The Effects of Product Symbolism on Consumer Self-Concept

Newell D. Wright, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
C. B. Claiborne, James Madison University
M. Joseph Sirgy, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
ABSTRACT - Using the perspective of self-congruity theory as an organizing nomological framework, this paper develops an integrated model of the effects of product symbolism on consumer self-concept. The model specifies predictors of recognition or learning of product symbolism. It identifies the mediating process in which consumers use product symbolism to define themselves in the context of a specific situation. The model also asserts that the outcomes of product/self-perceptions across a constellation of products, across situations and over time serve to establish an extended self.
[ to cite ]:
Newell D. Wright, C. B. Claiborne, and M. Joseph Sirgy (1992) ,"The Effects of Product Symbolism on Consumer Self-Concept", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 311-318.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 311-318

THE EFFECTS OF PRODUCT SYMBOLISM ON CONSUMER SELF-CONCEPT

Newell D. Wright, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

C. B. Claiborne, James Madison University

M. Joseph Sirgy, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

[The authors would like to thank Val Larsen for his critical review and comments on this paper.]

ABSTRACT -

Using the perspective of self-congruity theory as an organizing nomological framework, this paper develops an integrated model of the effects of product symbolism on consumer self-concept. The model specifies predictors of recognition or learning of product symbolism. It identifies the mediating process in which consumers use product symbolism to define themselves in the context of a specific situation. The model also asserts that the outcomes of product/self-perceptions across a constellation of products, across situations and over time serve to establish an extended self.

INTRODUCTION

The literature in symbolic consumption, product symbolism, and self-concept is rich and varied. Consumer researchers have studied many factors which influence the formation and change of product symbolism (or product value-expressiveness): product-related factors (Belk 1981; Sirgy, Johar, and Wood 1986; Varvoglis and Sirgy 1984), individual difference factors (Belk 1978; Belk, Mayer, and Bahn 1981; Belk, Bahn, and Mayer 1982; Hamid 1969; Munson and Spivey 1981; Solomon 1983; Sommers 1964), and social system factors (Hirschman 1985; McCracken 1988a). Consumer researchers have also explored possible mechanisms through which product symbolism contributes to the formation and change of the consumer's self-concept (Belk 1988; Sirgy 1982; Solomon 1983).

This paper attempts to integrate the concepts and findings of many studies in symbolic consumption, product symbolism, and self-concept. The goal is to develop a conceptual foundation for an integrative model that (1) specifies factors which predict or determine a tendency in consumers to recognize and learn about product symbolism, (2) identifies the process which mediates consumers' use of product symbolism to define themselves in specific situations (product/self-perception), and (3) shows how product/self-perceptions across a constellation of products, across situations, and over time establish an extended self. The integrative model is developed using self-congruity theory (Sirgy 1986) as the guiding (though not only) theoretical perspective, which explains and organizes the relationships.

SELF-CONGRUITY THEORY, PRODUCT SYMBOLISM AND CONSUMER SELF-CONCEPT RESEARCH

Self-congruity theory is a conceptual framework developed by Sirgy (1986) to explain such self-concept processes as self-evaluation, self-perception, self-concept change, self-concept differentiation, self-concept generalization, decision making, information search, self-monitoring, and is the fundamental process all these self-concept processes have in common. Self-congruity, the match between a perceived self-image outcome and a self-expectancy, is information about the self that is put into the cybernetic system. (A cybernetic system is a comparator process in which input signal is compared with a reference value. Deviations from the reference value produce output designed to impact the environment for the purpose of bringing about homeostatic balance, a state in which the input signal is least discrepant from the reference value). Self-expectancy is the reference value retrieved from memory that serves as a standard of comparison for the perceived self-image outcome. Sirgy argues that the self-congruity process coexists with the aforementioned self-concept processes but is guided by different self-concept motives (needs for self-esteem, self-consistency, and self-knowledge). For example, self-evaluation involves a comparison between a perceived self-image outcome and a self-expectancy; however, the objective is an evaluation of the relative "goodness" of the perceived self-image outcome, and this process is mostly guided by the need for self-esteem. More specifically, given that the self-image outcome is better than expected, the outcome is said to have a self-enhancing effect. Conversely, if the self-image outcome is worse than expected, the outcome has a self-debilitating effect. Thus, if a consumer expects to conform to the norms and standards of high society but finds s/he has bought a car that has a working class image, s/he may evaluate him/herself negatively for having purchased that car because the self-image outcome of the purchase deviates from his/her upscale self-expectancy. Sirgy argues that a negative correlation between the self-image outcome of a purchase and self-expectancy decreases the consumer's self-esteem. Self-perception also involves a comparison between a self-image outcome and self-expectancy; however, the objective here is to interpret the perceived self-image outcome in relation to a self-expectancy, and this process, Sirgy says, is guided by the need for self-consistency, the need to maintain consonance between self-images and behaviors ascribed to the self. Since a review of the entire subject of self-congruity theory is beyond the scope of this paper, we will only focus on self-perception and self-concept generalization, ideas borrowed from self-congruity theory that are central to the integrative model developed in this paper.

According to self-congruity theory, self-perception is a process in which information about an event is ascribed to the self. More specifically, the perceived self-image outcome is matched with a particular self-expectancy. For example, a woman consumer is complimented on her good taste in wearing fashionable clothes. How does she make sense of this message? If she thinks of herself as being a fashionable dresser, then she will ascribe the message to her fashionableness, assimilating the message into her self-schema. Hence, her self-perception is explained as a self-congruity process in which a message or event confirms a particular self-expectancy. This self-congruity process is mostly guided by the need for self-consistency, i.e., the motivational tendency to accept information about the self that is consistent with one's established view.

According to self-congruity theory, self-perception is moderated by the strength of the perceived self-image outcome and the strength of the self-expectancy. That is, given weak perceptions of self-image outcome and/or weak self-expectancies, the strength of self-perception is also weak. Thus, if the woman consumer is not certain that she "heard the compliment" or is uncertain about her fashionableness, the change in self-perception resulting from the compliment may also be weak, for she may feel uncertain about her interpretation of the message concerning her fashionable dress.

If, on the other hand, incoming information is congruent with the established self-image, that self-image is strengthened, for high self congruity increases self-concept generalization, whereas low self congruity decreases it. For example, suppose a woman wearing a fashionable outfit at work is told that she looks fashionable with that outfit. If this message matches her assessment of herself, it will consolidate her image of herself as a fashionable person. Thus, the image (self-expectancy) increases in salience or connectedness. An increase in the generalization of a specific self-expectancy, according to self-congruity theory, reflects an increase in the salience of this self-expectancy in an overall hierarchy of self-expectancies. This means that the self-assessment becomes more central in the person's belief system and is likely to play a greater role in the person's life, a fact which is important for consumer research that focuses on the extended self.

TOWARD AN INTEGRETED MODEL OF PRODUCT SYMBOLISM AND ITS EFFECTS ON CONSUMER SELF-CONCEPT

The proposed integrated model is shown in Figure 1. This model shows that qualities of the product and consumer influence the recognition/learning of product symbolism. In turn, the consumer's recognition/learning of product symbolism and his/her self-image moderate the relationship between product use/ownership and product self-perception. Then, over time and across product-related situations, those product/self-perceptions contribute to the formation and change of the consumer's self-concept (the extended self). Finally, the consumer's materialism and recognition of the product constellation play a moderating role in the formation and change of his/her extended self.

Before we start addressing the conceptual relationships shown in the figure, let us first define the central variables of the proposed integrated model. These are recognition/learning of product symbolism, product/self-perception, and the extended self. Recognition/learning of product symbolism refers to the degree to which a consumer is aware of associations between symbols and a given product. For example, a sports car is associated with a kind of person who is sexy, attractive, young, and socially outgoing. These idealized people associated with the sports car are traditionally referred to as product symbols (Sirgy 1982; Solomon 1983). This construct is also traditionally referred to as "strength of product user image" and "product value-expressiveness" in the consumer self-concept literature. In self-congruity theory, recognition/learning of product symbolism can be construed as the strength of the product image, the perceived self-image outcome of using a particular product.

Product/self-perception refers to the formation and/or change of beliefs about the self as a consequence of the use or ownership of a product or service. For example, if a woman consumer who often patronizes an upscale clothing boutique infers that she is an affluent person because she patronizes the store, she is said to have made a product/self-perception. She formed an image of herself based on her patronage of the clothing boutique. This self-perception is product and context-specific. That is, she may only perceive herself as being upscale in the context of purchasing and wearing clothes. The situation-specificity of product/self-perception is important, since the extended self is defined just like product/self-perception except that the self-related beliefs are more cross-situational, i.e., not situation specific. That is, the extended-self refers to the extent to which people view themselves as being a certain kind of individual because they use or own certain product/service constellations. Using self-congruity theory, product/self-perception can be construed in terms of self-perception, whereas the extended self can be thought of as the outcome of self-concept generalization.

Predictors of Recognition/Learning of Product Symbolism

As previously mentioned, recognition/learning of product symbolism refers to the extent of awareness of associations between symbols and a given product. Figure 1 shows that product and consumer factors influence recognition/learning of product symbolism.

Product Factors: Belk (1981) argued that product uniqueness, variety of choices available, cost of the product, product visibility or conspicuousness, product complexity, and rate of stylistic change associated with the product all influence a user's impression of a product. The greater the uniqueness, variety, cost, social visibility, complexity, and rate of stylistic changes associated with the product, the greater the likelihood that consumers will draw inferences from product cues about the image of the product user. However, only the relationship between cost and the tendency to draw inference about personality and social class was supported by Belk's study.

FIGURE 1

AN INTEGRATED MODEL OF PRODUCT/CONSUMPTION SYMBOLISM AND CONSUMER SELF-CONCEPT

Sirgy, Johar, and Wood (1986) studied the effects of product conspicuousness, product differentiation, and product uniqueness on product value-expressiveness. As expected, their results showed that conspicuousness, differentiation, and uniqueness are positively related to value-expressiveness. So, Belk and Sirgy et al.'s studies suggest that product conspicuousness, uniqueness, differentiation, and cost are directly related to product value-expressiveness or recognition/learning of product symbolism.

Proposition 1: Conspicuous, unique, differentiated, and high cost products are more likely to generate recognition and learning of product symbols than inconspicuous, common, nondifferentiated, and low-cost products.

The theoretical justification for this proposition is as follows. Products that are publicly visible (i.e., socially consumed) are more likely to be associated with these personal characteristics of their users than products which are privately consumed. The social visibility of the product facilitates learning and helps establish consensual beliefs regarding the stereotypic image of the product user (Belk 1981; Sirgy et al. 1986). Attribution theory also justifies this proposition (Kelley 1973), arguing as follows: people weigh unique or uncommon events and characteristics heavily when making casual attributions, whereas they discount the social significance of common characteristics. Accordingly, when watching consumers use products directed to the select few (product unique usage), consumer observers can make attributions about the personal characteristics of the product user (Sirgy et al. 1986). These observers can easily draw the inference that the user of a highly differentiated product prefers the differentiated attributes that brand provides (Sirgy et al. 1986). Belk (1981) argued that people attribute different stereotypic images to cosmetic users because many brands are available. He also argued that the cost of the consumption item facilitates inferences about the social status of the product user. The more costly the product, the more it may be perceived as belonging to a person with a higher social status.

Consumer Factors: Belk (1981) also argued that the amount of time and thought that goes into product selection contributes to the learning of product symbolism. That is, the more consumers think about the product, the more likely they will make inferences about the stereotypic image of the generalized user. The results of the study supported this hypothesis, and, accordingly, proposition 2 comes from Belk (1981).

Proposition 2: Consumers who expend more time and thought in selecting a product are more likely to recognize and learn of product symbols than consumers who expend less time and thought.

Hirschman (1985) and McCracken (1988a) refer to specific symbolic content being encoded by product designers and media creative people. Greater exposure to the messages leads to greater ability to decode and recognize the intended symbolism. McCracken and Hirschman both point out the importance of advertising in transferring symbolic meaning to consumer goods. The advertising system transfers meaning to products by linking consumer goods and culturally constituted symbolic meanings in an advertisement.

One component of Hirschman's cultural production system is the communication subsystem, which includes advertising and other communications efforts, such as product rating services. This subsystem provides consumers with information about products and facilitates the transfer of symbolic meaning to products. McCracken identified the fashion system as a method for transferring meaning from the culturally constituted world to consumer goods. As used by McCracken, fashion applies to all goods, not just clothing, that can become culturally obsolete, "out of fashion," before they are functionally useless. Like advertising, the fashion system transfers meanings by linking goods with established cultural categories and principles. The fashion system also invents and transfers meaning through elevated opinion leaders, usually in the upper classes of society, who establish and pass on meaning to others who imitate them. Regardless of the level of symbolism, one may argue that product exposure through advertising and the fashion system facilitates the recognition of product symbolism.

McCracken also recognized that products can be deliberately exploited by consumers for symbolic purposes. He used the example of the feminist movement away from traditional female work attire to the more authoritative style that follows men's fashion (i.e., the female "business suit"). Using product symbolism, these women revealed how they wished to be viewed in the work place. Claiborne and Ozanne (1990) discussed how symbolism was purposefully created in custom made homes, and why these dwellings had special meaning for their owners who had participated in their creation. O'Guinn and Belk (1989) have shown that profane items (e.g., enticing perfume, sexy lingerie) can become symbols of marital fidelity to deeply religious consumers by encouraging husbands to remain faithful to their wives.

McCracken (1986, 1988b) also recognized that product symbolism can be created through consumption rituals. Ritual has only recently been recognized in consumer research (Rook 1984, 1985; Rook and Levy 1983; Tetreault and Kleine 1990), but it is a powerful way to create product symbolism. For example, Schouten (1991) examined the effect aesthetic plastic surgery had on the self-image of men and women. He discovered that it gave them a sense of completeness and symbolized a new role and a new beginning for them. Wright (1991) examined product usage among adolescents and found they expressed their adulthood through some of the products and services they consumed. Product symbolism in these two instances was intertwined with major life events, and the symbolism inherent in the products consumed acted as surrogate rites of passage. Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989) discussed how certain forms of ritualistic consumption (such as gift giving) endowed products with sacred status and meaning.

What is suggested here is a phenomenological creation of product symbolism. Consumers don't merely decode symbols, they create meaning that is personal and private. Thus, the oak table in the kitchen is not just a symbol of country living. As the table around which I raised and fed my family, it has sacred, symbolic status (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). The product image is no longer normative but idiographic, no longer cognitive but phenomenological. These two inputs allow for the creation (and recognition/learning) of product symbolism.

In the context of self congruity theory, recognition/learning of product symbolism is the ability to match product images with symbolic meanings.

Proposition 3: Product/self-perceptions are influenced by use/ownership when there is a strong product symbolic recognition.

The Effect of Product/Use Ownership on Product/Self-Perception

A great deal of the early self-concept research focused on establishing that there was indeed a relationship between product image and self-image (see Sirgy 1982 for a literature review). Evans (1968) argued that Birdwell's (1968) study showed product ownership may influence both self-concept and product image, resulting in high self-concept/product-image congruity. Belch and Landon (1977) argued that product ownership influences self-concept measurement. Delozier (1971) and Delozier and Tillman (1972) found that self-concept/product-image congruity increased with the passage of time, which may possibly indicate the influence of product use/ownership on self-concept changes. However, the possibility that the self-image is formed in response to a product image has received little attention in the more recent consumer self-concept literature.

Symbolic product images give meaning to the product by personifying it. The product comes to say, "this is the kind of person who would use this product" or "these are the qualities of a person who would use this product." This personification of the product, the product user image, allows for a direct comparison to the self. Hence, the product use and/or ownership can affect product/self-perception. Sirgy (1982) used the following example to illustrate the relationship between product use/ownership and product/self-perceptions. A consumer may attribute his purchase of a pornographic magazine to his strong need for sexual relations. The formation of the self-image 'I need sex' may have been affected by the product user image associated with pornographic magazines. Sirgy explained this relationship using Bem's self-perception theory (1965, 1967). Self-perception theory states that people infer their attitude and dispositions by observing and explaining their behavior.

Proposition 4: The greater the use and/or ownership of a product, the greater the likelihood that the consumer forms self-images that are based on the product user image.

The Moderating Effect of Recognition/Learning of Product Symbolism and Strength of Self Image

Now let us bring back the concept of recognition/learning of product symbolism. How does it fit in the context of the relationship between product use/ownership and product/self-perception? Using self-congruity theory, one can argue that the relationship between product use/ownership and product/self-perception is moderated by the strength of the product image (or what we are calling "recognition/learning of product symbolism"). That is, the extent to which the use and/or ownership of a product influences the formation of self-images is dependent on the strength of the product image. More specifically, the relationship between product use/ownership and product/self-perception may be significantly enhanced when the product image is strong. This is because inferences about the self can be made easily when the image of the product user is clear in the consumer's mind. When the consumer feels less certain about the product user image, inferences about the self (as a function of the product user image) becomes difficult.

Furthermore, from the perspective of self-congruity theory, one can argue that the relationship between product use/ownership and product/self-perception is also moderated by the strength of the self-image. That is, the extent to which the use and/or ownership of a product influences the formation of self-images is dependent on the strength of the self-image. More specifically, the relationship between product use/ownership and product/self-perception is significantly reduced when the self-image is strong. In other words, consumers may be less inclined to use their consumption behaviors as cues about their identity when their identity is clearly formed. In contrast, consumers whose self-concept is uncertain may be more motivated to use consumption cues to make inferences about their identity.

Solomon (1983) and Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982) have made similar arguments. Solomon used the term role knowledge to describe the self-related beliefs, expectations, or images one has in a particular social role. Given that the consumer has low role knowledge, s/he is highly receptive to forming self-related beliefs, expectations, or images through product use. The symbolic self-completion theory of Wicklund and Gollwitzer proposes that individuals lacking the indicators of an aspired-to self definition will display other compensating indicators of the same self definition. The self symbolizing occurs when an individual feels "incomplete" in certain areas and compensates by using or displaying other symbols that are socially recognized as representing "completeness." Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982) successfully predicted that MBA students who lacked certain indicators of business success (e.g., a high GPA, several job offers) would compensate by displaying other indicators of business success, such as expensive suits, watches, or brief cases, or the lack of facial hair. The men and women interviewed by Schouten (1991) overcame their sense of incompleteness through the consumption of aesthetic plastic surgery. For example, one woman completed her sense of womanhood through breast augmentation surgery. These ideas lead to the following proposition.

Proposition 5: Self-perceptions are influenced by product use/ownership when the product has a strong user image and the consumer does not have a well formed self-image.

Belk (1988) suggests that possessions play a much greater role in defining a person's self-concept than previously recognized in consumer research. Following the existential philosophy of Sartre (1943), Belk proposes that possessions play a major role in contributing to and reflecting an individual's identity. According to Belk's interpretation of Sartre's philosophy,

. . . the only reason we want to have something is to enlarge our sense of self and that the only way we can know who we are is by observing what we have. In other words, having and being are distinct but inseparable. When an object becomes a possession, what were once self and not-self are synthesized and having and being merge.

Thus, according to Sartre, possessions are all important to knowing who we are. People seek, express, confirm, and ascertain a sense of being through what they have (pp. 145-146).

Belk supports this rationale with abundant evidence. He examines the concept of the extended self from several perspectives and demonstrates the importance of several categories of possessions in a person's self-definition. He summarizes his argument by concluding that "we are what we have" and this "may be the most basic and powerful fact of consumer behavior" (p. 160).

Using self-congruity theory, the extended self can be viewed as an outcome of self-concept generalization. Certain self-expectancies are developed, strengthened, and generalized as a function of repeated messages about the self through the use of products (product/self-perceptions).

This expression of the extended self is "dispositional" in that it is stable across products and situations. The "language" of consumption or product symbolism is used only to describe the individual traits of the extended self. Belk speaks of extending the self by ownership of products. In like manner we extend the self through symbolically matching the owned product image and some ideal self-image.

Proposition 6: Repeated and frequent product/self-perceptions leads to greater definition of the self in terms of the products used/owned by the individual (the extended self).

The Moderating Effects of Product Constellation and Materialism

It can be argued that extended self-definition depends on the symbolism inherent in the constellation of products surrounding the individual and facilitates role playing when the symbolism of the products surrounding the individual parallel the symbolism associated with a given role. A constellation of products is a group of unrelated products that are used by an individual, and contribute to that individual's sense of self. Solomon (1983) introduced the idea of the product constellation, underscored the importance of the proper constellation of products in delivering a satisfactory self-evaluation, and proposed that products with the proper symbolic meaning may be used to facilitate role performance. He later amplified the idea of a product constellation and proposed several categories around which product constellations were formed (Solomon and Assael 1987).

McCracken (1988b) also recognized the importance of a consistent complement of consumer goods in self definition. He used this notion in an empirical study of the North American homes to identify the constellation of products that created "homeyness" and contributed to the homeowner's sense of well being (McCracken 1989). Products contributing to homeyness included gifts, crafts, trophies, mementos, family heirlooms, etc. In another empirical study, Wright (1991) identified another product constellation, including coffee, alcohol, cars, credit cards, newspapers, etc., that symbolized adulthood for middle class adolescents in a small North American town. The idea of a product constellation is that the more goods with the appropriate symbolic meaning one has, the higher the probability of a satisfactory self-evaluation. Based on these ideas, the following proposition is developed.

Proposition 7: Repeated and frequent product/self-perceptions may lead to greater definition of the self in terms of the products used/owned by the individual given that those products are recognized as product constellations.

Although the concept of materialism has been operationalized several different ways (Belk 1984, 1985; Richins and Dawson 1990; Ger and Belk 1990; Richins 1987; Rudmin 1990), it captures the idea that consumer goods and services provide a significant source of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in life. Without the proper constellation of material products, the probability of a satisfactory self-definition through consumption diminishes. Similarly, a materialistic attitude would seem to increase the probability of a successful self-consumption definition, for materialistic individuals may be more likely to use a priori product symbolism to define their sense of self. These ideas lead to proposition 8.

Proposition 8: Repeated and frequent product/self-perceptions may lead to greater definition of the self in terms of the products used/owned by the individual given that the individual is materialistically-oriented.

CONCLUSION

This paper has integrated concepts and findings in symbolic consumption, product symbolism, and self-concept. The integrated model, based on Sirgy's (1986) self-congruity theory, specifies predictors and determinants of recognition and/or learning of product symbolism, identifies the mediating process in which consumers use product symbolism to define themselves in the context of a specific situation, and posits that outcomes across a constellation of products, across situations, and over time influence the formation and change of the extended self. Future research is needed to test the proposed relationships and further establish and refine reliable/valid measures of the model's constructs.

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