Special Session Summary Customer Value C a Framework For Analysis and Research

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
[ to cite ]:
Morris B. Holbrook (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Customer Value C a Framework For Analysis and Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 138-142.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 138-142



Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

[The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Columbia Business School's Faculty Research Fund.]


This paper introduces a special topic session that brings together scholars from diverse areas to address the nature and types of Customer Value. Specifically, the author proposes a framework to distinguish among eight key types of Customer Value that appear to deserve consideration in the analysis of consumer behavior. These eight types refer to different aspects of consumption that have attracted the attention of various scholars in the field. Accordingly, distinguished researchers in these areas of inquiry discuss whether and how their concerns fit into the proposed framework, offering further insights into the applicability of the Typology of Customer Value across a broad range of research topics. In sum, consistent with the thematic focus of the conference on research-frame synergies, the session provides a systematic consideration of the proposed framework and a critical evaluation of its usefulness as an integrative scheme.


If we view Marketing as a process that leads toward exchanges and if we define an exchange as a transaction between two parties in which each party trades something of value in return for something of greater value (Kotler 1991), it follows immediately that Customer Value provides the foundation for all marketing activity and deserves the attention of every consumer researcher.

For about a decade, I have wrestled with issues concerning the general nature and types of Customer Value (Holbrook and Corfman 1985; Holbrook 1986, 1994a, 1994b). In this connection, a crucial point C one that sounds amazingly simple when articulated, but one that appears to have eluded most of those who have commented on various aspects of Customer Value C is that one can understand a given type of value only by considering its relationship to other types of value. One cannot understand Quality without considering Beauty or Beauty without considering Fun or Fun without considering Ethics. In short, we can understand one type of value only by comparing it with other types of value to which it is closely related. Thus, we can understand Quality only by comparison with Beauty, Convenience, and Reputation; we can understand Beauty only by comparison with Quality, Fun, and Ecstasy.

Based on a rather extensive but neglected literature found in the philosophical field of Axiology or the Theory of Value, we have previously proposed a conceptual framework to address (1) the nature and (2) the types of Customer Value. The first attempt in this direction appeared in a chapter by Holbrook and Corfman (1985). The theme of value was revisited by Holbrook (1986) and has subsequently been elaborated in a "learned" treatise (Holbrook 1994b) and in a more "user friendly" version (Holbrook 1994a). Here, I shall briefly review my conclusions on the nature and types of Customer Value to provide a general framework as the basis for more specific issues addressed by various contributors to the special topic session.

The Nature of Customer Value

I define Customer Value as an interactive relativistic preference experience.

(1) Interactive. By interactive, I mean that C in contrast to the position advocated by extreme subjectivists or extreme objectivists C Customer Value entails an interaction between some subject (a consumer) and some object (a product). Essentially, this interactionist position maintains that value depends on the characteristics of some physical or mental object but cannot occur without the involvement of some subject who appreciates it (Frondizi 1971; Morris 1964; Pepper 1958).

(2) Relativistic. By relativistic, I mean that Customer Value is (a) comparative (among objects), (b) personal (across people), and (c) situational (specific to the context). (a) It is comparative in that one must make utility comparisons among objects rather than among people (Frondizi 1971; Hilliard 1950; Lewis 1946); in other words, I can legitimately claim that I like Susan Sarandon better than Madonna, but not that I like Ms. Sarandon more than you do. (b) It is personal in the sense that it varies from one individual to another (Bond 1983; Parker 1957; Von Wright 1963); colloquially, we say that "One (hu)man's meat is another (hu)man's poison." (c) Further, value is situational in that it depends on the context in which the evaluative judgment occurs (Morris 1964; Taylor 1961); hence, the standards on which evaluative judgments hinge tend to be context-dependent, changing from one situation to the next, as when our preference for tea varies from hot Earl Grey (in the winter) to iced orange pekoe (in the summer) and possibly to warm herbal (before bed).

(3) Preference. By preference, I simply mean that consumer researchers have found a variety of names by which to refer to the general concept of an evaluative judgment (Perry 1954). These include "predisposition" (positive-negative), "attitude" (favorable-unfavorable), "opinion" (pro-con), "directional behavior" (approach-avoidance), "valence" (plus-minus), "judgment" (good-bad), or "evaluation" (liking-disliking). All these refer to value (singular) as opposed to values (plural), where the latter term represents the standards or criteria on which the former depends. It must be emphasized that our focus on value (singular) is quite different from that which deals with various types of values (VALS, LOV, AIO, and other types of psychographically oriented lifestyle research).

(4) Experience. Finally, by experience, I mean that Customer Value resides not in the purchase but rather in the consumption experience(s) derived therefrom (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982); this claim is inherent in the concept of an interactive relativistic preference and has received support from any number of philosophically inclined thinkers (Abbott 1955; Baylis 1958; in addition to those already cited).

The Dimensions of Customer Value

The framework that provides the basis for the proposed session reflects three key dimensions of value: (1) Extrinsic versus Intrinsic, (2) Self- versus Other-Oriented, and (3) Active versus Reactive.

(1) Extrinsic Versus Intrinsic Value. Extrinsic value pertains to a means-ends relationship wherein consumption is prized for its functional, utilitarian, or banausic instrumentality in accomplishing some further purpose. By contrast, intrinsic value occurs when some consumption experience is appreciated as an end in itself C for its own sake C as self-justifying, ludic, or autotelic. (Besides those already referenced, see Brandt 1967; Brightman 1962; Deci 1975; Frankena 1962, 1967; Lee 1957; Nozick 1982; Olson 1967; Osborne 1933; Rokeach 1973.)



(2) Self- Versus Other-Oriented Value. Value is self-oriented when I prize a product or experience selfishly or prudently for my own sake, for how I react to it, or for the effect it has on me. Conversely, other-oriented value looks beyond the self to some other(s) (family, friends, neighbors, colleagues) or some Other (Country, Planet, Universe, Mother Nature, Cosmos, Deity) where something is valued for their sake, for how they react to it, or for the effect it has on them. (See also Buber 1923; Fromm 1941; Kahle 1983; Koestler 1978; Lamont 1951; Parsons 1951; Riesman 1950; Siegel 1981; Von Wright 1983; and especially Mukerjee 1964.)

(3) Active Versus Reactive Value. Value is active when it entails some physical or mental manipulation of some tangible or intangible object C that is, when it involves things done by an individual. Conversely, reactive value results from apprehending, appreciating, or otherwise responding to some object C that is, from things done to an individual. In the first, I act upon it; in the second, it acts upon me. (See also Hall 1961; HarrT and Secord 1973; Mead 1938; Mehrabian and Russell 1974; Morris 1956, 1964; Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum 1957).

The Types of Customer Value

By treating each of the dimensions just described as a dichotomy and combining these three dichotomies into a 2x2x2 cross-classification, we may produce the eight-celled Typology of Customer Value that appears in Table 1. Each cell of this taxonomy represents a logically distinct type of value (with examples shown parenthetically). Collectively, these various types of value provide the structural basis for the issues of concern to this special topic session.


The Typology of Customer Value just described suggests an outline for organizing the presentations in the special topic session. Their order follows the structure suggested by the typology C first, from top left (EFFICIENCY) to bottom left (ESTEEM); then, from top right (PLAY) to bottom right (SPIRITUALITY). A brief summary of each focus follows C with a tentative title (in quotes) and with the name(s) of the participant(s) (shown parenthetically) indicated for each area covered.

"Efficiency and Convenience in the Use of Time" (Bernd Schmitt and France Leclerc)

From the perspective of the present framework, efficiency results from the active use of a product to achieve some self-oriented purpose C as measured, for example, by the ratio of outputs to inputs or O/I (Bond 1983; Diesing 1962; Hilliard 1950; Lamont 1955). When the key input of interest is time, we typically call this O/I ratio convenience. Implications concerning the consumption of temporal resources figure prominently in the work by Bernd Schmitt, France Leclerc, and their colleagues on waiting time and on decisions regarding the use of time.

"Excellence, Quality, and Satisfaction" (Rich Oliver)

As conceived here, efficiency differs from excellence in that the latter entails an inherently reactive response in which one admires some object for its capacity to serve as the means to a self-oriented end in the performance of some function. Such a utilitarian emphasis on the appreciation of instrumentality relates closely to the concept of satisfaction based on a comparison of performance with expectations and appears to constitute the essence of what we mean by quality (Abbott 1955; Bond 1983; Juran 1988; Pettijohn 1986; Steenkamp 1989; Tuchman 1980; Zeithaml 1988). Rich Oliver has recently edited a book on Service Quality (with Roland Rust) and is well-known for his seminal contributions to the area of Customer Satisfaction studies.

"Status, Symbols, Impression Management, and Success" (Mike Solomon)

As employed here, the term status designates the active use of one's own consumption behavior toward the other-oriented end of achieving a favorable response from someone else (Nozick 1981; Perry 1954). A conspicuous example of this push toward success occurs when one uses one's wearing apparel as a set of symbols and purposely dresses with an eye to the role of clothing and accessories in impression management. Mike Solomon has employed insights from symbolic interactionism and other disciplinary orientations to elucidate the role of symbolic consumption and to emphasize the importance of product constellations as aspects of symbolically oriented consumer behavior.

"Esteem, Possessions, Conspicuous Consumption, and Materialism" (Marsha Richins)

The reactive counterpart to status involves the esteem that may result from a somewhat passive ownership of possessions appreciated as a means to building one's reputation with others (Bond 1983; Duesenberry 1949; Scitovsky 1976; Veblen 1899). Such Veblenesque examples of conspicuous consumption represent one facet of materialism frequently taken as a signal aspect of our Consumer Society. Marsha Richins has written on the undesirable social consequences of such acquisitive preoccupations and has done extensive empirical work on developing indices of materialism.

"Play, Leisure, and Fun" (John Deighton)

As a self-oriented experience C actively pursued and enjoyed for its own sake C play leads to having fun and characterizes the familiar distinction often made between work and leisure (Berlyne 1969; Huizinga 1938; Santayana 1896; Stephenson 1967). John Deighton has studied numerous aspects of play and performance as manifest and metaphorical components of consumer behavior; in this connection, he also co-chaired a special topic session on play at last year's ACR conference.

"Aesthetics, Fashion, Beauty, and Product Design" (Janet Wagner)

On the reactive side of play, aesthetics refers to a self-oriented appreciation of some object where this experience is valued as an end in itself, for example as a potential source of beauty (Beardsley 1967; Budd 1983; Bullough 1912; Coleman 1966; Hampshire 1982; Hilliard 1950; Hospers 1967; Iseminger 1981; Lee 1957; Lewis 1946; McGregor 1974; Olscamp 1965; Perry 1854; Rader 1979, p. 331). Clearly, fashion is often prized for the aesthetic merits of its product design C that is, on the grounds of beauty. As at ACR 1994, Janet Wagner has frequently focused on the aesthetic aspects of product design in general and on the connection between beauty and fashion in particular.

"Ethics, Justice, Virtue, and Morality" (Craig Smith)

The active and other-oriented pursuit of ethics aims at justice, virtue, and/or morality sought for its own sake as an end in itself (Alicke 1983; Lewis 1946; Morris 1956; Nozick 1981; Parker 1957; Pepper 1958; Von Wright 1963, 1983). Thus, deontological value entails the concept of duty or obligation to others (Bond 1983; Hilliard 1950; Perry 1954), while we imply a connection between ethics and intrinsic motivation when we say colloquially that "virtue is its own reward" (Frankena 1973; Parker 1957). Craig Smith has literally "written the books" on Morality in the Market Place and on Ethics in Marketing (with John Quelch); he is therefore uniquely well-situated to comment on these issues as they relate to Customer Value.

"Spirituality, Faith, Ecstasy, and Sacredness" (John Sherry)

As a more reactive counterpart to ethics (faith versus works), spirituality entails an adoption, appreciation, admiration, or adoration of the Other in which a self-motivated faith may propel one toward a state of ecstasy involving a disappearance of the Self-Other dichotomy and a profound experience of sacredness (Frondizi 1971; Mukerjee 1964; Parker 1957; Perry 1954; Pepper 1958). Generally, we think of spirituality as attached to religious experience involving the Deity, some broad view of the Cosmos, or some profound concept of an otherwise inaccessible Inner Self. However, one should note that an ecstatic disappearance of the self-other dichotomy may also occur when one becomes so involved in the "flow" of a consumption experience that one loses all sense of one's own selfhood in the rapture of the consuming moment. These and other aspects of sacred consumption have served as a unifying theme in many of the important studies by John Sherry and his colleagues.


This summary overview has suggested that the nature and types of Customer Value can best be understood by placing them in a context that juxtaposes their differences and similarities so as to shed light on their underlying structure. Toward this end, I have proposed a Typology of Customer Value to provide a general framework that serves to integrate contributions on specific topics by a group of acknowledged experts in each of the various areas under consideration. These individual contributions permit a critical evaluation of the typology and an assessment of its applicability across diverse issues of interest to consumer researchers.


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