Brand As a Relationship Partner: Gender Differences in Perspectives

Alokparna Basu Monga, University of Minnesota
ABSTRACT - Do consumers evaluate brands by looking at the brand’s actions towards them (e.g. AThis brand understands me@) in addition to their own action towards the brand (e.g. AI understand this brand@)? Since a relationship is a two-way process, both actions should be important in evaluating a brand relationship. We explore this question by examining how consumers evaluate Aclose@ and Adistant@ brands in terms of these components. Results show that men distinguish close versus distant brands in terms of their own actions towards the brand only, whereas women distinguish close versus distant brands in terms of actions in both directions.
[ to cite ]:
Alokparna Basu Monga (2002) ,"Brand As a Relationship Partner: Gender Differences in Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 36-41.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 36-41

BRAND AS A RELATIONSHIP PARTNER: GENDER DIFFERENCES IN PERSPECTIVES

Alokparna Basu Monga, University of Minnesota

[The author would like to thank Deborah Toedder John for here guidance and help in conducting this reserach.]

ABSTRACT -

Do consumers evaluate brands by looking at the brand’s actions towards them (e.g. "This brand understands me") in addition to their own action towards the brand (e.g. "I understand this brand")? Since a relationship is a two-way process, both actions should be important in evaluating a brand relationship. We explore this question by examining how consumers evaluate "close" and "distant" brands in terms of these components. Results show that men distinguish close versus distant brands in terms of their own actions towards the brand only, whereas women distinguish close versus distant brands in terms of actions in both directions.

INTRODUCTION

Given the increasing desire of firms to build relationships with their consumers, understanding the nature of consumer brand relationships has become crucial. Strong long-term relationships help firms to maintain their customer base in the face of stiff competition. They also help firms to design better products for their consumers, because long-term relationships facilitate in-depth knowledge about their consumers’ needs.

A major advance in this area is represented by the work of Susan Fournier (1994, 1998) who used the metaphor of interpersonal relationships to study consumer-brand relationships. In her research, a conumer and a brand are conceptualized as being in a dyadic relationship similar to a relationship between two people. Prior to her work, most of the research on brand building was focused on brand loyalty and brand attitude. While these constructs were useful, they were not as rich as the relationship metaphor in understanding long-term brand associations. Fournier’s work shows that it is appropriate to think of consumers as being engaged in relationships with the brands they use.

Capitalizing on this idea, Fournier (1994, p.124) was able to develop a scale of brand relationship quality, defined as a "customer based indicator of the strength and depth of the person brand relationship". In this paper, we extend this line of inquiry to ask several important questions about the nature of consumer-brand relationships. First, we examine whether consumers think about their relationships with brands by evaluating the brand’s actions towards them in addition to their own actions towards the brand. In Fournier’s (1994) scale, most of the items measure the consumer’s actions towards the brand (e.g., "I know a lot about this brand", "I feel as through I really understand this brand") and not the brand’s actions towards the consumer (e.g., "The brand knows a lot about me", "The brand really understands me"). If consumers truly have relationships with brands, relationship theory (Duck and Sants, 1983) would suggest that the actions of the brand towards the consumer should also influence the consumer’s evaluation of brand relationship quality.

Second, we examine whether gender differences play an important role in the way consumers relate to brands. A consistent finding from relationship research is that men and women differ in the way in which they create and sustain intimate relationships. For example, women tend to generally exceed men in maintaining relational communication (Beck, 1988), self-disclose more than men (Cohn and Strassberg, 1983), focus on friendship aspects of a relationship when they fall in love (Hendrick, 1988), talk more about relationships than men do (Wood, 2000) and take greater responsibility than men in maintaining relationships (Wood, 2000). These patterns indicate that men and women may also differ in the ways in which they form and maintain relationships with brands. It may be, for example, that women are more strongly influenced by their own actions towards a brand or the brand’s actions towards them when evaluating brand relationship quality.

These questions have important implications for measuring and understanding the quality of consumer-brand relationships. Since a brand interacts with a consumer in a variety of ways through advertising, direct product usage and even through the internet, the actions of the brand towards the consumer should be an important determinant of the consumer’s evaluation of their relationship. If it is indeed found to be so, then the brand’s actions towards the consumer should be incorporated into any examination of the consumer-brand relationship. The question regarding gender differences is important in understanding if women and men differ in their relationships with brands. If any differences are found, they will have important implications for the way in which brands are marketed to women vis-a-vis men.

To examine these issues, an exploratory study was conducted. In the following section, we first review the relevant literature. A methodology section, describing the way in which the study was conducted, will follow this. Finally, a results and discussion section will examine our findings and their implications.

CONCEPTUAL BACKGROUND

Fournier (1994) developed a framework for understanding consumer-brand relationships, conceptualizing the brand and the consumer as being partners in a dyadic relationship. The nature of this brand relationship was further captured by a scale for brand relationship quality (BRQ), which measures the "strength and depth of a consumer-brand relationship" (Fournier, 1994, p.124). BRQ is a reflective measure, which measures the brand relationship on 7 interrelated dimensions: personal commitment, love, passionate attachment (which is composed of interdependence and passion), intimacy, partner quality, nostalgic connection, and self-concept connection. Here we focus on three of these dimensions: intimacy, interdependence and partner quality. Intimacy exists when there is "deep understanding between the partners" and is "created through unrestricted information disclosure and the sharing of private details about the self" (Fournier, 1994, p.130). Partner quality is a "person’s evaluation of the brand’s performance in its partnership role" (Fournier, 1994, p.132). Interdependence concerns the "degree to which the actions and reactions of relationship partners are intertwined" (Fournier, 1994, p.127).

The BRQ scale has provided an interesting way to study the relationship between the consumer and the brand. However, when we examine the items of the scale, especially for interdependence and intimacy, we find that most of the items capture the consumer’s "actions" towards the brand and not the brand’s "actions" towards the consumer. When we use the term action, we mean that the items capture the consumer’s thoughts, feeling or knowledge about the brand (e.g., "I really love this brand", "I am addicted to this brand in some ways"). The partner quality facet is the only exception, which looks at the brand’s actions towards the consumer. However, some of the other facets like intimacy and interdependence should examine both the consumer’s actions towards the brand and the brand’s actions towards the consumer. The reason for this is that, since BRQ is a property of the relationship, the only way to establish intimacy and interdependence in a relationship is by both partners engaging in interactions that are intimate and interdependent.

Relationships as a Two-Way Social Process

Before we examine the literature on intimacy and interdependence, it would be useful to look at what a relationship is. Relationships have been conceptualized as a social process by Duck and Sants (1983). According to them, active social processes like fighting, communicating and jointly behaving create a relationship. People define a relationship, both "inside" and "outside of" an on-going interaction, through their cognitions, feelings, motivations, etc. Thus, a relationship is more than just the sum of its interactions. From this, it is apparent that both partners determine the social processes that occur between them and hence affect the relationship.

Intimacy.

According to Prager (2000), intimacy can be conceptualized as a kind of interaction and intimate relationships are built upon intimate interactions. Moreover, intimate relationships are characterized by frequent intimate interactions. Thus, for intimacy to develop in a relationship, both partners need to engage in intimate behaviors towards each other. In addition, a relationship also provides a context for intimacy. The extent to which intimacy develops in a relationship depends on the way in which partners define their relationship. Different types of relationships (best friend, lover, casual friend) elicit different types of intimate behaviors. For example, a relationship between best friends may elicit in-depth self-disclosure, while a relationship between strangers will not. In addition, other aspects of a relationship such as commitment can also influence the intimacy that develops in a relationship (Prager, 2000). Thus, the intimacy in a relationship is determined by both partners, who engage in intimate behaviors and thus define and determine the relationship.

It follows that a consumer’s perception of intimacy of the relationship should be influenced not only by his/her intimate actions towards the brand but also by the brand’s intimate actions towards the consumer. This is a very important issue because firms today employ customer intimacy practices, which involve reaching out to consumers at a personal level and changing product development and marketing plans accordingly (Hoard, 1997). Cross (2000) says that a firm’s survival may be based on its personnel’s ability to develop intimate relationships with customers that are based on excellent communication and listening skills, strategic thinking and inside knowledge of a client’s business. Since firms today are engaging in intimate behaviors towards their consumers, it is important to understand if these have any influence on the consumer. Thus this study will examine if consumers can evaluate the brand’s intimate actions towards him/her.

Interdependence.

Interdependence is also a property of a relationship. Berscheid and Peplau (1983, p. 12) define that "two people are in a relationship with one another if they have an impact on each other, if they are interdependent in the sense that a change in one causes a change in the other." Accordingly, a close relationship is usually characterized by high interdependence, which can be observed by the partners having frequent impact on each other, by the degree of impact per occurrence being strong, by the impact involving diverse kinds of activities for each person, and by all of these properties occurring over a relatively long duration of time. Interdependence by definition means that both partners have impact on each other (Kelley et al, 1983).

Therefore, the consumer’s evaluation of interdependence should include items that tap into the brand’s impact on the consumer as well as the consumer’s impact on the brand. For example, my evaluation of my interdependence with my bank should be determined by both the bank’s impact on me and my impact on the bank.

The Influence of Gender on Relationships

The second objective of this research is to examine the influence of gender on consumer-brand relationships. A large body of research indicates that men and women vary in the way in which they initiate and maintain relationships. Men and women differ on many variables relevant to heterosexual relationships such as love, role norms about courtship, patterns of friendship, self-disclosure and communication styles, approaches to conflict resolution (Brehm, 1992). For our purposes, some of the most important differences arise in the nature of relationships and the maintenance of relationships.

Friendships between women are characterized by a high degree of communication, which tends to be personal, high in emotion and high in self-disclosure (Aries and Johnson, 1983; Johnson, 1996). Women’s friendships tend to be characterized by depth and breadth, with friends tending to know each other in layered and complex ways (Aries and Johnson, 1983; Johnson, 1996). Men, on the other hand, tend to focus on doing activities together, such as playing and watching sports, which form the basis of their closeness (Swain, 1989; Monsour, 1992). Although men may care deeply about their male friends, they are less likely to express these feelings explicitly. Although men and women both value friendships, men are more generally inclined to create and express friendships instrumentally. An instrumental focus is defined as "being concerned with reaching objective, practical goals for themselves and others" (Brehm, 1992, p. 213). Although women also engage in instrumental activities with their friends, expressive activities like talking form the main basis of their friendships. An expressive communication style is concerned with "expressing emotions and being sensitive to the emotions of others" (Brehm, 1992, p.213).

Women also tend take responsibility for maintaining relationships more than men do. They keep relationships in order, notice when problems arise and also address tensions (Thompson and Walker, 1989). Men are also more likely than women to retreat from relationship problems. Gottman (1994) noted that some men engage in conflict avoidance by refusing to discuss issues in relationships. Rusbult (1987) showed that women were more likely than men to stand by a relationship even when problems are not resolved or addressed satisfactorily.

From the discussion above, we find that gender does exert influence on the way in which individuals engage in relationships. Therefore, it is apparent that there should also be differences in men and women in their relationships with brands. We address this issue by looking at how men and women differ in their evaluation of their current relationships with brands.

METHOD

Sample

Seventy-one undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory marketing course a large university in the Midwest were recruited to complete the study.

Design

The study employed a 2 (closeness of relationship: close vs. distant brands) x 2 (gender: male vs. female) design in which closeness of relationship is a within-subjects factor and gender is a between-subjects factor.

Independent variables

The independent variables were closeness of relationship and gender. Closeness of relationship reflects the degree of closeness of the consumer-brand relationship as perceived by the consumer. Subjects were asked to think about a "brand with which they had a close and strong relationship" (referred to as the close brand) and also a "brand with which they did not have as a close and strong a relationship with as the brand in earlier section" (referred to as the distant brand). This technique has been used by Fournier (1994). Participants were then asked to answer a series of questions about both brands as described below.

Dependent variables

Subjects were asked to indicate their degree of agreement or disagreement with a series of statements (See Table 1) on a 7- point scale (1=strongly agree and 7 = strongly disagree). If a statement did not make sense for the brand they had in mind, they could check a box marked "irrelevant to this brand". Items that subjects said were "irrelevant to this brand", were coded as an "8" due to the fact that subjects seemed to use "irrelevant to this brand" as a stronger form of disagree [The analysis was repeated treating "irrelevant to the brand" as missing data. Results were virtually identical to those reported in the results section.]. The statements were developed by us or chosen from the Fournier (1994) scale in order to achieve three objectives. First, we wanted items that would tap into the dimensions of relationship quality (intimacy and interdependence) that are especially important for understanding the dual nature of true relationships. Second, we needed items to assess both sides of the relationship. For most items, there are 2 forms: one with the "brand-as-actor" (e.g. "The brand understands me") and the other with the "consumer-as-actor" (e.g. "I understand the brand"). Finally, we wanted to include items for partner quality in order to get a diverse variety of items that would capture the brand’s actions towards the consumer and the consumer’s actions towards the brand.

Procedure

Subjects were first required to engage in an introductory task during which they had to think about brands as if they were people. They were given examples of how some people talk about their brands as if they were real people. This is similar to the procedure used by Fournier (1994) to get subjects into the proper frame of mind so that they could apply interpersonal constructs easily to the brand. Next, each subject was asked to select one brand with which he/she has a strong and close relationship. Then, they were asked to complete a series of questions about the brand that they selected. On completion of this section, subjects were asked to select a brand with which they were not as close to as the brand selected in the first section. The subjects were then asked to answer the same set of questions for this brand. The order of the close and distant brand were the same for all subjects, so that after engaging in the introductory task they could answer questions easily for the close brands and get into the "relationship frame of mind". Finally, subjects answered questions about their gender, age and education level.

RESULTS

Before examining our propositions, we provide some descriptions of the nature of the products and services that subjects selected for close versus distant brands. Among the close brands, the most frequently mentioned product categories were beverages (e.g., Coke, Mountain Dew), automobiles (e.g., Honda, Accura), clothing (e.g., Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap) and computer- related products (e.g. Iomega, Dell). For the distant brands, the most frequently mentioned product categories were beverages (e.g., Shasta), shoes (e.g., Nike, Reebok), clothing (e.g., J. Crew) and automobiles (e.g., Ford).

To examine our propositions, the responses to the items were analyzed in a 2 (closeness of relationship: close vs. distant brands) x 2 (gender: male vs. female) Manova, with closeness of relationship as a repeated measure. The results showed a significant gender x closeness of relationship interaction (Wilks' ?=0.014, p < 0.05). Then, specific univariate tests were examined (See Table 1 for means and standard deviations and Table 2 for the Anova results). Although the items roughly correspond to the dimensions of intimacy, interdependence and partner quality, all analysis was done at a disaggregate level because each individual item taps into something unique. We also calculated contrasts to test whether differences in closeness of relationships were significant within each gender type (See Table 2 for these results).

From Table 2, we find that there are significant main effects of gender on the responses to both "consumer- as- actor" items and "b rand- as-actor" items. The significant main effects of closeness of relationship indicate that respondents distinguished between close and distant brands for both types of items. However, care should be taken in interpreting these main effects because several of the items show an interaction between closeness of relationship and gender. From the interaction effects column, we observe that majority of the "brand-as-actor" items show an interaction of gender and closeness, unlike the "consumer-as-actor" items. For example, "I am important to this brand", "This brand depends on me", "This brand is close to me", "This brand appreciates me" are some of the "brand-as-actor" items that show an interaction of gender and closeness of relationship. Thus, it appears that men and women distinguish close and distant relationships on the basis of how they act towards the brand, but women also distinguish on the basis of how the brand acts towards them.

This observation is supported by examining the contrast between close versus distant brands, by gender. For the "consumer-as-actor" items, both males and females distinguished between close and distant brands. For example, "This brand is important to me", "I depend on this brand", "I am close to this brand" are some of the "consumer-as-actor" items that are used by males and females to differentiate between close and distant brands. However, for the "brand-as-actor" items, while the females distinguished close and distant brands using most of the items, the males did not do so. For instance, "This brand depends on me", "This brand is close to me", "This brand has a continuing interest in me" are some of the "brand as-actor" items that are used by females to distinguish close and distant brands, but not by males.

DISCUSSION

Our results show that while women tend to use both "brand-as-actor" items and "consumer- as-actor" items to differentiate close and distant brands, men, on the other hand, tend to use mostly the "consumer-as-actor" items.

Our findings suggest that men may not view brand relationships as a dyadic interaction as much as women do. Men seem to have no difficulty in distinguishing between a close and a distant brand for the "consumer-as-actor" items. Men may not relate to the "brand-as-actor items" well because they do not consider the brand as being an active participant in the relationship as much as women do. Fournier(1998) suggested that the ways by which the brand may be considered as an active relationship partner include the personification of the brand and also the marketing communications and the marketing actions of the brand towards the consumer. According to Fournier (1998), although a brand may enjoy selected animistic properties, it is not a vital entity. From this it is evident that an individual has to perceive and think about the brand as being a relationship partner before one can properly interpret the "brand- as- actor" items. Our findings imply that while females may easily think of the brand as an active partner, the males may not. This may be explained by the fact that a woman's identity is structured by connectedness and relationality (Crosby, 1991). In Fournier's (1998) research, three women's concerns and themes in their lives were reflected in the brands that they used. These women had no problem in thinking about the brand as a relationship partner because they used terms like "How could Mary Kay cosmetics do that to me?" Although no comparisons were made to men, Fournier's study reflects the importance that women attach to brands in their lives and the ease with which they talk about brands from a relationship perspective. This would imply that women can easily think about the brand as an active relationship partner.

TABLE 1

MEANS AND STANDARD DEVIATIONS FOR RELATIONSHIP MEASURES

It is also possible that men and women also have differences in the roles that brands play in their lives. While, for women, brands may have important self-identity functions (as shown in Fournier's work), for men, who tend to be instrumental in nature, may use brands as tools to reach their goals.

Our findings also link closely with those of Mittal and Kamakura (2001). They found that for the same level of satisfaction, the probability of repurchasing among women is uniformly higher than among men. This may reflect the fact that women, unlike men, seem to maintain their relationship with brands, a finding that is consistent with the interpersonal relationships literature (Wood, 2000).

One of the important implications of our findings is in the measurement of brand relationship quality. Since the actions of the brand towards the consumer are important for women, these items need to be included in any evaluation of BRQ. Excluding these items would lead us to capture a less rich picture of the interactions that form the key element of a relationship.

TABLE 2

ANALYSIS OF VARIANCE AND CONTRAST RESULTS FOR CLOSENESS OF RELATIONSHIP AND GENDER

The gender difference also implies that men and women differ in the ways in which they view their relationship with brands. While men tend to view their relationships as being one-way, women tend to see their relationships as being more dual in nature. Since women tend to consider the brand's actions towards them, firms should pay extra attention to the way in which the brand "behaves" towards women.

These implications suggest that much future research can be done in the area of consumer-brand relationships. Relationship theory is a rich framework, which can be used to further explore important issues revealed by our findings.

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