Special Session Summary Consumers and Brand Meaning: Brands, the Self and Others

Albert M. Muniz, Jr., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
[ to cite ]:
Albert M. Muniz (1997) ,"Special Session Summary Consumers and Brand Meaning: Brands, the Self and Others", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 308-309.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 308-309



Albert M. Muniz, Jr., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


This session was strongly integrated around the theme of brand meaning. Brands are complex social entities. Yet little is understood about the social processes surrounding the creation of brand meaning. The papers presented in this session examined the important and pervasive role that brands have in the social fabric of consumers’ lives, as well as the processes surrounding the development of brand meaning, influences on this meaning development and consumer uses of brand meaning. Drawing from multiple theoretical perspectives (self-concept, symbolic interaction, community)and methodological orientations (informant narratives, depth interviews, participant observation, artifactual analysis, photo-elicitation/autodriving) the authors provided empirical evidence of the multiple ways in which consumers ascribe meaning to brands. These processes include: the symbolic interpretation of brand-related information, community-based negotiation of brand-related information, and the construction of personal narratives based on experiences with the brand.



Jennifer E. Chang

A consumer’s preference for a certain brand often depends on what it "means" to that consumer (e.g., Levy 1959; Reynolds and Gutman 1984). While seemingly straightforward, the actual process of developing a brand’s meaning is complex and dynamic due to the multitude of brand-related symbols with which a consumer interacts over time. While the nuances of this process have been discussed conceptually (Levy 1959; 1978), they have remained largely unexplored empirically. Moreover, with a few exceptions (e.g., Richins 1994; Solomon 1983), studies to date have focused on the impact of a single influence on brand/product meaning or image (e.g., Kotler 1973-74 on store atmospherics impacting brand image; Olsen 1995 on kinship relations impacting brand meaning). This paper, using qualitative methodology, empirically examined the multiple symbols and intricate processes by which brand meanings are developed. In particular, it was demonstrated that symbols from both public and private influences interact and ultimately impact the consumer’s development of brand meaning.

This research draws from sociological and social psychological theories of symbolic interactionism. These theories suggest that an individual is always surrounded by an environment of interpretable symbols. Interactions with such symbols continually define and redefine the meaning of objects over time (Blumer 1969; Mead 1934). Translated into the marketing context, the consumer formulates the meaning of a brand through a rich negotiative process of symbolic interpretation. For instance, packaging symbolizes the brand through shape, size, and color, just as the kinds of consumption experiences (e.g., outdoors, among certain people) characterize other dimensions of the brand’s meaning. The integration of such symbols provides a more complete picture of the meaning than considering symbols in isolation.

To understand empirically how consumers give brands meanings, participant-observation, artifactual analysis, and photo elicitation techniques were used within the dinner context. The understanding of a consumer’s symbolic encounters in both real time (e.g., actual brand usage) and through reflection (using photos to elicit information) help define a framework with the richness and depth that can account for the process of meaning development. The data thus far have helped define an emerging framework. For example, in understanding Snapple’s meaning to particular consumers, both marketer-driven public sources of meaning and idiosyncratic private sources of meaning are evident. The former include advertisements (e.g., "Made from the best stuff on earth"), product placements (e.g., Seinfeld cast gossiping and swigging), earthy packaging and store atmospherics. Such sources of meaning are symbols of the brand, as are their constituents (e.g., props, actors, color). The latter include kinship relations (e.g., brand as a family totem), and phases of the consumption experience (e.g., displaying Snapple bottles on kitchen shelves). As suggested, the interplay between the symbols adds dimensions to the brand’s meaning. Over time, new symbols (e.g., changes in social groups) reinforce or alter the meaning(s) established. The framework and theories also afford subsequent investigations of when public versus private are more salient in defining "what a brand means".



Albert M. Muniz, Jr.

Brands attach meaning to a good. This may be the most important function of branding as it allows marketers to differentiate otherwise identical products. However, consumers do not simply accept the brand as presented by marketers in toto. Consumers, in social groupings, play an important role in the creation of brand meaning. While the field has recognized this, little attention has been paid to the processes surrounding this meaning creation. This paper presented results from an ethnographic study that examined how consumers, as members of brand communities, negotiate the meaning of brands. Data from personal interviews and World Wide Web "home pages" revealed four processes by which members of brand communities socially negotiate brand meaning: recognizing the community aspect of the brand, sharing personal experiences with the brand, emphasizing aspects of brand meaning, and rejecting aspects of brand meaning.

Sociologists have long recognized the role that others play in the creation of knowledge (Berger and Luckman 1966) and meaning (Anderson and Meyer 1988). Consumers, in social groupings, and through social processes regularly create, maintain and "reinvent" brands, just as they do any piece of information. Moreover, specific groups of consumers adhere to certain, fixed, interpretive strategies. These strategies guide the interpretation of any piece of information (Iser 1980; Fish 1980; Radway 1984). Muniz and O’Guinn (1995) suggested that communities coalesce around certain brands. These "brand communities" share many characteristics with communities as they have traditionally been defined by sociologists (Gussfield 1975; Tonnies 1957) and subsequently, may influence the construction of brand meaning.

Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted to examine the processes by which members of brand communities create meaning for brands. This fieldwork was conducted in two distinct settings. First, members of households from two neighborhoods in a medium-sized Midwestern town were interviewed and observed regarding their experiences with brands and other consumers over a six-month period. This approach provided insight into the ways that brand communities are manifest in the "everyday" lives of consumers. Second, the content of consumer-created home pages devoted to several brands were downloaded and analyzed. The World Wide Web was chosen as this medium allows consumers the ability to form cohesive communities that transcend geographic limitations. Analysis of this data demonstrates the important role that groups play in the creation of brand meaning. Four processes by which members of brand communities socially construct brand meaning were encountered: recognizing the community aspect of the brand, sharing personal experiences with the brand, emphasizing aspects of the brand’s meaning and rejecting aspects of the brand’s meaning. The pervasiveness of these phenomena suggest that what the consumer does with the brand is at least as important as the variables manipulated by marketers in the production of brand meaning.



Jennifer Edson Escalas

Consumers value products and brands for different reasons. One reason may be for a product’s instrumental features or attributes, which provide tangible benefits (e.g., cars provide transportation and salt adds flavor to food). A second major reason is that sometimes consumers form a special, meaningful connection with products or brands, so that these products come to signify more than just the sum of their features. These brands may take on symbolic meaning, represent who one is or wants to be, communicate some aspect of self to others, and become significantly related to consumers’ mental representations of self (e.g., Belk 1988; Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; McCracken 1986; Ball and Tasaki 1992; Richins 1994; Kleine, Kleine, and Allen 1995). Meaningful self-brand connections are conceptualized to represent this type of bond between consumers and brands. In order to measure meaningful connections, a ten item scale was developed. The steps taken to create this scale were presented, along with experimental evidence of its reliability, convergent validity, and nomological validity.

While the meaningful self-brand connection scale attempts to measure brands that are symbolically significant to consumers’ self-concepts, little is known about the processes by which brands become meaningful in the first place. On a broader scale, people make sense of their lives via narrative thought (e.g., Bruner 1986, 1990; Gergen & Gergen 1988; Polkinghorne 1991). Through the structure of narrative thought, specifically spatio-temporal dimensionality and causal inferences, people organize their experiences, understand others, and create their own identities. In the realm of consumer behavior, consumers construct narratives involving brands. These narratives create meaning and build a connection between the brand and the consumer’s self-concept. These stories may arise spontaneously in response to a product usage situation, or may be encouraged and influenced by marketing communications, such as through the use of drama ads that tell a story.

Given that consumers create meaning through narratives, 122 consumer stories about product experiences over a range of meaningful self-brand connection scores were gathered and analyzed, to obtain qualitative support for the meaningful self-brand connection scale. The results are encouraging. Consumers with strong, positive meaningful self-brand connections wrote stories that included themes of the brand having a congruent image with their own self-concept, connections to important people in their ives, and expressed affection towards the brand. Consumers with strong, negative meaningful self-brand connections wrote stories that included themes of the brand representing an aspect of themselves that they didn’t want to be a part of them (for example, who they were at an earlier stage in their lives; unwanted gifts; and rejection of the type of person who was the prototypical user of the brand). Consumers lacking in meaningful connections with the brands wrote about positive and negative product features and wrote shorter, less well-developed stories. Furthermore, these stories make reference to advertising campaigns and brand spokespeople, providing some indication of how marketing communications influence personal brand experiences and meaning.



John F. Sherry, Jr.

The need for consumer-centered understandings of brand image cannot be overstated. Many believe that business schools have become experts at producing MBAs-Murderers of Brand Associations. Business students and academic researchers need to pay more attention to what consumers do with brands. Frequently, the actions of consumers are just as important as those of marketers in determining a brand’s image. The papers presented in this session represent the first steps in increasing our understandings of these consumer-generated processes.