Good Life Images and Brand Name Associations: Evidence From Asia, America, and Europe

ABSTRACT - Consumers' descriptions of the good life frequently contain visions of material possessions, including both general product categories and specific brand names. In this study, we investigate the link between good life visions and brand name images in three different cultures: Spain, Taiwan, and the United States. We find only minimal support for the cultural differences which we had predicted, based upon Hofstede's theory of cultural values. Especially in Spain and in the U.S., we find evidence that the brand names for luxury products (including automobiles and electronics) are strongly linked to this universal notion of "the good life."


George M. Zinkhan and Penelope J. Prenshaw (1994) ,"Good Life Images and Brand Name Associations: Evidence From Asia, America, and Europe", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 496-500.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 496-500


George M. Zinkhan, University of Houston

Penelope J. Prenshaw, University of Houston

[The authors would like to acknowledge the University of Houston via the Limited Grant-in-Aid program for financial support related to this project.]


Consumers' descriptions of the good life frequently contain visions of material possessions, including both general product categories and specific brand names. In this study, we investigate the link between good life visions and brand name images in three different cultures: Spain, Taiwan, and the United States. We find only minimal support for the cultural differences which we had predicted, based upon Hofstede's theory of cultural values. Especially in Spain and in the U.S., we find evidence that the brand names for luxury products (including automobiles and electronics) are strongly linked to this universal notion of "the good life."


What's in a name? More specifically, what's in a brand name? A brand name serves a variety of purposes for both the firm and the consumer (Meyers-Levy 1989). More than just a label, a brand name is a complex symbol providing a variety of associations for the consumer (Zinkhan and Martin 1987). Such associations go beyond simple product inferences and evaluations; and brand names can serve a valuable social function by promoting feelings of group affiliation through brand identification (Friedman 1991).

A main purpose of this study is to determine the extent to which brand names are associated with good life images. In U.S. advertising, everything from cars to beer to yogurt to clothing claim to provide the purchaser with aspects of the good life. In fact, critics of advertising claim that advertising encourages consumers to value products not only as ends in themselves but more importantly as means for acquiring love and friendship (Schudson 1984). Leiss, Kline, and Jhally (1986) put a more positive spin on advertising effects and describe consumer products as symbols with attached meanings for defining what is valued.

The concept of the "good life" exists in many languages (e.g., "la dolce vita," "le bon vie"); but how it is conceived (and defined) varies from culture to culture. Among the formal definitions which have been proposed are Belk and Pollay's (1985) distinction between one view which focuses on material possessions and a second view which emphasizes the cultivation of spiritual rewards. The objective of this paper is to combine the two concepts of brand name and good life. Specifically, an attempt is made: (a) to determine what brand names (if any) are associated with the good life; and (b) to examine cultural differences between good life visions (in terms of brand names mentioned). That is, are there differences across cultures that determine whether brand names are used more frequently in descriptions of the good life? To examine these cultural differences, student essays from three countries (U.S., Spain, and Taiwan) are analyzed. These countries are selected so as to provide representative responses from three different continents. In their essays, respondents are asked to describe what the good life is to them.


Images play an important role in influencing the way that consumers respond to products and services. Similarly, brand name plays a key role in consumer decision making, often through decision-making heuristics or through inferences about quality. In this sense, brand name is one way that brand image is communicated to consumers. From a consumer's point of view, a set of brand name associations may represent an accumulation of knowledge about the brand along with accompanying emotions and affect (Zinkhan and Martin 1987).

Several studies have examined the association sets accompanying brand names and the effect these associations have on brand preference (LeClerc, Schmitt and Dube-Rioux 1989), brand memory (Meyers-Levy 1989), and brand name attitude (Zinkhan and Martin 1982, 1987). The view underlying this research is that, through semantic associations in memory, a brand name can trigger a variety of inferences, which in turn can influence preference, memory, or attitude.

Park, Jaworski and MacInnis (1986) categorized brand images according to the needs brands fulfill for the consumer. For example, a brand with a functional image focuses on solving consumption-related problems (e.g., the images associated with a vacuum cleaner). Symbolic brands fulfill needs associated with self-enhancement, role position, group membership, or ego-identification (e.g., the images associated with automobiles). Brands may also portray an experiential image which provides consumers with pleasure, variety, and/or stimulation (e.g., food products). Hence, a brand name (and its associated image) provides consumers with a multitude of attached meanings (Dobni and Zinkhan 1990).


A key question in consumer behavior research is: "Why do people buy what they do?" There are many possible approaches for answering this question. One approach is to develop metaphors, and one promising metaphor which has been proposed is "the good life" (Belk and Pollay 1985). Many consumers strive to achieve or maintain the good life; but visions of the good life are culturally determined; and such good life visions depend upon the values within a culture (Tuan 1986). Further, depending on a culture's value orientations, good life images may be expressed through demand for certain products and/or services (O'Shaughnessy 1987).

If we accept that a relationship exists between cultures and visions of the good life, then we must accept that differences in cultures translate to differences among individuals' visions of the good life. Further, values which are implicit in a culture will affect individuals' good life visions and thus may be linked to demand for specific products, services, or brands.


Two research questions are examined in this preliminary investigation of good life visions. First, the analysis attempts to determine which specific brand names consumers link with the notion of good life. Second, we investigate differences in cultures (defined by value orientations) which influence the appearance of brand names in good life descriptions. In order to explore these questions, data were collected from students in three cultures: U.S., Spain, and Taiwan.

The conceptual framework to guide this investigation is derived from the work of Hofstede (1980), who empirically derived four value dimensions from a large-scale study of 116,000 subjects in fifty countries. Hofstede (1980) focused on societal differences by investigating cultural values, and he derived four value dimensions of national culture which are defined as societal norms (system of values) shared by the majority of the middle class within a society. Hofstede's value dimensions have been used to understand other aspects of consumer behavior (e.g., tipping behavior) across cultures (Lynn, Zinkhan, and Harris 1993).



It follows, then, that variations in value dimensions should explain variations in individuals' good life visions, as well as the frequency with which brand names are mentioned in descriptions of the good life. Following a brief description of Hofstede's four value dimensions, hypotheses are derived, based on cultural differences described by Hofstede.


Hofstede's first value dimension, "uncertainty avoidance," describes how individuals deal with uncertainty. A culture's score on the "uncertainty avoidance" dimension reflects individuals' need for security and their willingness to accept change and take risks. Uncertainty avoidance provides guidance in dealing with anxiety about the future and the reflects the desire to provide protection (via technology, rules or laws, and religion). Many times consumers are unable to differentiate products on the basis of their physical characteristics. In judging between competitors, consumers rely on a brand's reputation as an assurance that the product meets certain standards (e.g., "you can trust Woolite for all you fine washables," Zikmund and d'Amico 1993). In brief, branding provides a way for consumers to reduce risk by capitalizing on their prior consumption experiences associated with specific brands. It follows, then, that cultures scoring high on the "uncertainty avoidance" dimension should mention brand names more frequently than those cultures scoring lower on this dimension. Thus, we hypothesize (via H1 in Table 1) that respondents from cultures with the highest "uncertainty avoidance" score will mention brand names most frequently in their descriptions of the good life; see Table 1 for a complete summary of the four hypotheses proposed in this study.

Hofstede's second dimension, "power distance," consists of values concerning the desirability or undesirability of social inequality (including the notions of dependence versus interdependence, and the exercise of power). The issue involved relates to areas such as prestige, wealth, status, and power. In high power-distance cultures, the powerful strive to appear as powerful as possible. In contrast, in low power-distance cultures, power holders are somewhat embarrassed by power and attempt to underplay power appearances. Value-expressive brands help individuals communicate their values (Munson and Spivey 1981). Similarly, brands positioned to maintain the exclusivity of the brand can communicate to others the status, prestige, and role position of the brand-user. Individuals in high power-distance cultures are eager to express their position in society; thus, we would expect those cultures scoring high on the "power-distance" dimension to mention brand names more frequently than those cultures scoring lower on this dimension. In turn, we hypothesize that respondents from cultures with high "power-distance" scores will mention brand names more frequently in their descriptions of the good life than will respondents from cultures with low "power-distance" scores (see H2 in Table 1).

Hofstede's "masculinity" dimension explains cultural variation based on the dominant sex-role patterns in societies. The main issue is the extent to which biological differences between the sexes have implications for societal roles. In this regard, cultures with high masculinity scores show greater differences in values between men and women. For example, cultures scoring high on the masculinity dimension illustrate an achievement ideal, have a money and "things" orientation, and view performance and growth as important. In brief, members of a high masculinity culture value material possessions more than those in a low masculinity culture. Thus, we expect those cultures scoring high on the "masculinity" dimension to mention brand names more frequently than those cultures scoring lower on this dimension. Therefore, we hypothesize that respondents from cultures with the highest "masculinity" score will mention brand names most frequently in their descriptions of the good life (again, see Table 1 for a summary of the hypotheses and predictions).

The final dimension described by Hofstede, "individualism," describes the relationship between the individual and the collective or group. The cultural value reflected by low "individualism" places greater emphasis on a "we" consciousness, a collectivity orientation, and belonging, where identity is based in the social system. The values in highly "individualistic" cultures highlight individual decision making and personal freedom so that one's identity is based on the individual. This emphasis on individualism leads to greater optimism and high levels of confidence in one's own ability.

Friedman (1991) describes brand name usage as facilitating group affiliation, such that those who share a brand identification feel a sense of community. Marketing practice reflects this trend through "affinity marketing," where consumers are encouraged to express their loyalty to a group (e.g., a college) through the purchase of a specific brand (e.g., American Express credit cards); see Zinkhan, Hong, and Lawson (1990) for a more complete discussion of affinity marketing and cultural values.



In summary, we expect individuals from those cultures which score higher on the "individualism" dimension to mention brand names less frequently than individuals from those cultures scoring lower on this dimension. Therefore, we hypothesize that respondents from cultures with the highest "individualism" scores will mention brand names least frequently in their descriptions of the good life.



On three different days, respondents wrote one-page essays to describe their good life visions. Essay One asked subjects to respond to this question: "What is the good life to you?" Thus, respondents were not specifically prompted to think about brand names in essay one. Essay Two questioned respondents about their good life visions (as they related to material aspects) by providing a products and services prompt. That is, respondents were asked to list the products and services which they associated with the good life. Again, the instructions for Essay Two do not explicitly encourage respondents to think of or list specific brand names. Finally, Essay Three asked respondents to list the brand names which they associated with the good life.

Brand names which are mentioned by consumers in Essay One are expected to be strongly linked to visions of the good life, as these brands emerge with only minimal prompting. For all practical purposes, the phrase, the "good life," is the only prompt which is used in Essay One. The Essay Two prompt is a little more specific in that it directs subjects' thoughts toward material things (i.e., products and services). Thus, brand names which emerge in response to the Essay Two question are also strongly linked to consumers' good life visions.


In order to examine our research questions, respondents were drawn from three different countries: Spain, the U.S., and Taiwan. As well as representing three continents, these countries represent an old-world western culture (Spain), a new-world western culture (US), and an old-world eastern culture (Taiwan). Respondents were surveyed in two waves. During the first wave, respondents from all three cultures answered Essays One and Two. During the second wave, respondents from the U.S. answered Essays Two and Three; respondents from Spain answered only Essay Three. Thus, for Essay Two, the U.S. sample size is larger due to the number of respondents who participated in the second wave in America. For Essay Two, the Spanish and Taiwanese sample sizes decrease slightly, due to respondents' absence during administration of the second essay.


These three essays were content analyzed. The content analysis focused on brand name counts (e.g., number of BMWs mentioned). Coding instructions with product and service categories were devised, and two graduate students performed the coding.


Cultural Patterns

The results for the four hypotheses related to cultural values are summarized in Table 1. Almost none of Hofstede's predictions are supported. The individualism hypothesis (H3) and the masculinity hypothesis (H4) are not supported by the results associated with any of the three essays. Essays One and Two provide no support for the Uncertainty Avoidance (H1) and Power Distance (H2) hypotheses. For example, as shown in Table 2, U.S. (16%) respondents were most likely to mention a brand name in response to Essay One (as predicted by the Masculinity dimension). However, this difference is not statistically significant (chi square=4.15, df=2, p<.2). Taiwanese (7.84%) and Spanish (7.92%) were less likely than their U.S. counterparts to mention a specific brand name.

With respect to Essay Two, U.S. respondents were again the most likely to mention a brand name (average number of brands mentioned per respondent equals 1.12). Spanish respondents also mentioned a large number of brand names (approximately one name mentioned for each respondent); in contrast, Taiwanese subjects mentioned almost no brand names in response to a "product prompt." Again, as summarized in Table 1, this pattern of brand name mentions matches almost none of Hofstede's predictions (as deduced by us here). The one exception is that the masculinity dimension does predict that U.S. respondents will mention more brand names than their Spanish counterparts; and this expectation is confirmed in Essay Two (t=1.97, df=256, p<.05).

The Essay Three results do provide support for hypotheses one and two. Spain is higher than the U.S. on both uncertainty avoidance (H1) and power distance (H2); and, as predicted by these two hypotheses, the Spanish subjects mentioned more brand names (16.05 on average) than their American counterparts (13.26). This difference is statistically significant (t=2.71, df=114, p<.05), thus providing support for H1 and H2.





Specific Brand Names Mentioned

Specific brand names mentioned are shown in Table 3 (for Essay One) and in Table 4 (for Essay Two). Essay One provides no prompt for either product or brand; so the specific brands which show up in Table 3 can be construed as being very powerful, in the sense that respondents view these brands as being strongly connected to their vision of the good life. Across the three cultures, more than half the brands (53.6%) mentioned in Essay One are automobiles (e.g., BMW, Porsche, Mercedes). All but one of the automobiles is manufactured in Europe; and interestingly, this pattern holds true across all three cultures.

Table 4 summarizes the brand names most frequently mentioned in response to a product and service prompt. Here again, subjects were not specifically asked to think about brand names; but they were provided with a cue to think in a "materialistic fashion" (i.e., to think about products and services which might be linked to the good life). Once again, automobiles are the brands most closely associated with the good life. European brands are most common (both among American and Spanish respondents). Asian brands (e.g., Toyota, Honda, Acura) are second most popular with U.S. respondents; but U.S. respondents also mention some North American automobile brands (e.g., Chevy, Corvette, Ford). Electronics (e.g., Macintosh, Sony) and luxury brands (i.e., Rolex) are also mentioned in the Spanish and U.S. samples. Taiwanese subjects listed too few brand names in response to Essay Two to be summarized in Table 4, which only lists those brand names that received 3 or more mentions.


We have made some progress toward understanding the brand names associated with good life visions in three cultures. Of all product categories, automobiles are most often associated with the good life. Other material possessions mentioned are all products of the industrial and information revolutions, including electronics equipment and watches. Taiwanese are much less likely to mention a specific brand name, following indirect prompts, than their counterparts in the U.S. or Spain. Unfortunately, we do not have data at this time to investigate Taiwanese brand mentions following a specific request to list brand names. However, we predict that Taiwanese are less materialistic than are Spanish and American consumers. This is born out by the content of the Taiwanese essays (Essays One and Two). To a large extent, Taiwanese respondents discussed the political situation in their country and were very concerned about the natural environment (e.g., the importance of avoiding problems associated with air and water pollution). Hofstede's Masculinity dimension also supports this prediction that Taiwanese would be less materialistic than Americans.

To a large extent, we find very little support for the four hypotheses derived from Hofstede's theory. In total, we test the hypotheses three times each, for a total of twelve tests. Only two of these tests fully support the hypotheses (H1 and H2). From this perspective, the Uncertainty Avoidance and the Power Distance dimensions appear to be the most promising for understanding consumer good life visions across cultures.

To some degree, the failure of the hypotheses is linked to the relatively weak predictions associated with Taiwanese respondents. Perhaps a different sort of cultural theory is required to explain Asian good life visions. Or, alternative interpretations of Hofstede's theory may be possible. For example, it could be argued that consumers express their individualism by purchasing unique brands (such as Rolex watches or Armani suits or a Porsche automobile). The kinds of brands which are associated with good life visions are certainly not brands for the herd (i.e., brands for the collective). Under this argument, the predictions forthcoming from Hofstede's Individualism dimension are fully supported by the Essay Two results. Since Hofstede's values were originally validated in a work setting (rather than in an consumer setting), it is important to allow for adjustments when applying this theory to consumer behavior contexts.


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George M. Zinkhan, University of Houston
Penelope J. Prenshaw, University of Houston


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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