When It Hurts to Have Good Image: Context Effects Without a Context

Hyeong Min Kim, University of Michigan
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - Imagine that I ask you how good McDonald’s new Supreme Burger is. Assume further that Supreme Burger is expensive and thought to be of gourmet quality. You may use McDonald’s usual products as a (negative) comparison standard and give Supreme Burger a higher rating than if the same burger were served at a gourmet restaurant, resulting in contrast. On the other hand, you may use the product type (i.e., foods served at gourmet restaurants) as a frame of reference, in which case you should get an assimilation effect and, as a result, may rate Supreme Burger lower than it should be. The bottom line is that consumer evaluations of a new product depend on whether they use a frame established by a company and contrast the new product to the existing product line, or whether they use the product type as a comparison standard. The main goal of the present study is to investigate under what circumstances a particular context effect could occur in new product evaluations.
[ to cite ]:
Hyeong Min Kim (2002) ,"When It Hurts to Have Good Image: Context Effects Without a Context", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 216-217.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 216-217

WHEN IT HURTS TO HAVE GOOD IMAGE: CONTEXT EFFECTS WITHOUT A CONTEXT

Hyeong Min Kim, University of Michigan

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

Imagine that I ask you how good McDonald’s new Supreme Burger is. Assume further that Supreme Burger is expensive and thought to be of gourmet quality. You may use McDonald’s usual products as a (negative) comparison standard and give Supreme Burger a higher rating than if the same burger were served at a gourmet restaurant, resulting in contrast. On the other hand, you may use the product type (i.e., foods served at gourmet restaurants) as a frame of reference, in which case you should get an assimilation effect and, as a result, may rate Supreme Burger lower than it should be. The bottom line is that consumer evaluations of a new product depend on whether they use a frame established by a company and contrast the new product to the existing product line, or whether they use the product type as a comparison standard. The main goal of the present study is to investigate under what circumstances a particular context effect could occur in new product evaluations.

Although recent work in social cognition predicts the emergence of contrast as well as assimilation, most previous investigations on new product evaluations were conducted using the assimilation framework. A high fit between a new product and the core brand is assumed to facilitate the success of the product. The evaluation of a typical new product is thought to assimilate towards the core brand evaluation. The few studies on new product evaluations in marketing unexpectedly found contrast effects, however. For example, Brown and Dacin (1997) found that the relationship between new product evaluations and corporate associations reflected a contrast effect. In other words, a new product was evaluated more favorably when it was introduced by a company with poor image than when the same product was launched by a company with good image. This finding is surprising and rather unintuitive on surface. However, if consumers use the existing product line of a company as a comparison standard to judge a new product, a contrast effect can be observed, and this reasoning is in line with theorizing in the context effect literature.

Most studies used ambiguous targets and explicitly provided a contextual cue in order to better detect context effects. However, such demonstratios are of limited interest to consumer research because in applied settings it is seldom possible to control cues and often times a new product is not totally ambiguous. Therefore, it would be interesting to see if context effects could be observed when (1) participants are not primed with a cue and (2) the target is relatively unambiguous.

An experiment was conducted to demonstrate context effects in new product evaluations. Participants read a concrete description of a fictitious car marketed by either Hyundai (poor image) or BMW (good image). No priming task was introduced in the study. In one condition, the car was described as relatively decent, and in the other condition it was portrayed as superior. In the decent car condition, participants evaluated the car more favorably when it was introduced by Hyundai than when the same car was introduced by BMW, thus resulting in contrast. It seems that participants used the existing product line of the companies as a comparison standard. In the superior car condition, participants gave more favorable evaluations to the BMW car than to the same Hyundai car, reflecting assimilation, because they used the product type as a comparison standard. Although previous research argues that typicality of an exemplar determines the direction of a context effect, it was not the case in this study. A typical Hyundai car and an atypical BMW car resulted in contrast.

The present research made important contributions to the literature on context effects and new product evaluations. First, it demonstrated that even a single piece of information embedded in the product description could serve as a powerful contextual cue to guide target evaluations. Context effects were observed when no cue was explicitly provided prior to target evaluations. Second, the study showed that even concrete exemplars could not escape from context effects.

It seems that to avoid negative context effects marketers should include specific information in the description of a target to direct consumers’ attention to a certain comparison standard that is advantageous for the company. For example, when a company is introducing a downward brand extension, its marketing tactics should be devised in such a way that consumers will use the product type as a comparison standard. A follow-up study and other theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

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