Some Processes in Brand Categorizing: Why One Person's Noise Is Another Person's Music

ABSTRACT - After developing a framework for discussion, this paper proposes some new relationships in categorical processing of brands. In particular, the paper advances the thesis that (i) categorical brand information is represented in multiple and simultaneous ways, (ii) the consumer comes to the task of processing brand information with different levels of ability, motivation and opportunity, and (iii) these three levels of ability, motivation and opportunity directly affect the way in which the brand information is processed. In other words, the paper examines the question: Why does one person exposed to some sounds from a radio promptly dismiss it as 'noise', and why does another process these sounds to extract several levels of attributes such as artiste, station format, etc.?


Joseph Cherian and Marilyn Jones (1991) ,"Some Processes in Brand Categorizing: Why One Person's Noise Is Another Person's Music", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 77-83.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 77-83


Joseph Cherian, University of Illinois at Chicago

Marilyn Jones, University of Illinois at Chicago


After developing a framework for discussion, this paper proposes some new relationships in categorical processing of brands. In particular, the paper advances the thesis that (i) categorical brand information is represented in multiple and simultaneous ways, (ii) the consumer comes to the task of processing brand information with different levels of ability, motivation and opportunity, and (iii) these three levels of ability, motivation and opportunity directly affect the way in which the brand information is processed. In other words, the paper examines the question: Why does one person exposed to some sounds from a radio promptly dismiss it as 'noise', and why does another process these sounds to extract several levels of attributes such as artiste, station format, etc.?


The importance of categorization to human functioning in general (James 1890; Bruner, Goodnow & Austin 1956) and consumer behavior in particular (Sujan, Sujan and Bettman 1988; Alba and Hutchinson 1987; Meyers-Levy and Tybout 1989) is well documented. Consumer behavior researchers have typically looked at well-defined or 'Aristotelian processes' in categorization behavior (Thompson 1989). This paper seeks to develop a framework that accounts for some relationships between the three stages: antecedents, processes and consequents of categorical processing. As such, the first major task is to identify and characterize the building blocks within each stage (Figure 1, boxes). The second major task then becomes one of specifying the relationships between these sets (Figure 1, arrows).


Following an earlier structure that was proposed to deal with the processing of information from advertisements (MacInnis and Jaworski 1989), the primary antecedents for processing of information for brand categorization are proposed to be ability, motivation and opportunity to process brand information (AMO). Each of these basic building blocks can be decomposed into components as described below.


The basic determinant of ability in a categorical perception context is expertise with relevant categories (cf Sujan 1985). There are several diverse areas in which the link between expertise and use of categorization has been demonstrated -- e.g. in chess (Chase and Simon 1973), in problem-solving (Chi, Feltovich and Glaser 1981), and in physics (Larkin et al 1980). Perhaps anything that can be coded into a Millerian 'chunk' (Miller 1956) can be called a category, and experts are able to 'chunk' more usefully than novices (Chase and Simon 1973). In consumer behavior studies it was found that consumers of low expertise tended to use category level evaluations as substitutes for brand level evaluations; it was also found that experts were more likely to go beyond such simple summary and surrogate evaluations in favor of more detailed processing (Sujan 1985). For the purposes of this framework, only expertise will be considered a relevant variable in the discussion of individual variation in ability. Future work in this particular area will have to-deal with the evolution of the categories and the models of categorization used before, during and after category-formation (e.g. Cohen and Basu 1987).


The needs, i.e. feelings of deprivation, that motivate a consumer is either utilitarian or expressive (MacInnis and Jaworski 1989). Utilitarian needs are those which require a strictly functional solution to a problem (see Rossiter and Percy 1987; Park and Young 1986). Expressive needs are those which require a socially meaningful solution (Belk 1988; Levy 1959) or an experientially satisfying solution (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Hirschman and Holbrook 1982). The definition of needs as feelings of deprivation is not intended to imply that motivation is essentially a 'catching-up' process; it could also be thought of as a 'moving-up' process wherein the impetus is to improve on status quo rather than to remedy a feeling of lack. The effect of chronic search to satisfy an expressive need will show up in brand categorization schemas that finely sift brand information into many shades of expressiveness. On the other hand, a self-reliant utilitarian consumer faced with the incidental problem of supply depletion would approach the very same set of brands with coarse utilitarian schema.


The opportunity to process the information is strongly dependent on the situation -- there are situations where there is ample time to process the information and there are situations where one is forced to 'satisfice' because of time constraints. In general, it is reasonable to expect that the more the time available for the task the greater the depth of categorical processing. Conversely, the greater the perception of time scarcity the greater the pruning of the categorical structures; this pruning is done to the extent that will satisfice the task objectives. Other situational variables are not explored in the context of this framework and is left for future theorizing and research. To summarize, the consumer approaches the brand categorization task in three basic ways: (i) either as an expert (i.e. with many, fine categories) or as a novice (with few, coarse categories); (ii) s/he is motivated primarily by utilitarian needs (which uses simple, functional categorization) or expressive needs (which uses symbolic and experiential categorization); and (iii) under severe time constraints s/he uses brand hierarchies that are pruned while under low or no time constraints s/he uses 'un-pruned' hierarchies.




Categorization is a fundamental cognitive process (Harnad 1987). However, the basic mechanisms of categorization are still the subject of much discussion and debate (cf Thompson 1989; Ratneshwar and Shocker 1987). Some basic features of categorization processes are outlined below; then, by using an exemplar to motivate discussion, some findings of prior research and some propositions for future research are described.

The first way to divide categorization -processes might be to look at what exactly is chunked or categorized -- one may ask are input data primarily perceptual or conceptual? A simple and operational definition of the differences between these two types of data follows: Perceptual data are those where the perceptual information is the sole information processed. Conceptual stimuli, on the other hand, are those where the information that is processed is far greater than what is perceptually transmitted. For example, if one is asked to categorize some boxes of detergents and if this was done only on the basis of red-packages versus blue-packages, it is categorization based on perceptual data, and therefore is called perceptual categorization (PC). On the other hand, if only brand-names were provided and then inferences were made, e.g. that some of these brands are 'experiential' brands and some are 'functional' brands, then it is categorization based on conceptual data, and therefore is called conceptual categorization (CC). It is later shown that some antecedent conditions prompt one or the other type of categorization.

The distinction between perceptual and conceptual categorization is important for four fundamental reasons--

(i) conceptual categories are necessarily fuzzier than perceptual categories because perceptual attributes can at least be perceived (Mervis and Rosch 1981); for conceptual categories, attributes range from the concrete (e.g. feathers, which can be perceived) to the abstract (e.g. flying, which can only be described) (cf. Johnson and Fornell 1987); further, categorizers use naive, implicit theories that make them select only some attributes in an ad hoc and idiosyncratic manner (Murphy and Medin 1985); for example when asked what-is-stylish a respondent may not even look at individual attributes and look instead at overall 'feel' or 'look'.

(ii) while perceptual categories are typically hierarchical and low in potential for inferences, conceptual categories can yield rich inferences (Medin and Barsalou 1987); e.g. classifying objects into the perceptual category, blue-objects, does not enable one to make too many further inferences, but classifying objects into the conceptual category, stylish cars, enables inferences about operation, upkeep, etc.

(iii) perceptual categories are probably biologically driven, conceptual categories maybe more culturally driven; when adopting the views of different cultures and subcultures categorizers perceives different prototypes for the same category (Barsalou and Sewell 1984); for example when subjects are asked to name a typical bird within the context of different cultures they typically name different species (e.g. eagles versus ostriches).

(iv) while perceptual categories are more stable, conceptual categories are more flexible across contexts (Medin and Barsalou 1987); for example what is considered typical of a category differs based on the context -- a typical animal for a milking-context is a cow, a typical animal for a riding-context is a horse (Roth and Shoben 1983).

Thus, the basic motivations and methods that drive the two types of categorization seem different. To the extent that these differences are meaningful, categorization theorists should be sensitive to this distinction. To the extent that some theories may have been developed expressly for one mode categorization, they should be used with caution or not at all for the other mode. (Medin and Barsalou, 1987, do point to several similarities between these types of categorization and attempt a reconciliation of the two perspectives).

Another way to divide categorization processes is to go beyond the input (i.e. data type) to the output (i.e. representation of the categories that are formed). It has been proposed that there is a three-level representational system for categories - (i) an iconic representation that is an analog of the sensory input; (ii) a categorical representation that is a highly context-sensitive and consequence-dependent representation of categorical boundaries; and (iii) symbolic representations that underlie language and make it possible to learn categories by description (Harnad 1987); for the purposes of this paper Harnad's, 1987, conception of tripartite representation is adopted without explicitly refuting either Paivio's, 1986, dual encoding scheme or Pylyshyn's, 1984, monolithic approach to cognition. The implied mechanism is that whenever the categorizer encounters a sensory input, the many representations of the stimulus begin to be established if they do not already exist or become activated if they already exist. While the iconic representation is just an analog of the input, the categorical representation is essentially an analog-to-digital filter that takes the sensory input and manages to label and file the input into contextually relevant categories. The last of these, symbolic representation, is the closest in spirit to the notions of schema (cf Mandler 1982; Bettman 1979). In other words, when presented with a horse as stimulus, the iconic representation is the analog version retained in eidetic memory; the category representation is the translation of the analog-stimulus into a digital-code i.e. naming or recognizing the category relevant for the purposes of the task at hand (e.g. category: horse); and the symbolic representation activates the part of the subjects network that includes 'horse' and its relationships to other higher categories (e.g. animal) and lower categories (e.g. has four legs).

These two input-and-output views of categorization processes are highly related -perceptual categorization (PC) depends primarily on iconic representation while conceptual categorization (CC) depends on symbolic representation. The middle stage, category representation, facilitates movement from one type of categorization to the other by acting as a translator to convert the analog information into digital output. Two basic and relevant outcomes of this perceptual-conceptual distinction must be emphasized -- (i) the perceptual categorization is essentially externally driven because of a heavy reliance on the perceptual object for information; and the conceptual categorization is essentially internally driven because of a heavy reliance on the categorizers internal schema or representational structures; and (ii) perceptual categorization is temporally localized and may have no enduring qualities, while conceptual categories simultaneously stable within simple contexts (e.g. roses are flower) and flexible across applied contexts (e.g. roses are for valentines vs. roses are thorny).

This distinction is a novel way to characterize the categorization process. Both perceptual -and conceptual categorization can be done according to the three basic modes of categorization identified in the seminal article on the topic in consumer behavior literature (Cohen and Basu 1987); both perceptual and conceptual categorization can be done according to rules, prototypes or exemplars. The basic understanding still is that the information is stored in a consumers mind in hierarchical levels; these levels consist of increasingly symbolic, i.e. conceptual, representations towards the top and increasingly iconic, i.e. perceptual, representations towards the bottom.


At the very easiest one could have just one category, 'things', into which everything is piled; at the very worst one could have one separate category for each and every thing encountered. Neither method provides any help in evaluation of categories or retrieval of data. Quite clearly, information has to be organized in some fashion; it has been suggested that information is organized categorically for any task that requires different responses to different inputs (Harnad 1987). The rationales for categorizing have been variously described as information processing efficiency (Bruner, Goodnow and Austin 1956), cognitive stability (Lingle, Altom and Medin 1984), evaluative ease (Cohen 1982) and coherence (Cantor and Mischel 1979). These are meta-outcomes of using categorization as a preferred cognitive strategy rather than outcomes that are peculiar to a particular instance of categorization. Particular, or short-term, output processes are either (i) fitting an instance into an existing category structure with varying degrees of stress, or (ii) fitting an existing category to an instance. In other words, when trying to fit a square peg in a round hole either the peg gives in in a variety of ways or the hole gives in, depending on the rigidity of their compositions and strength of the force motivating the fit.

Any instance that a categorizer has to process either will be congruous with existing schema or incongruous with existing schema. Congruous instances fit automatically into the existing categorization. There are three ways in which an incongruous instance (II) can be made to fit into existing categorical structure or schema -- (i) assimilate, i.e. pretend II is just another instance of the category; this happens when there is a mild amount of discrepancy. (ii) accommodate, i.e. create a subcategory within to fit such IIs; this happens when there is a moderate amount of discrepancy. and (iii) alternate, i.e. go to another schema or node in the hierarchy; this happens when the stimulus cannot be either accommodated or assimilated (Rumelhart and Norman 1972). Alternately, when too many discrepant instances accrue and require too much assimilation/ accommodation/ alternation one can expect new categorization schemas to form. The output processes may be arrayed in increasing order of difficulty as follows, increasing from straight fit to assimilation to accommodation to alternation to changing schemas (S->A->A->A->C).


After an exemplar to the task of categorizing is described and its relationships to the antecedents. processes and consequents are outlined, a simple framework is used to describe some results found by others and to propose some new ideas for future categorization research and practice.

Antecedents and Processes

Consider a person sitting at a table being given some cards from many decks one at a time and asked to sort the cards in any way that made sense. Probably, a novice would sort the cards as they came into suits, while an expert would sort the cards by the suits in a numerical order -- i.e. experts use more conceptual categorization than novices. If put under a time constraint, the performance of both experts and novices would deteriorate -- possibly, novices and experts would resort to cruder perceptual categories (e.g. reds and blacks). Finally, utilitarian needs, prompted by problem-solving situations, give lesser importance to the perceptual components of a target as long as it solves the problem; on the other hand, expressive needs depend on whether the target can perform the experiential, i.e. perceptual, function. For example, someone looking for a trump-card is less concerned about the look-and-feel of the card, and someone looking to enjoy card-playing worries about whether the cards feel smooth or look good.

Processes and Consequents

The consequent processes basically span the range from straight fit to schema change (S->A->A->A->C). The degree of adjustment and effort needed in fitting stimulus to the schema is least for straight fit and the greatest for schema change. The conceptual categorizer, dealing with fuzzier categories would be more likely and able to adjust; the perceptual categorizers, dealing with more precise categories, would find it harder to adjust. In other words, the conceptual categorizer of a stimulus would be more willing to adjust when fitting a discrepant stimulus than a perceptual categorizer.

Antecedents and Consequents

A moderately incongruent stimulus, e.g. a pink six of diamonds, would cause the novice to adjust less readily than an expert; in other words, while a novice would choose assimilation or lumping the card with other diamonds, an expert would more likely choose accommodation or creating a new sub-category for pink diamonds since the expert is capable of making/accommodating changes more easily. Similarly, the greater the time available the greater the degree of adjustment possible. Given enough time a subject would choose accommodation, or creating a sub-category for pink diamonds; increasing the time pressure would force the subject to use assimilation, or subsuming-the pink diamonds within the red diamonds. Finally, no relationships between type of need and degree of adjustment is proposed.

These relationships are summarized below, and indicated by the arrows in Figure 1. The managerial relevance and implications of each set of these relationships is also discussed.


Set One: Antecedents and Processes

(i) The greater the Expertise the greater is CC

The lower the Expertise the greater the PC

In knowing that experts are more likely to use conceptual categorization, the marketing task becomes one of finding and positioning products according to the enduring schemas used by experts. The novice, however, does not bring a well-articulated or enduring schema to the task and uses perceptual cues to do the categorizing. Thus, to woo the expert one must use the expert's categorization schema; to woo the novice one must be perceived as belonging to product category. For example, an expert buying a used car depends on his or her own categorizing schemas (which includes abstract attributes such as likely performance) to make an evaluation; a novice, however, would look more at the perceptual aspects such as how the car looks and feels, and even 'kicks the tires', to make an evaluation.

(ii) The greater the Time the greater is CC+PC

The lower the Time the greater is PC of Novices

The lower the Time the greater is CC of Experts

In general, when there is ample time to make decisions the consumer would typically use a mix of conceptual and perceptual categorization. However, when time pressures exist, the novice reverts to perceptual categorization, and the expert resorts to a pruned categorization schema, and perhaps even to perceptual categorization. The example of some consumers mistaking dishwashing liquid for lemon concentrate simply because of the picture of lemons on the package of dishwashing liquid shows that perceptual categorization is done during hurried shopping. In fact, even though grocery aisles are laid out conceptually, i.e. produce with produce etc., the perceptual cues (lemons) were sufficient to cause some consumers to miscategorize an instance.

(iii) The greater the Expressive Need the greater is PC

The greater the Utilitarian Need the greater is CC

Products that are primarily the salve for expressive needs must be very carefully positioned in the perceptual realm because perceptual categorization characterizes these products (Park, Jaworski and MacInnis 1986). Even if they are ultimately consumed and evaluated on the basis of conceptual categorization, the perceptual component is particularly important. For example, a luxury car must look good even if it does not function reliably; in fact there are numerous instances of luxury cars that continue to enjoy patronage even when the consumer suspects that they do not function reliably. This propensity for expressive needs to lead to perceptual categorizing also explains why counterfeit products emulate only the looks, and not the performance of a brand. In contrast, products that serve utilitarian needs are processed by conceptual categorization; because these attributes are fuzzier, one can expect a larger set of brands to be considered substitutes. Therefore, those driven by utilitarian needs will do more brand switching.

Set Two: Processes and Consequents

(i) The greater the PC the more the adjustment

(ii) The greater the CC the less the adjustment

When the processing is primarily through perceptual categorization there is more need to adjust to incongruous stimuli than for conceptual categorization. This follows from the rigidity of perceptual categories and fuzziness of conceptual categories. This means that perceptual categorizers will sooner perceive a stimulus as discrepant than will a conceptual categorizer. For example, perceptual categorizers would buy into the notion that a soda is an 'un-cola' sooner than would conceptual categorizers. If, after discovering the discrepancy, there is sufficient drive left to process the incongruous instance, typically, perceptual categorizers will use higher-powered adjustment -e.g. accommodation. Conceptual categorizers will use a lower-powered adjustment, say assimilation. Thus, a differentiated product in a category will be seen as a subtype by perceptual categorizers (e.g. un-cola) and as just another category instance by conceptual categorizers (soda). The outcome of adjusting to moderate levels of incongruity has been shown to be an increase in the favorable evaluation of incongruous stimuli (Meyers-Levy and Tybout 1989). The mechanism for this is thought to be the consumers transference of a self-congratulatory feeling to the incongruous stimulus; the self-congratulation is said to follow from resolving the discrepancy between the schema and incongruous stimulus by some adjustment process (Mandler 1982). Although this phenomenon seems to indicate that it is good to have a 'moderate' level of incongruity, it must be stressed that conceptual categorizers and perceptual categorizers do not perceive incongruity in the same way. Unless these categorizers are segregated by segmentation, the level of incongruity may not be managerially manipulable.

Set Three: Antecedents and Consequents

(i) The greater the Expertise the more the adjustment

(ii) The greater the Time the more the adjustment

The experts are capable of a larger repertoire of adjustments to incongruity than are novices; therefore, introducing radical or discontinuous innovations to the expert segment will not cause quite as much consternation as it would to the novice segment. Further, the experts can recall more brand level information because of better categorization than the novices can; thus, new product introductions are more likely to be correctly assimilated by experts than by novices. Conversely, radical innovations may have to positioned as mere instances of older categories when dealing with novices. In other words, a pioneering advantage can occur only if the target segment has the desire and ability to adjust to the newness of the pioneer, like the experts do; if the target segment primarily consists of novices, a pioneering advantage may not occur. Finally, the greater the amount of time available to the categorization task, the greater will be the amount of adjustment processes considered or tried. Thus, when rushing through a grocery store a consumer is more likely to think of all sodas as substitutes for one another, but when going through the same store at a more leisurely pace the consumer sees less substitutability.


Allegorically, we can propose some ways to answer the question: why is one person's noise another person's music? In general, the sounds are perceived as music be somebody because (i) there is the expertise to sort the sounds into categories, (ii) the time and (iii) the motivation to process the stimuli. These stimuli could be processed into perceptual categories (e.g. loudness) or conceptual categories (e.g. melody). Typically, novices stop at the perceptual categories while experts ascend to higher conceptual levels. Finally, if the stimuli do not seem to be in accord with existing categories, i.e. if the sounds do not sound familiar, the categorization schema are preserved by creating a new category --i.e. noise. If this process is seen as valid, a marketer will find it important to identify (i) the expertise of the target segment, and (ii) the predominant mode of categorization in this segment, so that new products can be introduced in an appropriate manner and current products can be better positioned.


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Joseph Cherian, University of Illinois at Chicago
Marilyn Jones, University of Illinois at Chicago


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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