Measuring the Demand For Status Goods: an Evaluation of Means-End Chains and Laddering

ABSTRACT - The demand for status goods is inspired by social rather than by utilitarian product attributes and raises particular difficulties for consumer researchers. First, the product perceptions of statusB seekers are abstract in the extreme. Second, many statusBseeking consumers are reluctant to reveal their true buying intentions and will often not admit to purchasing for display. Indeed, they can and do go to considerable lengths to disguise their real motives.



Citation:

Roger Mason (1995) ,"Measuring the Demand For Status Goods: an Evaluation of Means-End Chains and Laddering", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 78-81.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 78-81

MEASURING THE DEMAND FOR STATUS GOODS: AN EVALUATION OF MEANS-END CHAINS AND LADDERING

Roger Mason, University of Salford

ABSTRACT -

The demand for status goods is inspired by social rather than by utilitarian product attributes and raises particular difficulties for consumer researchers. First, the product perceptions of statusB seekers are abstract in the extreme. Second, many statusBseeking consumers are reluctant to reveal their true buying intentions and will often not admit to purchasing for display. Indeed, they can and do go to considerable lengths to disguise their real motives.

MeansBend chains, together with associated laddering techniques, would appear to offer an effective vehicle for research into statusB motivated consumption. On examination, however, they do not provide a research methodology which has been demonstrated to be effective in exploring statusBseeking purchase and consumption. A new approach to empirical testing is discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Recent theoretical and empirical work into statusBmotivated consumption has brought a better understanding of such consumer behaviour and a growing realisation of the social and economic importance of "purchase for display". However, while we now understand many of the values underpinning conspicuous consumption and other forms of ostentatious display (Belk 1975; McCracken 1986; Hirschman 1990), little progress has been made in developing conceptual models and measurement techniques appropriate to such behaviour.

A major difficulty arises from the fact that the motives for status consumption are particularly abstract. For the conspicuous consumer, the important attributes associated with any given product are social rather than utilitarian, and evaluation of purchase consequences is unusual in that it is for the most part decided by the opinions (real or imagined) of "relevant others". Consumers construct meanings about product categories, forms, brands and models in terms of expected target audience reaction rather than in terms of value in use. Opinions therefore are formed either on the basis of personal (subjective) judgement, past purchase experience, by observation or through other messages received and accepted as valid.

One possible way forward in exploring product symbolism and consumer behaviour at these levels of abstraction is offered by meansBend chains. These chains are claimed to "provide a theoretical basis for modelling the critically important relationship between product and self...and a conceptual basis for a measurement methodology B laddering B by which these meanings can be identified" (Olson, 1989). The relevance and value of meansBend chains and laddering to statusBseeking purchase and consumption are now examined in greater detail.

MEANSBEND CHAINS AND THE DEMAND FOR STATUS GOODS

Gutman (1982) defined a meansBend chain as one that "seeks to explain how a product or service selection facilitates the achievement of desired end states. Such a model consists of elements that represent the major consumer processes that link values to behavior". In essence, such models focus on three elements B product attributes, purchase consequences and personal values B and on how these are used by consumers to categorize various product offerings and to reach decisions on product choice.

Gutman's work developed on earlier research by Rokeach (1973), Young and Feigin (1975), Vinson, Scott and Lamont (1977) and Howard (1977). Products, it is argued, have salience when they are the means by which individuals can achieve endBstates which are of particular value to them. The linkage between a product and any valued endBstate is provided by purchase consequences as they are perceived (rightly or wrongly) by the consumer. Hence the "chain" runs from product through purchase to value.

Following work by Gutman and Reynolds (1977; 1979), the generic meansBend chain (attributes ¦ consequences ¦values) was presented by Gutman in 1982 as a chain of associated concepts running from product characteristics through choice criteria and instrumental values to terminal values. This model was later elaborated by Olson and Reynolds (1983) and Peter and Olson (1987) to produce a sixBlevel meansBend chain which distinguished between concrete and abstract product attributes, functional and psychosocial purchase consequences, and both instrumental and terminal values. This more detailed model offers, prima facie, a structure for the exploration of the process of statusBseeking consumption.

For prestigeBseeking consumers, product attributes are strongly associated with selfBimage and self concept and, as Olson and Reynolds (1983) argue, this has direct implications for the level of abstraction brought to bear on product evaluation:

Representations that are relatively direct reflections of physical features of the product (for example, color) may be considered concrete, or low in abstraction. Representations that are recordings of several concrete attributes (for example, style) involve higherBorder meanings and are more abstract....At the highest levels of abstraction, we can represent a product in terms of the values that may be achieved by its purchase and use. Obviously, such values are tied closely to our ideas of self (essentially, by definition) and they are very abstract B that is, they are several levels away from any physical referent (1983, p.80).

With regard to statusBseeking consumption, these highest levels of abstraction apply, for values extend beyond self to the esteem of others. Consequently, positive product attributes are strongly linked to high social visibility and product status; more concrete physical or utilitarian product benefits are of secondary importance to the potential buyer.

Whilst relations between product attributes and purchase consequences are often clearBcut and easy to determine, the high levels of abstraction associated with ostentatious display make this linkage far more difficult with regard to status goods. The valued endBstate associated with all forms of conspicuous consumption is social recognition and public esteem, but calculations as to the consequences of any purchase as it is observed by others are clearly difficult to make. The wouldBbe "purchaser" of social recognition, therefore, can have great difficulty judging between alternative product groupings which are perceived as potentially statusBconferring, and choices from within this evoked set are not easy.

With reference to the sixBlevel meansBend chain, the hierarchical structure of meanings for statusBseeking consumers runs from highly abstract product attributes, through purchase consequences which are by their very nature psychosocial, to terminal values of social recognition and the esteem of others. And while meansBend chains can, at the extreme, accommodate these highest levels of abstraction and offer a framework for causal analysis within and between levels, they can only operate at the theoretical level if problems of measurement can be overcome.

LADDERING AND STATUSBSEEKING CONSUMPTION

The difficulties associated with measuring highly abstract patterns of consumer behaviour have been recognised since work into motivation research developed in the 1950s. Serious reservations were then expressed about the reliability of psychological measuring techniques and practitioners were warned against overBreliance on their accuracy (Britt, 1954; 1955). In particular, researchers were often unable to strike a balance between objective performance factors and subjective emotional factors underlying a consumer's purchase decision. And individual respondents could be greatly influenced in their replies by social considerations:

The individual may refuse to admit the true reasons for a particular purchase out of a fear that he may expose himself in an unfavorable manner. Instead, he may offer reasons which seem to be socially acceptable (Engel, 1961, p.29)

As these problems of measurement became selfBevident, so the appeal of motivation research declined. However, this early work prompted research into more sophisticated measuring techniques. MeansBend chain theory, developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, could not sensibly progress without a measurement methodology which could accommodate both concrete and abstract dimensions and in 1984 Reynolds and Gutman proposed that laddering theory, an extension of the repertory grid analysis developed by Kelly in the 1950s, offered a productive framework for developing an appropriate interviewing and analysis methodology. Laddering was defined as:

An inBdepth, oneBonBone interviewing technique used to develop an understanding of how consumers translate the attributes of products into meaningful associations with respect to self, following MeansBEnd Theory (Gutman, 1982). Laddering involves a tailored interviewing format using primarily a series of directed probes, typified by the "why is that important to you?" question, with the express goal of determining sets of linkages between the key perceptual elements across the range of attributes (A), consequences (C) and values (V). (Reynolds and Gutman, 1988, p.12).

Such "ladders", or perceptual orientations, it is argued, allow researchers to identify those elements or combination of elements, at different levels of abstraction, which the consumer uses to make distinctions between and among products in a given class or category. By sequentially eliciting elements relating to a particular product, real consumption motives are revealed which only come to light when a respondent thinks critically about attribute¦consequence¦value connections. Information such as this gives analysts real insight into consumer perceptions of product or brand and reveals possibly unsuspected reasons for purchase. Laddering, therefore, can uncover meansBend hierarchies and their linkages.

Whilst laddering may offer an inBdepth understanding of the consumer, however, two basic problems are acknowledged. First, respondents may be unable to say why they hold certain views or can not articulate a ready reason. Reynolds and Gutman (1988) suggest that this can be dealt with by adopting a process of "negative laddering" by which respondents are asked what would happen if the attribute or consequence in question was not delivered. The "nonconscious" reason can then, it is argued, be indirectly discovered. However, the potential error factor associated with this approach remains uncomfortably high.

Second, and more significantly for this study, laddering meets with difficulties when sensitive issues are being probed and when the interviewing process becomes increasingly personal. In such circumstances, respondents are less at ease with questioning and answers may be less than honest. Clearly, also, enquiries into statusBlinked consumption raise issues which are both sensitive and personal and which may cause many respondents to be defensive.

The problem is not always acute, for varying degrees of sensitivity have been noted with regard to conspicuous consumption. For some, open admission that purchases are being made for status gains poses no problem and this openness of response allows laddering techniques to reveal motives and to then establish the meansBend chain. A majority of consumers, however, will feel it to be in their best interests to deny that they are "statusBseeking" through purchase and consumption. Such denials are often rational and necessary, for many social groups and "relevant others" insist that social recognition and status are conferred upon but not overtly sought by individuals (Mason, 1981). These attitudes can only encourage statusBseeking consumers to disguise their true motives, and in these circumstances consumer sensitivity to questioning becomes a significant interviewing factor.

Reynolds and Gutman (1988) recognised that heightened consumer sensitivity to highly personal questions could pose a problem and proposed three techniques which, they argued, could be used to overcome these difficulties. First, interviews could be moved into a thirdBperson format and the interviewee invited to roleBplay; second, the interviewer could reveal (fabricated) information about him/herself to help break down respondent inhibitions; third, the problem area could be "noted" and returned to later in the interview if and when other relevant information was to hand.

With regard to statusBseeking behaviour, thirdBperson probes can offer insights into an individual's perception of what constitutes statusBdriven consumption. However, they are of limited value. In circumstances where the product in question is already owned by the interviewee, then he or she may well deny that it is a status good and may attribute utilitarian rather than social motives to thirdBparty purchasers as a means of avoiding guilt by association. More importantly, perhaps, the reasoning underpinning use of this technique is flawed; it assumes that motives attributed by respondents to third parties B friends, acquaintances etc. B are, in reality, their own concealed motives for purchase, and this "transference" is not legitimate. There is no evidence (and Reynolds and Gutman offer none) to suggest that such thirdB person probes reveal interviewee motives. Even if roleBplaying techniques were able to identify statusBlinked behaviour with any certainty, they offer no information on consumers' rank ordering of acceptable product categories or brands within categories in terms of their status value. Finally, thirdB person probes break with the central tenet of laddering theory which is to keep the focus of discussion on the individual respondent.

The second proposed approach, which allows for the interviewer to "admit" to similar personal ambitions and behaviour B in this case, statusBseeking B in order to lower respondent inhibitions, is theoretically attractive. As a technique, its greatest potential lies in prompting discussion of issues which are intensely personal and potentially embarrassing to respondents. However, its real value in opening up social realities and interpersonal motives must be more questionable. Interviewer confessions to being snobs or conspicuous consumers lack emotional content and are unlikely to establish a more intimate rapport between interviewer and respondent. Furthermore, should the interviewee respond positively by owning to the same statusBled ambitions, there is no way of establishing the credibility of such confessions. The technique may well remove interpersonal barriers, although no evidence is offered; however, the legitimacy of what is then reported can not be established.

Finally, the option of "noting" sensitivities with a view to returning to them at a later stage in the interviewing process as and when circumstances seem more favourable is again open to question. It offers researchers no structured plan of action but rather promotes a waitBandBhope approach to a particularly difficult area of research. Implicit is a belief that, as personal relationships develop between interviewer and respondent, so barriers to frank discussion are lowered and issues of greater sensitivity can be actively and honestly explored. This may well be so, but no evidence is offered. In any event, only when interviewing takes place over an extended period of time, measured in weeks and months rather than in hours, could such behaviour changes become apparent.

THE STATUSBSEEKING CONSUMER

The interviewing techniques proposed by Reynolds and Gutman to probe issues of heightened sensitivity offer no persuasive solution to the particular problems associated with statusBdriven consumption when respondents determine to deny their motives. Moreover, in addition to these interviewing problems, further complications arise in attempting to explore the demand for status goods and services. To understand why, the nature of statusBseeking consumer behaviour needs to be revisited.

In recognising the difficulties of exploring particularly sensitive issues, Reynolds and Gutman acknowledge:

reaction to the continued probing "Why is that important to you?" question about sensitive issues can vary from "waffling" (redefining the question at an equal or lower level) to stating "don't know", silence, or even formulating extraneous arguments as an attempt to talk round the issue. Also, the respondent can manifest avoidance behavior by attaching negative or adverse characteristics to the interviewing process or to the interviewer (1988, pp.15B16).

Certainly, many sensitive issues may produce this response. However, statusBseeking conspicuous consumers have no need to resort to any of the above measures; exceptionally, they are able to respond to questions in such a way that credible, statusBfree reasons for purchase are offered. In so doing, "summary ladders" are created which appear to explain the reasons for a particular product choice B reasons which are persuasive but which are, in fact, false. And it is the very nature of status goods which allows these false yet convincing ladders to be created.

SociallyBvisible, highBstatus goods share one characteristic B they carry a premium price which is intended, in part, to reflect their social value. However, product price is also strongly associated with product quality, and in choosing to pay high prices, statusBseeking consumers can claim to be purchasing tangible product quality rather than social status. Real motives can therefore easily be concealed by reference to product attributes and purchase consequences which have no apparent status connotations but which nonetheless seem entirely rational and convincing. As an example, consumers purchasing automobiles primarily for their status value can (and do) claim to have based their purchase decision on engineering excellence. "Quality" is then the purchase consequence and "ownership of nothing but the best" the valued endBstate. These responses are picked up at interview and result in the creation of false summary ladders. In effect, conspicuous consumers can be bogus utilitarians whose real motives for purchase are statusBrelated but these are not identified by the laddering procedure.

At the theoretical level, therefore, laddering may fail for three principal reasons. First, statusBseeking consumers are by their very nature an exceptional group. They explore what McCracken (1986) describes as the cultural meaning of consumer goods, and take their cues concerning the social effectiveness of product categories, forms, brands and models from a variety of sources. Advertising and the fashion system act as two principal instruments of meaning transfer, and additional information comes from personal (subjective) judgement, from audience reaction to past purchases and from observation. Other messages are also effective. Gutman (1982) points out that judgements about the status of certain products may be inferred from the fact that they are stocked by highBstatus retail stores or, conversely, by discount stores carrying little or no prestige value. Once the necessary quantity and quality of information is to hand, statusBseeking consumers then construct an elaborate "reverse" meansBend chain for their target audience, running from target group values through consequences to product attributes.

Second, the special nature of purchase for display heightens consumer sensitivity to interview. Social objectives lie at the heart of conspicuous consumption, but a central tenet of laddering is to keep the focus of discussion on the person rather than on the product or service. As Reynolds and Gutman concede: "this is not an easy task because typically at some point the respondent realizes that the product seems to have disappeared from the conversation" (1988, p.18). For the conspicuous consumer in particular, any focus on personal goals and ambitions can increase sensitivity to the point where no ladder is able to emerge from interview, and this reluctance is compounded by the fact that overt statusBseeking is often socially unacceptable and must not be revealed.

Third, concealment is made easy by the fact that products purchased for Veblen, bandwagon or snob effects are premium priced and so allow respondents to avoid negative responses and to use recognised price/quality perceptions to (positively) explain purchases on the grounds of utilitarian excellence. This ability to rationalise what are in effect statusBdirected purchases subsequently distorts the content analysis process by overstating the importance of "quality" and "reward" in purchase decisions.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

It has never been claimed that laddering will invariably produce a meansBend chain and two principal reasons for failure are given in the literature. First, respondents may be inarticulate and simply unable to answer questions; second, they may be hostile and unwilling to respond. However, a third reason for failure is possible where statusBseeking behaviour is involved, for conspicuous consumers can appear to be willing respondents but have the ability to build entirely convincing yet false ladders to explain their market behaviour. While meansBend chains may be able, at the extreme, to describe statusBseeking consumer behaviour at the theoretical level, the effectiveness of laddering measurement techniques is more questionable; the argument that such interview probes are able to identify status consumers in the marketplace within acceptable confidence limits is far from persuasive. At the same time, there is no reported evidence to show that laddering methodologies are not able to identify such consumer motives and further empirical work needs to be done in this area.

For any empirical test to succeed, certain realities concerning statusBmotivated consumer behaviour will have to be accepted. First, it is not rational to assume that an individual's attitude towards, or consumption of, any one product reveals a general propensity to conspicuously consume. Those consumers who are highly sensitive to the statusBgiving attributes of products will bring such sensitivities to bear on many purchasing and consumption decisions rather than on only one isolated purchase. In short, they will endeavour to make status gains by purchasing a wide range of status goods which, singly, may secure little or no advantage but which, taken together, project a consistent set of statusBconferring values, attitudes and tastes to a target audience.

The symbolic complementarity of sets of products has long been recognised. As early as 1899, Veblen was arguing that individuals acquire an inventory of statusBconferring goods to communicate social class standing, and subsequent claims based on observation and report are commonplace in the literature. More recently, however, the concept of a "consumption constellation" construct has been developed to describe these symbolic interdependencies, and this has allowed empirical research to establish that social role can and does explain shared consumption patterns among consumers who have similar social and status aspirations (Solomon and Assael 1987; Solomon 1988; Solomon and Buchanan 1991). This ability to empirically demonstrate evidence of shared symbolic consumption among likeBminded consumer groups whose purchases are heavily influenced by social role considerations is important in and of itself. At the same time, it can be taken further and used to good effect in the evaluation of specific consumer research methodologies, including laddering, which are claimed to reveal consumer reasoning and motivations relating to the demand for status goods.

In the past, attempts to test the validity of techniques claiming to tap unavailable or hidden motives have failed because there has been no mechanism to properly evaluate consumer responses and no way of determining the extent to which respondents are giving false answers, evading questions or constructing bogus "ladders" to explain their market behaviour. A research methodology must therefore be constructed which recognises respondents' opportunities to deceive but which is able to detect the degree of deception or honesty in their reponses. It is here that research into consumption constellations, offering prior knowledge of consumers' statusBdriven consumption, is of real value and relevance. By sampling from within a group whose statusBdriven consumption motives across a set, or "constellation", of products are already known, the effectiveness of laddering techniques in revealing such consumption behaviour relative to a single product from within the product set can be measured. Laddering will then either confirm the known statusBlinked motives of the consumer or will fail to do so, and in this way laddering effectiveness is itself measured. Furthermore, it will be possible to measure the degree to which "bogus" utilitarianism is deployed by statusBseekers as a means of concealing real motives.

Summarising, current arguments supporting the use of meansBend chains and laddering in status consumption research are clearly open to criticism. At the theoretical level, the effectiveness of laddering methodologies in particular has been questioned. Empirical testing is needed, but this must recognise that statusBseeking consumption is confirmed by patterns of consumption rather than by single purchases and that the opportunity afforded to respondents to misinform and mislead is not controllable. The use of consumption constellation constructs may offer a productive way forward.

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Authors

Roger Mason, University of Salford



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995



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