Communicating Quality Through Signals and Substantive Messages: the Effects of Supporting Information and Need For Cognition

Subimal Chatterjee, Binghamton University
Timothy B. Heath, University of Pittsburgh
Debi Prasad Mishra, Binghamton University
[ to cite ]:
Subimal Chatterjee, Timothy B. Heath, and Debi Prasad Mishra (2002) ,"Communicating Quality Through Signals and Substantive Messages: the Effects of Supporting Information and Need For Cognition", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 228-229.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 228-229


Subimal Chatterjee, Binghamton University

Timothy B. Heath, University of Pittsburgh

Debi Prasad Mishra, Binghamton University

Marketers often communicate quality through positive quality signals (e.g., warranties, certifications), signals that are external to the products but likely to be used by consumers as information cues about the products’ quality. Signaling quality is particularly important in markets where quality is unobservable and otherwise difficult to ascertain. For example, if used car buyers have a difficult time telling the higher and lower-quality sellers apart, they are likely to offer low prices to protect themselves from getting cheated. The low prices, in turn, will serve to drive the higher-quality sellers away from the market thus creating the infamous lemons market. The trick for the higher-quality sellers, therefore, is to communicate quality in a way that lower-quality sellers will find difficult to imitate. Positive quality signals, it has been suggested, can effectively separate the higher-quality sellers from their lower-quality counterparts. The rationale is that lower-quality sellers will not falsely signal quality out of the fear they will lose credibility and money (e.g., consumers are bound to discover the truth), leaving them worse off than before.

In this paper we investigate how quality information, communicated either through signals or substantive messages (i.e., more direct statements about the product’s quality), impacts consumers’ shopping intention. We propose that the persuasive power of the quality indicators (signals or substantive messages) will vary, depending upon the consumers’ need for cognition (NFC, the tendency to engage in spontaneous thinking). Lower-NFC consumers are typically cognitive misers and likely to look for information that can simplify their decisions. We suggest that quality signals suffice as decision simplifying heuristics to the extent that lower-NFC consumers will find it unnecessary to process more substantial messages (e.g., when in doubt, select the store sending the signal). Higher-NFC consumers, who by nature are more thoughtful about their decisions, are less likely to make choices based upon signals alone, and more likely to look for "hard" evidence of quality. While substantive messages may convey more direct information about the product’s quality (compared to signals), even the substantive messages themselves may be insufficient to persuade the higher-NFC consumers unless supporting information is available to verify the quality claims.

We create experimental choice tasks to test how an individual’s NFC affects his/her response to quality communications in markets with limited, as well as extended, supporing evidence of quality. Participants imagine that they are shopping for a repair shop to do transmission work on their car. They have a choice of two shops (A and B), Shop A signaling quality through a 12-month/12,000 mile warranty (or AAA certification) and Shop B communicating quality through a more substantive message (the shop performs a comprehensive maintenance inspection on all cars). Participants are exposed to one of two supporting information conditions. In the extended supporting information condition, reliable sources indicate that the quality of work is comparable across the two shops. In the limited supporting information condition, participants, being new to the town, have no verifying information about the quality of repairs at the two shops. Participants report (1) their intention to choose a particular shop on a 9-point scale ranging from 1 (Definitely Shop A) to 9 (Definitely Shop B) with 5 (Indifferent between Shops A and B), (2) their belief about the relative quality of repairs at the two shops on a 9-point scale ranging from 1 (Better at Shop A) to 9 (Better at Shop B) with 5 (About the same at the two shops) as the mid point, and (3) their assessment of their NFC (on the standard 18-item scale).

We find that, when supporting information about quality is limited, lower-NFC consumers are persuaded more by signals than substance (M=6.78, t(17)=3.64, p<0.01) [In this and subsequent analyses, numbers >5 indicate preference for the shop sending the quality signal, or the belief the shop sending the signal has better quality, numbers <5 indicate preference for the shop sending the substantive quality message, or the belief that the shop sending the substantive message has better quality. All t=s measure significant deviations from indifference or the scale=s mid-point, 5.0.] while higher-NFC consumers are indifferent between signals and substance (M=5.10, t(19)<1). As expected, higher-NFC consumers, do not draw any quality inferences from signals or substantive messages (M=4.80, t(19)<1), a pattern that is, surprisingly, mimicked by the lower-NFC participants as well (M=5.44, t(17)=1.25, ns). Thus, the lower-NFC participants, although strongly inclined towards signals over more substantive messages, do not necessarily think that signals translate to better product quality. Introducing supporting evidence of quality that equates the attractiveness of signals and substantive messages does not change the pattern of preferences among higher and lower-NFC consumers. Lower-NFC consumers continue to prefer signals over substance (M=6.19, t(20)=3.34, p<0.05), while higher-NFC consumers continue to respond equally to the two indicators (M=4.59, t(16)<1).

An important implication of our work for sellers is that positive quality signals work well if the target market comprises of mostly lower-NFC consumers, but they may not work well if the target market comprises mostly of higher-NFC consumers. Given that it would be difficult to segment the market based on NFC, perhaps the seller’s approach should be to identify situations and products that typically require less thought in buying decisions. For example, if the consumers are under time pressure, they may take shortcuts to the final decision. In such cases positive quality signals will appeal to both lower and higher-NFC consumers. Hotels along Interstate highways present such a context. Tired or hurried travelers seeking just to stay the night may use the AAA certification signals to make their choice. Frequently purchased products that require little deliberation present another example. When Old Spice signals a performance guarantee, it may appear that the seller is taking a big risk given that individual’s tastes vary considerably for sensory products such as after shave lotions. The reality could be that Old Spice is banking upon the signal to generate an automatic response on the consumers’ part, the likes of which we find in our research.


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