Toward the Development of Relationship Theory At the Level of the Product and Brand


Susan Fournier (1995) ,"Toward the Development of Relationship Theory At the Level of the Product and Brand", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 661-662.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 661-662


Susan Fournier, Harvard Business School

Background on the Session

The "relationship" idea is not a new one to the marketing discipline. The relationship perspective has been accepted and encouraged in marketing theory (c.f., Groonroos 1991; Sheth 1994) and has become the norm for studying salesperson interactions in industrial marketing, services, and channel domains (c.f., Berry 1983; Dwyer et al 1987). Relationship thinking is also highly applicable to current marketing practices. Relationship-relevant marketing ideas such as addressable marketing (Blattberg and Deighton 1991) and the management of relationship life cycles (McCormack 1992) have taken hold in a business climate acutely attuned to the value of retaining versus attracting customers (Reichheld and Sasser 1990).

Despite increased acceptance in marketing theory and practice, the relationship perspective has not yet been maximized in the academic literature. No one has insightfully mined the interpersonal relationships literature for the conceptual contributions it has to offer. In particular, relationship theory at the level of the product and brand has been virtually ignored (for exception, see Ahuvia 1993 and Shimp and Madden 1988, in which isolated constructs from the relationship literature have been applied to products and brands). It is argued that such an exercise can greatly enhance our understanding of the interactions between consumers and their products or brands, illuminating existing theoretical conceptions in ways that are both relevant and meaningful to the study of consumer behavior.

The session takes a first step in this direction. The brand/product and the consumer are treated as "partners" in a dyadic relationship that is assumed to be conceptually similar to the relationships established between two people. Frameworks and theories from research on interpersonal relationships are then used to explore the enactment of person-brand/product relationships over time. Collectively, the papers address important issues of relationship formation, maintenance, and deterioration or breakdown. The session is intended to give the audience an organized and provocative glimpse into the issues involved in the conduct of consumer-product (brand) relationships; its overall goal is to stimulate research that can inform the development of relationship theory at the level of the product and brand.

Overview of Contributions

Aaron Ahuvia from the University of Michigan grounded the session with his paper, "Quasi-Social Relationships: The Love of Things." The paper investigates the question of what it means to have a relationship with a non-person: specifically, with an object, activity, or idea. Using a combination of 29 short and 10 depth interviews on emotionally-intense relationships, Aaron identified four themes that illustrate the meaning of person-object (activity or idea) relationships. These include: (1) responsiveness, the idea that relational members have a causal, reciprocal impact upon each other; (2)partnership; (3) personification, the attribution of life and energy to the object/activity/idea; and (4) exchanging love, especially in the form of comfort, warmth, and solace. In discussing the themes, Aaron drew comparisons with person-person relationships, highlighting where and how the relationship metaphor breaks down when it is applied in non-person situations. Aaron also discussed the personal significance of having a relationship with objects/activities/ideas, indicating how and why levels of importance differed across people.

The relationship maintenance stage was addressed in Fournier's paper, "Brand Relationship Quality: The Glue that Keeps the Relationship Together." The brand relationship quality (BRQ) notion was developed through qualitative life history interviews to explain the mechanisms through which brand-person relationships are maintained over time and at high levels of intensity (Fournier 1994). Seven facets of BRQ are identified: nostalgic attachment, self-concept connection, intimacy, personal commitment, interdependency, love/passion, brand-partner quality. Fournier shared the results of a survey in which a 37-item battery to measure BRQ was developed, and the hierarchical structure of the construct validated. Evidence of maintenance-enhancing outcomes encouraged by high levels of BRQ (e.g., repeat purchase intentions, resistance to competitive threats, enactment of supportive customer responses such as positive word-of-mouth and trial of brand extensions, tolerance of brand transgressions) was also provided. In closing, superiority of BRQ over traditional measures of brand association (e.g., brand attitude and satisfaction) was also established to provide insight into discriminant validity issues.

Mary Fajer and John Schouten from the University of Portland considered the relationship dissolution phase (see "Breakdown and Dissolution of Person-Brand Relationships," this volume). The authors drew upon a range of depth interviews in which informants shared stories of their brand relationship breakdown experiences. A typology of person-brand relationships was offered as a point of departure for discussing dissolution and break down issues. Stress factors precipitating breakdown, patterns of break-up, processes of dissolution, and consumer responses to dissolution were considered, especially as they varied by relationship intensity level. The authors examined several models of breakdown in the interpersonal relationship setting for their relevance in the marketing domain, providing conceptual starting points for the articulation of brand relationship deterioration models.

Gerald Zaltman from the Harvard Business School acted as session discussant. Gerry used a visualization task with session participants to provide fodder for discussion of the papers. As the session opened, Gerry encouraged participants to let images form and flow in response to the presentations, and to record these images for latter discussion. The images were revealed, captured on an overhead, and interpreted at the close of the session. They included, for example, a lump of clay, an unopened packet of sugar, a detached bystanderCvisuals reflecting an element of potential not yet realized. The intent of the exercise was to generate awareness of the powers and potential risks of metaphoric thinking, captured in Gerry's concluding caution that "metaphors may distort and hide as much as they reveal."


Ahuvia, Aaron (1993), "Love as a General Construct: Understanding People's Love of Products," PhD dissertation, Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University.

Berry, Leonard L. (1983), "Relationship Marketing," in Emerging Perspectives in Relationship Marketing, eds. Leonard L. Berry, G. Lynn Shostack, and Gregory Upah, Chicago, IL: American Marketing Association, 25-34.

Blattberg, Robert C. and John Deighton (1991), "Interactive Marketing: Exploiting the Age of Addressability," Sloan Management Review, Fall, 5-14.

Dwyer, F. Robert, Paul H. Schurr, and Sejo Oh (1987), "Developing Buyer-Seller Relationships," Journal of Marketing, 51 (April), 11-27.

Fournier, Susan (1994), "A Person-Brand Relationship Framework for Strategic Brand Management," PhD dissertation, University of Florida.

Groonroos, Christian (1991), "The Marketing Strategy Continuum: Toward a Marketing Concept for the 1990s," Management Decision, 29(1), 7-13.

McCormack, Kevin (1992), "American Express: Beyond Cars to Icons," Adweek Eastern Edition, June 1, 33(22), p. 9.

Reichheld, Frederick and W. Earl Sasser, Jr. (1990), "Zero Defections: Quality Comes to Services," Harvard Business Review, September-October, 105-111.

Sheth, Jagdish (1994), "Relational Marketing," talk given at the 1994 Winter Educator's Conference, St. Petersburg, FL, February.

Shimp, Terrence and Thomas Madden (1988), "Consumer-Object Relations: A Conceptual Framework Based Analogously on Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love," in Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 15, ed. Michael Houston, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 163-168.



Susan Fournier, Harvard Business School


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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