The Prototypicality of Brands: Relationships With Brand Awareness, Preference and Usage

ABSTRACT - Although most theoretical accounts of market definition, competition and brand choice entail the assumption that consumers categorize products and brands, explicit accounts of product categorization have been lacking in the consumer research literature. Categorization processes are particularly relevant for constructs such as brand awareness and the evoked set. Much recent psychological research on categorization has investigated the representativeness, or "prototypicality," of category members. This paper presents results from an exploratory study that investigated various aspects of prototypicality for brands in several product classes. The study also examined the relationships between prototypicality and other marketing related variables such as brand name awareness, usage and liking.


Prakash Nedungadi and J. Wesley Hutchinson (1985) ,"The Prototypicality of Brands: Relationships With Brand Awareness, Preference and Usage", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 498-503.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 498-503


Prakash Nedungadi, University of Florida

J. Wesley Hutchinson, University of Florida


Although most theoretical accounts of market definition, competition and brand choice entail the assumption that consumers categorize products and brands, explicit accounts of product categorization have been lacking in the consumer research literature. Categorization processes are particularly relevant for constructs such as brand awareness and the evoked set. Much recent psychological research on categorization has investigated the representativeness, or "prototypicality," of category members. This paper presents results from an exploratory study that investigated various aspects of prototypicality for brands in several product classes. The study also examined the relationships between prototypicality and other marketing related variables such as brand name awareness, usage and liking.


Awareness of a product or the ability to bring it to mind has often been considered an important determinant of choice. Practitioners and consumer researchers alike have been interested in indicators of memorability, since brand recall may play an important role in determining whether a product is considered for purchase at all. The notion of the evoked set (Howard & Sheth, 1969; Campbell, 1969; Narayana & Markin, 1975) posits that a set of brands or products are retrieved by consumers and considered for purchase. Various standard measures, such as aided and unaided brand name recall and top-of-mind awareness, rest on the assumption that the ability of the consumer to remember a brand or product will strongly affect the probability of its being considered for purchase.

In an attempt to understand what drives product awareness researchers have examined the relationship between awareness and a wide variety of marketing and consumer behavior variables (e.g., Axelrod, 1968; Haley and Case, 1979). Important among these are variables such as brand attitude, preference and usage, and advertising recall. Each of these have been found to be related to brand recall in systematic ways.

Research in psychology and consumer behavior, within the information processing paradigm, has examined the "strength of association" between concepts and has demonstrated the importance of variables such as frequency and recency (of exposure) in determining strength of association and thereby in affecting retrievability of a certain concept given relevant cues. Recent work on categories and categorization processes has established the importance of "prototypicality" as a determinant of the associative strength between a category concept and members of the category. Prototypicality (or simply typicality), is a measure of how representative an object is of a category. Operationally, the prototypicality (of an object) is measured by individuals' ratings of how "good an example" they consider the object, of a category (Rosch, 1973).

Internal Structure

In classical concept formation experiments, categories were thought of as composed of undifferentiated, functionally equivalent instances. Any stimulus which fit the definition of the concept (i.e., possessed the necessary and sufficient criteria for membership) was considered as good an example of the category as any other. However, it has been subsequently established in a number of naturally occurring domains that all members are not equally representative of the categories to which they belong, and necessary and sufficient conditions for category membership seldom exist. More specifically, it has been established that:

(1) Some instances are better examples of a category than others (e.g., Rosch, 1973, 1975; Rips, Shoben & Smith, 1973).

(2) Items exist whose category membership is uncertain (e.g., Labov, 1973; McCloskey & Glucksberg, 1978).

(3) Non-members of a category vary in how similar they are to the category concept (e.g., Barsalou, 1983).

These findings have been considered indicative of the fact that categories possess internal structure. To quote Rosch (1973), "Categories are composed of a 'core meaning' which consists of the clearest cases (best examples) of a category, surrounded by other members of decreasing similarity to that core meaning." Thus, objects in a category vary in their typicality leading to graded, internal structure within the category.

Determinants of Prototypicality

A number of explanations have been proposed for how people assign or arrive at the clearest cases within categories. In general, two distinct factors have been identified. First, objects that are frequently encountered as instances of the category are perceived to be representative of the category. Second, objects that possess attributes that occur frequently within the category are also perceived to be representative. Thus, it is possible for an item to have high prototypicality even though it is rarely encountered if its attributes are typical of the category.

In research using artificial, statistically generated categories, such as random dot patterns, the 'prototype' could be identified a priori as the central, on average, member of the category. However for most domains, prototypes do not precede the category but appear to be formed through the processing of relationships between items within the categories. Rosch (1975) has argued that the majority of objects encountered in nature possess attributes that are highly correlated with one another. The attributes "has feathers" and "lay eggs" are not statistically independent properties; likewise, the "curb weight" and "luxuriousness" of cars tend to be correlated. This correlational attribute structure leads to natural clusters of objects which get named in various ways so as to form categories. As a result, objects within the same category tend to have many attributes in common. Moreover, these attributes occur infrequently in contrasting categories. This high intra-category similarity is referred to as family resemblance (Rosch & Mervis, 1975)

Cohen (1982) suggests that we should consider affect as residing in the category itself and that we may well categorize our world to reflect our evaluations of it. This would be especially true for product categories, where evaluation clearly serves an important purpose. If consumer categories are to be functional, they may well group products into categories that incorporate affect (e.g., "affordable cars" or "movies I would take the family to"). This suggests that the prototypicality of a brand could be affected by such marketing variables as the importance and determinance of attributes, brand evaluations, preferences and levels of usage.

Effects of Prototypicality

Prototypicality has been found to affect a number of major dependent variables used in psychological research which carry clear implications for consumer behavior. Speed of processing and response times for verification of category membership were found to be faster for representative members of a category. Importantly the frequency and order of production of members of a category (in response to free elicitation tasks) was found to be significantly correlated with degree of typicality (Mervis, Catlin & Rosch, 1976). All of these measures are natural indices of brand awareness and should be related to the ease with which a brand is recalled when the need for a particular product class arises.

Category membership is learned first for the most representative exemplars and last for the least representative ones. In addition, categories are learned more easily if initial exposure is to representative exemplars only (Mervis & Pani, 1980). There is no reason to believe that learning would be any different for product categories. Thus, the representativeness of a specific brand could have a major impact on the acquisition of brand-related knowledge, particularly for consumers with low product familiaritY.

Extensions of Prototypicality to Other Domains

The notion of representativeness in categorization has recently spread to quite a few domains besides object categories. While findings of typicality have been quite robust, the explanations for the development of internal structure have not always been the same.

Barsalou (1983) studied prototypicality in ad hoc or goal-derived categories -- such as "things to take on a camping trip", or "things not to eat on a diet". His findings differ from those for natural object categories in certain respects and are quite relevant to consumer product categorization. Barsalou finds that although the members of such categories are quite heterogeneous they still give rise to typicality effects. However, typicality was not determined by family resemblance (i.e., its general similarity to other members of the category) but by

(a) the value of the item on the goal-relevant dimension and

(b) the frequency with which the item had been used as an instance of the concept in the past.

For example, "things not to eat on a diet" would have high calories and edibility as goal-relevant dimensions. Chocolate and butter, although they may not normally belong to the same product category, are thought of as highly typical of this ad hoc category.

The determinants of typicality hypothesized by Barsalou may be quite related to usage, frequency of exposure and liking, and further underscore the need to conduct domain-specific research to establish the locus of typicality effects.

Other interesting research has demonstrated how representativeness could have an effect on processing of information about categories. For instance. in the area of inductive reasoning Rips (1975) shows how novel information about a category is often generalized asymmetrically with respect to typicality. New information about typical members is more likely to be generalized to atypical members than vice-versa. This type of generalization would be especially important for consumer expectations about pricing. In most circumstances, consumers do not have access to price information for all brands and all retail outlets. Since prices change on a continuing basis, inferences about price are a virtual necessity.

Finally, Kahnemann and Tversky (1973) and Tversky and Kahnemann (1973) demonstrate how individuals use various decision heuristics based purely on the availability and representative less of certain events/items. This often leads to significant biases in judgment.


Objectives of the Study

Prototypicality appears to be an important product related variable that deserves further study. It could have effects on diverse consumer behaviors, such as retrieval of product information, generalization within product categories, making of inferences and ultimately brand choice. It is quite surprising that given the robustness of these findings in other domains, no attempts have been made to verify its importance in consumer behavior.

The objectives of this study were thus to:

(1) Verify the existence of "prototypical products" and graded, internal structure in consumer product categories.

(2) Examine the importance of typicality as a determinant of product/brand awareness.

(3) Explore the relationships between prototypicality and other important variables such as brand preference and usage.

(4) Examine the effects of the level of generality at which the product class is defined (i.e., the breadth of market boundaries) on the above relationships.


The principal manipulations in this study pertained to the level of abstraction at which the product classes were defined. Two superordinate level product categories, magazines and beverages, and four subordinate level categories, news magazines, business magazines, soft drinks and beers, were used in the study (see Figure 1). A target set of brands was defined for each subordinate category based on estimated market penetration (Simmons, 1982). The principal dependent measures were unaided brand name recall, rated prototypicality, rated liking and self-reported rate of usage.



Each subject completed three questionnaires during the experimental session. The order in which the questionnaires were given was the same for each subject. In the first questionnaire, unaided brand name recall was measured. Subjects were given five minutes to recall as many brands as possible belonging to a particular product class. This task was performed twice, once for each product class (i.e., magazines or beverages). The three levels of generality for each product class (i.e., the superordinate or one of the two subordinates) were varied randomly across subjects. Thus, each subject was assigned to one of nine (3 x 3) possible conditions. - The order in which product classes occurred (i.e., magazines first vs. beverages first) was also varied randomly across subjects. Unaided brand recall yielded three empirical measures. Brand Recall was defined as one if the brand was listed, zero otherwise. Top-of-Mind Awareness was defined as one if the brand was the first listed, zero otherwise. Finally, Conditional Awareness was the rank of a brand in the list, given that it was recalled. That is, the first brand listed had rank 1, the second listed had rank 2, etc. All measures were computed only for those brands that were in the target set. If a target brand was not recalled, Conditional Awareness was treated as a missing observation.

The second questionnaire asked subjects to rate the prototypicality of each brand on a nine point scale. Prototypicality was defined and given examples in a manner very similar to that used by Rosch (1973). The distinction between prototypicality and preference were specifically noted. Two randomly constructed orderings of the brands, and their corresponding reverse orderings were used, one ordering per subject. These four orderings were counter-balanced across subjects. The category level to be used in making the prototypicality judgment (i.e., superordinate vs. subordinate) was varied randomly within subjects on a brand-by-brand basis and counterbalanced across subjects.

The third questionnaire asked subjects to rate each brand on a nine point scale indicating their liking for the brand and to indicate the approximate number of times that they had used the brand in the last month. Note that no particular level of generality was specified in this task. The order of presentation of brands was randomized anew and counterbalanced as in the second questionnaire. Seventy-two undergraduates at the University of Florida participated in this study in return for course credit.

Results and Discussion

Typicality effects. Subjects found the task of rating prototypicality readily understandable and appeared to have no problem in rating representativeness of brands within a product class. Table 1 shows the mean ratings on typicality obtained by each brand for both subordinate and superordinate levels. Mere examination of the results indicate quite a few points of interest.

The phenomenon of graded structure is readily apparent. Subjects consistently rated some brands as being more typical than others. An analysis of variance found significant main effects of Brand and Level (F[37,1796] = 14.94, p < .00001, and F[1,1796] = 25.92, p < .00001, respectively). The interaction was also significant F[37,1796] = 3.83, p < .00001). Subjects was included as a random factor and was significant (F[71,17963 = 6.31, p < .00001). Mean prototypicality ratings are presented in Table 1. The obtained values appear to be consistent with intuitive expectations about brand prototypicality. For instance, Time and Coca Cola received high prototypicality ratings at both the subordinate and the superordinate levels, while New Republic and R.C. Cola received low ratings for both. Quite in line with research in other domains, the phenomenon of typicality appears relevant to product categorization.



An examination of the prototypicality ratings for different category levels reveals expected changes in typicality. Brands thought of as poor examples of their subordinate category are thought of as poor if not worse examples of their superordinate category. An interesting reversal is seen for many brands listed as News Magazines. In fact, only U.S. News-& World Report and New Republic were rated higher at the subordinate level. This illustrates one effect of misclassifying brands in "ill-fitting" product classes. It also provides evidence that the two measures of prototypicality are distinguishable and do not simply measure the same underlying construct.

This finding is relevant to the establishment of product-market boundaries in line with consumer perceptions of product-usage (Day, Shocker, and Srivastava, 1979). If products are classified into categories where they do not fit "naturally" they will have more in common with contrasting categories and will be far less typical, resulting in poor associations with the category concept and poor recall. Some of the results discussed in the next section suggest further implications of product misclassification.

Relationships Between Variables. Prior work on typicality effects using natural object categories, has attempted to separate the effects of typicality on dependent measures (such as speed of processing or production) from the effects of other variables such as liking, frequency and familiarity. Prototypicality is posited as a pure 'cognitive' construct unaffected by more attitudinal or evaluative measures. Rosch (1973) detected low correlations between the typicality of members in most object categories and liking for these members. Notable exceptions were "crime" and "disease" where degree of typicality was seen as being tied to negative affect for the category. McCloskey (1980) and Malt & Smith (1982) show that while typicality is affected by familiarity, variations in typicality do exist independent of variations in familiarity. Barsalou (1983) shows how typicality in ad hoc categories could be affected by frequency of prior exposure and goal-relevant evaluation.

As Cohen (1982) points out, product categories could function quite differently from the more "passive" object categories that have been the traditional domain of research. Consumers are constantly exposed to advertising, point-of-purchase displays and messages that proclaim benefits of specific brands, often forcing them to make evaluations prior to purchase. In such a scenario one would expect to see quite different and systematic effects of affect and frequency. While we do not take a position as strong as Cohen's -- that "affect resides at the category level" -- it does seem plausible that affect would play a more influential role in the semantics of consumer products than in other natural categories. For instance, attitudes toward a given brand and personal experience with that brand might become part of the meaning of the brand concePt.

In order to examine the relationship between prototypicality, brand awareness and brand preference, the mean values of each variable were computed across subjects for each brand. Prototypicality was measured at two levels of generality (i.e., Superordinate and Subordinate). Similarly, Brand Recall, Top-of-Mind Awareness and Conditional Awareness were measured at two levels of generality. Note that means for each level of Prototypicality were computed across both levels of generality for the memory variables, and vice versa. This aspect of the design counterbalances certain task artifacts that could generate spurious correlations between the prototypicality and memory measures. The reported usage rates were used to generate individual usage shares defined at the superordinate and subordinate levels. Specifically, superordinate usage shares were computed as the brand usage rate divided by the total usage rate for the superordinate product category. Subordinate usage shares were computed in the same way, except the total-usage rate was defined at the subordinate level. Since the task did not specify a level of generality for liking, and ratings are not generally thought to be a ratio scale measure, there was no natural way in which two levels of liking could be specified. The intercorrelations between all of these variables are given for Magazines in Table 2 and Beverages in Table






The most obvious result is that most of the correlations of other variables with Prototypicality are in the expected directions and are significant. In particular, both levels of Prototypicality were found to be highly correlated with Liking for both Magazines and Beverages. This is consistent with our earlier discussion of the role of affect in determining the internal structure of product categories. Specifically, this result suggests that the semantic importance and the evaluative importance of attributes are similar for these product categories. It is likely that these correlations have been inflated by method variance attributed to the fact that Prototypicality and Liking are the only rating scale measures. If this were the sole determinant of the correlations, however, Liking and the two levels of Prototypicality would be expected to exhibit the same patterns of correlation with the other variables. It will become evident from the discussion that follows that this is not the case.

A second interesting aspect of the relationship between the two levels of Prototypicality and Liking is that it interacts with product class. For Beverages, Liking is equally correlated with both levels of Prototypicality. For Magazines, however, the correlation is higher with Superordinate Prototypicality. This pattern is also present for the correlations between the two levels of Prototypicality and Superordinate Usage share. Given our earlier discussion of the misclassification of News Magazines, this result suggests that Liking will be strongly related to Prototypicality only when "natural" product categories are used. An interest g area for future research will be to examine the relationship between cognitive and evaluative determinants of naturally occurring market boundaries.

Brand Awareness Measures

The various brand awareness measures exhibited differential sensitivity to the other variables. In general, Top-of-Mind Awareness was most highly correlated with Usage Share. Conditional Awareness, on the other hand, was most correlated with Prototypicality and Liking. Brand Recall did not consistently differentiate between Prototypicality, Liking, and Usage Share. This suggests that consumers access a product category first through brands they use and then retrieve brands based on structural aspects of memory such as product attributes. Interestingly, Usage Share is the variable that is most sensitive to the frequency with which a brand is encountered in the external environment. Conversely, Prototypicality and Liking are more related to internal, cognitive representations.

Finally, the internal validity of the distinction between superordinate and subordinate levels of generality was supported by a consistent interactive pattern of correlations. Variables measured at the same level of generality were consistently correlated more highly than the variables measured at different levels of generality. This was true for both product classes


In this paper we have outlined several ways in which prototypicality is likely to be of interest to consumer researchers. Although the reported results must be considered exploratory, there are several clear implications. First, there appear to be significant differences between brands with respect to judged prototypicality. Second, contrary to the trend for ordinary object categories (Rosch, 1973), the prototypicality of brands appears to be significantly related to personal preference. Finally, different memory-based measures of brand awareness appear to be differentially sensitive to internal and environmental aspects of product familiarity. In particular, Conditional Awareness was found to be strongly related to Prototypicality and Liking, but not to Usage Share. Top-of-Mind Awareness exhibited the opposite trend. Issues regarding the reliability and validity of the brand prototypicality construct and its casual relationships with other theoretical constructs are important areas of future research.


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Prakash Nedungadi, University of Florida
J. Wesley Hutchinson, University of Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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