An Investigation of Some Determinants of Brand Commitment

Utpal M. Dholakia, University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - The construct of brand commitment has been extensively examined in the consumer behavior literature but previous research has found conflicting and confusing relationships between perceived risk, enduring importance and brand commitment. Using consistent definitions of these constructs, this article investigates the relationship of brand commitment with perceived risk and enduring importance. An empirical study shows some evidence of a negative relationship between brand commitment and perceived risk, and stronger evidence of a negative relationship between brand commitment and enduring importance, challenging some existing notions. Existing research on consumer expertise and collecting behavior is useful in explaining this result. Some implications for advertising strategy are provided and several avenues for further research are suggested to build on this study.
[ to cite ]:
Utpal M. Dholakia (1997) ,"An Investigation of Some Determinants of Brand Commitment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 381-387.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 381-387

AN INVESTIGATION OF SOME DETERMINANTS OF BRAND COMMITMENT

Utpal M. Dholakia, University of Michigan

ABSTRACT -

The construct of brand commitment has been extensively examined in the consumer behavior literature but previous research has found conflicting and confusing relationships between perceived risk, enduring importance and brand commitment. Using consistent definitions of these constructs, this article investigates the relationship of brand commitment with perceived risk and enduring importance. An empirical study shows some evidence of a negative relationship between brand commitment and perceived risk, and stronger evidence of a negative relationship between brand commitment and enduring importance, challenging some existing notions. Existing research on consumer expertise and collecting behavior is useful in explaining this result. Some implications for advertising strategy are provided and several avenues for further research are suggested to build on this study.

INTRODUCTION

The concept of brand commitment is related to the loyalty of consumers toward a particular brand in a product class and is gaining increasing importance in consumer behavior (Martin & Goodell, 1991). One reaso for this increased importance is the recognition that brand commitment includes both a behavioral dimension (consistency of purchase) and an attitudinal dimension, in contrast to the one-dimensional nature of repeat-purchase behavior which is often used to characterize brand loyalty. A second reason is the current recognition of the beneficial and profitable nature of loyal customers to the firm (Reichheld, 1996).

There are multiple conceptualizations of commitment in the consumer behavior literature. At the brand level, commitment has been thought of as brand loyalty (Martin & Goodell, 1991) and represents one of the most researched areas in consumer behavior (Muncy & Hunt, 1984). Other approaches have defined it as a component of product involvement (Lastovicka & Gardner, 1977). Empirical studies have also examined the antecedents and consequences of brand commitment (e.g., Beatty, Kahle & Homer, 1988) but its relationship with other consumer behavior constructs like product importance and perceived risk is not clear (Jacoby & Chestnut, 1978). The objective of the present study is to add to this body of empirical research and examine the influence of perceived risk and enduring importance on brand commitment. A review of these constructs is presented from extant literature and hypotheses relating perceived risk and enduring importance to brand commitment are derived. An empirical study is carried out using multiple product classes and results are presented. Some explanations based on research on consumer expertise and collecting are provided for the findings.

BRAND COMMITMENT

Early conceptualizations of commitment in marketing equated it with brand loyalty and defined it in terms of the consistency of purchasing a specific brand (Engel & Blackwell, 1982). These conceptualizations followed from sociology where commitment was viewed as a consistent line of behavior by an individual, maintained even when faced with alternative or competing behavior choices (Becker, 1960). Thus brand commitment was viewed as a behavioral phenomenon and commonly defined in empirical studies as "the proportion of total purchases within a given product category devoted to the most frequently purchased brand"(Jacoby & Chestnut, 1978, p. 35). However, later on, this was recognized to be a narrow outlook not considering the reasons underlying the frequency of brand purchase.

As a result, later definitions expanded the scope of commitment by including attitudinal aspects of the construct. For example, in sociology, Johnson (1973) defined commitment as "the extent to which an action is dedicated to the completion of a line of action." In marketing, this attitudinal nature implies that the greater the commitment of an individual to a brand, the more firmly fixed is the brand as the only choice within the product class (Traylor, 1981). Using this perspective, emphasis is placed on both cognitive and affective components of the construct. Measurement is based on purchase intentions and purchase preferences rather than on actual purchases. In the present study, brand commitment is conceptualized as an attitudinal construct and is defined as "the pledging or binding of an individual to his/her brand choice within a product class" (Lastovicka & Gardner, 1977). It must be noted therefore that brand commitment though pertaining to brands, is defined as a construct at the level of the product class, i.e., consumers are conceptualized to have different levels of brand commitment for different product classes.

Empirical research has studied the antecedents of brand commitment including personality characteristics like self-confidence (Day, 1969) and susceptibility to reference group influence as well as store loyalty (Carman, 1970) but its connections with other consumer behavior constructs are tenuous.

PERCEIED RISK

Perceived risk is conceptualized as arising from unanticipated and uncertain consequences of an unpleasant nature resulting from the product purchase (Bauer, 1960). In consumer behavior, risk is conceptualized in terms of loss (Dowling, 1986) and thought to arise only from potentially negative outcomes, in contrast to other disciplines like psychology where both positive and negative outcomes are considered.

Bettman’s (1973) distinction between inherent risk and handled risk identifies perceived risk as a product-class specific construct, i.e. different product classes have different levels of inherent and handled risk associated with them. The inherent risk refers to the aspects of risk in the product class that are temporally stable while the handled risk pertains to the more situational aspects of the product class. In this study, perceived risk is conceptualized as stable, product-class specific and unique to an individual. In other words, an individual perceives each product class to have specific levels of risk associated with it and these levels for a product class are different for different individuals. In this study, perceived risk is defined as "the subjective expectation of losses" resulting from the purchase and use of products from the product class. This definition is consistent with definitions used in previous studies (e.g., Peter & Ryan, 1976).

Previous research has identified several distinct dimensions within the overall perceived risk for a product class (Kaplan et. al., 1974; Roselius, 1971). The risk taxonomy arising from these studies and consisting of six dimensions is widely accepted as relevant to explaining perceived risk and is presented in Exhibit 1.

ENDURING IMPORTANCE

The notion of product importance is central to consumer behavior and the idea that consumers consider different product classes to be of differing importance is widely accepted in consumer behavior (Hupfer & Gardner, 1971). This construct is analogous to the well-researched construct of product involvement which is defined as "the extent to which a consumer links a product to salient enduring or situation-specific goals" (Laaksonnen, 1994) and has been found to influence consumer decision processes, post-decision processes and response to marketing communications (Bloch & Richins, 1983).

EXHIBIT 1

CATEGORIES OF LOSS CONTRIBUTING TO PERCEIVED RISK

This definition makes a distinction between situational importance, which is evoked by a particular purchase situation and enduring importance which is related to the emotional and personal aspects of the individual and represents a more stable attitude (Richins et al., 1992). In the present study, the focus is on this type of enduring importance since this is most appropriate when referring to a product class and also facilitates comparability with other constructs. As a result, enduring importance is defined as "a long-term, cross-situational perception of product importance based on the strength of the product’s relationship to central needs and values of the consumer" (Bloch & Richins, 1983, p. 72). The emphasis of this importance is on the product itself and the value or need satisfaction derived from owning, using and consuming the product (Richins et al., 1992) and is not connected to the temporal and situation-specific process of brand choice. This importance is thus determined by the stable elements of the individual’s identity and is therefore stable and long-lasting in nature.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PERCEIVED RISK AND COMMITMENT

Early risk researchers posited a positive relationship between perceived risk and commitment by characteizing brand commitment as a strategy to control or avoid the perceived risk in purchasing an untried or unfamiliar brand (Bauer, 1967). Using this rationale, brand commitment is essentially a risk-reduction strategy (Derbaix, 1983). Empirical studies supporting this relationship show that stock-out of favored brands results in the selection of other sizes or varieties of the same brand or delay of purchase when the perceived risk associated with the product class is high (Emmelhainz et al, 1991). A recently formulated product-typology characterizes high-commitment products as those infrequently purchased and having negative consequences of wrong decisions associated with them (Martin & Goodell, 1991), thus favoring a positive relationship between the two constructs.

However, empirical research also shows that the level of perceived risk is commonly cited as an important reason for switching brands by consumers (Cunningham, 1967). Thus, consumers with low perceived risk switch to other brands because of curiosity while high-risk consumers switch in search of better brands. In related work, empirical studies show that increased perceived risk results in increased search for attribute-based information about different brands (Capon & Burke, 1980). Review of extant literature thus reveals conflicting findings about the relationship between perceived risk and brand commitment though there is greater support for a positive relationship.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRODUCT IMPORTANCE AND COMMITMENT

The close links between product importance and brand commitment can be found in numerous studies relating product involvement to brand commitment. The resulting conclusions from this area are however, often confusing and conflicting. The similarity between the two constructs is highlighted by the use of Krugman’s (1965) notion of low-involvement to explain low-commitment consumer-behavior (Robertson, 1976). Other authors have distinguished between the two constructs by defining commitment as referring to a particular position or stance, generally positive, with respect to a brand, and involvement as the general level of interest or concern in a product category without reference to a specific position (Zaltman & Wallendorf, 1983). Yet other authors have identified commitment as one component of product involvement (Lastovicka & Gardner, 1977).

Several consumer researchers have implied that increased product involvement results in brand commitment. Tyebjee (1977) suggests that consumers demonstrate more unstable behavior, characterized by low brand loyalty and greater variety-seeking when dealing with low-involvement products. Lastovicka & Gardner (1977) make the same argument claiming that consumers with low product involvement think of the product class as trivial and have "little bond" to their choice. One empirical study found the level of involvement to determine its relationship to brand commitment (Traylor, 1981). Low-involvement products showed a positive relationship to brand commitment while high-involvement products showed no relationship. Another study found brand commitment to result from purchase involvement (Beatty et al., 1988). A third empirical study however found a strong connection between a consumer’s enduring involvement in a product class and the propensity to engage in on-going information gathering about the product class (Bloch et al., 1986). This suggests that the consumer’s knowledge about the different brands in the product class is likely to be high in such cases, resulting in lower brand commitment. Thus, review of earlier work suggests that though the two constructs are closely related, commitment does not necessarily follow from product importance nor can it be accepted as a dimension of the importance construct.

HYPOTHESES

Work in sociology recognizes that consistency of behavior is positively related to the number and strength of the "valuables" or "exit barriers" that an individual has accumulated (Becker, 1960). These valuables are called "side bets." This notion has great relevance in relating the constructs of perceived risk and brand commitment. Perceived risk is generally associated with losses occurring in one or more of the loss categories in Exhibit 1. For a product class with high levels of overall perceived risk, the "valuables" or the "exit barriers" accumulated when the individual interacts with a product class will be high. The person will prefer to purchase the same brand or one of a few acceptable brands within the product class and as a result, the commitment to the product class for the individual will be high.

For example, buying a car is a significant investment and is generally associated with high levels of perceived risk (e.g., physical loss from an accident, social loss from disapproval of friends, performance loss from bad functioning etc.). In such a case, the individual is likely to have high exit barriers and would prefer to buy the same brand (e.g. a Ford) every time or one of a few select brands (e.g., one or more Ford, GM or Toyota). Using this reasoning, the following hypotheses can be stated:

Hypothesis 1: Overall perceived risk will be positively related to brand commitment for the product class.

Hypothesis 2: The six categories of risk will be positively related to brand commitment for the product class.

Enduring importance for a product is felt when the product is related to central needs and values of the individual. In such cases, the importance for the product class arises from the inherent ability of the product to satisfy the consumers’ intrinsic needs and while specific purchase and usage goals may increase the importance level still further, temporarily during purchase, these are not essential to the inherent importance of the product class to the consumer (Bloch & Richins, 1983). This perception of enduring importance or personal relevance is likely to translate into strong cognitive and affective associations with one or a few particular brands within the product class. For example, a wine connoisseur with very high enduring importance for wines is likely to favor certain particular brands of wines strongly, particularly those which have favorable past associations for him/her. As a result, he/she is likely to buy and consume the same brands repeatedly. Thus, brand commitment is likely to be high for such individuals for that particular product class.

Alternatively, for products with low enduring importance, few consumers are likely to exhibit loyalty. In cases where there is low situational importance and little differentiation among the brands within the product category (e.g., salt or other commodity-like products), the consumers are likely to have many brands within their evoked set (Martin & Goodell, 1991). Alternatively, for low enduring importance product classes where there is considerable instrumental involvement because of various situational factors, the consumers are likely to search extensively and pick from a large number of brands. Thus, in both cases, brand commitment is likely to be less.

This argument can also be justified within the framework of social judgment theory (Sherif & Cantril, 1947). Greater enduring importance is associated with narrower latitudes of acceptance and non-commitment and wider latitudes of rejection in this theory. As a result, assuming that the different brands are randomly located within the whole domain of the consumer’s preferences, greater enduring importance is likely to result in fewer aceptable brands and consequently, greater brand commitment. On the basis of this reasoning, the following hypothesis can be stated: commitment [The questionnaire used in the study can be obtained from the author on request.].

Hypothesis 3: Enduring importance will be positively related to brand commitment for the product class.

These hypotheses provide a framework for conceptualizing the relationship of brand commitment with both perceived risk and enduring importance at the level of the product class.

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

To examine the preceding hypotheses, primary data were collected because of the lack of appropriate secondary data availability. The data were collected using electronic-mail, possible due to recent advances in technology and rapid proliferation of this facility. Electronic-mail (e-mail) uses computer text-editing and communication tools to provide high-speed message service over the Internet. Some important characteristics of e-mail which make it an attractive data- collection device for consumer research are speed of response, reduced costs of sending and receiving surveys, possibility of asynchronous communication between the researcher and the respondent(s) and the absence of intermediaries (Sproull, 1986).

Measurement

Standard scales were used to measure the constructs of perceived risk, enduring importance and brand. This gave assurance of previously tested validity and reliability and reduced the time for questionnaire construction and pre-testing. While early studies of perceived risk relied on single measures for each risk dimension, later studies favor the use of multiple measures for each dimension (Stone & Gr÷nhaug, 1993). For the present study, each risk dimension was measured using multiple items and separate measures were used for the measurement of the overall risk. The scale used was similar to that used by Stone & Gr÷nhaug (1993).

Items from the Components of Involvement (CI) scale (Lastovicka and Gardner, 1979) were used to measure enduring importance and brand commitment. Items pertaining to using the product for self-expression, attaining an ideal type of life etc. were used to measure enduring importance while brand commitment was measured using items evaluating the adherence to a particular brand under different circumstances. The constructs were measured at the level of the product class and the items chosen could be applied across product classes since the CI scale is not product-specific. Previous work has shown these items to have adequate levels of content, convergent and discriminant validity (Lastovicka & Gardner, 1979, Jensen et al., 1988).

Products

Several different product classes were chosen to incorporate heterogeneity in terms of different levels of felt risk as well as enduring importance. A pre-test was carried out in which thirteen subjects, all graduate students, were asked to rate several different products on the dimensions of importance and cost. Four products were chosen on the basis of these evaluations, to allow the hypotheses to be tested for different levels of risk and importance. The product classes chosen included laptop computer, color television, greeting card for spouse’s or friend’s birthday and can of soup.

TABLE 1

REGRESSION MODELS FOR OVERALL PERCEIVED RISK

Data Collection

The data collection was carried out using a three-stage procedure. In the first stae, forty mailing lists were randomly chosen from all the listserv mailing lists [Mailing lists are groups of people sharing some common interests and communicating with each other by e-mail. A message sent to the mailing lest server is distributed to all subscribed members of the mailing list.]. In the second stage, in accordance with "netiquette," letters were sent to list-owners asking permission to post a short solicitation message on the list. Messages requesting list members interested in filling out surveys to respond along with a brief description of the study were sent to the 27 lists whose owners gave permission. Seventy-eight responses were received. In the third stage, entire surveys were sent to these respondents resulting in seventy-two completed surveys. The response rate [This response rate is not comparable to the conventional response rate reported for mail or telephone surveys since only people soliciting the questionnaire are considered as potential respondents.] was 92.3%.

Respondent Characteristics

The respondents were almost equally distributed by gender. Of the 72 respondents, 38 (52.8%) were male and 34 (47.2%) female. The mean annual family income was $54,970 and the mean age was 34.7 years. The respondents belonged to several occupational categories, the major ones being 40 (55.56%) professionals, 17 (23.61%) graduate students and 10 (13.89%) faculty. No claim of representativeness is made for the sample used in the study because of the fairly homogeneous, high socio-economic status of the respondents. But since the research goal is synonymous to Calder et al.’s (1981) theory testing, the sample is appropriate for the present study.

FINDINGS

To test hypothesis 1, regressions were carried out with overall perceived risk as the independent variable. Table 1 lists the standardized regression coefficients for the "all products" model which included all four products as well as for the four individual product classes.

While regression coefficients for all models except the can of soup are negative, the p-values in table 1 indicate that the regression coefficient is significant only for laptop computer at the (=0.05 level of significance. As a result, the analysis indicates that brand commitment decreases as overall perceived risk increases for laptop computer while no relationship is found for other product classes. Thus in general, support is not found for hypothesis 1 and there is some evidence to suggest that an opposite relationship may exist.

Hypothesis 2 was tested by obtaining models with the six dimensions of risk as the independent variables with brand commitment as the dependent variable. Because many coefficients were not significant, a step-wise procedure using a cut-off value of (=0.05 was used to obtain parsimonious models in each case. The results from this step-wise regression procedure for the all-product as well as for the four individual products are provided in table 2.

Social risk is found to be a highly significant predictor of brand commitment for the "all-product" model. Financial risk predicts brand commitment for the product class of laptop computers while psychological risk is important in predicting brand commitment for color televisions. It is interesting to note that different dimensions of perceived risk play a role in predicting the brand commitment for different product classes. In general, brand commitment is found to decrease as the level of the risk component increases, contrary to expectations. Thus, support is not found for hypothesis 2. In general, the conclusion drawn is that the analysis provides some evidence of reduction in brand commitment as the level of perceived risk increases.

To test hypothesis 3, regression models were run with enduring importance as the independent variable. Table 3 presents the models for all products as well as for individual product classes. The enduring importance coefficient is negative for all models and significant for the "all products" model as well as for the laptop computer. In general for all products, brand commitment decreases as the level of enduring importance for the product class increases. This is contrary to the relationship predicted in hypothesis 3. As a result, hypothesis 3 must be rejected. Interaction models including the overall risk, enduring importance and the interaction term were also run for all five cases. The interaction term was not found to be significant in any of the models, suggesting that overall risk and enduring importance do not impact each other’s effect on brand commitment.

TABLE 2

STEP-WISE MULTIPLE REGRESSIONS WITH SIX RISK DIMENSIONS

TABLE 3

REGRESSION MODELS FOR ENDURING IMPORTANCE

DISCUSSION

In general, the results suggest that greater levels of perceived risk and enduring importance result in lower brand commitment. These results challenge some of the existing notions about brand commitment and also suggest the need for additional work. In general, support is not found for the argument of brand commitment as a risk reduction strategy in the face of high levels of perceived risk. On the contrary, the findings suggest that when the product class is perceived as having high overall risk, consumers search for more information and include more brands within their consideration set. This is consistent with Capon and Burke’s (1980) finding that greater perceived risk results in greater attribute-based processing about different brands. In contrast, consumers are more likely to be loyal to one or a few brands when the risk associated with the product-class is low. This has significant implications for advertising strategy, suggesting that for high perceived-risk products, companies should focus on providing price reductions, sales and other promotions, and use comparative advertising to emphasize advantages of the company’s brand over competitors. This finding therefore provides support to the strategies commonly adopted by furniture retailers, mattress manufacturers etc., of frequent promotions and comparative advertising. In contrast, companies marketing low perceived-risk products should focus on high repetition of the advertising message to reinforce brand efficacy without mention of specific competitors.

While this study has evaluated the overall perceived risk and its dimensions from a "degree of risk" context, the differential impact of the severity of adverse consequences and the probability of adverse consequences on brand commitment is not clear. Future studies must address this issue to better understand the relationship between perceived risk and brand commitment.

Another surprising and non-intuitive finding of the study is that normative or enduring importance for a product class is negatively related to the level of brand commitment felt for the product. In essence, when a product class is intimately linked to a person’s goals, values and motives (self-knowledge), he/she is found to be less loyal to one or a few brands within that product class. Conceptual and empirical work on consumer expertise is useful in providing an explanation for this finding. High enduring importance with the product class is generally associated with greater consumer expertise, i.e., "ability to perform product-related tasks successfully" (Alba & Hutchinson, 1987). In their scale-development procedure, Lastovicka & Gardner (1979) find product familiarity to be one dimension of product involvement. Work on cognitive product structures of expert consumers suggests that the category structure is more veridical, complex and less stereotyped for experts than for novices (Adelson, 1984; Murphy & Wright, 1984), allowing more brands to be included within the consumer’s evoked set. Experts are aware of both prototypical and atypical brands within the product class in contrast to novice consumers who know only prototypical brands (Nenungadi & Hutchinson, 1985). In a recent empirical study, Johnson and Lehmann (1996) found that as consumer expertise grows, consideration sets become larger through the assimilation of relatively atypical alternatives into a set of more prototypical alternatives. Further, empirical work suggests that experts tend to cluster brands together in memory sothat all brands are recalled together when needed (Hutchinson, 1983). These characteristics of experts suggest that consumers with high enduring importance and expertise are likely to have larger consideration and evoked sets and consequently exhibit lower commitment to one or more brands. Thus, conceptualizing high-enduring importance consumers as experts, an explanation is found for the apparently anomalous finding. The natural extension to this research is verifying this conceptual link between high enduring importance and consumer expertise empirically.

Research on collecting behavior of consumers also helps to explain this relationship in certain contexts. While collecting is specialized and limited to some high enduring-importance consumers, it results in gathering objects belonging to a particular product category, where the entire set or collection of objects has an extraordinary meaning and intrinsic value, greater than the sum of the individual objects (Belk, 1982). Diversity and breadth of the objects in the collection is often an important goal for the consumer (Belk et al., 1991). In such cases, the collector is likely to focus on brands or types within the product category that he/she does not possess, resulting in no or even negative brand commitment. An important research topic for the future is the examination of brand attitudes and commitment for collectors in a longitudinal manner.

Another implicit assumption made in this study is that risk perceptions and importance pertaining to a product class are more or less stable. It would be interesting to determine the effect of situational perceived risk as well as instrumental importance perceptions on the level of brand commitment felt during the purchase situation. Knowledge of this relationship is likely to have significant implications for advertising message presentation, in-store display design etc.

CONCLUSIONS

The study provides rich insights into the complexity of the brand commitment phenomenon. There is some evidence of a negative relationship of brand commitment with overall perceived risk and its components while there is stronger evidence of a negative relationship with enduring importance associated with a product class. In general, these findings clarify the relationship between the constructs and challenge some existing notions. Existing research on consumer expertise and collecting behavior is useful in providing an explanation for the findings. Several avenues for future research are suggested with the objective of further understanding the nature and implications of brand commitment.

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