A Cross-Cultural Look At the 'supposed to Have It' Phenomenon: the Existence of a Standard Package Based on Occupation

Cecelia Wittmayer, Dakota State University
Steve Schulz, Fort Hays State University
Robert Mittelstaedt, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
ABSTRACT - Consumers often buy products for reasons other than the product's functional performance, basing their purchase decisions instead on the symbolic or social significance of the product. In those instances, product ownership/use serves as a form of symbolic communication between consumer and observer, enabling the consumer to use the product for impression management. The idea of product ownership as impression management is closely related to research which suggests a relationship exists between occupation, social class, and consumption of what has been referred to as the standard package. This paper examines the standard package concept and suggests that variations in the standard package exist because of cultural and occupational differences. Further, it suggests that students will acquire the items in their occupational standard package in a particular and fairly predictable order.
[ to cite ]:
Cecelia Wittmayer, Steve Schulz, and Robert Mittelstaedt (1994) ,"A Cross-Cultural Look At the 'supposed to Have It' Phenomenon: the Existence of a Standard Package Based on Occupation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 427-434.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 427-434

A CROSS-CULTURAL LOOK AT THE 'SUPPOSED TO HAVE IT' PHENOMENON: THE EXISTENCE OF A STANDARD PACKAGE BASED ON OCCUPATION

Cecelia Wittmayer, Dakota State University

Steve Schulz, Fort Hays State University

Robert Mittelstaedt, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

ABSTRACT -

Consumers often buy products for reasons other than the product's functional performance, basing their purchase decisions instead on the symbolic or social significance of the product. In those instances, product ownership/use serves as a form of symbolic communication between consumer and observer, enabling the consumer to use the product for impression management. The idea of product ownership as impression management is closely related to research which suggests a relationship exists between occupation, social class, and consumption of what has been referred to as the standard package. This paper examines the standard package concept and suggests that variations in the standard package exist because of cultural and occupational differences. Further, it suggests that students will acquire the items in their occupational standard package in a particular and fairly predictable order.

INTRODUCTION

Consumers often buy products for reasons other than the product's functional performance, basing their purchase decisions instead on the symbolic or social significance of the product. In those instances, product ownership/use serves as a form of symbolic communication between consumer and observer, enabling the consumer to use the product for impression management (Solomon 1983). The idea of product ownership as impression management is closely related to work by Riesman and Roseborough (1955), which suggests a relationship exists between occupation, social class, and consumption of what they call the standard package. Although Riesman and Roseborough used the term to describe the possessions of American corporate executives, the existence of a standard package has also been noted in other cultures. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to examine the universality of the standard package concept and to ascertain whether variations in the standard package exist because of differences in occupation and/or culture. A brief review of the symbolic interactionist literature is presented and results of an empirical study are discussed. Data to test the hypotheses were collected from working professionals and from college seniors in corresponding majors.

STANDARD PACKAGE VARIATIONS BASED ON OCCUPATION AND/OR CULTURE

Although marketers generally assume that products are used by consumers for need satisfaction, the idea that consumption may be tied to the consumer's self-image is not exactly a revolutionary one. For example, Tucker (1954, p. 139) writes:

There has long been an implicit concept that consumers can be defined in terms of either the products they acquire or use or in terms of the meanings products have for them or their attitudes toward products.

Symbolic interactionist theory suggests that products are used for impression management, i.e., products have symbolic meanings and product ownership/use serves as a form of symbolic communication between consumer and observer (Solomon 1983).

In general, products with strong communicative properties have high visibility in use, high variability in use, and high personalizability (Holman 1981). Unless a product has visibility in use, observers will not see its purchase, consumption, and/or disposition and the product loses its communicative qualities. Likewise, if a product lacks variability (if it is available to everyone and everyone uses it in exactly the same way), no individual differences are implied by its usage. Generally, high variability is attributed to financial or time constraints on consumption and to the consumer's ability to make small but distinct changes in the product. Finally, products have high personalizability if their use brings to mind a stereotypical image of the frequent user.

However, Solomon and Buchanan (1991) suggest that sometimes products also have symbolic interdependence-together, several products transmit a message that each product alone does not. This is consistent with Riesman and Roseborough's (1955) suggestion that a relationship exists between occupation, social class, and consumption of what they call the standard package. They speculate that a standard package of possessions exists for much of the middle class in the United States. To date, researchers have not empirically established the group of products which make up the standard package, but it is generally assumed to include socially visible products like clothes, cars, homes, furniture, and vacations. Dholakia and Levy (1987b, p. 437) refer to a similar constellation of products as the American Dream, which they define as being able "to own your home, nicely furnished and two cars; to travel and to be a member of local clubs." Further, they contend that the same American Dream exists for a broad spectrum of the American consuming public.

However, this phenomenon is not limited to the American middle class experience; the existence of a standard package has also been noted in other cultures. (See, for instance, Arnould's 1989 discussion of the standard package for natives in the Zinder Province of Niger, Bourdieu's 1984 discussion of the lifestyles of the French petite bourgeoisie, and Paroush's 1965 discussion of priority purchase patterns for Israeli households.) According to Dholakia and Levy (1987b, p. 42), each society develops a set of core products that define its consumption standard or the consumer dream. As Olshavsky and Granbois (1979) point out, ownership of the standard package may not be discretionary; instead, standard package items may be a requisite part of a culturally mandated lifestyle.

The term standard in standard package (and American in American Dream) implies that the same group of products is consistently desired and purchased by all households within a particular society or social class. However, Porter (1967) and Riesman and Roseborough (1955) have suggested that variations in this standard package may exist for different occupations and/or income levels. In a similar vein, symbolic interactionist theory suggests that, since symbolic meanings are learned through a socialization process, individuals with a common history or culture should attach the same or similar meanings to objects and/or actions although that meaning can be expected to shift for different reference groups or subcultures. Indeed, differences do seem to exist in the priority patterns or order of acquisitions for different consumer segments in the United States (Dickson, Lusch, and Wilkie 1983; McFall 1969).

The consequences of an individual's failure to adopt the culturally mandated lifestyle of his/her society are also different for different cultures. For example, collectivity and homogeneity are stressed more in Asian cultures than in western cultures. Compared to American firms, Asian firms demand a higher level of employee commitment plus absolute loyalty and conformity. When an employee doesn't conform, shame is often used as punishment (Terpstra and David 1991, pp. 47-54). In the Asian workplace, public humiliation is not uncommon and is, in fact, socially tolerated (Bond 1989, pp. 278-293). Therefore, the consequences of nonconformity are likely to be more severe in collectivist cultures than in western cultures.

This study is based on two underlying premises: 1) the concept of a standard package is universal; it exists in every culture and 2) consumers are aware of and can identify the culturally mandated standard package for their lives. However, it is unreasonable to suggest that the same standard package exists across cultures. Therefore,

H1a: Different cultural groups will identify different standard packages.

H1b: Different occupational groups will identify different standard packages.

STANDARD PACKAGE IDENTIFICATION BY STUDENTS

Riesman and Roseborough (1955) suggest that the social and organizational upward mobility of a family is made easier by the family's ability to identify subtle differences in standard packages and to adapt their current standard package to a new peer group as the family's breadwinners climb the corporate ladder. However, an individual's anxiety about appropriate and inappropriate product consumption does not begin when he/she contemplates a job promotion; it begins when he/she first imagines him/herself as part of the organization. According to Solomon (1983), an individual's confidence in his/her ability to meet role demands may determine the degree to which he/she depends on material symbols to convince others of his/her abilities.

This premise was supported by Wicklund and Gollwitzer's (1982) study of symbolic self-completion. They found that male MBA students who were least likely to succeed (based on an index of their grades, number of job interviews, and number of job offers) were more likely to try to look successful. They noted that incomplete students (those with lower grades, fewer job interviews, and fewer job offers) were more likely to wear luxury watches and carry expensive briefcases-both associated with successful employment in the business world and therefore part of the businessman's standard package.

In his discussion of product symbolism, Solomon (1983) suggests that role performance is aided when an individual possesses the material symbols or products which are associated with that role. Consequently, consumption of the right products may be less important when role knowledge is high and the consumer has mastered the repertoire of behaviors associated with a social or occupational role. On the other hand, consumption of the right products is very important when the appropriate behavior is either unknown or known only in an idealized sense, i.e., the individual has only a stereotyped view of the role and has not yet had an opportunity to rehearse or experience the appropriate behavior. Therefore, it seems reasonable that someone who is anticipating (but has not yet achieved) membership in an occupational group will strive to identify the standard package variations that seem most acceptable to that group.

H2a: Students will accurately identify the standard package items for their occupational area.

H2b: Students in different occupational areas will identify different standard packages.

H2c: Students from different cultural backgrounds but from the same occupational area will identify different standard packages.

METHODOLOGY

To assess the components of the standard package across cultures and occupations, information was collected from Asian business professionals, American business professionals, and American public school educators. To assess the level of congruence between working professionals and students, information was also collected from Asian business administration majors, American business administration majors, and American music education majors. All the students were seniors at a major midwestern university. The Asian students were foreign students attending the university on educational visas and generally expected to return to their home countries after graduation. Likewise, the Asian business professionals were in this country temporarily, attending a semester-long management development seminar at the same university. Both the American and the Asian business professionals had worked in their fields for 5-10 years. The public school educators taught in a nearby midwestern community; all had been teaching for at least 5 years.

The products which comprise the standard package for middle-class, midwestern business professionals were established via a convenience sample of 50 business professionals from a variety of career areas (i.e., accounting, marketing and advertising, law, investment management, and corporate management). These professionals were asked to describe, using adjectives and brand names, their cars, homes, vacations, entertainment preferences, hired services, investments, etc. Their responses served as a basis for scoring the possessions described by the other two professional samples and by the three student samples. (See Appendix A for a list of the possessions described by the respondents and for an example of the 5-point coding scheme used to rate the professionals' descriptions.) Student respondents were asked to describe the possessions they thought they would own 5 to 10 years after graduation.

Chi-square goodness-of-fit tests were used to determine whether a significant difference existed between the observed (i.e., student) responses and expected (i.e., professional) responses in each product category. The Chi-square test should only be used if no more than 20% of the expected frequencies are less than 5 and no expected frequencies are less than 1 (Siegel and Castellan 1988, p. 49). Because the sample size for some of the groups was small (N = 13 for the public school teachers, for example) and therefore the expected cell frequencies were small, the 5 coding categories used to describe the American business professionals' possessions were collapsed before the Chi-square statistics were calculated, per the recommendations of Siegel and Castellan (1988, p. 49). Even with the collapsed coding scheme, the SPSSX Chi-square program did issue warnings for some of the Chi-square calculations. (Table 1).

TABLE 1

SAMPLE SIZES

TABLE 2

HYPOTHESIS 1A

COMPARISON OF ASIAN BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS TO AMERICAN BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS

RESULTS

According to H1a, different cultural groups should identify different standard packages. To test this hypothesis, responses from Asian business professionals were compared to the responses from American business professionals. Of the 15 product categories examined, 10 of the Chi-square statistics were statistically significant; therefore, the hypothesis was supported. The five categories which did not meet the Chi-square cutoff were recreation, personal computer, home improvements, hired services, and entertainment of business associates. (See Table 2 for the Chi-square statistics.)

According to H1b, different occupational groups should also identify different standard packages. To test this hypothesis, responses from American public school teachers were compared to the responses from American business professionals. Here, 13 of the 15 Chi-square statistics exceeded the critical value; therefore the hypothesis was supported. Only the Chi-square values for personal computers and investments were below the critical value. (See Table 3 for the Chi-square statistics.) Together, the results of these two hypothesis tests suggest that an individual's possessions are a function of either his/her culture or occupation. However, support for the remaining hypotheses is less clear-cut.

According to H2a, students should accurately identify the standard package items for their occupational area. This hypothesis was based on symbolic interactionist theory, which suggests that role performance and group acceptance are aided when an individual possesses the material symbols or products which are associated with that role (Solomon 1983). The assumption here is that students will have observed professionals in their career area and will have noted the possessions owned by these professionals. It should be noted, however, that what is predicted here is no difference which involves the acceptance of the null hypothesis, an admittedly weak test.

When the responses from American business administration students were compared to the responses from American business professionals, only two Chi-square statistics-clothing and jewelry-were below the critical value. (See Table 4 for the Chi-square statistics.) Evidently, about all these business administration students have absorbed from observing professionals in their area is how to dress appropriately for the job.

The results of the comparison of music education students to public school teachers were more encouraging. Here, seven of the 15 Chi-square statistics were below the critical value-first car, home/apartment, jewelry/watch, home furnishings, home improvements, investments, and hired services. (See Table 5 for the Chi-square statistics.) However, it should be noted that the music education students used in this project had just returned from eight weeks of practice teaching. Clearly, they'd had the opportunity to observe and absorb the lifestyle of their professional counterparts. Given this recent experience, it is therefore surprising that the Chi-square statistic for clothes was not within the acceptable range. It should also be noted that, unless the business administration students had recently participated in an internship and/or were already working at least part-time in their field, they probably had not had a similar opportunity for observation and instead may have based their perceptions on somewhat inaccurate information from friends, family, and/or the mass media.

TABLE 3

HYPOTHESIS 1B

COMPARISON OF AMERICAN PUBLIC SCHOOL EDUCATORS TO AMERICAN BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS

TABLE 4

HYPOTHESIS 2A

COMPARISON OF AMERICAN BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION STUDENTS TO AMERICAN BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS

Finally, responses from Asian business administration students were compared to the responses from Asian business professionals. Here, student perceptions were close to reality for 10 of the 15 product categories-second car, vacations, recreation, jewelry/watches, home furnishings, personal computers, home improvements, investments, hired services, and entertainment of business associates. (See Table 6 for the Chi-square statistics.) Without further research, it is impossible to know why Asian business students were more accurate in their perceptions than American business students, but several possible explanations suggest themselves: in general, Asian society may be more homogeneous than American society and therefore fewer differences exist across all the subgroups within that society; Asian business students may have more contact with Asian business professionals and therefore may base their perceptions on what they actually observe while American students may base their perceptions on stereotyped portrayals in the media; and/or the consequences of NOT learning the appropriate standard package may be more severe in collectivist cultures.

According to H2b, students in different occupational areas will identify different standard packages (i.e., their perceptions are not based on a universal standard package for middle-class America; instead their perceptions are based on what they know or what they think they know about their intended profession.) To test this hypothesis, the responses from American music education students were compared to the responses of American business administration students. Only two of the Chi-square statistics did not exceed the critical value-home/apartment and hired services-indicating that the students were anticipating markedly different standard packages. Therefore, the hypothesis was supported. (See Table 7 for the Chi-square statistics.)

TABLE 5

HYPOTHESIS 2A

COMPARISON OF AMERICAN MUSIC EDUCATION STUDENTS TO AMERICAN PUBLIC SCHOOL EDUCATORS

TABLE 6

HYPOTHESIS 2A

COMPARISON OF ASIAN BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION STUDENTS TO ASIAN BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS

Finally, H2c suggests that students from different cultural backgrounds but from the same occupational area will identify different standard packages. To test this hypothesis, responses from Asian business students were compared to the responses from American business students. Again, only two Chi-square statistics did not exceed the critical value-home improvements and hired services-indicating that the students were anticipating markedly different standard packages. Therefore, the hypothesis was supported. (See Table 8 for the Chi-square statistics.) This suggests that the Asian students formed their standard-package expectations before they came to this country. If their expectations had been shaped by American media or by contact with American business professionals or American business students, their expectations should have been closer to those of the American business students.

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

Based on the results of this exploratory study, it appears as though the standard package concept is indeed a universal concept, although variations in that standard package seem to exist because of cultural and/or occupational differences. However, these results do call into question one of the underlying assumptions of this study, namely that consumers are aware of and can accurately identify the culturally mandated standard packages for their lives. Although the American music education students and the Asian business administration students were fairly accurate in their expectations/perceptions (non-significant differences in 7 of the 15 and 10 of the 15 product categories, respectively), the American business students were not (non-significant differences in only 2 of the 15 product categories). As was indicated earlier, however, the accuracy of the music education students may have been enhanced by their recent practice teaching experiences. Had the business administration students had a similar experience, their accuracy may have also improved.

TABLE 7

HYPOTHESIS 2B

COMPARISON OF AMERICAN MUSIC EDUCATION STUDENTS TO AMERICAN BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION STUDENTS

TABLE 8

HYPOTHESIS 2C

COMPARISON OF ASIAN BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION STUDENTS TO AMERICAN BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION STUDENTS

Aside from the issue of accuracy/inaccuracy in expectations, however, these Chi-square statistics seem to reveal something else about the students. The values of the Chi-square statistics reflect the magnitude of the deviation of their perceptions from the reality of the business professionals. Therefore, when the Chi-square values are arranged in ascending order, they may signal an order of acquisition akin to the priority patterns discussed by Dholakia and Levy (1987a and 1987b) and McFall (1969). In his research, McFall (1969, pp. 54-55) states:

The priority pattern concept implies that consumers tend to think of their household goods purchases in terms of sets to be acquired in a particular order over time. The acquiring of goods in accordance with a priority pattern is not simply an individual process; it is also a group phenomenon.

One reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from this research is that students will quickly purchase those items which they recognize as an integral part of their occupational standard package (as signaled by the smallest Chi-square values) but will postpone the purchase of items about which they are unsure and/or uninformed. Therefore, students (at least American business students) are likely to acquire clothes and jewelry first, briefcases and retirement plans next (probably because retirement or investment plans are generally furnished by the employer), homes and hired services far in the future. (See Table 9 for the Chi-square statistics of American business administration students arranged in ascending order.) This order also suggests that students are least knowledgeable about (and/or have the least experience with) purchasing homes and hiring service providers such as cleaning help, lawn services, etc. Consequently, the real value of this research may lie in the information it provides to marketers about the students' order of product acquisition. This research might also be used to shape the advertising for products in the standard package. Specifically, it points out that how-to-purchase information and/or strong product benefit information should be included in the advertising for some product categories.

TABLE 9

ASCENDING ORDER

COMPARISON OF AMERICAN BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION STUDENTS TO AMERICAN BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS

APPENDIX A

STANDARD PACKAGE CODING FOR AMERICAN BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS' FIRST CAR

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