Special Session Summary the Socio-Cognitive Development of Market Realities: Three Perspectives

JosT Antonio Rosa, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
[ to cite ]:
JosT Antonio Rosa (1997) ,"Special Session Summary the Socio-Cognitive Development of Market Realities: Three Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 32.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Page 32



JosT Antonio Rosa, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Consistent with the conference theme "breaking out of the box," this session cut across consumer research paradigms to yield new perspectives on consumer markets. Three papers were presented on the topic of shared conceptual structures and their socio-cognitive origins, coming at the phenomenon from demographic, cognitivist, and symbolic interaction perspectives. Each of the presentations enhanced our understanding of 1) shared conceptual systems among consumers, 2) shared conceptual systems between consumers and producers, and 3) the implications of shared conceptual systems for consumer behavior. The fact that consumers and producers bring intricate and multi-dimensional conceptual systems to the market place is well documented in the consumer research literature. This session focused attention on how these conceptual systems can be identified in unique ways, how they are shaped, reconciled and expanded through consumer and producer interactions in the marketplace, and how they influence highly significant purchase decisions.

In the first presentation, Frenzen combined Simmel’s theory of social circles with Blau’s data visualization methodology (Blau space) to offer a means of exploring consumer interaction and behavior patterns, and the shared conceptual structures such interactions and behaviors imply, in large arrays of data. Simmel observed that people’s demographic characteristics were strong determinants of their activities and associations in society, and that in turn these shared patterns of interaction had a strong influence on people’s attitudes and behaviors, but he found it difficult to test such observations empirically. Recently, it has become possible through the Blau space data visualization technique to have graphical representations of large customer groups (e.g., all consumers in one or more SMSA) by demographic, behavioral, and attitudinal criteria, and to use such representations to identify the equivalent of Simmel’s social circles; groups of people or consumers in close demographic proximity who are tightly linked by patterns of interaction and known to share many consumption attitudes and practices. Frenzen argues that the use of Blau space techniques allows marketers to identify clusters of consumers with similar conceptual systems without having to identify the social networks that link those customers. He argues further that similar conceptual systems are the likely cause of many of the consumption behavior similarities also observed through the Blau space technique. Visualizing customer behavioral and attitudes clusters through Blau space techniques has implications for various areas of marketing, such as product market management and media purchases.

Rosa and Porac followed Frenzen, but focused attntion instead on the development of conceptual systems for a new product across the consumer-producer divide. They argued for a social-constructionist view of markets, in which market realities are enacted by consumers and producers, and are captured by both consumer and producers in complex hierarchical representations used to navigate future market encounters. In stable markets, consumer and producer mental representations have been reinforced by repeated encounters and should be stable and partially shared between them. When new product concepts are introduced into established markets, however, existing representations are upset and enactments become less predictable and coherent as a result. Markets, therefore, become conceptually unstable, and regain coherence and stability only after multiple cycles of market exchange between consumers and producers result in a new set of shared mental representations. In a study of the minivan market, Rosa and Porac argue that the current mental representation of the minivan, with core attributes such as front wheel drive, V-6 engine, room for seven, and car-like ride, was not always an accepted category prototype. They suggest, based on analyses of market publications, that there was considerable competition between widely diverse conceptual representations of the minivan in the early stages, and that the currently accepted prototype emerged from iterative enactment cycles to which both consumers and producers contributed. Rosa and Porac combined data from archival and content analysis research to argue that 1) minivans destabilized a shared conceptual system for motor vehicles in the US which clearly separated cars and trucks, 2) that there was considerable market confusion over the prototypical usages and attributes of minivans in the early years of the product market, 3) that both producers and consumers contributed to the early conceptual confusion and later to the restoration of market coherence, and 4) that the market’s move from confusion to coherence was shaped by both behavior (the sale of different artifacts) and the public discourse around the product.

In the third presentation, Wright-Isak also focused on shared conceptual systems, directing attention to the mental associations between residential community images and community ethos that are held by many people, and to the implications of these associations for purchase and satisfaction with real estate purchases. She argued that in the purchase of residential real estate, most people make intricate connections between physical characteristics (e.g., picket fences, tree-lined streets, cul-de-sacs) and the community’s ethos; the emotionally toned set of beliefs, values, presuppositions, rules, and prescriptions that organize day-to-day life. The imagery evoked by the community ethos, in turn, leads consumers to hold expectations and enact behaviors that give meaning to their experiences of community life and in most cases affirm the community ethos. In the absence of community ethos imagery, however, it is possible that consumer interpretations of ambiguous community experiences will cause alarm and dissatisfaction, and lead to movement away from the purchase decision. Wright-Isak supported her arguments with data from in-depth interviews of recent purchasers of homes in "small town" communities. She found satisfaction and dissatisfaction were related to whether or not the consumers had physical exposure to the "small town" before the purchase decision, and had relied on the community ethos imagery to anticipate community life and make a decision.

At a broad level, the session argued that consumer mental representations of product markets and their responses are strongly shaped by social interactions in the marketplace. Zaltman, as synthesizer, captured the theme well when he concluded that "consumer minds are not the possession of individual consumers." He argued further that the meanings of products (and behaviors towards them) are co-produced with people we don’t know and by people we don’t know, and that in the aggregation of consumer minds much can be learned of benefit to consumer research. In a sense it can be argued that shared cnceptual systems make possible the mutual understanding and collaborative behavior of exchange.