Special Session Summary Communities of Consumption: a Central Metaphor For Diverse Research

Christine Wright-Isak, Young & Rubicam Advertising
[ to cite ]:
Christine Wright-Isak (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Communities of Consumption: a Central Metaphor For Diverse 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: 265-266.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 265-266



Christine Wright-Isak, Young & Rubicam Advertising


There has been a long tradition of community research in sociology. While its implications are extremely relevant to understanding consumer behavior, it has yet to be incorporated into consumer research, although initial discussion has been offered at recent ACR meetings. The purpose of this session was to bring together researchers whose work centers on the concept of community as more than a metaphor, and through an active interchange accomplish two main objectives. The first was to demonstrate the value of this concept for consumer research. The second was to show how varied theoretical and methodological orientations contribute to the concept of community and its value in studying consumer behavior. Perhaps most important, the papers presented offered a variety of diverse examples of the concept's use substantively and methodologically. They shared the common theoretical identification of community as a social construction of reality.

Muniz and O'Guinn presented their theory of how consumers form community around consumption of a brand, using the example of the recently introduced Zima beverage brand. Their research synthesizes classic sociology, sociological reader response, and accommodation theory from mass communication to investigate the symbolic and interactive nature of brand significance. Those who buy Zima form and develop a community of fellow consumers. O'Guinn and Muniz argue that central to understanding the phenomenon of a brand's long term value in the marketplace is the community process of social construction in which individuals arrive at shared understandings of meaning. They suggest that any brand comes to stand for a certain shared style of human association, a community of consumers, that attracts new members who want to participate in the norms and satisfactions shared by the other members.

This presentation set the stage for the second paper in which Arthur Kover described the relationship between the sociological clustering of brands and the individual consumer's preference formation. Kover argues that the world of traditional meanings has been breaking up and that new understandings are being socially reconstructed. In this situation consumers look for security and stability. Clusters of brands that have been personalized by means of advertising and consumer experience fit together, and are perceived to be brand communities. To some extent these brand communities offer an alternative form of community to consumers who participate in membership by buying and owning them. The shared meanings invested in these brands, and their collective significance, is another form of the social construction of reality.

Wright-Isak presented the third paper which reviewed the definition of the concept of community, distinguishing its use as a metaphor from its value as a scientific construct. Like the other presentations, this one argued that community is a social construction maintained and subscribed to by its members. The characteristic that defines a given type of community is its ethos, which is a complex of values, attitudes, beliefs along with the social behaviors expected to enact them. Wright-Isak demonstrated that, even though data collection employs familiar consumer research methods, community analysis focuses on aggregate community patterns of belief or behavior rather than on individual variations. She offered the research example of the value of triangulating methods to study a small town. Triangulation revealed that the imagery of belonging inherent in the nature of small town life influenced home purchase decisions in a large metropolitan area.

Stern used Stanley Fish's concept of interpretive community as a central metaphor to discuss the research presentations. She emphasized that community oriented research must be "read" in light of different reading strategies and different research agendas. To provoke discussion, she proposed alternative readings for dented cans of food. To the research audience the cents-off on damaged cans signifies undesirability. However, to impoverished consumers damaged cans are so desirable as "bargains" that consumers roam supermarkets to dent cans so that they can get a reduction in price. From the perspective of diversity, the validity of any interpretation depends on the assumptions that an interpretive community shares. Audience controversy provided a lively discussion of communal strategy as a process of meaning creation that revealed the process of social negotiation among attendees.




Albert M. Muniz Jr, and Thomas C. O'Guinn

Brands and related concepts are currently receiving significant research attention. With few exceptions, this work has examined brands from an information-processing perspective. While this has provided valuable insight, a significant domain of inquiry has been relatively ignored, that is, the sociology of brands. This lack of epistemological diversity amounts to a major limitation in our knowledge of this core concept, and it points to the field's failure to examine the important social forces that act upon these undeniably social creations. Our proposed theory will draw upon sociological work in community, sociological reader response theory, and accommodation theory. Into this theoretical synthesis, we introduce and situate our concept of brand communities, or the core construct of our theory.



Arthur J. Kover

The idea underlying this paper is that brands form communities for the consumers who buy them. This expansion of the concept of brand personality supplements the work on meaning of consumer goods as it has been developed primarily by Russell Belk. We will report on the first step in a long-term project on brand communities. People most sensitive to the dynamics of brands will carry out this step as a sample of 25 advertising executives will be asked to describe their own communities of brands as well as sets of brands that might constitute communities for others.

These data are analyzed to examine the extent to which brand communities are idiosyncratic or have commonly understood meaning, falling into defined sets with specific characteristics. They will also provide insight into how meanings of brands are drawn from their sociocultural milieu and focussed or refined by the messages crafted about them. This reality forming process will shed light on the sociological aspects of consumer choice making.



Christine Wright-Isak

There has been a long and important tradition of community research in sociology. While it has relevant implications for students of consumption, it has yet to be incorporated into consumer behavior research. The value of the concept community to marketers is that it concerns group processes of creating, maintaining, or collectively acting within meanings influence consumption motivations and choices. There is a sense in consumer behavior discussions that community as a concept refers to something more than simply the addition of all the individual psychological factors, but the concept itself is not well understood beyond its metaphorical appeal.

This paper considers the concept of community in its human literal sense and defines it culturally in terms of social processes organized within an ethos of beliefs that are translated into social actions. A brief theoretical review provides background for appropriate ways of measuring community phenomena. Then research findings about small towns demonstrates triangulation. Several methods of gathering data and synthesizing the results address a specific consumption question. The persistence of small town community which was hypothesized to be extinct by the end of the century has occurred because the imagery of its form of community shapes consumers decisions in purchasing a home. Examples of how small town imagery is perpetuated and extended in advertising campaigns, cinema and television are offered.