Meaning-Based Framework For the Study of Consumer-Object Relations

Susan Fournier, University of Florida
ABSTRACT - This paper proposes a typology for the categorization of consumption objects that builds upon learning in two emergent areas of consumer research -- namely, consumer-object attachments and the semiotic motive. The conceptual scheme is based on the view that three underlying dimensions of psychological meaning [i.e. (1) objective versus symbolic center of meaning, (2) shared versus personalized source of meaning, and (3) high versus low emotional response] interact to determine the roles played by various consumption objects in the lives of their users. The eight categories of objects resulting from this 2x2x2 model are described and research implications of adopting the meaning-based framework are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Susan Fournier (1991) ,"Meaning-Based Framework For the Study of Consumer-Object Relations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 736-742.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 736-742


Susan Fournier, University of Florida


This paper proposes a typology for the categorization of consumption objects that builds upon learning in two emergent areas of consumer research -- namely, consumer-object attachments and the semiotic motive. The conceptual scheme is based on the view that three underlying dimensions of psychological meaning [i.e. (1) objective versus symbolic center of meaning, (2) shared versus personalized source of meaning, and (3) high versus low emotional response] interact to determine the roles played by various consumption objects in the lives of their users. The eight categories of objects resulting from this 2x2x2 model are described and research implications of adopting the meaning-based framework are discussed.


The concept of consumer behavior has been broadened greatly in the past decade to accommodate extensions suggested in the experiential view of consumption (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) and to incorporate insights generated through alternative disciplinary perspectives and paradigms (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; McCracken 1986; Mick 1986). This broadened view has sparked a renewed interest in the subjective and emotive aspects of consumption. Of particular interest are studies of the concept of product meaning (Friedman 1986; Hirschman 1980; Kleine and Kernan 1988; McCracken 1986; Mick 1986) and investigations into the various emotional and functional roles played by consumption objects (Belk 1988; Furby 1978; Holman 1986; Myers 1985; Prentice 1987; Shimp and Madden 1988; Solomon 1983, 1988; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988).

Existing product classification schemes and typologies can be enriched by considering the experiential/symbolic perspective and applying the learning generated in the above-mentioned streams of research. Consideration of theories of product meaning and consumer-object attachment can yield a revised classification scheme that is not only anchored in important consumer behavior constructs, but also exhibits increased consumer relevance and more extensive coverage of the range of possible consumer-object relations.

In the sections to follow, the theoretical foundation for a meaning-based framework for the categorization of consumption objects is developed. First, existing schemes for the classification of consumer products are reviewed and findings concerning product roles and functions are synthesized. Theories concerning the psychological bases of product meaning are then incorporated as a means of identifying the dimensions that underlie the various product roles and functions. A typology of consumer-object relationships that builds from these foundational components is then presented. Benefits of the framework and implications of adopting the revised perspective are discussed in a concluding section.


As consumer research has evolved from an emphasis on the objective and functional to a consideration of the subjective, the emotive and the symbolic, so too has the study of the product classification issue. Table 1 summarizes some of the major product classification approaches and schemes that have been advanced in the marketing literature.

Original classification schemes (Copeland 1923; Kotler 1984) and their more recent extensions (Holbrook and Howard 1977-; Murphy and Enis 1986) are particularly functional and descriptive in their orientation. They adhere to an objective conceptualization of the product as a "bundle of attributes and benefits." Generally, products are grouped in terms of underlying effort and risk dimensions reflective of consumer-perceived product importance. While these initial schemes indeed have their uses, they are limited by their driving strategic objectives and by their foundational conceptions of the product as a "bundle of utility."

A needed breakthrough in perspective is provided in the hedonic, experiential view of consumption. Those adopting this perspective stress that-consumer objects may be grouped according to the nature of the consumption experience (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; MacInnis and Jaworski 1989). It- is acknowledged that all products contain degrees of both hedonic and utilitarian elements, which allows for the placement of objects along a hedonic/utilitarian continuum.

Holman (1986) proposes a typology of products that captures the exact nature and character of these_emotional experiences. Arrayed along a continuum reflecting the intensity and centrality of the emotional experience, she goes beyond the utilitarian/ experiential dichotomy to present five categories of products that range from background props to sources of emotions.

Another way to qualify the hedonic/utilitarian continuum is to focus on kind rather than degree, more fully explicating the specific symbolic, experiential and utilitarian needs that are served by the product. A call for categorization schemes that consider such needs and value expressions has in fact been put forth in the literature (Sheth 1980; Upah and Sudman 1979). Studies of consumer-object relations specifically address this objective. Although these investigations have been undertaken from diverse research perspectives, there exists a great deal of agreement regarding the primary roles played by products in consumer's lives.



The purely functional role served by many consumer objects is widely acknowledged (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Furby 1978; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Holman 1980; MacInnis and Jaworski 1989; Park et al 1986; Prentice 1987). Products play a functional role in the life of the consumer by fulfilling necessary functions, permitting control of the environment and allowing the solution of externally-imposed problems.

Other products and services play a predominantly experiential role in the everyday life of the consumer. Such consumer objects provide sensory pleasure, aesthetic enjoyment, entertainment and generalized emotional arousal (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; MacInnis and Jaworski 1989; Myers 1985; Park et al 1986; Prentice 1987; Settle and Alreck 1989; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). They may also play the role of pacifiers and comforters (Furby 1978; Myers 1985), providing the user with a sense of security and feelings of warmth.

A third role consistently uncovered for consumer products concerns the function of identity. Products perform an identity function at the individual level by serving as expressions of self-concept and individuality (Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Furby 1978; Holman 1985; MacInnis and Jaworski 1989; Myers 1985; Settle and Alreck 1989), by providing linkages with childhood and family (Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981), by tangibilizing past experiences and relationships (Prentice 1987; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988) and by acting as extensions of self (Belk 1988). Products can help in the creation and management of identities at the group and society levels as well by serving as unambiguous announcements of role and position (Prentice 1987; Solomon 1985, 1988).

For consumer research and advertising practice, perhaps the most useful and insightful of the product classification schemes are those anchored in constructs of product role and psychological meaning. Such frameworks reveal the essence of the connection between the consumer and the product. They capture the "key consumer insights" that make for great advertising. Typologies that explicitly recognize the functional, experiential and identity functions served by products move us closer to our general goal as consumer researchers; namely, to understand the meaning of the product in relation to the lives of its users (Levy, 1981).

The research on consumer-object relations reported above, while addressing this objective, lacks a wholistic character. Studies tend to focus exclusively on one function or one need (e.g., role facilitators) or are concerned only with a subsegment of possessions (e.g., "favorite things"). An integration and synthesis of this research can yield a more comprehensive typology of consumption objects that directly considers the nature of the consumer-object interaction.

To be truly useful and insightful, however, the typology should go beyond a simple categorization of the roles and functions served by consumer objects to consider the dynamics that give rise to the overall structure of consumer-object relations. What drives the nature of the consumer-object interaction? What are the fundamental components of the various consumer-object relations? How do these different dimensions interact to determine the quality of the consumer-object experience? Questions such as these can be addressed through the literature on the nature and structure of product meaning.


Research highlights three dimensions that collectively characterize the meaning of a given object: tangibility, commonality and emotionality. After each of these dimensions is described in terms of function and dynamics, their joint determination of the various categories of consumer-object interaction is illustrated.

Tangibility: The Attribute Basis of Product Meaning

A primary dimension of meaning discussed in the literature is tangibility (Friedman 1986; Hirschman 1980; Holbrook et al 1986). This concerns whether the attribute basis of meaning is primarily objective, tangible and verifiable through the senses or whether it is primarily subjective, interpreted through experience and dependent upon associations. While it is recognized that all objects will have both subjective and objective components of meaning, it is felt that one or the other of these components will be particularly salient such that classification of objects as utilitarian or symbolic becomes meaningful.

Tangibility refers to the object's primary center of meaning. Specifically, it concerns whether meaning is resident in the object itself or in the mind of the user. Systematic differences in process dynamics and consumer response will be evidenced for objects that are objective and tangible versus those that are subjective and symbolic. The reader is referred to writings on experiential and hedonic consumption for a thorough discussion of these distinctions and manifestations (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982).

The Emotional Dimension of Product Meaning

Since Osgood's (1952) original formulation, it has been accepted that meaning is comprised of "a bundle of components" including experiences, images and feelings in addition to information. These components are so infused with affect that the emotional component has come to represent a vital and integral portion of the meaning of an object (Hirschman 1980). In fact, research attempts to disentangle the emotional side of product meaning from its objective counterparts have been criticized for their artificiality and lack of validity (Hirschman 1980).

Literature that has considered the emotional component of the consumer-object interaction suggests that "emotion" includes aspects of arousal and felt experience (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) as well as investment or degree of emotional attachment (Holman 1986; Shimp and Madden 1988). Consumption objects can thus be arrayed along a continuum of generalized emotional response that ranges from low to high intensity. Systematic differences in process will be exhibited by low versus high response objects.

High intensity objects will generally be associated with identified and labelled emotional experiences such as enjoyment, serenity or excitement. These emotional experiences are not merely consequences of consumption; they are the ends sought in consumption. The emotional experiences associated with low intensity objects, on the other hand,-may be better characterized as the simple affective reactions captured in constructs of attitude and preference. The consumption experiences for high versus low intensity objects may also require different types and levels of mental activity (e.g., fantasy, imagery, right-brain processing) (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982).

The Commonality Dimension of Product Meaning

A third dimension of meaning discussed in the literature is that of commonality, the degree to which meaning possesses a shared versus individualized character. To allow for effective communications and to serve the function of integration into society, meaning must be shared by members of the culture at some basic level (Blumer 1969; McCracken 1986). Theoreticians also stress the personalized aspects of meaning, however, recognizing that meaning is created by the user through experience and interaction (Blumer 1969; Hirschman 1986). Through various rituals in which consumers interact with the products of culture, meaning is granted a unique, individual character (Belk 1988; McCracken 1986). In this manner, the equally-valued function of differentiation from society is performed. As with tangibility, it can be speculated that one or the other of these components will be particularly salient such that meaning becomes primarily shared or individualized.

With respect to consumer objects, commonality refers to the source that is most responsible for the assignment of meaning to the object. This source may be cultural (e.g., advertising, fashion systems) or personal (e.g., historical experience and reflection). The dynamics of meaning creation and the processes of consumer-object interaction may vary systematically as a function of these different sources.

Meaning transfer from the product to the consumer is likely to be a more reinforcing and ongoing process for personalized objects than it will be for cultural objects. The temporal quality exhibited by many objects with personalized sources of meaning (e.g., the favorite sweatshirt from college, the china that Grandmother used, the ring received on wedding day) encourages on-going reflection by the owner/user, resulting in knowledge structures that are more dynamic and evolutionary.

The forces that drive the meaning creation process may also differ by source of meaning. Advertiser-constructed messages may be more dominant in the creation of meaning for objects with a cultural center while empathic responses and the generation of self-referent ties may be more likely to govern the creation of personalized meaning. Because of these ties with the self, objects with personalized meaning centers may enjoy higher levels of enduring involvement, greater salience and evocation potential, and stronger motivations for processing and elaboration.

Interactions between people and objects in the form of consumption rituals (McCracken 1986) may also vary as a function of meaning source. First, the goals of rituals for personalized and cultural consumer objects may differ. With personalized objects, the objective may be to supercharge the good through the process of reflection while with cultural objects, the objective may be to supercharge the owner through the usage experience. Moreover, the nature of possession rituals (McCracken 1986) may differ by meaning source. With personalized objects, private encounters will likely dominate, as with cleaning and periods of contemplation. With cultural objects, the ritual may be more public, involving display and overt comparison.


Eight categories of consumption objects can readily be identified in terms of these primary dimensions of meaning such that each exhibits a characteristic pattern of tangibility, commonality and emotionality (See Figure I). It is important to remember that in reality, the eight categories represent positions on the set of three continuous dimensions rather than eight distinctive types of consumer objects. However, as a necessary simplification for presentational and managerial purposes, the continuous dimensions are represented as binary components, yielding a 2x2x2 matrix.

These eight categories are elaborated in terms of content, role and function below. It is important to recognize that the proposed typology is consumer-dependent, not product-driven. As such, the categories are not static in terms of their specific product members. Individual variation in terms of cultural background and experience (Hirschman 1979), the polysemic character of the meaning of objects and the context-dependency of interpretation preclude the absolute assignment of individual objects to categories. Product examples are included only for heuristic purposes.

Objects of Utility. The significance of objects of utility is intimately tied to characteristic attributes and benefits and the inherent need satisfaction these provide. Product usage is often driven by externally-generated problems in need of a solution. Examples include necessities (e.g., blankets) and objects that allow manipulation and control of the environment (e.g., can openers and air conditioners).

Objects of Action. In contrast, the value of these objects lies not in the products themselves, but in the experiences and emotions they allow. The primary function of objects of action is to provide the user with stimulation, excitement and arousal. Included in the category are objects that can create moods (e.g., stereos), provide escapes (e.g., sports cars) and invite fantasies (e.g. romance novels).

Objects of Appreciation. These objects are experienced and appreciated as a whole. As with objects of action, the goal of their consumption is to provide the user with a quality emotional experience. The experience, however, is primarily one of enjoyment or pleasure, rather than general arousal. Moreover, the object is pivotal and central to that experience;- it is not simply instrumental to that experience. Examples include the performing arts, household decorative items and fine wines.

Objects of Transition. These items provide their users with feelings of serenity, security, warmth and comfort in times of change. While encountered most frequently in childhood, these objects appear periodically throughout the life cycle to help their users negotiate various role transitions (Myers 1985). Representative objects include role facilitators (eg. the business suit) and steadfast reminders of happy times (eg. old college sweatshirts).

Objects of Childhood. A special category is included for objects that were once used during childhood and are picked up again in later years. These objects are broadly reminiscent of the childhood period, having served a function as background objects during that time. They are not tied to specific memories of people and events, nor are they regarded as purposive transitional objects. They are simply imbued with feelings of familiarity and, as a consequence, enjoy a favorable predisposition for response. Examples include "the brand that mom always used" and TV shows enjoyed as a kid.



Ritual Enhancers. These objects are associated with habituated behaviors and personal rituals, serving as mediators of valued personal experiences. The meaning of ritual enhancers is highly dependent on context; apart from the ritual, the object has little or no significance to the user. The meaning is also highly subjective, derived from the totality of props present in the situation and symbolic of the ritual that is being enacted. An example is the cup of coffee or newspaper consumed as part of the morning wake-up ritual. Apart from this setting, the coffee and paper hold little meaning for the user. Within the setting however, the objects are highly personal and symbolic.

Objects of Personal Identity. Objects of personal identity make statements about the actual or ideal self and telegraph the values that are centrally held by the individual. Their use and display serves the function of individuation within society. Tangible records of accomplishments (eg. diplomas), reflections of goals and interests (eg. bicycling gear), creative outlets (eg. woodworking tools), and symbols of aspiration (eg. books on sailing) are primary examples of these expressive products. Other objects of personal identity serve a more contemplative function. These objects are tangible representations of meaningful and influential events, relationships and experiences past. The objects per se have little inherent meaning; their value lies in the rich storehouses of emotions, feelings and knowledge that are associated with them. Examples are gifts, photos and family heirlooms.

Objects of Position and Role. These objects make statements regarding self at the cultural level, serving the function of integration into society. Included are status symbols (eg. travel experiences) and role-related product clusters (Solomon 1988) such as those employed in enactment of the "Yuppie" role.


The proposed typology offers several advantages over existing frameworks. First, it goes further in explaining the meaning of consumer objects than does a single continuum of experience or a scheme based on functional product attributes by better capturing the essence of the consumer-object interaction. In doing so, the scheme also offers greater consumer relevance. Both of these advantages support increased utility as a strategy development tool for the advertising practitioner.

The proposed typology also offers benefits of broader coverage. In identifying eight qualitatively-different object categories, it goes beyond existing schemes to cover a broader range of possible consumer-object relations. Moreover, it highlights for study object categories that have previously been ignored in the literature (e.g., objects of childhood and ritual enhancers).

The level of analysis of the proposed framework also offers benefits over existing approaches. While the meanings assigned to products may in fact vary across individuals and product categories, the emotions and values to which these meanings are connected are likely to be more stable and enduring. The proposed categories should be more productive of generalizable knowledge regarding product roles than are categories defined on artificial, objective bases.

The framework also offers general benefits versus the simple continuum approach to the product categorization issue. In general, typologies are useful for theory building in that they highlight similarities and differences among phenomena that are useful in selecting elements for a model. They also are useful in their integration and summary functions, providing valuable guidance for future research efforts.

Lastly, the framework serves to suggest several interesting areas for future research. The framework could be used to study the ways in which consumers use products to structure their realities. Personal and household product inventories could be analyzed for their "mix" of object categories to identify a typology of "consumption lifestyles" (Sheth 1980; Upah and Sudman 1979). Changes in portfolio mixes over time could also be studied for an interesting developmental perspective on the roles and functions of product inventories. Relationships among portfolio mixes, personalities, functional attitudes and instrumental values could also be examined for insight into the ways that these constructed realities reflect and shape general perceptual and psychological processes.

The consumer-dependent quality of the framework also suggests a new approach to segmentation issues. "Meaning-based" segments, i.e. groups based on agreements regarding the roles and functions served by products, could be identified. Because of their consideration of idiosyncracies in processes of perception and interpretation, these segments may perhaps be more reliable and valid than those based on simple usage habits.

These are the types of questions that could be pursued as we probe further into the relationships consumers have with the products they own and use. While the proposed framework offers but one approach to this important and complex issue, it does appear to offer some insight. To this extent, it may indeed prove a useful tool for research.


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