Symbolic Consumption and the Situational Self

ABSTRACT - In the debate about the relationship between consumption, identity and self there has been a growing challenge to the view of self as an 'indivisible entity'. In this paper we argue that the ,situational self' can offer insights into the interaction between consumption, identity and context because it embodies the idea of a 'multi-layered self' derived from a series of situations related to different roles and different products and brands. We report the findings from a multi-method study which confirmed that product and brand symbolism is dynamic, context dependent and culturally bound.


Margaret K. Hogg and Maria H. Savolainen (1998) ,"Symbolic Consumption and the Situational Self", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 11-16.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 11-16


Margaret K. Hogg, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, England

Maria H. Savolainen, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, England

[The authors would like to thank Research International, Finland for sponsoring this study.]


In the debate about the relationship between consumption, identity and self there has been a growing challenge to the view of self as an 'indivisible entity'. In this paper we argue that the ,situational self' can offer insights into the interaction between consumption, identity and context because it embodies the idea of a 'multi-layered self' derived from a series of situations related to different roles and different products and brands. We report the findings from a multi-method study which confirmed that product and brand symbolism is dynamic, context dependent and culturally bound.


The symbolic and instrumental aspects of consumption have been identified in a number of studies (Levy 1959; Hirschman and Holbrook 1980; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Prentice 1987; Kamptner 1991). However, in the debate about the relationship between consumption, identity and self there has been a growing challenge to the view of self as an 'indivisible entity' (Kleine, Kleine and Keman 1993:211). In this study we investigate situational self concept (Schenk and Holman 1980) and we argue that the 'situational self' can offer insights into the interaction between consumption, identity and context because it embodies the idea of a 'multi-dimensional self' derived from a series of situations related to different roles and different products and brands.

Self concept and the situational self

Self-concept incorporates the 'cognitive and affective understanding of who and what we are' (Schouten 1991:413) and is highly sensitive to social and situational contexts (Schouten 1991). Researchers have explored a range of self concepts (Belk 1988; Morgan 1993; Markus and Ruvolo 1989; Ogilvie and Fleming 1996)). Schenk and Holman (1980) adopted a symbolic interactionist approach to self, and proposed the situational self concept which is 'the meaning of self an individual wishes others to have of him/ herself' (Schenk and Holman 1980:611). The situational selfconcept linked the psychological and sociological aspects of consumers' views of self and product/brand images. Situational self captures the notion of the interdependency between consumption, context and self; and embodies the idea of a 'multi-layered self' derived from a series of situations related to different roles and different products and brands.

Two factors link self-concept to marketing in general and to consumer research in particular: product symbolism and self-concept/brand image congruity (Sirgy 1980). The basic propositions of Grubb and Grathwohl's model (1967) clarified the relationship between product image and consumer self-image and the instrumental role of product symbolism in that interaction. According to this view, the relationship between self-concept and product or brand image influences product evaluations, and hence affects consumer behaviour.

Questions have been raised about three issues. Firstly, about the tendency to relate products to the global or overall self (Kleine, Kleine and Keman 1992, 1993). We concentrate specifically on ,situational self concept' in order to reflect the recognition that:

"the significance of a product to consumers depends on which of their identities it enables and the importance of that identity-what it contributes to their overall sense of self' (Kleine, Kleine and Keman 1993:210).

The second set of issues concern the tendency to see 'product image' as unproblematic interpretations of individual consumers (Dittmar 1992.99). In order for a symbol to convey meaning it has to be socially recognized (Grubb and Grathwohl 1967:24). Products must fulfil certain conditions to communicate symbolic meaning: conspicuousness/visibility; personalisability; and variability (Sirgy 1980). Solomon (1983) argued that product symbolism functions in two ways: either as a response or as a stimulus. In exploring the situational self-concept, this study examines both these aspects of product symbolism.

The third set of issues relate to the context or situation in which the relevant role is enacted by the consumer. A context or situation can be defined as "a discrete time and place occupied by one or more persons" (Belk 1975: 157). Consumption situations include: physical and social surroundings, temporal perspective, task definition and antecedent states (Belk 1975: 159). Situational research in consumer behaviour has demonstrated how consumers prefer different brands for different consumption situations, and hence situational self-concept helps explain variance in brand choice (Schenk and Holman 1980:612). The role of the public/private context in understanding product images (Bearden and Etzel 1982) and consumers' views of possessions (Richins 1994a; 1994b) is well established. Self-image/brand-image is moderated by situation conspicuousness; and thus situational factors need to be recognized when exploring the congruity between self image, product image and consumption choices.


Wylie (1974) offered a substantial critique of the methodologies traditionally employed in studies of self concept (Q-sorts and semantic differentials); and particularly the ambiguity of personality theorists in their treatment of phenomena] and non phenomenal aspects of self. Most consumer research has concentrated on examining actual and ideal self concept using semantic differentials. Situational self concept remains a largely unexplored area.

We used a multi-method approach to generate quantitative and qualitative data in an exploratory study of situational self-concept. The study employed a research design which combined group discussions with projective techniques (collages) and questionnaires (with semantic differentials) to explore the congruity between situational self-concept and product/brand image among a small group of consumers. Belk (1975:161) suggested using projective techniques to explore situational scenarios, and this has been taken into account here. We concentrated on qualitative research whose main objective is to "explicate ways people in particular settings come to understand, account for, take action and otherwise manage their daily lives" (Miles and Huberman 1994: 67). Also, qualitative methods have been relatively neglected in self-concept research. We wanted to examine the feasibility of a triangulation of methods in this exploratory study.

Brands of lager were studied because image congruity has been found to be especially significant for mature products including alcoholic beverages (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982). This study replicated and extended an earlier U.S. study (Graeff 1996) which had reported that choice of beer brand (Heineken and Budweiser) differed significantly across public and private situations. This study examined consumers' views-within the context of their social surroundings-of the brands: Heineken and Budweiser.

Research Objectives

The research objectives were: firstly, to identify the brand images of lagers, including Heineken and Budweiser, within the product category of alcoholic beverages; secondly, to explore the influence of the public and private situation on brand image and brand choice; thirdly, to elicit the unconscious/sub conscious and conscious aspects of the individuals' self concepts in public and private social settings; and fourthly to examine the congruency between brand image and brand choice in different social settings (represented by public and private consumption situations) and the participants' situational self images.



Fourteen young adults (aged between 22 and 25) participated in the study. We chose this age group specifically because younger consumers have been shown to demonstrate greater awareness of product symbolism (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982). Potential participants were screened to establish whether they drank beer and lager; and whether they were familiar with both brands of lager used in the study.

Three phase data collection

A three-phase research design used three focus groups to explore the images of products and brands; consumers' situational self images; and the situational and contextual factors which influenced consumers' situational self images and their product and brand choices. In the first phase, each focus group discussed the images associated with beer and lager (at product and brand level); the situational factors which influenced their product and brand choices; and the links between the product and brand images and the public and private settings for consumption. These discussions were taped, transcribed, and analyzed using 'inductive categorisation' (Spiggle 1994:493) to identify and code themes (Miles and Huberman 1994).

In the second phase, a projective technique was used and each focus group undertook a collage exercise. Brand images and self-concepts are, to a great extent, subconscious or unconscious-part of the nonphenomenal self-and are therefore difficult to verbalize. It was hoped that the projective technique, using collages, would stimulate a free-flow of associations 'to uncover and identify deep, normally unacknowledged feelings'(Hollander). Working in pairs, the participants in each focus group were invited to compile two collages. [The stimulus material was: Cosmopolitan (targeted at fashion and health conscious young women; The Face (targeted towards young men); Time (upscale; current affairs, culture, news and science); Radio Times (wide ranging readership; highest quality image in its group).] For the first collage they were invited to reflect how they saw themselves in the public or private situation when consuming the product or brand (situational self concept). The second collage was to illustrate how they saw the brand in that public or private situation (brand image of Heineken or Budweiser). This allowed the congruity of situational self-image and brand image to be explored using a projective technique. The participants were invited to interpret the collages themselves, and the collages along with their descriptions and explanations formed a database which was ordered and interpreted using content analysis techniques (Holsti 1969, Kassaijian 1977); categorization (Spiggle 1994); and the coding of themes - typical, discrepant and negative (Miles and Huberman 1994).

In the third phase a questionnaire with semantic differential scales was administered to the three groups. The administration of the questionnaire instrument complemented the exploration of the subconscious or unconscious levels of brand and self concept, by eliciting more conscious aspects of self-concept and brand image from the participants using semantic differential scales. The instrument was derived from Graeff (1996). Using Dolich's logic (1969) Graeff's bipolar adjectives were categorized within the semantic space as: evaluative; potency; activity; novelty. [Evaluative: youthful -mature; formal -informal; unsuccessful -successful; urban-rural. Potency: rugged-delicate; masculine-feminine. Activity: excitable-calm; economical-extravagant; tense-relaxed. Novelty: modem-old-fashioned.] The public and private situations were drawn directly from Graeff (1996). For the private situation, participants were asked to imagine buying beer to drink at home (e.g. while watching a rented video or a favourite T.V. show). For the public situation, participants were asked to imagine themselves out with friends at a pub, bar, club or restaurant; and to recognize that many people would see them drinking the brand of beer which they had chosen to consume. Information was also collected on the sociological and economic factors which influenced the respondents' choices of alcoholic beverage products.


Beer Drinking Habits

The majority of the participants consumed beer and lager between two to four times a week. The amount of beer consumed depended largely on the time factor (temporal perspective, (Belk 1988)). Drinking beer was seen as a significant element of socializing and was linked to relaxation:

John: "It's as much going to a pub as drinking a beer...

Brand Image and Brand Choice

Budweiser was perceived as having a very American image and as being well-known. 'Be collages for Budweiser illustrated the American theme with pictures of cowboys, Elvis Presley, Bill Clinton and the Stars and Stripes; and Budweiser was also associated in the collages with other American brands(Coca Cola; Pepsi; Marlboro; and Caterpillar). Budweiser was characterized as having 'general acceptability' and being 'the best'. The typical drinker of Budweiser was seen as young, male, single, professional. His appearance was seen as 'smart casual' and he was most closely associated with the brand names: Levi and Gap.

Heineken projected quite a different image. Its country of origin was not as clear: it was seen as either German or Scandinavian. The collages suggested two different images for Heineken: on the one hand it was seen as 'not trendy', 'cheap' and having a 'horrible image'; on the other hand it was described as 'solid'; ,acceptable'; 'safe'; 'not scurvy'; 'not over the top.' The typical Heineken drinker was seen as male, single, generally older and blue-collar. The Heineken drinker was described as' casual', and he was most closely associated with such brand names as Top Man, Fila and Adidas.

In the group discussions, many lager brands were seen as undifferentiated. Participants described evaluating lagers on the basis of their inherent attributes such as taste, price, strength, country of origin, or advertising or image in general. Brand image was low in the list of the participants' priorities. Men argued that brand image did not affect their brand choice as much as other factors such as social context or taste:

Nick: "It's not the brand influence... It's the people around you more than anything"

Paul: "I would not drink Special Brew, not because of its image but because of its taste" .

Some of the women respondents acknowledged the effect of brand image on their choice. Brands of lager seemed to have similar images. The most commonly available lagers were not personal is able enough to allow the formation of an image of a typical drinker. A few specific brand images were evaluated in terms of the stereotypical consumer:

Phil "Like you have Mexican beers.. [Son it was associated with a yuppie kind of image"

John "If you drink a half-litre can [of Special Brew], then you're obviously a pisshead.. you feel like a sad bastard if they saw you drinking Special Brew".

The significance of brand image as a selection criterion diminishes where the brand image does not provide clues about the person.

Images of Beer Containers

Whilst brand image was not always a significant influence on choice, the packaging and the way in which beer was served in public situations such as pubs, bars and clubs emerged as a crucial criterion in all the group discussions. Ile images of beer containers [Refers to all the different forms of packaging and serving beer, including, bottles, cans and on draught (i.e. pints and half pints).] were found to differ considerably and allowed inferences to be drawn about others based on their choice of beer container.

Jonathan "Suppose you saw a group of men and they all stood in the bar with pints in a club.. they're not gonna dance; they're not going to move around... if they've got bottles.. it looks like they're more in business and they're gonna get up for the next song, they're gonna go sharking.."

The strong images of containers suggest that they can serve as tools for communicating an individual's self image to others.

Nick: "The thing about a bottle.. it's got a label on it. You don't get a label with a pint glass unless it's Guinness, everyone knows what it looks like anyway".

Bottles were perceived predominantly as trendy by both sexes. A few men regarded bottles as posy. Pints were generally considered to be conservative

Tom "A pint gives images of an old man.. You drink a pint in a pub whereas you drink a bottle in a night-club"

The primary choice was often between containers rather than between brands. One reason for this may be that a container can be seen from a longer distance in larger (and often darker) spaces such as pubs and clubs; and therefore the container a person holds is far more conspicuous than the brand on that container, especially on bottles and cans.

Influence of situational factors on brand image and brand choice

Social and physical surroundings have an important influence on brand image and brand choice. Most participants described the situations in which they drank beer as informal. Situations involving friends were seen as the most informal. The formality of a situation depended on the presence of different people, and the nature of the relationship with those people. Where the relationships in the group were more formal, the participants talked about drinking less, and controlling their drinking more:

Phil: "The more formal the occasion, the less I drink".

Social factors had an important influence on their choice of alcoholic beverage, for instance identification with a group:

Mark: "You go with the flow" Phil: "It depends on who you're with.."

Buyer identity also influenced product and brand choice in three ways. Firstly, respondents said that out of politeness they would drink a brand of beer which someone else bought(even if this was a brand they would have rejected under other circumstances):

Ann: "If someone bought me a pint of.. Carling Black Label, I would drink it but I wouldn't buy it myself'

Secondly, respondents would sometimes select a more expensive drink if someone else was buying. Thirdly, when buying in rounds, participants tended to select the cheapest brands to purchase.

Situational self images

Social and physical surroundings also have an important influence on situational self-concept because individuals evaluate themselves in the light of who is present in a given public or private situation. The presence of different people affected the situational self concept; and participants acknowledged that they wanted to be seen differently depending on the social surroundings.

"Me private situational self-concept was sometimes related to loneliness, but it was also linked to relaxation and indulgence. In the collages the association between relaxation and the private situational self concept was demonstrated by pictures of casually dressed people relaxing, various types of snack food, couches, TVs and videos. Friends and family were sometimes included in these collages, although others represented the private situation as solitary.

The public situational self concept was perceived as active and outgoing:

Paul: "..If I'm in a pub.. I'm enjoying myself, it's active.. so I do perceive myself differently in different situations".

Relaxation was also a theme in the collages associated with public self concept, but here the collages showed the routine of getting ready to go out, and included designer labels such as Armani, Calvin Klein and Moschino; and referred to 'trying to be cool'; 'showing off'; and 'being pretentious'. There was evidence of the participants' desire to identify with their current reference group, and this demonstrated the interconnection between the working self-concept (Cantor, Markus, Niedenthal and Nurius 1986) and the situational self.

Semantic differential scales were used to examine the more conscious aspects of the situational self. The major difference between the private and public situational self-concepts occurred on the bipolar adjectives: economical-extravagant. The public self was perceived as much more extravagant. The main adjective characterizing the private self-concept was informal.

Congruency between brand image, brand choice and situational self images

When brand images can be characterized in terms of the stereotypical consumer, then a brand image can be transferable to the drinker and image congruity is a relevant evaluative criterion. In the case of some products (e.g. Heineken, Mexican beers and Special Brew), participants believed that the image of the typical drinker would be transferred to them should they drink the brand, so they rejected those brands.

Brand image appeared to be more influential as a rejection rather than as a selection criterion, particularly in the public situation where it functioned in two ways. First, some participants -rejected brands with an image which was seen as too 'trendy or posy'; and some brands were rejected because of their low image.


The findings confirmed that situation is an important factor in determining both self-concept and in interpreting brand image. In general the collages indicated that the focus of an individual's attention tends to shift from internal in a private situation to external in a public situation. In a private situation the individual describes his own feelings and perspectives and pays less attention to the surroundings. Situational self concept involves social comparisons in the public context so that in the public situation the focus is on the external and other people and the surroundings are described in the collages.

Our research showed that situational variables are important for understanding the public or private context in which different brands are chosen. Important factors which influenced the view of ,situational self' included: firstly the social roles involved and also the size of the social group (e.g. who was being entertained, and by whom); secondly the formality of the occasion (e.g. a private situation could involve both formal and informal occasions for instance a dinner party compared with a quiet night watching T.V); and thirdly the physical characteristics of the situation (e.g. scruffy pub versus trendy bar).

The findings indicate that situational self-concept influences the way brands are evaluated and selected in different consumption situations. The relatively minor role of brand image in decision-making may be due to the largely undifferentiated image of brands in the product category of lagers. The significance of the brand image as a selection criterion diminishes where the brand image does not provide clues about a person.

The findings suggest that situational self-concept/container image congruity is considerably more influential on choice than high situational self-concept/brand image congruity. The congruity with container image was a 'discrepant' finding which was difficult to explore in greater depth within the existing data. However, the findings can be incorporated into a model to clarify the relationship among situational factors, the level of choice and the symbolism inherent in product and brand images (Figure 1).

Drinks, containers (glasses or bottles of beer) and brands were all evaluated differently according to these social-situational factors; for instance respondents expressed preferences for bottled lager when drinking with friends in a club. Consumers made three levels of choices: superordinate (which type of alcohol to drink); basic (which type of container to choose); and subordinate (which brand to select). The important level of choice was often the basic level-i.e. which container to choose, rather than which brand to purchase.

Solomon (1983) argued that product symbolism functions in two ways: either as a response or as a stimulus. We explored both these functions of product symbolism in this study. When products operate as responses, the concern is with the effects of economic, psychological and sociological variables on consumers' choice of product. In this study, the main psychological and sociological variables which influenced consumers' choices were the image which they wished to portray in the public setting; and the characteristics of the situation in which the beverage is consumed (e.g. with friends, in a public setting). However the emphasis was on economic aspects when the group discussion turned to the choice of lager to drink; although the context was also important (e.g. who was buying the round; if they were out drinking or clubbing; or if they were entertaining at home).

When products operate as stimuli, the interest is in the products as cues for impression management. In this study of lager products, the groups recognized how Heineken and Budweiser could be used to enhance self images-and particularly to assert and reinforce membership of informal groups which were seen to be of central importance to the respondents. However, participants generally associated this behaviour with other drinkers, rather than with themselves.

The findings also supported the view that product symbolism is dynamic, context dependent and culturally bound. This is illustrated by a comparison of the results of the earlier study (Graeff 1996) of U.S. consumers' view of the images of the beer brands: Heineken and Budweiser with the findings from this exploratory study of European consumers. Graeff (1996:5) suggested an association between Heineken beer and 'upper-class sophistication'; and between Budweiser and 'middle class masculinity'. A second experiment (Graeff 1996c:7) indicated the association between Heineken and formal dining (e.g. with a new boss and senior colleagues) and between Budweiser and 'drinking with friends'.

The brand images of Heineken and Budweiser in this U.K. study overlapped with the findings from the earlier study (Graeff 1996) which had identified the European aspects of the Heineken brand, and the American aspects of the Budweiser brand. However, in our study the interpretation of these brand images was often the reverse of the American study, which had seen Heineken as 'upscale' and Budweiser as a 'buddy drink, and rather downscale in comparison with Heineken'. In the U.K. groups the interpretations of the brand images was not as clear cut; and in some instances were the opposite of the American interpretations. Budweiser was seen by the British respondents as American and upscale; whereas Heineken was seen as a European brand, often with a lower image.




This was a small scale study with findings specifically related to one group of consumers (young beer drinkers). Since the respondents were drawn from a homogeneous group (younger consumers) it is difficult to generalize the specific findings to a wider population. However, the findings did indicate that empirical studies of the situational self could contribute substantially to extending our understanding of how the congruity of self image and product image contributes to decision-making among consumers, and the important influence of contextual and situational factors in influencing product and brand choice.

The research also indicated the variability of self image depending on situational and contextual factors, which supports the view that understanding how the situational self-concept 'fits' into the more global view of self embodied by the holistic self-concept, would enhance understanding of the links between symbolic consumption, identity and self (Meine et a] 1992, 1993; Ogilvie and Fleming 1996).

Situational self-concept has remained largely unexplored via empirical studies. If product symbolism is dynamic, culturally bound and context dependent, then it is important to recognize how alternative interpretations of both situations and symbols contribute to consumers' different constructions of their identities and sense of self.


[a complete set of references is available on request]

Dittmar, Helga (1992) The Social Psychology of Material Possessions: To Have Is To Be Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.

Graeff, Timothy B (1996) "Consumption Situations and the Effects on Brand Image on Consumers' Brand Evaluations" Psychology & Marketing 14 (1) forthcoming

Kleine, Robert A, Susan Schultz-Kleine and Jerome B. Kernan (1993) "Mundane Consumption and the Self: A Social -Identity Perspective" Journal of Consumer Psychology 2 (3), 209-235.

Ogilvie, Daniel and Christopher J. Fleming (1996) "The Representation of Domains of Interpersonal Self Experiences" In Advanced Personality eds. D. Barone, M. Herson and V.B. Van Hasselt, Plenum Press, New York forthcoming

Schenk, Carolyn and Rebecca Holman (1980) "A Sociological Approach to Brand Choice: The Concept of Situational Self Image" Advances in Consumer Research 7. ed. J. Olson, ACR, Provo, Utah 610-614.

Wylie, Ruth C, (1974) The Self-Concept: A Review of Methodological Considerations and Measuring Instruments. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.



Margaret K. Hogg, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, England
Maria H. Savolainen, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, England


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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