Special Session Summary Narrative Theory and Consumer Research: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives

Kent Grayson, London Business School
[ to cite ]:
Kent Grayson (1997) ,"Special Session Summary Narrative Theory and Consumer Research: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 67-70.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 67-70



Kent Grayson, London Business School

Narrative theory seeks to account for the integral role that stories play in our psychological and social lives. The theory has been applied and developed in a number of disciplines, including anthropology (e.g., Rayfield 1972), linguistics (e.g., Gee 1985), psychoanalysis (e.g., Cohler 1982), social psychology (e.g., Sarbin 1986), literary criticism (e.g., Jameson 1981), cognitive psychology (Black and Wilensky 1979), and philosophy (e.g., Ellos 1994). Narrative theory’s application in such diverse disciplines suggests that it offers a potentially useful perspective for consumer researchers of all types. Yet, it has been applied in only a small number of consumer-behavior studies, and has been used for the development of rather divergent theories and conclusions:

- Deighton (1992) and Arnould and Price (1993) lend support to the idea that the appreciation of consumption experiences depends on how well the experience can be captured and remembered as a story.

- Hirschman (1988) and Stern (1995) use structural analysis to show how stories told in commercials and television shows can provide models or templates for consumers’ lives.

- Deighton, Romer, and McQueen (1989) and Peracchio (1993) have given credence to the proposition that consumers process and store narratives differently han other kinds of information.

This list of research projects suggests that narrative theory’s potential contribution to consumer research is both promising and problematic. On one hand, narrative theory is rich enough to be applied in so many disciplines that the opportunity for interdisciplinary inquiry is high. To fully appreciate narrative theory, one must think beyond traditional academic boundaries, because it is applied in remarkably different literatures and disciplines. Thus, narrative theory offers a fertile research perspective that prompts both divergent and convergent thinking about dynamic social events.

On the other hand, the multi-disciplinary development of narrative theory has led to confusion and disagreement about the theory’s domain, concepts, and constructs. As Chase (1995, p. 1) writes, scholars "disagree about what constitutes narrative and develop divergent approaches to the relations between narrative and life, narrative and subjectivity, narrative and culture, and narrative and fiction or truth . . . ." The result is a fragmented research perspective that sometimes seems too diffuse to support cohesive programmatic inquiry.

The purpose of this session is to explore the value of narrative theory in understanding, describing, explaining and predicting consumer behavior. In pursuit of this purpose, the session reflects both the multi-vocality and the unified focus of narrative research. Each session presenter builds from a distinct background in the narrative literature, examines a unique consumer-research activity, and emphasizes a different methodology. Yet, the participants also share a common background in narrative theory, and a common interest in understanding the impact of narratives on consumer behavior.



Jennifer Edson Escalas, University of Arizona

Consumer research has documented that brands and possessions have meaning for consumers (e.g., Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; McCracken, 1986; Richins, 1994). However, little is known about the process by which objects become meaningful. On a broader scale, people make sense of their lives via narrative thought (e.g., Bruner 1986, 1990; Gergen and Gergen 1988; Polkinghorne 1991). Through the structure of narrative thinking, specifically spacio-temporal dimensionality and causal inferences, people organize their experiences, create order out of what might otherwise be random incidents, and explain unusual events. Furthermore, people naturally construct these stories or narratives to give their lives coherence and to create their identities.

Consumers can construct narratives involving brands, and as a result of this meaning- making process, some brands become more important than others to consumers. Some brands take on symbolic meaning, represent who one is or wants to be, perhaps communicate some aspect of self to others, and become significantly related to consumers’ mental representations of self. It is these types of connections that marketers wish to build between their brands and targeted consumers. Meaningful self-brand connections will lead to strong, favorable brand attitudes, and brand loyal behavior.

I hypothesize that one way marketers can build these connections is by evoking favorable narrative thought about their brand. Consumer stories linking themselves to the brand can form meaningful self-brand connections. To test this, I manipulated the text in a print ad for running shoes. The three conditions resulted in three distinct levels of narratively structured thought in response to the ad. Text inviting subjects to imagine themselves running in the shoe evoked the most narrative thought, followed by a third person story about the shoe, followed by an analytical, feature-focused text.

The results of the study show that the more narratively structured consumers’ thoughts were in response to the running shoe ad the stronger their meaningful self-brand connections to the fictitious shoe brand. As narrative thought increased, so did attitude towards the ad, attitude towards the brand, and a combined measure of behavioral intentions (willingness to try on the shoe, willingness to pay for the shoe, and purchase intentions). Meaningful self-brand connections mediated the effect of narrative thought on brand attitudes and intentions.

Meaningful self-brand connections are built by linking the brand to the self. Thus I hypothesize that for subjects with a relevant, well-developed aspect of self (in this case a "runner" aspect of self), narratively structured thought will enhance meaningful connections more than for subjects who are not runners. The study results support this assertion. Finally, narrative thought has been linked to our experiences of emotion. Therefore, as narrative thought increases, emotional responses to the print ad should also be enhanced. Again, the study results support this hypothesis: narrative thought positively affected upbeat and warm feelings, and negatively affected disinterested feelings.

In conclusion, it appears that marketers may be able to enhance the formation of meaningful connections between their brands and targeted consumers through the use of advertising that encourages narratively structured thought. Meaningful connections are in turn related to many favorable outcome measures of interest to marketers.



Kent Grayson, London Business School

From Aesop’s fables to Sesame Street; from the Bible’s allegories to modern cinema, stories have long been tools of persuasion. Kenneth Burke (1945, 1966) has written extensively in support of this proposition, and some consumer researchers (Deighton, Romer, and McQueen 1989; Stern 1995; Wells 1988) have begun to examine the strategies and mechanisms of narrative persuasion. To further enhance our understanding of narratives and consumer behavior, this presentation examines the stories used by direct sales agents as part of their sales repertoire. In particular, this research focuses on the strategies used to achieve verisimilitude in narratives. Previous research (Deighton, Romer and McQueen 1989) has suggested that verisimilitude is essential in narrative-oriented (as opposed to argument-oriented) persuasion. Network marketing (a type of direct selling - see Grayson 1996) is a particularly appropriate arena for studying commercial narratives because it often involves high-energy recruitment meetings, where top salespeople literally go on stage to tell their success stories. Sales agents are also encouraged to "tell your story" as part of their one-on-one sales presentations (Clothier 1994).

The research project is divided into two parts. First, a number of sales narratives were transcribed and examined using a combination of functional and structural narrative analysis (e.g., Labov and Waletzky 1967, Propp 1928). Coders were asked to examine the stories and to categorize them on a variety of dimensions. The coding resulted in low agreement among coders on many of these dimensions, but had high reliability in their assessment that the stories tended to follow the structure of a "transformation narrative." In the Labov and Waletzky (1967) terminology, a complicating action is brought to resolution by a company productCor by involvement as a company sales agentCand as a result, the narrator’s life or identity is changed.

In the second part of the research, direct sales agents were asked to comment on the persuasive (in)efficacy of transformation narratives, paying particular focus to why transformation narratives might be useful in achieving verisimilitude in persuasion. The goal was to develop a narrative "persuasion knowledge model" (Freistadt and Wright 1995) that helps to account for the potential persuasive impact of commercial narratives. To the distributors interviewed, narratives achieve verisimilitude because tey are a true reflection of what "really happened."

This view of narratives is a simplified version of that presented by Ricoeur (1983), whereby narratives are the most appropriate way in which human beings can describe and understand the passage of events. By this persuasion knowledge model, network marketing narratives achieve verisimilitude because they are a reflection of actual happenings in distributors’ lives. However, this model does not recognize - as Ricoeur’s (1983) does, along with Scholes (1980), Schechner (1985), Bauman (1986) and others - that the "causality" may go in the other direction: The structure of narratives may help us to organize our understanding of events, rather than the events structuring the narratives.

The findings from this research prompt the need for further research of a longitudinal nature. If events structure narratives, then it is likely that narratives should be relatively invariant over a the career of a network marketing distributor. However, if narratives structure one’s understanding of events, then the narratives (and the distributor’s memory of the events) may change over time.



Barbara Stern, Rutgers University

This presentation aims at breaking the narrative box altogether by attacking the notion that a consumer research story is unitary and integrated. A consumer narrative is not a monolothic box into which prose is stuffed, but is instead multi-level and fragmented. This complexity is especially acute in postmodern research, which seeks to represent consumers’ voices directly by means of verbatims drawn from focus groups or individual interviews and observations. Thus, at least two different sets of narrative accounts co-exist: one produced by the consumer informant and another by the researcher. Fusing the layers into one obscures "relationships between author, narrator(s), characters, and audience" (Lanser 1981, p. 26).

This presentation uses narrative data in published consumer interviews to illustrate the unique difficulties that these complex data present to researchers, and suggests potential approaches for handling these difficulties. Three challenges are highlighted and illustrated: defining the construct of consumer narratives, handling what is not said, and addressing the truth value of narratives.

Construct Definition. Because we are all familiar with stories and story-telling, the term "narrative" appears to be "so natural, so universal, and so easily mastered as hardly to seem a problematic region" (Miller 1990, p. 66). Nonetheless, the conflict-ridden body of literary theory indicates that no definition can be taken for granted. Further, none fits consumer research accounts with double narration (researcher/author and consumer/character). The challenge in consumer research is to develop a coherent narratology capable of increasing our understanding of both the what and the way of research stories.

Handling Silence. Narratives represent presence-what the narrator says to the narratee about the narrated eventsCas distinct from absence-"what is not said, what is not shown, what points of view or narrative possibilities are not present, who does not speak or see" (Lanser 1981, p. 341). This raises the dynamic of dominance/subordination, for those who do not speak are as relevant to the story as those who do speak (Lanser 1981). Feminist, Marxist, and minority theory deals with the political implications of marginalizationCmuting or disappearing some voices at the expense of othersCthat permeate consumer research as well as other disciplines.

Addressing Narrative Truth. The third problem is one of "truth" versus "fiction." Narrative describes the recounting of events that really happened (history, biography, social science) as well as those that are invented. Despite the fact that al stories are "made" or crafted in the sense that they impose order on a welter of experiences, research accounts are assumed to be representations of "things that really happened exactly as they really happened" (Miller 1990, p. 68) rather than crafted objects. Thus, the construct of narrative is problematized by multidimensionality, patterns of exclusion, and permeable borders between stories that are true fictions and/or fictionalized truths.

The imperfect fit between narratological theory and consumer research data does not imply that literary theory is inapplicable to non-literary material. Rather, storytelling is considered a cultural staple, universally engaged in by all known communities, including the scholarly one. What the gap between data and theory suggests is that we need to break out of unitary thinking and define narrative in context-specific terms, such that commonalities among research stories and typological differences between them come clear. A relevant classification system can contribute to clarification of postmodern research modes by specifying attributes and combinations characteristic of one type or another. The narratological lens can be used to pull what is now blurry into clearer focus, enabling better criteria for research representations.



Susan Spiggle (Session Synthesizer), The University of Connecticut

Narrative theory provides us with a framework for enhancing interpretation and re-presenting our interpretations to others. The three papers in this session link persuasion processes with narrative constructions. They do so in three different ways. Escalas’ model of the persuasion process presents narratives as consumer cognitive and affective representations in response to marketing stimuli (ads). The narrative intervenes between the marketing stimuli and behavioral and purchase intentions. Here the narrative serves as a structure for connections between the advertised brand and the self. This representation of mental structure is an alternative to the semantic networks model where nodes form connections with others in a reticular structure. As Escalas implies, narratives impose or permit a particular way of organizing meanings-story-like, situated in time and space, with characters, motives, and other narrative elements. Escalas’ insight is to suggest the role of narrative thought in shaping receiver effects through brand-self linkages.

Grayson proposes narrative-story-telling as a persuasive communication device in network marketing. He notes that these commercial narratives attempt to persuade through verisimilitude, as opposed to argument, and operate by structuring sequences of events. Grayson’s insight is his recognition of the potential persuasive power of narrative as a marketing stimulus. Stern addresses the issue of transforming consumer narratives-consumer voices-into research narratives-journal articles. We encounter, even here, how narrative operates in persuasion. Stern’s insight is her use of narrative to address the problem of re-presentation-how the consumer’s voice is re-presented through the author’s voice-how researchers persuade readers of their point of view. Grayson and Stern both focus upon how narrators invoke "truth" through narrative structure.

The juxtaposition of these authors’ works raises an interesting issue. In each proposed persuasive chain-marketing stimulus, narrative response, intentions, outcomes (Escalas); narrative (as marketing stimulus), potential recruit response (Grayson), and consumer narrative, consumer researcher narrative, reader (Stern)-the narrative plays a different, but persuasive role and requires us to understand narrative or textual transformations. An important question arises: can we identify rules whereby narrative transformations occur? How does advertising text transform consumer mental responses into brand connections? How do network marketers transform teir personal experiences into a shared text? How do consumer researchers transform consumer narratives into a coherent research narrative?

Ruling out alternative explanations remains a challenge to interpretive consumer research. The prevailing interpretive view holds that multiple (valid) interpretations of a text can and do exist. One might argue that some interpretations are more valid, or better than others. The specification of rules of textual transformation from narrative theory might provide guidance for this issue.


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