Product Construct Systems: a Personal Construct Psychology of Market Segmentation

ABSTRACT - In response to calls for more pluralistic, interpretivist-based investigations of consumer behaviour, this paper discusses George Kelly's (1955) Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) as an alternative to traditional, positivist-based market segmentation approaches. Kelly suggests that groups of people are best understood in terms of similarities in their system of personal constructs: these being the interpretive lenses through which they view their world. Only in terms of the consumer's own construing of products, therefore, will marketers find meaningful 'units' as a basis for segmentation. By contrasting PCP with traditional models of consumer behaviour, this paper shows how PCP offers an idiographic alternative to traditional nomothetic market segmentation techniques.


David Marsden and Professor Dale Littler (1995) ,"Product Construct Systems: a Personal Construct Psychology of Market Segmentation", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 38-42.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 38-42


David Marsden, Manchester School of Management

Professor Dale Littler, Manchester School of Management


In response to calls for more pluralistic, interpretivist-based investigations of consumer behaviour, this paper discusses George Kelly's (1955) Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) as an alternative to traditional, positivist-based market segmentation approaches. Kelly suggests that groups of people are best understood in terms of similarities in their system of personal constructs: these being the interpretive lenses through which they view their world. Only in terms of the consumer's own construing of products, therefore, will marketers find meaningful 'units' as a basis for segmentation. By contrasting PCP with traditional models of consumer behaviour, this paper shows how PCP offers an idiographic alternative to traditional nomothetic market segmentation techniques.


Concerned with identifying differences between groups of consumers and market opportunities, segmentation is central to the marketing concept (Van Raaij and Verhallen 1994). Providing managers with a conceptual-framework for simplifying the formulation and implementation of strategies, (geo)demographic, psychographic and behavioural variables have typically been used for segmenting consumers (Littler 1995). Despite the variety of approaches, however, the segmentation debate has mainly been confined to technical\methodological issues at the intra-paradigm level. For instance, Martin (1986, p. 40) contends that:

'There does not appear to be any established procedure for identifying "appropriate" bases for use in segmentation, particularly prior to the conduct of any market research'

Segmentation approaches are typically evaluated in terms of statistical techniques employed and segments identified (outputs) rather than the underlying assumptions of the bases (inputs) themselves. This focus seems misplaced, however, in light of the disappointing results with traditional segmentation techniques (Mostyn 1977), the questionable assumptions of segmentation bases (Schiffman and Kanuk 1987) and the fact that most techniques appear to contradict one of the cardinal rules of segmentation itself that states 'we must never assume in advance that we know the best way of looking at a market' (Yankelovich 1964, p. 89).

In response to these limitations of traditional segmentation approaches, the objectives of this paper are: (1) to widen the segmentation debate by examining some of the underlying assumptions of segmentation approaches, (2) to re-conceptualise segmentation in terms of George Kelly's (1955) Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) and (3) to illustrate this approach by outlining a flexible, qualitative-based methodology. In response to Stewart's (1991) call for a philosophical re-orientation of segmentation theory and Roth and Moorman's (1988, p. 405) suggestion that consumers may be better understood in terms of their cultural meaning systems, i.e.,

'segmented according to [their] learned knowledge, beliefs, and world views in addition to variables such as age, income, lifestyles, and areas of habitation',

this paper contends that the more open marketers are to increasing and revising their conceptual-frameworks, and the greater variety of (inter-paradigm) organising schemes they have at their command, the more likely they are to capture the diversity of organisation that exists in markets. PCP, with its emphasis on the world interpreted by the person, offers marketers one alternative. The rest of this paper is structured as follows. Firstly, some of the basic assumptions and limitations of traditional segmentation approaches are discussed. Secondly, and intended as a supplement to traditional approaches, a PCP model of market segmentation is proposed. Finally, some research objectives and methodological guidelines are outlined.


As summarised in Figure 1, all segmentation techniques make certain assumptions about consumer behaviour which assist marketers in two ways: they tell them where to look (their theories) and how to see (their methods). Without such assumptions, marketers would be both disoriented and blind. The segmentation debate cannot be reduced, therefore, merely to questions of analysing and reporting statistical measures, but needs to incorporate a whole range of theoretical and epistemological issues (cf. Zinkhan 1992). Given the importance of explicating such background assumptions, a sketch is provided below of traditional consumer behaviour theories of segmentation.

Theory of Segmentation

Segmentation techniques derive from either push or pull theories of consumer behaviour (cf. Mostyn 1977). Represented by the behavioural model, the former employ such terms as drive, reinforcement and stimulus whilst the latter use such constructs as purpose, value or need as represented by cognitive and experiential models of consumer behaviour (for a review, see Mowen 1988). Thus, segmentation 'bases' can be divided into those that concentrate on how people think (e.g. attitudes) and those that concentrate on how people behave (e.g. usage) or how people feel (e.g. emotions). Reflecting the classical tripartite division of experience into cognitive, affective and conative components and the input-output dualism of human motivation, both push and pull theories are mechanistic in nature because in each case some form of (S) stimuli (internal\external) is assumed to elicit (determine) some form of (R) response. For example, Tuck (1976, p. 121) points out that psychographic measures have been influenced by

'the motivation researchers' view of human behaviour, which traces all decisions back to variables of personality or of inner psychological conditioning [and] the sociologist's view of choice which sees choice as a resultant of society's conditioning'

S-R determinism underpins traditional segmentation techniques, therefore, in stressing the need to identify similar consumer 'responses' to different marketing 'stimuli'. It is an irony, however, that although this model derives directly from 19th Century physics, modern physics has advanced beyond simple causal explanations. In light of the disappointing results with traditional segmentation approaches, it is argued that if we continue to explain consumer behaviour in mechanistic terms then we will surely end up with segmentation techniques that are less than human and, ultimately, less than satisfactory.



Philosophy of Segmentation

Although marketing theorists are just beginning to address inter-paradigm issues, there have been few specific discussions on the philosophy of market segmentation. Such an analysis would reveal, however, that mechanistic consumer behaviour theories epitomise the philosophy of positivism-empiricism, a tradition that dominates not only marketing, but also the social and natural sciences upon which it is fashioned (Allt 1981). Briefly, positivism believes in a free-standing reality, the truth about which can be discovered through experimental methods. Thus, the marketing environment is viewed as objective, fixed and uncontrollable determining the organisation's functions and its strategy to the extent that the marketer's critical skill becomes one of adaption. By assuming the characteristics of consumers can be captured and observed in the same way as can the characteristics of natural phenomena, segments are assumed to map, or mirror actualities 'out there' in the market place (May 1981). However, Allt (1981) contends that few, if any, of the ways in which marketers segment consumers are of the order of discreteness found in the natural sciences. Marketers need to guard against assuming, therefore, that people can be broken down into the neatly distinct properties one attaches to, for example, chemical elements.

Method of Segmentation

As discussed above, consumers are segmented into isolated units that are operationally easy to define and suit a particular model of consumer behaviour. Typically, segmentation studies have used large samples, a battery of standardised questionnaires and quantitative statistical techniques. However, the widespread reliance on (nomothetic) questionnaires as the primary tool of segmentation has resulted in marketers accepting, almost without question, a crude, over-simplification of what constitutes communication between people. For instance, Steenkamp, Van Trijp and Ten Berge (1994) argue that presenting consumers with the same set of a priori variables assumes that: (a) all attributes used in the study are relevant to all consumers, (b) no other attributes are relevant to certain groups of consumers and (c) consumers attach the same meanings to attributes. Thus, by requiring consumers to enter into the marketer's construct system and to have consumers answer their questions, it is argued that marketers do not yet know enough about consumer' perspectives to be able to select a representative set of dimensions to categorise them. Output-oriented segmentation techniques yield an incomplete picture at best, therefore, because you cannot get out of any statistical analysis what you did not put in.

Overall, the aim of this section was to indicate some of unacknowledged assumptions of traditional consumer behaviour theories of segmentation. It was shown how marketers propose segmentation bases relevant to their theoretical assumptions, devise quantitative instruments to measure these invented concepts and apply those instruments to classify consumers according to theory-derived categories. Alternatively, and as advocated by Stewart (1991), rather than asking how consumers differ in their responses to marketing stimuli, segments may be defined by the stimuli consumers attend to themselves and by their own self-selected behaviours. Personal Construct Psychology (PCP), with its emphasis on the world interpreted by the person, offers marketers such an approach.


As summarised in Figure 1, PCP provides an anti-reductionistic, reflexive theory of consumer behaviour which attributes individuals a dynamic capacity to represent, rather than react to their environment. PCP also incorporates a flexible and practical methodology called the Repertory Grid. Before outlining this methodology and some research objectives, a brief sketch of PCP is provided.

Theory of PCP

Kelly (1955) regarded simple, mechanistic models as failing to pay attention to the fact that people actively seek to predict and understand their environments rather than just responding to them. Intrigued by the paradox that most psychological theories are non-reflexive, i.e., they are insufficiently complex enough to account for the complexity of their inventors, Kelly proposed the model of person-the-scientist (Bannister and Fransella 1986). This is not supposed to mean that we all carry out 'scientific' experiments, but rather that we have our own views of the world (our theories), our own expectations of what will happen in given situations (our hypotheses) and that our behaviour is a continual experiment with life. [By providing an integrative view of the person, Kelly views emotion simple as construing in transition.] For example, television is something we all construe (discriminate, interpret), something that we all have a personal view of (construct systems) and expectations about (bi-polar constructs) which are weighed as experimental evidence through our television viewing behaviour. PCP proposes a radical model of consumer behaviour, therefore, because it suggests marketing 'scientists' are merely doing, in a specialised way, what consumers do as a matter of course: to predict and control their environments (Earl 1986). Due to PCP's undeniable idiographic (individual) focus, however, Rice (1993, p. 60) suggests:

'Unless we could identify significant sections of the population as sharing the same personal construct systems, it would seem to have limited use for marketers in segmenting a market'

As noted below, nevertheless, PCP does in fact acknowledge the considerable shared meaning created and maintained through social interaction and it is these shared, or common constructs which provide the basis for segmenting consumers.

Consumer Commonality

PCP represents a radical approach to market segmentation because it suggests that people are similar not because they behave similarly, live in the same area, utter the same verbal labels or have similar features such as age or sex, but rather because they construe parts of their world in similar ways. This principle not only applies to differences and similarities between individuals, but also to similarities and differences between cultures as Reynolds and Darden (1974, p. 84) point out:

'Although this sort of aggregating is often found when persons are grouped according to similarities in their upbringing and their environment, commonality of background does not guarantee that people will see things alike or behave alike...[Kelly] lay emphasis on the development of sub-cultures in terms of similarities of construction systems'

Thus, even if their prior experiences and backgrounds are completely different, people may have come to similar conclusions about the world. For example, the preoccupation with weight and fitness seems to have become 'cultureless' in the traditional sense of the term. On the basis of potential commonality of meaning, the task of the marketer is to find out how people see and describe their world and to determine the sets of constructs upon which otherwise seemingly diverse people might agree and use in similar, meaningful ways (Edwards and Johnson 1985).

Philosophy of PCP

In contrast to the philosophy of positivism as described earlier, PCP suggests that we understand our world by placing socially negotiated constructions upon it, and that this is the way we alter it as well. Strategy formulation is not about the discovery of objective 'facts', but is about developing successive interpretive frameworks that are pragmatic and useful for explaining the market place. This reminds us that people do not come bearing labels, ready to slip into convenient, ready-made categories, but rather it is we (marketers) who construct and impose upon others (consumers) a framework of categories in order to understand them. Rather than concentrate on any possible misperceptions consumers might have about products, and regardless of what might exist 'out there' from the marketer's point of view, PCP insists that it is the consumer's interpretation of products which ultimately defines reality (Klein and Lewis 1985). Now that the main features of PCP have been outlined, the following sections set out some research objectives and methodological guidelines for using this model to segment markets.


The particular sub-system of constructs of interest to marketers is termed the Product Construct System: these being the idiographic, bi-polar matrix of hierarchically organised constructs developed by consumers for interpreting and choosing between products. The relative importance of constructs, the degree of correlation among constructs and their hierarchical implications are important research objectives for approaching segmentation from a PCP perspective.

Product Constructs

PCP begins with trying to understand the underlying meanings, or constructs that consumers attach to products as these are likely to vary between individuals. For instance, if we try to answer the apparently simply question 'What is a holiday?', we will soon find that it is extraordinarily difficult to arrive at a definition. Are holidays relaxing or tiring? Enjoyable or stressful? We cannot arrive at a factual, unambiguous answer because they are all (and more) of these things to different people (Burr and Butt 1992). Thus, PCP provides a more basic picture of consumer choice because: (a) most consumer models over simplify decision-making by ignoring the human element, (b) since only those elements of decision-making which are seen as constant between decision-makers are mentioned, most models create a myth that decision-making itself does not vary between people and, (c) therefore, PCP highlights the subjectivity in decision-making (Jackson 1988). The first two goals of segmentation from a PCP approach are to examine the personal constructs and decision-making strategies used by different consumers for choosing between products to see whether they are similar (cf. Martin 1986).

Product Categories

Consumers not only differ in their construction of products and purchasing strategies, but also in the way in which they organise their constructions. Thus, every construct by virtue of its relationship with other constructs represents the consumers' universe of categories for identifying and discriminating between products. The third goal of segmentation from a PCP approach, therefore, is to understand how consumers organise and integrate into their construct systems new and existing products (Earl 1986; Harmar-Brown 1969). Due to the idiographic nature of constructs and the fact that they only cover a finite range of products, however, the categories a consumer uses to organise products may not necessarily be (although in some instances it may be) synonymous with traditional product classifications (Gutman 1982; Reynolds and Darden 1974). It is important, therefore, that marketers define, categorise and describe products from the consumer's point of view (Van Raaij and Verhallen 1994).

Construct Complexity

The fourth goal of approaching segmentation from a PCP approach is to understand the structural complexity of consumers' construct systems. The question here is to what extent do consumers transfer construct dimensions used in one product domain to other product domains in the purchasing process? For example, Zinkhan and Biswas (1988, p. 493) suggest:

'On the one hand, extensive experience with cameras...could lead to formation of a complex cognitive structure with respect to cameras. On the other hand, once this cognitive structure is formed for cameras, it may be possible to organize knowledge about other products using a similar cognitive structure.

Although the content of knowledge in different domains may be substantially different, the structures used to organize these different knowledge bases may be very similar. Consumers may then be grouped according to the generalisability of their construct systems. Overall, by focusing on the content, structure and complexity of Product Construct Systems for segmenting consumers, the PCP model proposed here attempts to deal with consumers not variables and with what consumers make of products rather than with 'objective reality'. And as discussed in the remaining of this paper, PCP also respects individual consumers by not imposing on them the marketer's frame of reference.


As summarised in Figure 1, unlike 'objective' market research techniques that advocate the divorce of the marketer from consumers, PCP suggests that the closer we get and talk to people the closer we will get to understanding them. Rather than using quantitative, fixed-format instruments Kelly (1955) advocated more free-response, interactive techniques as exemplified by the Repertory Grid (RG) technique. After briefly describing the RG, some guidelines for segmenting consumers using this technique will be proposed.

Repertory Grid

The RG is an interview procedure which allows marketers to obtain a glimpse of what products look like from the consumer's perspective. The first step in this procedure is to decide the types of elements to be used. Representing the focus of an investigation, elements used in the past to segment consumers have included: shops (Hallsworth 1988), holiday resorts (Riley and Palmer 1972), services (Klein and Lewis 1985) and beverages (Gutman 1982). Bi-polar constructs are then elicited by using triads of elements (written on separate cards) and asking an individual to describe, in a short phrase, how two of them are alike and different from the third. Each element is then evaluated (e.g. rated on a five-point scale) by the individual on each of the constructs. Lastly, computer programmes can be employed to calculate and provide measures (e.g. principal component) of the organisation of the constructs and elements (Dunn and Ginsberg 1986). For example, 'distances' between constructs are useful for designing marketing messages whilst 'distances' between the elements can be used to identify competitors (Rice 1993).

Although the RG has become well known in the management field (see Jankowicz 1990), applications have been divorced from the theory of PCP and used in a manner that has perpetuated the concern with measurement and objectivity the marketing field has long applauded (Harmar-Brown 1969). For example, Hallsworth (1988) contends that the main advantage of the RG is its 'objectivity'. In general, the RG has only been used for qualitative pilot studies to prepare the ground for subsequent quantitative research. Although useful, this is nevertheless a restrictive role of the RG (Riley and Palmer 1972). Rather, and as advocated here, the RG can be seen as playing a central role in market segmentation and be reported on in its own right. The difference between extant segmentation methods and the RG is that in the former the same standard list of dimensions is supplied to all consumers, while in the latter a set of constructs is elicited individually from each consumer.

Repertory Grid & Market Segmentation

The main objective of market segmentation from a PCP perspective is to explore the extent to which individuals share product meanings. This requires collecting enough data from 'each' individual to obtain the individual's pattern of thinking about products and then comparing patterns across several individuals to discover what they have in common. Segments are therefore defined at the level of the individual. There are at least three general guidelines for using the RG to explore individual systems of meaning so that we might discover common patterns across individuals. (These reflect the study currently being undertaken by the authors in this area).

The first is that segments should be identified at the domain-specific, or product-category level as defined by consumers. Although the RG has been used to identify segments in terms of brand attributes and values, Van Raaij and Verhallen (1994) argue that whilst brand-specific segments are too narrow, value\lifestyle segments are too general. When selecting elements to be used in RG's for segmenting consumers, a wide variety of 'generic' products and services need to be included (thirty elements have been used in the study currently being undertaken). The purpose of such 'generic studies' is to reveal broad-based patterns in the market place in order to discover new product opportunities and new ways to promote existing products. 'Product-specific' studies can then be conducted to position an organisation's specific brands (Schiffman and Kanuk 1987).

The second guideline is that due to the idiographic nature of PCP, the basis for analysing collective RG's for segmenting consumers must lie in the elements since the constructs will not be the same for all consumers. Riley and Palmer (1972) contend that the criterion of similarity between RG structures must either be: (a) in the matrix of product 'distances' for each consumer in order to be pooled into a common grid or (b) to retain the common principal component frame of reference derived from all RG's to form a great grid, and to indicate the level of consensus and variance between consumers. (RG's used in the study currently being undertaken have been standardised by the elements, not constructs). The final guideline is that when selecting consumers to be studied, marketers should not construct a priori samples. For example, in their evaluation of the adequacy of the RG for representing group commonality, Latta and Swigger (1992) used as their sample a group of students, defined as 'homogeneous' by the fact they had taken the same course with the same tutor. However, the whole notion that people are similar because they have had similar experiences is eschewed in PCP. (A random, cluster-sample of 100 consumers has been used in the study currently being undertaken).

Overall, and in line with the research objectives for investigating consumer' Product Construct Systems and the methodological guidelines outlined here, the advantages of the RG for segmenting consumers are that: (a) it provides a flexible, efficient and systematic technique for evaluating the shared sets of constructs through which consumers' view products, (b) it enables interviews to be conducted with diverse populations which often resist standardised instruments, (c) the method of scaling analyses does not require the marketer to prejudge the dimensions of segmentation bases and, (d) as compared with other qualitative techniques designed to elicit subjective meanings, it is highly reproducible (Dunn and Ginsberg 1986).


A Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) model of market segmentation is timely. In breaking with the positivist tradition that dominates existing approaches, PCP serves a useful critical function and widens the scope of segmentation research. From this perspective, the segmentation process is centred on the consumer's perspective, focusing on using the RG to help articulate and investigate the meanings and categories that consumers use when classifying and choosing between products. It is interested in eliciting meanings from consumers rather than imposing the marketer's own meanings on them. PCP offers a true marketing approach, therefore, because it suggests that the more we treat consumers as human beings (i.e. like marketers) and the more we attempt to get close to them and understand the way they see things, the more effective we will be in conversing and engaging in joint ventures of commercial interest with them. Admittedly, segmentation from a PCP perspective is a lot harder, more time-consuming and demanding than traditional approaches of the standardised variety. Thus, the objective next is to move from the purely conceptual to the empirical stage to demonstrate how such an approach can be practically implemented. This will be the subject of a following paper.


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David Marsden, Manchester School of Management
Professor Dale Littler, Manchester School of Management


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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