paper lie in conceptual definitions and methodological procedures." Let me explain what I see as the main contribution of their paper.

Figure 1 integrates the conceptual framework of their research with their empirical findings. As indicated on this figure, some of their hypotheses are explicitly stated where as some are simply implied. Also, some of their findings imply other findings. What their model does is trace the process by which a consumer narrows down the number of brands from the whole product category all the way down to the single preferred brand. Their research shows how this varies based on level of involvement.

They found, as one might expect, that consumers who are more involved in a product category are aware of more brands than consumers who are less involved. Intuitively, this is what one would expect. Since the more involved consumers do not have fewer "foggy brands" (i.e., unprocessed brands), and since all aware brands are either foggy brands or processed brands, then these involved consumers must have more processed brands. Thus, consumers who are more involved appear to process more brands. This too is what one would expect intuitively. Thus, the first contribution of this research is that it confirms what one would expect--that consumers who are more involved are both aware of more brands and process information about more brands. Up to this point, their findings are not particularly interesting (or even unique to their research). They are simply quantity oriented.

It is the next part of their research that provides the potential for developing a truly interesting theory of purchasing involvement. Any given brand that the consumer knows about could end up in his or her evoked set (i.e., it could become a brand that he or she considers acceptable for purchase), hold set (i.e, he or she would not have an opinion as to whether it should be accepted or rejected), or reject set (i.e, he or she would consider it unacceptable for consideration). The truly interesting question raised (and tentatively answered) by this research is: Do highly involved consumers process their known brands differently than do low involvement consumers and if so, what are the differences?

Here we do not have an intuitively superior expectation. If we were to simply apply Social Judgement Theory without modification to-answer this question, we would expect that higher levels of involvement would cause the evoked set (analogous to latitudes of acceptance) to decrease, the hold set (analogous to latitudes of neutrality) to remain constant, and the reject set (analogous to latitudes of rejection) to increase. However, Jarvis (1972) could only find weak support for applying social judgement theory in this manner.

What Brisoux and Cheron found was that, with increased involvement, the sizes of both the evoked set and the reject set remained relatively constant while the size of the hold set dramatically increased. The more involved consumer is processing more brands; however, this increase in processing does not result in more acceptable brands or unacceptable brands but ln more hold brands (note that this increases the probability that any processed brand will end up in the hold set). This raises numerous questions. Perhaps the more involved consumer sees the product category as being more complex and thus sees the process of categorizing any given brand as acceptable or unacceptable as being more difficult. Perhaps he or she does not process as much information about any given brand and thus, though he or she is processing more brands, he or she is nor processing them as deep. Or perhaps the more involved consumer faces information overload and thus cannot carry out the processing needed to make brands acceptable or unacceptable. If this is so, the limitations of our processing capabilities may cause the involved consumer to be no better informed than the uninvolved consumer. Note that this is all highly speculative. However, it does indicate some of the interesting questions that can be addressed when the area moves away from models of quantity to models of process. I believe strongly that research like that presented Brisoux and Cheron holds tremendous promise for developing such process oriented models.

FIGURE 1

A MODEL OF THE EMPIRICAL FINDINGS OF BRISOUX AND CHERON (1990)

SIMILARITIES: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GROW UP?

This brings me to a discussion of perceived brand similarities. I believe that research on product class perceived similarities (or differences) is a topic that will inevitably receive the amount of attention that involvement has recently received. Let me explain why.

A few years ago, I did a study on cognitive brand loyalty. For some reason, I included a measure of perceived brand similarities across the product category. I found that, of the seven predictors that I included in my study, perceived brand similarities explained the greatest amount of variance in brand loyalty (even more than involvement). Not long after that, I did another study on information search. I included many of the same variables that I did in my brand loyalty study. To my surprise, I also found that perceived brand similarities explained the greatest amount of variance in information search (again, even more than involvement).

These findings were initially surprising to me. However, after a significant amount of reflection, it became clear to me that perceived brand similarities or differences across the product category should be one of the most important variables for differentiating decision making styles. Consumers who see all the alternatives within a product category as being similar have little reason to be strongly committed to one brand over another. It is only when the consumer perceives that real and significant differences exist between the offerings in a product category that he or she has motivation to be loyal to one particular brand. In a similar way, if a consumer sees all the alternatives in a product category as being the same, why would he or she engage in significant information search? It is only when the consumer perceives that differences actually do exist that he or she is motivated to find out information about what these differences are.

Thus, there appears to be real differences in decision making styles between those instances where the alternatives are seen as being very similar and those instances where the alternatives are seen as being very different. In fact, based on the two studies mentioned above, I believe that perceived brand similarities and differences may eventually have a greater influence on consumer behavior thought than involvement.

If this area develops (as I believe it will), how can researchers avoid the disappointments that have arisen in the area of involvement. We should avoid over-defining the concept. This should not be a problem because it is not as difficult to define as involvement. We should also not spend too much time developing measures of it. This may be difficult because I believe that measuring differences across a product category will be inherently more difficult than measuring involvement. Most importantly, we should not spend too much time on models that are quantity oriented and should instead try to move towards models that are process oriented. Though it might be moderately interesting to discover that people's perceptions of the degree of similarities across a product category affect their level of brand loyalty or degree of information search, it would be more interesting to find that people have different processing styles based on the extent to which they see differences across the product category. It might also be interesting to discover differences in the way that people process similarity judgements from the way they process preference judgements.

This brings me to my discussion of the research presented by Lefkoff-Hagius and Mason (1990). Their paper focuses on the way that consumers develop similarity judgements versus the way they develop preference judgements. They found that there are differences, at least in the extent to which tangible versus intangible attributes are used in forming such judgements. Their research indicates that tangible attributes are relatively more important when making similarity judgements whereas intangible attributes are relatively more important when making preference judgements.

If consumers do use different types of attributes when making similarity judgements than when making preference judgements, then perhaps the evaluation process for similarity judgements is different from the evaluation process for preference judgements. This in turn may indicate differences in decision making strategies as the consumer progresses through the decision making process. For example, when consumers are deciding whether or not to engage in additional information search, they may simply try to discern whether or not the alternatives are similar. According to the research presented by Lefkoff-Hagius and Mason, this may involve looking at more tangible attributes. However, upon deciding that additional information is needed, they may begin looking at more intangible attributes.

Thus, this research by Lefkoff-Hagius and Mason indicates that there is at least promise in developing process oriented models which differ between consumers who perceive large differences and those who perceive small differences across a product category. The sooner this area moves through the definition, measurement, and quantity phases to get to the process oriented modeling stage, the sooner it will make a real contribution to our understanding of consumer behavior.

CONCLUSION

I admit that I have taken two relatively small research findings and have made grandiose speculations. The purpose here has not been to propose any viable framework for research in involvement or perceived similarities/differences. My purpose has been to discuss what I believe such frameworks should focus on and to show that the evidence presented by Brisoux and Cheron (1990) and Lefkoff-Hagius and Mason (1990) shows that it may be fruitful to pursue such frameworks. It is my overriding hope that the current paper will encourage consumer researchers to rethink research like that presented by Brisoux and Cheron (1990) and Lefkoff-Hagius and Mason (1990) in order to develop more interesting models of consumer decision making-ones that differentiate the processing underlying such decision making.

REFERENCES

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Brisoux, Jacques E. and Emmanuel J. Cheron (1990), "Brand Categorization and Product Involvement,' Advances in Consumer Research, 17, this issue.

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