Determinants of the Accessibility of Regional-Product Information

Koert van Ittersum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Matthew T.G. Meulenberg, Wageningen University
Hans C.M. van Trijp, Wageningen University
ABSTRACT - In an era being characterized by globalization, the importance of product differentiation grows. Marketing products based on the region-of-origin (within-country area) is one of the strategies applied (i.e., Washington apples). Most place-of-origin research focuses on the effect of the place-of-origin cue on product evaluation. In this study, it is shown that the region-of-origin cue also affects other stages of the purchase-decision process. More specifically, it is shown that consumers’ sense of belonging to the region of origin influences the accessibility of regional-product information. With accessibility, the probability that the regional product is identified during the prepurchase search for information increases.
[ to cite ]:
Koert van Ittersum, Matthew T.G. Meulenberg, and Hans C.M. van Trijp (2003) ,"Determinants of the Accessibility of Regional-Product Information", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 180-187.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 180-187

DETERMINANTS OF THE ACCESSIBILITY OF REGIONAL-PRODUCT INFORMATION

Koert van Ittersum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Matthew T.G. Meulenberg, Wageningen University

Hans C.M. van Trijp, Wageningen University

ABSTRACT -

In an era being characterized by globalization, the importance of product differentiation grows. Marketing products based on the region-of-origin (within-country area) is one of the strategies applied (i.e., Washington apples). Most place-of-origin research focuses on the effect of the place-of-origin cue on product evaluation. In this study, it is shown that the region-of-origin cue also affects other stages of the purchase-decision process. More specifically, it is shown that consumers’ sense of belonging to the region of origin influences the accessibility of regional-product information. With accessibility, the probability that the regional product is identified during the prepurchase search for information increases.

INTRODUCTION

In an era being characterized by globalization, the importance of product differentiation grows. Marketing products based on their region-of-origin (within-country area) is one of the strategies applied (i.e., Washington apples). Most research on place-of-origin effects focuses on the effect of this cue on product evaluation. In this study, we investigate the role of the region-of-origin cue during the prepurchase search for information, a crucial stage in the purchase-decision process. The likelihood that a regional product enters the purchase-decision process largely depends on whether it is identified during the prepurchase search for information.

The availability and accessibility of regional-product information play an essential role during the prepurchase search for information and largely determine whether the regional product is identified and enters the purchase-decision process (cf., Alba et al. 1991; Nedungadi 1990; Ratneshwar et al. 1997). As regional products are marketed using the name of the region of origin as (part of) the name of the product, the name provides consumers with two stimuli, a region-of-origin cue and a product-category cue. The latter cue states what product category the regional product belongs to, while the former cue signals its region of origin. Consequently, regional products may benefit from both consumers’ sense of belonging to the product’s region of origin and their involvement with the product category the product belongs to. We propose that both positively influence the availability and accessibility of regional-product information.

The contributions of our research are twofold. First, instead of examining the country-of-origin effect, we focus on the effect of the region of origin. Second, most research, taking an information processing approach to study the effect of place of origin, examines the effect of consumers’ perception of the favorability of a product’s place of origin on product evaluation (Hadjimarcou and Hu 1999; Hong and Wyer 1989, 1990; Li and Wyer 1994; Van der Lans et al. 2001; Van Ittersum et al. 2003). No research is identified that examines the effect of consumers’ personal interest in and involvement with the place-of-origin on product-information accessibility. Understanding the effect of the region of origin on information accessibility may increase the effectiveness of the use of this cue. It further extends our insights into the role of place-of-origin cues in general.

DETERMINANTS OF REGIONAL-PRODUCT INFORMATION ACCESSIBILITY

In the remainder of this research, we focus on accessibility of regional-product information. The reason for this is that the effect of regional-product information availability on the likelihood that the regional product is identified during the prepurchase search for information is mediated by the accessibility of the information. If regional-product information is unavailable in memory, the regional product will not be identified. If information is available, its accessibility determines whether the regional product is identified during the prepurchase search for information.

Regional-product information is considered accessible when it has a certain likelihood of being retrieved from memory when the product-category cue is triggered. Spreading activation theory states that the accessibility of regional-product information depends on the strength of the association between the regional-product information and the product category label (cf., Collins and Loftus 1975). With the strength of the association, the accessibility of the regional-product information increases when the product category is cued. A second factor influencing accessibility concerns the number of associations related to each piece of regional-product information. The more associations related to a piece of regional-product information, the more accessible it becomes (e.g., Alba and Hutchinson 1987). A third factor affecting accessibility has to do with the uniqueness of the associations related to each piece of regional-product information. The more unique the associations and the larger the number of (unique) associations related to each piece of regional-product information, the more accessible that information becomes (cf., Alba and Hutchinson 1987; Krishnan 1996).

Figure 1 shows a conceptual model enabling us to examine the role of the region-of-origin cue in determining the accessibility of regional-product information. The central dependent variable is the accessibility of regional-product information. The model states that the accessibility of regional-product information is influenced by the frequency of encountering that information. The frequency of encountering regional-product information is determined by the extent of consumer’s ongoing search for regional and product category information. Consumer’s ongoing search for regional and product category information is affected by their sense of belonging to the region of origin and their involvement with the product category the regional product belongs to. These latter two consumer characteristics further have a direct influence on the accessibility of regional-product information.

Frequency of Encountering

The regional-product information accessibility is largely determined during past encounters with the information (cf., Loken and Ward 1990). The more frequently consumers have encountered a specific piece of regional-product information, the stronger the association between that piece of information and the product-category cue, and hence its accessibility, becomes. (cf., Alba and Hutchinson 1987). Each time consumers encounter the piece of regional-product information in a product-category setting, the association between that piece of information and the product-category cue is processed, memorized and consequently strengthened (Alba et al. 1991). In time, the association becomes so strong that, when the product-category cue is triggered, the piece of regional-product information is 'automatically’ retrieved from memory (Anderson 1983).

H1 The accessibility of regional-product information in memory is positively influenced by the frequency of encountering that information.

With frequency of encountering being one of the key determinants of the accessibility of regional-product information, gaining insights into its determinants allows us to obtain a better understanding of the role the region-of-origin cue plays in this process.

FIGURE 1

DETERMINANTS OF THE ACCESSIBILITY OF REGIONAL-PRODUCT INFORMATION IN MEMORY

Ongoing Search for Information

Our specification on the determinants of the frequency of encountering regional-product information in Figure 1 is based on the following premise; consumers who search more actively and persistently for regional (e.g., Parma) and for product category information (e.g., ham), are more likely to encounter regional-product information (e.g., Parma ham) and encounter it more often (cf., Mittal and Lee 1989). This active and persistent search is referred to as consumers’ ongoing search for information (Bloch et al. 1986). The ongoing search for information refers to 'search activities that are independent of specific purchase needs or decisions’ (p. 120). It is an important source for information for consumers (Bloch 1981; Bloch and Richins 1983).

With the names of regional products referring to both their region of origin and the product category they belong to, these products may profit from boh consumers’ ongoing search for regional information and their search for product category information. Consequently, the effectiveness of marketing communications related to regional products might be higher compared to brands and anonymous products.

H2a The frequency of encountering a regional product is positively influenced by consumers’ ongoing search for information on a product’s region of origin.

H2b The frequency of encountering a regional product is positively influenced by consumers’ ongoing search for information on the product category a regional product belongs to.

Consumers’ Sense of Belonging and Product Category Involvement

Different motives for conducting an ongoing search for regional and product category information can be identified. With respect to the ongoing search for regional information, we expect that consumers’ sense of belonging to the region of origin plays an important role. Consumers’ sense of belonging to a region depends on the degree to which consumers identify with the region of origin and consumers’ general desire for belonging (e.g., Kleine et al. 1993; Maslow 1970). With consumers’ desire for belonging and the degree to which they identify with the region, consumers’ sense of belonging to a region strengthens. Consumers start feeling related to the region and its inhabitants. Consumers’ sense of belonging to the regional group drives them to act in line with the values shared by the group (Kleine et al. 1993). Regional information helps them accomplish this. The stronger consumers’ sense of belonging to the region, the more they will try to stay informed about what goes on in the region (by searching for and gathering regional information). With this ongoing search for regional information, the likelihood and frequency of encountering regional-product information increases. With respect to the ongoing search for product category information, a strong general interest in the product category forms an important drive (Bloch et al. 1986).

H3a Consumers’ sense of belonging to a region positively influences the ongoing search for information on that region.

H3b Consumers’ involvement with a product category positively influences the ongoing search for information on that product category.

Consumers’ sense of belonging to a region not only affects their motivation to gather regional information, it also affects their motivation to process the regional information encountered. We propose that consumers with a stronger sense of belonging to a region are more motivated to process regional-product information than consumers with a weaker sense of belonging to that region. (cf., Park and Mittal 1985; Petty et al. 1983). The more motivated consumers are to process regional-product information, the more accessible that information becomes (Alba and Hutchinson 1987; Schmitt and DubT 1992). No research examining similar processes with respect to the effect of country or other places of origin have been identified.

Consumers’ involvement with the product category also affects their motivation to process regional-product information. Like consumers’ sense of belonging to the region, consumers’ involvement with a product category influences regional-product information accessibility.

The accessibility of regional-product information thus not only depends on consumers’ involvement with the product category the regional product belongs to, it also depends on consumers’ sense of belonging to its region of origin. Consumers, who are not involved with the product category a regional product belongs to, may still be motivated to process the regional-product information based on their sense of belonging.

H4a The accessibility of regional-product information in consumers’ memory is directly and positively influenced by consumers’ sense of belonging to the region of origin of that regional product.

H4b The accessibility of regional-product information in consumers’ memory is directly and positively influenced by consumers’ involvement with the product category the regional product belongs to.

METHOD

To test the hypotheses, three studies were conducted. First, two studies, involving respectively 159 and 96 consumers, were executed to develop and validate scales required for testing the hypotheses (Due to space limitations, these studies are not discussed here). The validated scales were used to test the hypotheses. All studies were conducted in the Netherlands.

Product and Sample Selection

Our hypotheses on the determinants of regional-product information accessibility were tested for cheese. Most consumers are familiar with this product category and buy cheese on a regular basis. Further, cheeses often are marketed referring to the product’s region of origin. Next to studying specific regional products, data were gathered on generic regional products and brands. Regional products are produced only within the area referred to by the name. Generic regional products are products marketed with a regional reference although they are produced both within and outside that specific region. Brands are products marketed without referring to any region of origin. The results of the analyses of the data for the generic regional products and brands will be used as a benchmark for the results of the specific regional products. Due to their generic nature, generic regional products will not be considered a strong part of the culture and 'inheritance’ of the region. Consequently, it is expected that the total effect of consumers’ sense of belonging on information accessibility will be less profound for generic than for specific regional products. Since no regional influence is present for cheese brands, only the effect of product category involvement on information accessibility was studied.

Data were acquired through a computerized panel composed of a representative sample of Dutch households. 761 Dutch consumers who are primarily responsible for the purchases of food in their household were included in the research.

Measures

Accessibility of regional-product information was measured by means of aided recall (Alba and Hutchinson 1987). Consumers were asked whether they had ever heard of the name of the (generic) regional products and brands under consideration. The products of which a consumer was aware were coded 1. The products of which a consumer was unaware were coded 0.

Frequency of encounter was measured by asking consumers how often they encounter the name of an alternative. The frequency of encounter was measured on a 7-point scale with the end poles labeled 'hardly ever’B'very often.’ For those products of which consumers were unaware, frequency of encounter was set to zero. This way of measuring accessibility and frequency of encounter implies that the frequency-of-encounter measure 'embraces’ the accessibility measure.

Consumers’ sense of belonging to the regions of origin of all the regional products examined was measured using a three-item scale (see Table 1), which was developed and validated in two pre-studies. The items were identified through qualitative consumer interviews and a literature review (e.g., Kasarda and Janowitz 1974). Product category involvement (cheese) was measured with a three-item scale (Mittal and Lee 1989). The ongoing search for information on the product’s region of origin and the product category was measured using the two multi-item scales, developed and validated in two pre-studies. All scales were measured on 7-point Likert scales with the end poles labeled 'totally disagree’B'totally agree’ (see Table 1).

Scale Analyses

A measurement model, including consumers’ sense of belonging to a product’s region, consumers’ product category involvement and both scales measuring the ongoing search for regional and product category information, was estimated using LISREL. The correlations between all constructs as tapped by these scales were set free. Given the large sample size, we conclude that the model for regional products fitted the data reasonably well (c2(38)=379.06, p<.001, RMSEA=.055, GFI=.98, CFI=.98, TLI=.98). Identical results were found for the generic regional products and the cheese brands (excluding the ongoing search for regional information and sense of belonging). The reliability of the scales was satisfactory (see Table 1).

Setting the correlation to unity for each pair of constructs separately yielded significant chi-square increases for all products (p<.01). The same held for loading the items of each combination of constructs on one dimension. This provided support for the discriminant validity of the scales used. Since all factor loadings exceeded .7, convergent validity was supported as well (Steenkamp and Van Trijp 1991).

ANALYSES AND RESULTS

First, hypotheses H2a (b12) and H2b (b23) and H3a (g12) and H3b (g23) were tested. To test these hypotheses, the entire model was estimated (see Figure 2) both across regional products and for each regional product individually (see Table 2).

As stated by hypothesis H2a, it was found that consumers’ ongoing search for regional information positively influences the frequency with which consumers encounter regional-product information (standardized effect: b12=.17, p<.01). Second, in line with hypothesis H2b, it was found that consumers’ ongoing search for product category information positively influences the frequency of encountering regional-product information (standardized effect: b13=.04, p<.05). Note that the effect is limited and only marginally significant. The effect is not replicated for each of the individual regional products; only for Veenweide cheese, the effect is found to be significant. Hypothesis H2b is thus partly confirmed.

Consistent with hypothesis H3a, it was found that consumers’ sense of belonging to a region positively influences the amount of ongoing search for regional information (standardized effect: g12=.47, p<.01). The effect is found both across the regional products, and for each product separately. In line with hypothesis H3b, it was further found that consumers’ involvement with a product category positively affects the amount of ongoing search for product category information for regional products (standardized effect: g23=.63, p<.01). Since product category involvement and consumers’ ongoing search for product category information do not vary between regional products, the path estimats are about the same for each regional product.

TABLE 1

SCALES AND COMPOSITE RELIABILITIES

FIGURE 2

EFFECT OF CONSUMERS= SENSE OF BELONGING AND PRODUCT CATEGORY INVOLVEMENT ON FREQUENCY OF ENCOUNTER

Since our measure for accessibility is nested in our measure of frequency of encounter, we cannot directly determine the effect of frequency of encounter on the accessibility of information (Hypothesis H1). Therefore, information accessibility is directly regressed on the consumers’ ongoing search for regional and product category information (see Figure 3).

As our dependent variable is dichotomous, logistic regression analyses were used to test our hypotheses. Using the factor loadings from the structural equation analyses, for each construct, the weighted average was calculated. These weighted averages, next, were used as input for analyzing the model. [Tests were conducted to examine whether the ongoing search for regional and product category information mediates the relationship between consumers= sense of belonging and product category involvement and accessibility. Following the procedure as proposed by Baron and Kenny (1986), it was found that the effect of consumers= sense of belonging on regional-product information accessibility is partly mediated by the ongoing search for regional information. However, a significant direct effect of both consumer=s sense of belonging and product category involvement on regional-product information accessibility remained.] The results are presented in Table 3. As b5 and b6 have already been analyzed and discussed in the previous section, these will not be discussed again.

TABLE 2

EFFECT OF SENSE OF BELONGING AND PRODUCT CATEGORY INVOLVEMENT ON THE FREQUENCY OF ENCOUNTERING REGIONAL-PRODUCT INFORMATION

Consistent with hypotheses H4a and H4b, it was found that consumers’ sense of belonging and product category involvement have a direct positive influence on the accessibility of regional-product information. However, for each individual regional product, the effects were less profound; consumers’ sense of belonging primarily exerts an indirect effect on accessibility, through the ongoing search for regional information.

Further, consumers’ ongoing search for regional information positively influenced the accessibility of regional-product information. The effect of the ongoing search for product category information on the accessibility of regional-product information was not significant.

GENERIC REGIONAL PRODUCTS AND BRANDED CHEESES

As mentioned, next to studying specific regional products, data were gathered on generic regional products and branded cheese. The results are shown in Tables 2 and 3.

Because of their generic character, consumers will not perceive the generic regional product to be a strong part of the culture and 'inheritance’ of the region. Consequently, the effect of consumers’ sense of belonging on generic regional product information accessibility was expected to be less profound. As can be seen in Table 2, although significant, the effect of consumers’ sense of belonging on the ongoing search for regional information is lower for the generic regional products than for specific regional products (z=2.63, p<.05). Further, the effect of consumers’ ongoing search for regional information on the frequency of encountering that information is lower (z=2.46, p<.05). As shown in Table 3, consumers’ sense of belonging and the ongoing search for regional information have no significant effect on generic regional product information accessibility. These results suggest that, due their generic nature, the effect of consumers’ sense of belonging on information accessibility is lower for generic regional products than for specific regional products.

FIGURE 3

EFFECT OF CONSUMER SENSE OF BELONGING AND PRODUCT CATEGORY INVOLVEMENT ON REGIONAL-PRODUCT INFORMATION ACCESSIBILITY

Since branded cheeses do not refer to a region, these products merely depend on consumers’ involvement with the product category. As shown in Table 2, the effect of consumers’ ongoing search for product category information on frequency of encountering information is larger for branded cheeses than for regional products (z=3.53, p<.05). Likewise, Table 3 shows that the effect of consumers’ ongoing search for product category information on information accessibility is larger for branded cheeses than for regional products (z=5.70, p<.05). Further, the difference in effect-size is less profound when comparing the generic regional products and branded cheeses (z=1.19, p>.05). The smaller effect of consumers’ ongoing search for product category information found for regional products is expected to be due to a less extensive promotion strategy for the regional products, which results in a lower availability of regional-product information in a product-category context.

GENERAL DISCUSSION

Discussion of Results

The results suggest that the accessibility of regional-product information is enhanced by consumers’ sense of belonging to the product’s region of origin and product category involvement. Consumers’ sense of belonging influences regional-product information accessibility both directly and indirectly through the ongoing search for regional information and frequency of encountering regional-product information. The information encountered relates to the region and as such satisfies consumers’ interest in the region. However, the results also suggest that if the perceived link between the regional product and the region is weak, consumers will be less interested to process the regional-product information.

Consumers’ product category involvement increases regional-product information accessibility as well. Product category involvement merely influences regional-product information accessibility directly as a result of consumers’ increased motivation to process the information. No indirect effect of product category involvement, through the ongoing search for product category information and frequency of encountering regional-product information was found. A possible explanation for this finding may be that the amount of promotion on regional products is limited. Consequently, the frequency of encountering regional-product information will be limited, and the accessibility of that information thus will remain small.

Contributions

While most place-of-origin research focuses on the effect of the place-of-origin cue on product evaluation, our research has shown that the region-of-origin cue also affects other stages of the purchase-decision process (cf., Van Ittersum et al. 2002). More specifically, it is shown that consumers’ sense of belonging to the region of origin may influence the prepurchase search for information by influencing regional-product information accessibility. Understanding the effect of the region of origin on information accessibility increases the effectiveness of the use of this cue, and it allows us to extend our insights into the role of place-of-origin cues in general.

Our research also helps generalizing research focusing on the role of the brand-name cue in decision-making. Most research on information processing focuses on the product categories and brand names (e.g., Alba and Hutchinson 1987; Bloch et al. 1986; Mittal and Lee 1989; Park and Mittal 1985; Petty et al. 1983, 1991). Building on these studies, we show how the underlying processes also hold for the region-of-origin cue.

Likewise, we show the effect of social identities and processes in purchase decision-making processes related to products marketed based on their place of origin (Kleine et al. 1993). We show that the stronger consumers’ sense of belonging to the region, the more they will try to stay informed about what goes on in the region (by searching for and gathering regional information).

TABLE 3

EFFECT OF SENSE OF BELONGING AND PRODUCT CATEGORY INVOLVEMENT ON REGIONAL-PRODUCT INFORMATION ACCESSIBILITY (ODDS RATIOS)

Marketing Implications

Overall, the results suggest that it may be worthwhile to market products based on their region of origin. There are some important considerations though. First, the results suggest that if the perceived link between the regional product and the region is weak, consumers will be less interested to process the regional-product information. Marketers thus must prevent the name of the regional product from becoming a generic brand name with no apparent link to the region of origin. If consumers perceive the regional-product name as a generic brand name, they will no longer consider it part of te culture and 'inheritance’ of the region. Consequently, they will 'ignore’ information on the product when encountering it. If marketers, however, are able to preserve the perceived link between the product and the region, they can profit from consumers’ interest in the region and their motivation to process regional-product information.

Second, by providing consumers with regional-product information in a product-category context (the regional cheese as a cheese), and at places that are deemed appropriate for obtaining information on the product category, the effect of product category involvement on information accessibility can be heightened.

Research Limitations and Future Research

One limitation of our study concerns the fact that our accessibility measure was perfectly nested in the frequency-of-encounter measure. We assumed that consumers, who are unaware of a regional product, never have encountered the product before. In reality, this assumption does not need to hold. Consumers may have encountered the regional product before, but just do not remember that. Additional experimental setups may provide more insights into the relationship between frequency of encounter and information accessibility. In such experiments, one can manipulate the frequency of encounter and test its effect on information accessibility.

Further, more explicit measures of information accessibility, such as spontaneous recall and number of associations retrieved from memory, may be used as dependent variables in future research. Stronger effects are expected to be found when using more explicit measures of accessibility (cf., Alba and Hutchinson 1987).

CONCLUSIONS

The likelihood that a regional product enters the purchase process during the prepurchase search for information largely depends on the accessibility of regional-product information in consumers’ memory. This research has shown that the accessibility of regional-product information is enhanced by consumers’ sense of belonging to the product’s region of origin and product category involvement. It is concluded as long as marketers are able to preserve the perceived link between the product and the region, they can benefit from consumers’ interest in the region and their motivation to process regional-product information.

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