Unnoticed Relationships: Do Consumers Experience Co-Branded Products?

Anders Bengtsson, Lund University
ABSTRACT - This paper takes an interpretive approach to consumers’ experiences with co-branded products. While the intended benefits of combining brands in a co-branded product are obvious for the brand owners, it is far from clear that consumers experience these products as co-branded. Results indicate that consumer experiences with co-branded products vary from being very rich to nonexistent. The findings also highlight that a combination of two brands can be experienced in several different ways resulting in multiple meanings.
[ to cite ]:
Anders Bengtsson (2002) ,"Unnoticed Relationships: Do Consumers Experience Co-Branded Products?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 521-527.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 521-527

UNNOTICED RELATIONSHIPS: DO CONSUMERS EXPERIENCE CO-BRANDED PRODUCTS?

Anders Bengtsson, Lund University

ABSTRACT -

This paper takes an interpretive approach to consumers’ experiences with co-branded products. While the intended benefits of combining brands in a co-branded product are obvious for the brand owners, it is far from clear that consumers experience these products as co-branded. Results indicate that consumer experiences with co-branded products vary from being very rich to nonexistent. The findings also highlight that a combination of two brands can be experienced in several different ways resulting in multiple meanings.

Brand names and consumer cultures have become so interlaced that it is difficult to think of one without also thinking of the other. The cultural significance of brands has emerged around the globe (Belk 1999; Ger and Belk 1996), and Sherry (1998) suggests that we now live in a "brandscape" where brands have become an increasingly important component of meaning creation in consumption (Chang 1998). Since more than a century ago when national brands where introduced on the American market, it was common practice for manufacturers to use a single brand name to identify a specific product (Hine 1995). A brand name was therefore often associated with a specific product such as Uneeda biscuits or Ivory soap. Today, however, brand names oftentimes endorse many different products which play particular roles by their addition to the original brand, thus attempting to convey varying meanings to different groups of people. The meaning of a brand is seldom a single construct that is connected to one specific product or idea. Lately, as some consumer researchers have observed, brands not only appear in conjunction with many different products, but have also started to appear in combinations with other brands, as if the brand managers, in providing the combination, are hoping to evoke a more precise intended meaning for the branded items.

The mixing of several brands in one product is a "brand"-new consumption language (Friedman 1991) that consumers may have to learn to interpret. In this paper, I take an interpretive approach to elicit if and how consumers experience co-branded products. Mixing two or more brands to create a co-branded product has become a common strategy during the last decade on the American market, especially in the food industry. Current examples include Betty Crocker7 brownie mix, which boasts of containing Hershey’s7 syrup, Breyers7 ice cream mixed wth Oreo7 cookies, and Jell-O7 cheesecake made with Philadelphia7 cream cheese.

Prior research has examined various issues concerning consumers’ evaluation of co-branded products. Park, Jun, and Shocker (1996) investigated the role of complementary product attributes when forming partnerships between brands. They found that consumers evaluate co-branded products more favorably when the two brands’ attributes are perceived as complementary to each other as opposed to non-complementary. Simonin and Ruth (1998) examined how spillover of meanings affects consumers’ evaluation of two distinctive brands after exposure to a co-branded product that features the two brands. Their findings suggest that meanings are transferred between the brands. They also suggest that consumers’ familiarity with the original brands that constitute the co-branded product affects how the meanings spill over from one brand to another. McCarthy and Norris (1999) found similar results when examining how consumers evaluated low versus high quality host brands where branded ingredients were added to the product. Their findings suggest that consumers evaluate a low quality host brand more favorably when a high quality branded ingredient is added; however, a high quality host brand is only slightly more favorably valued when featuring a high quality branded ingredient. In addition, Washburn, Till, and Priluck (2000) found that consumers’ trial of a co-branded product enhances subsequent evaluations, especially for lower quality host brands. Vaidyanathan and Aggarwal (2000) investigated how consumers evaluate store brands that feature branded ingredients; they found that consumers evaluate a store brand more positively when it has a branded ingredient displayed on the package. Their findings also suggest that the branded ingredient is not evaluated less favorably as a result of a partnership with a lower quality store brand. Finally, Rao, Qu, and Ruekert (1999) investigated the ability of a co-branded product to convey signals of unobservable quality. Their findings suggest that consumers’ perceptions of quality with regard to a co-branded product were enhanced when a second brand name was provided for a product that had unobservable attributes, i.e. a product which consumers had no prior experience with.

While previous research gives some insights into how consumers relate to co-branded products, there are several shortcomings with the studies reviewed here. In all previous studies, experimental designs are used to measure consumer response to different combinations of branded goods. Experimental design is somewhat problematic when it comes to measuring brand meanings, since the research setting does not take the everyday life context of the consumer into consideration (Brown 1995, p. 83). Furthermore, fictitious co-branded products are used as stimuli, such as a hypothetical co-operation between Slim Fast and Godiva, which make the respondents’ task of indicating an evaluation of a product with mixed brands even more removed from everyday consumption. Prior research does not, with the exception of Washburn et al. (2000), consider the actual consumption of the product as an important factor influencing the evaluation of a co-branded product. Even though most of the studies deal with food products, only Washburn et al. had the respondents taste the actual product. And although trial is important, it is necessary to keep in mind that consumer meanings for brands often are negotiated over time, involving several interactions between the consumer and the brand (Olsen 1995); a single product trial may be a poor indicator of future evaluations. Prior research has also adopted a rather limited approach when investigating how consumers relate to products with mixed brands. Instead of asking how brands might influence consumers, we have to ask what consumers do with brands (Lannon and Cooper 1983) and acknowledge that consumers actively produce meanings through their consumption. While previous research has examined if a branded product is evaluated differently through its display of a second brand name, it has failed to address the experiential aspects of consumption (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) and the complex process of consumers’ meaning negotiation for brands. The basic and fundamental question of what consumers do with products labeled with a combination of brands therefore remains unexplored. In previous research, numerous terms such as brand alliance, co-branding, ingredient branding, and joint branding have been used to refer to cooperative brand activities (Simonin and Ruth 1998). However, the terms used in previous research are not concepts consumers would use to describe their experiences, and I prefer instead to use the term products with mixed brands to acknowledge the consumers’ experience with combined brands.

CONSUMERS AND BRANDS: THE PRODUCTION OF CULTURE

Fortunately, there has been some research carried out in the area of consumers and brands that provides insights into how consumers use brands to produce culture. I use the term produce culture to emphasize that consumers are active co-creators of meanings rather than passive respondents of marketing stimuli (Ritson 1999). Douglas and Isherwood (1996, p. 40) assert "that the essential function of consumption is its capacity to make sense." Since brands are an inevitable part of consumers’ everyday consumption, I suggest that consumers may use brands not only to differentiate between different products available on the market but also to make sense of their consumption and everyday life. Current research suggests that the interaction between consumers and brands can be described with a relationship metaphor, where consumers initiate brand relationships that are similar in quality to relationships created between human beings (Fournier 1998; Heilbrunn 1998). Fournier (1998) uses theories from the interpersonal domain and describes consumer brand relationships in terms of love/passion, self-connection, interdependence, commitment, intimacy, and brand partner quality. The consumer’s experience of a brand is thus an experience of the relationship, and the meaning created for a brand will be dependent on how the relationship develops over time.

Rather than being passive receivers of a brand manager’s intended meaning of a brand, consumers are active co-producers of brand meanings (Chang 1998). Ligas and Cotte (1999) suggest that meanings for brands are negotiated in three environments: the marketing, the social, and the individual environment. Particular meanings may be created in each of these environments, and it is the sum of these meanings that constitutes the total experience of the brand. By accepting the idea that meanings of a brand have several sources beyond the brand manager’s intended meaning derived from the marketing context, I am thus suggesting that consumers create multiple meanings for brands. Costa and Pavia (1992) discovered that American consumers ascribe meanings of gender to alpha-numeric brand names, indicating that consumers interpret not just the intended meaning of a brand but also associate other cultural meanings with a brand name such as technology and male/femaleness. In North America, for instance, beer is associated with masculinity. Thus any brand of beer is connected with masculinity regardless of the brand manager’s intended meaning (McCracken 1993). A brand coexists with other symbols that have cultural meanings, and it may be impossible for a brand manger to delete cultural meanings that are associated with a particular product. Brand names can thus convey meanings to a consumer even if the manager’s intended meaning never has reached the consumer. These findings lead to the conclusion that brands have polysemic qualities that enable various different interpretations of the same message (Gottdiener 1995). The polysemic qualities of brands are thus similar to advertising that has been suggested to enable multiple interpretations (Elliott and Ritson 1997; Mick and Politi 1989).

Experiences of products with mixed brands can be considered to be a process of meaning negotiation that may take place in several contexts at the same time. Before even considering if consumers evaluate a mixed-brand product more positively, it is necessary to examine how consumers experience mixed brands in general. When it comes to identification of the combination of brands, several possibilities exist. What marketers hope to achieve through the usage of several brands in a single product is that consumers will be more inclined to buy the product because of the combination of the brands (Norris 1992). This requires that consumers identify all the brands that are combined in a product to create unique meanings for the constellation. However, it is also possible that the consumer only will identify one of the brands that is combined in the product. When consumers only observe one of the combined brands, the experience will be similar to that of a single-branded product. A third possibility is that consumers will not recognize any of the product’s brands and will focus instead on other symbols displayed on the package. While the idea of brand mixing is attractive for the brand manager, it is far from clear that consumers will experience the mixing of brands at all.

THE PRESENT STUDY

In order to overcome the shortcomings of previous research, I conducted a qualitative study to investigate how consumers experience and create meanings for grocery products that feature several brand names. Because I wanted to investigate authentic consumer experiences with mixed-brand products, I recruited consumers in two different grocery stores (one upper-class grocery store and one middle-class grocery store) after informants had been identified as having bought at least one mixed-brand product. Phenomenological interviews (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989) were then carried out with each informant at home in order to elicit the lived experience of products with mixed brands. To make sure that I did not impose my interest (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1990) in mixed brands to the informants, but rather followed the informants’ categorizations, I was cautious during the first interview with each informant not to ask any explicit questions about the mixing of brands. The informants were instead instructed to describe their habits with regard to cooking and grocery shopping. The information gathered through this approach provided me with important knowledge about the informants’ general sensitivity to food brands. I also requested that informants open up their pantries and describe their stored grocery products. Throughout the study, I could thus elicit informants’ descriptions of mixed-brand products without asking explicit questions about the mixing of brands. The data consist of interviews and observations with seven informants living in a large city in the western United States (see table 1 for an overview of informants’ profiles). The seven informants represent the primary shoppers of six different households (two informants were interviewed together as they jointly conducted the household’s grocery shopping). Four to six interviews lasting from one to two hours were carried out with each informant during a six-month period. Each informant was also observed once during his/her grocery shopping. To allow for diversity, I selected consumers representing a variety of genders, ages, incomes, education, and religions.

CONSUMER’S EXPERIENCES OF PRODUCTS WITH COMBINED BRANDS

Experiences of products with mixed brands range from being very rich to relatively nonexistent. Rich experiences with mixed brand products were found where informants identified the combination of brands and used the meanings of the brands to make sense of the experience. The following passage refers to a description of Betty Crocker cake mix with Hershey’s syrup.

Linda: Aaah, Betty Crocker with Hershey’s (laughter). It’s the best one. I get more compliments on this brownie mix than anything else that I’ve ever used (laughter).

Interviewer: So what do they tell you?

Linda: Oh these are so good; they are so moist. Oh wow, you know especially if I serve them warm, and everybody really likes them. (Interview #3 with Linda)

Linda’s description represents a very rich experience of products with mixed brands where both brands co-constitute the experience of the product. The order in which the brand names and the product are mentioned indicates that the two brands are very important to the experience. Betty Crocker and Hershey’s are not just two labels on the package; they form a unity of meanings that constitute the essence of the brownie experience. There is also an important social dimension to the experience, where the meanings of the combined brands are negotiated together with other people who have shared the experience with the brownie. The social consumption of the branded good helps Linda to address important aspects of her self-identity and to communicate these values to other people.

TABLE 1

OVERVIEW OF INFORMANTS= PROFILES

The richness of the experience of the brand combination that was elicited from Linda was not found among any of the other informants; the other informants had more moderate or nonexistent experiences of combination in brands. The following passage refers to a description of potato chips flavored with KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce:

Stephen: It [barbecue] just happens to be a flavor that we liked, so we buy that in potato chips. But other things like, you know when I’m barbecuing chicken, I don’t care whether it’s KC Masterpiece or not. I use some other type of brand that is equally good. So I guess if Lay’s would go out and buy, you know, Hunt’s barbecue sauce or something else, then we have to, tat’s probably the one we have to buy if their, if Lays ever develops that partnership (Interview #4 with Stephen)

Rather than using the meaning of the additional brand and giving it credit for the product’s flavor, Stephen simply observes that there "happens" to be a second brand name displayed on the package. To this informant, the issue is not whether KC Masterpiece will be found in Ruffles, another brand of chips, but whether or not Lays will use another brand to flavor the chips. Stephen’s rhetoric thus indicates that the meaning of Lays is more important than the meaning of KC Masterpiece, the branded ingredient.

As discussed above, it is possible that consumers only will identify one of the combined brands. If we apply the figure/ground metaphor (Thompson et al. 1989) to illustrate how consumers experience the combination of brands, I suggest that one of the two combined brands will constitute the figure, whereas the other brand constitutes the ground. The unobserved brand that constitutes the ground may not be identified explicitly but creates a background for the figural brand to be interpreted. Just as an individual will not be able to detect both the vase and the two faces at the same time in the well-know illustration (see figure 1), a consumer is just as likely not to observe one of the two brands. The consumer’s experience is then no longer an experience of a product with mixed brands, as the following passage indicates:

Terry: Oh it makes, it’s a cookie bar. It’s called Sunkist Lemon Bars. It’s just a lemon. It has a nice soft lemon filling with cookie dough. (Interview #1 with Terry)

Terry refers to a cookie bar that is endorsed by Betty Crocker and has Sunkist Lemon added to the product. In this case, the ingredient constitutes the figure, while Betty Crocker, the brand with the major responsibility for the product, forms the ground of the experience. It is interesting to observe that Betty Crocker is not unfamiliar to this informant and she experiences it as figural in other contexts. The dynamics of what constitute figure and ground illustrate the polysemous qualities of brand meanings. To Terry, the brand Sunkist in the lemon bars conveys the most important meaning when it comes to the cookie and therefore constitutes the figure.

FIGURE 1

ILLUSTRATIONS OF FIGURE/GROUND PHENOMENA

I also found several responses where informants identified the brand with the major responsibility for the product but did not recognize the branded ingredient. The ingredients were, however, not unknown to the informants, since they often constituted figural experiences with other products. It was only in the combination with another brand that the ingredient did not convey adequate meaning to constitute a figural experience. A non-existent experience of the brands that are combined in a product occurs when none of the combined brands is identified. Instead, other symbols associated with the product become more salient. In this manner, the two brands constitute the ground together on which the figural experience is interpreted.

Sabrina: I know what it [Betty Crocker brownie mix with Hershey’s] looks like, I can tell you on the shelf. I don’t know the brand name though. It’s in a red box and it’s supreme. (Interview #1 with Sabrina)

Terry: I’ve never noticed. Well I never noticed it really. I hadn’t paid any attention. I’ve just looked for, 'cause this is reduced fat, and cocoa doesn’t have as much fat in it as chocolate. (Interview #2 with Terry)

It is apparent that a brand name is only one symbol endorsing the product; oftentimes, there are other signs related to the product that have the same function as do brand names. Messages such as "supreme," "low-fat," and "real-fruit," can thus be as important C or even more important C than the specific brand name of the product. Thus, brands tend to be just another dimension of the product. These findings suggest that research on brand meanings should use a holistic approach when interpreting how consumers create meanings for branded goods. Such an approach takes the presence of multiple signs into consideration and can provide a greater understanding of consumers’ lived experiences of branded goods. The findings also suggest that the mixing of brands is not always apparent to consumers; it is therefore ill-advised to examine evaluations of products with mixed brands if consumers do not observe the combination of brands.

EVALUATIONS OF PRODUCTS WITH MIXED BRANDS

I now turn to a discussion of the ways in which mixed-brand products were evaluated once it was clear that a given informant had either experienced the combination of brands or had been told during the interviews about the mixing of brands. Some informants expressed a positive evaluation of combining two good brands, thus enhancing the consumption experience.

Linda: You know I see nothing wrong with mixing two different brands together. If it makes it better, that’s just fine. [] Sometimes the more things you mix together, the better it makes it. No, I’d have no objection, I mean that doesn’t bother me a bit. (Interview #3 with Linda)

In addition, positive evaluations were also detected where informants referred to the skills of the companies who produce the brands. The positive evaluations emanated from an idea that the outcome, i.e. the product, would not have been possible without the combination of the two brands.

Linda: I think it’s great (laughter)! It makes me buy it (laughter)! Because, Hershey’s, you know they don’t make cake mix, they don’t have cake mixes, they don’t make those kinds of things. So putting a Hershey’s syrup in C that only adds to the flavor. (Interview #3 with Linda)

To Linda, the combination of Hershey’s and Betty Crocker is the ultimate solution, since she believes that Hershey’s cannot produce a cake mix while Betty Crocker can. The two brands are thus associated with different companies representing different production skills. But that said, even if informants were explicitly aware of the combination of brands, they still seemed to have difficulties taking both brands into consideration. Instead, only one of the brands was typically used to predict the taste of a product. The following passage refers to a discussion of Dreyer’s ice-cream with Snickers candy bars.

Sabrina: Oh, I think it’s probably good. I’d probably be more inclined to buy Snicker’s than some [other] peanuty chocolate bar. You know if you see a brand name, you’re more likely...I would be more likely to get it because I know the Snicker’s bars are good. So I would assume an ice-cream [with Snickers], it’s gonna be good. (Interview #3 with Sabrina)

Dreyer’s ice-cream is here taken as a component of the product; the informant focuses on her prior experience with Snickers and extends it to the ice-cream context.

I also found responses where informants identified the mixing of brands as a marketing strategy executed by a company in order to sell their products more efficiently. The mixing of brands was then sometimes not considered as a joint cooperation between companies but rather as something that was managed by a single company.

Todd: Well I think the Oreo people are the same as the ice-cream people. [...] But there are conglomerates here and they got to be owned, one’s owned by the other. (Interview #2 with Todd and Fanny)

To this informant, the mixing of brands is thus "only" a game of names that does not enhance the evaluation of the product. Instead of accepting the combination of brands as something unique created by two companies, the informant adopts a critical standpoint concerning what the companies are trying to achieve. Even if the informants sometimes were right in their assumptions that two brands indeed originated from one conglomerate of companies, it is not the brand owners’ intention to communicate that the mixed brands originate from the same family of companies.

In addition, I discovered evaluations that did not improve because of the mixing of brands. The following passage emanates from a discussion between two family members and indicates that other attributes associated with the product might be of greater importance than the added branded ingredient.

Fanny: I mean in a way it [the usage of Hershey’s syrup] sounds appealing. Then when it comes right down to it, I wouldn’t buy it for that reason. I still wouldn’t buy it for that reason.

Todd: So if it didn’t have the words super moist on it, you wouldn’t have bought it.

Fanny: But super moist doesn’t have anything to do with Hershey’s.

Todd: That’s what I’m saying. I think she bought it because she saw the words super moist.

Fanny: That’s why.

Todd: And I would have bought it because it said Duncan Hines, without the mixed logos.

Fanny: Yeah, yeah I still don’t think it would have made a difference. (Interview #3 with Todd and Fanny)

Besides neutral evaluations, I also uncovered negative evaluations indicating that the display of a branded ingredient can create specific preconceived ideas of the product’s performance. The following quotation refers to a discussion about Dreyer’s ice-cream with candy bars.

Cassandra: It just tasted like chocolate and caramel, and I thought they were gonna put Twix candy bars in it and it wasn’t like that.

Interviewer: Oh you though there would be like the whole candy bars in it?

Cassandra: Well like, like they have Snicker’s. Before they’ve done Snicker’s, and they just chopped the candy bar and stuck it in there. And they done that like the Girl Scout cookies. They done those flavors before and they just stuck’em, the whole thing in there. Broken up a little bit but, but that one wasn’t as good. No. I thought that would be a lot better. (Interview #2 with Cassandra)

This informant uses past experience from Dreyer’s and Snickers to create an expectation of Dreyer’s and Twix. This negative evaluation illustrates the importance of taking actual consumption into consideration when investigating how consumers relate to products with mixed brands. Previous research has investigated the likelihood that a consumer will try a product with mixed brands but has not been able to address how preferences for combinations of brands will develop through actual consumption.

NEGOTIATION OF NEW MEANINGS

In this section I will address ways in which new meanings for products with mixed brands are created. If a consumer identifies the combination of brands, several alternatives exist for the creation of meaning. The first option suggests that consumers maintain two separate images of the combination of brands and thus see two individual brands as co-operating in one product. These two images may or may not be changed as a result of consuming the mixed-brand product. The second option suggests that the two separate images merge into a new third image. I found evidence for both, indicating that consumers can interpret the same combination of brands in different ways, thus resulting in several different images. The following passage indicates that the images of the two brands remain separate despite being combined in one product.

Todd: Yeah, it doesn’t add anything, but I’m wondering if the issue is adding to or adding up all right. When I hit the word Hershey, I separate it from Betty Crocker and the first thing that comes to my mind is one of those great Hershey chocolate bars with almonds. Something also that I grew up with. So here I have these two things which are not merging, but I’m just, I’m adding up. It’s almost like two piles of coins as opposed to a collection. That’s what I think (laughter). (Interview #3 with Todd and Fanny)

The informant’s elegant metaphor suggests that the meanings negotiated for each separate brand do not influence each other. Betty Crocker does not become more like Hershey’s because of the combination, and Hershey’s does not become more like Betty Crocker. To this informant, there is no transfer of meaning between the two brands, and the meanings of the brands remain intact.

Other informants indicated that the meanings of the brand changed, even though a third image of the combination was not created.

Fanny: For me it’s so funny because I think of Hershey as a corporate, sort of a corporation where Betty Crocker has appeared to me as more of a homespun, you know, kind of a deal so, it wouldn’t deter me from buying Betty Crocker, but it loses some of that warm fuzzy kind of feeling. [...] It’s just more, more what I know about Hershey being. I mean, I’ve been in the amusement park business. Hershey has an amusement park, I mean I just know it’s more of a, I know it as a corporate, corporation, so for Betty Crocker I don’t have that knowledge. (Interview #3 with Todd and Fanny)

To this informant, the meaning of Betty Crocker changes as a result of the combination with Hershey’s. Some of the meanings created for Hershey’s are transferred to Betty Crocker, however, whereas no meanings from Betty Crocker are transferred to Hershey’s. The findings suggest that the informant’s meanings created for Hershey’s are stronger and thus able to influence the meanings created for Betty Crocker. It is interesting to observe that it is not the intentional meaning of chocolate that is transferred to the other brand but rather a meaning that is negotiated in the personal environment. While it would be logical for the brand manager of Betty Crocker to assume that the brand could become associated with rich chocolate as a result of the combination with Hershey’s, it is less obvious that the brand manager would expect the meaning of Betty Crocker to be diluted as a result of the combination with Hershey’s. The findings highlight the importance of cultural meanings of brands that goes beyond the brand’s intended meaning. These cultural meanings appear to be just as important as the marketers’ intended meanings when the informants negotiate meanings for mixed brand products.

I also found informants who merged the two images into a third image, representing the combination of brands. In the context of the specific product, the informant considered the two brands as unified but could still consider the brands as separate when representing other products.

Linda: I only use Betty Crocker brownie mix because I like, theirs is the best because they have this extra syrup and they are really moist.

Interviewer: Oh the syrup, uh-huh, is that...

Linda: It’s Hershey’s syrup. You just add that, mix it in before you bake it. It seems to make them really moist. (Interview #1with Linda)

Hershey’s, i.e. the added ingredient, is given credibility for the moistness of the cake, and the combination of the two brands results in a cake that is experienced as the best possible product. It is interesting to observe that the brand owner’s purpose of adding Hershey’s syrup to the brownie mix supposedly should add the meaning of a moist cake with rich chocolate taste. However, Linda associates the adding of Hershey’s only with moistness of the cake whereas the meaning of rich chocolate remains unmentioned. The informant’s emphasis on a moist brownie reflects the marketing discourse which during the years has used moistness as a key characteristic of a brownie. The meaning of a moist brownie is therefore embedded in the culture and can become associated with any brand of brownie, regardless of other aspects of a brand’s marketed meaning (cf. McCracken 1993). Outside the context of the combination of Betty Crocker and Hershey’s, the informant still ascribes the meaning of "rich chocolate" to Hershey’s. The meaning of Hershey’s is thus different, depending on the context the brand occurs in.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

In this paper I have presented some preliminary results of (the lack of) consumer experiences of mixed-brand products. As the data vividly illustrate, there are several different ways in which the informants experience and negotiate meanings for combinations of brands. The findings suggest that meanings created for a product with mixed brands are derived from several sources. Sometimes the meanings from the two individual brands are used to create "joint" meaning for the mixed brand product. The "joint" meaning is then a reflection of the meanings ascribed to the individual brands. Sometimes the combination of the two brands generates new meanings. The combination of brands becomes a sign in itself that conveys meanings not ascribed to the individual brands but only when they appear together. However, as the data illustrate, it is also possible that consumers only use one of the combined brands or use other symbols associated with the branded good to create meanings for the product. What consumers experience and what meanings they ascribe to a product with mixed brands is very much dependent upon their current knowledge and previous experience. A brand means different things to different consumers depending on how the consumer uses the branded good in his/her consumption. The meanings negotiated for a mixed-brand product are therefore a reflection of the consumer’s everyday consumption of the two brands.

As the data illustrate, it is far from clear that consumers recognize the combination of brands at all. It is obvious for a brand manager when a product is co-branded, but it appears that it is less obvious to consumers. Therefore, in many cases it may be deceptive to examine consumer evaluations of co-branded products, in the same way as prior research because the mixing of brands is not part of consumers’ experiences in everyday life. It is possible that consumers subconsciously choose a mixed brand product because of the dual set of brands that endorse the product. However, previous researchers have assumed as fact that consumers do recognize combination of brands; thus they have measured consumers’ evaluation of products that appear in combined constellations. If, as the data in the present study indicates, consumers do not experience the combination of brands in everyday life, it is difficult to justify results from previous research. This study offers a first preliminary report of whether and how consumers experience combination of brands. The interviews with informants did not generate rich material in terms of extensive stories about the mixing of brands. The lack of extensive mixed-brand stories indicates that the mixing of brands appears to be a more important issue for the companies who own the brand than it appears to be for consumers. The brands constituting a mixed-brand product have been formally engaged by their owners, but the engagement appears to be a relationship which goes largely unnoticed by consumers. Further research on the lived experience of combination of brands is necessary to examine to what extent consumers in general are aware of and experience combination of brands. A related study would investigate consumer experiences of products with mixed brands in other categories such as durable goods. The meaning of a branded ingredient or component might be richer than it appears to be for grocery products.

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