The Effects of Brandbconsumer Relationships Upon Consumers’ Attributions and Reactions

ABSTRACT - The study investigates how two dimensions of the brand-consumer relationship B mediation and reciprocity B affect the attributions for intention and selfishness that consumers make for pleasant and unpleasant experiences with the brand and their reactions to unpleasant experiences. Two hundred and twenty-five subjects participated in a simulated shopping experience. Consumers who have a mediated relationship attribute pleasant experiences to an accident, and unpleasant ones to a self-serving and intentional action by the brand/ store. Upon an unpleasant encounter, these consumers are more prone to exit the interaction or voice their discontent and less inclined to remain loyal. When consumers have a reciprocal relationship with a brand/ store, they react to an unpleasant experience by collaborating, compromising, competing, or retaliating.


Velitchka Kaltcheva and Barton Weitz (1999) ,"The Effects of Brandbconsumer Relationships Upon Consumers’ Attributions and Reactions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 455-462.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 455-462


Velitchka Kaltcheva, University of Florida

Barton Weitz, University of Florida


The study investigates how two dimensions of the brand-consumer relationship B mediation and reciprocity B affect the attributions for intention and selfishness that consumers make for pleasant and unpleasant experiences with the brand and their reactions to unpleasant experiences. Two hundred and twenty-five subjects participated in a simulated shopping experience. Consumers who have a mediated relationship attribute pleasant experiences to an accident, and unpleasant ones to a self-serving and intentional action by the brand/ store. Upon an unpleasant encounter, these consumers are more prone to exit the interaction or voice their discontent and less inclined to remain loyal. When consumers have a reciprocal relationship with a brand/ store, they react to an unpleasant experience by collaborating, compromising, competing, or retaliating.


Brand equity has become the subject of extensive theoretical and empirical work. The psychological processes underlying brand equity have been studied from two complementary perspectives. One approach examines how brand awareness and brand associations create equity for the brand (Aaker 1991; Keller 1993, 1997). Another approach employs a relational metaphor to describe the connection of a brand to its consumers and, in this way, enhances the understanding of brand loyalty and patronage (Blackston 1993; Fournier 1998). The relational metaphor is grounded in the premise that consumers personify brands. Plummer (1984) and Aaker (1997) provided empirical evidence for this premise by demonstrating that consumers readily assign dispositional characteristics to brands.

An alternative premise underlying the relational perspective maintains that, in thinking of and relating to a brand, consumers think of and relate to the organization of people that markets the products or services bearing the brand name and consider it as a social group sharing the same goals, motives, and values. For example, a consumer may relate to the organization standing behind The Gap both in a discernible and in a symbolic manner. Interacting with a sales associate or sending in a letter of complaint illustrates an observable contact. Endorsing or repudiating an advertising message meaningfully implies agreement or disagreement with the managerial team standing behind it. Adopting or dismissing a symbolic meaning signifies identifying with or differentiating oneself from the people who have invested their psychic energy into the branded product or service. Consumers infer the goals, motives, and values of the social organization from the discernible and symbolic qualities of the product/ service, the public messages or actions on behalf of the brand, and its pricing and distributional features.

The present study has been designed with two objectives in view. First, we advance a taxonomy of brand-consumer relationships derived from theoretical and empirical works on interpersonal relationships conducted within the social sciences. Secondly, we provide empirical support for the viability of the taxonomy by demonstrating its behavioral implications. Propositions for how the nature of the relationship affects the way a consumer evaluates and reacts to his experiences with a brand are formulated and tested.

The subsequent sections introduce the conceptual framework for the study and describe the empirical investigation and its results. The paper concludes with a discussion of the findings, the empirical limitations, and possible avenues for further exploration.


Figure 1 represents the conceptual framework examined in the empirical study. The relational schema moderates the effect of a pleasant or an unpleasant experience with the brand upon the attributions for intention and selfishness that the consumer makes for this experience. The model further propounds that the relational schema affects reactions to unsatisfactory experiences both directly and through these attributions. By consistently biasing the way consumers interpret, evaluate, and react to pleasant and unpleasant experiences with the brand, the relational schema ultimately exerts a continual and pervasive effect upon brand loyalty and patronage.

Relational Schemas and Relational Dimensions

Table 1 describes the proposed taxonomy of brand-consumer relationships. It has been derived from taxonomies of interpersonal relatinships developed and supported by Fiske (1991), Fiske, Haslam and Fiske (1991) and Mills and Clark (1994) who suggest that people have a finite number of distinct schemas of interpersonal relations.

The dimensions of mediation and reciprocity describe the four relational schemas. Mediation is defined as the extent to which consumers derive their principal benefit primarily from the relationship itself rather than from the product or service acquired through it. Consumers may patronize a brand mainly for the sake of enhancing their self-concept and self-esteem either explicitly, by being personally recognized and respected by the brand (e.g., by one of its sales associates), or implicitly, through identifying with, i.e., sharing the identity of, the brand. In both of these cases, the relationship is defined as unmediated. Alternatively, consumers may engage in the interaction primarily for obtaining the product or service which results in a mediated relationship.

Reciprocity designates the extent to which consumers believe that a norm of reciprocity, of equity or of equality, characterizes their relationship to the brand. A relationship is described as reciprocal if consumers feel dissatisfied when they have reasons to believe that this norm has been violated to their disadvantage. Conversely, willingness to tolerate unfavorable exchanges defines an unreciprocal relationship.

The communal relational schema has been derived from Fiske’s communal-sharing mode and Mills and Clark’s communal relationship. This schema is best illustrated by married couples, families, and religious communities. In such relationships, people have a sense of common identity and an obligation to care for each other. Everyone contributes to the extent of one’s abilities and consumes in proportion to one’s needs and, as a result, tolerates unbalanced exchanges within the relationship.

In the context of a communal relationship to a brand, consumers derive their principal benefit from identifying with the brand and readily tolerate unfavorable exchanges. For these reasons, the communal schema can be characterized as unmediated and unreciprocal. Empirical evidence testifies to this occurrence: Fournier (1998, p. 357) reports of one woman who patronizes Ivory because the brand imparts the qualities of wholesome and clean freshness; Schouten and McAlexander (1995, p. 54) report several Harley-Davidson patrons as sharing that this motorcycle and leather clothing impart a sense of power, fearsomeness, and invulnerability to the rider.





The matching schema has been developed from Fiske’s description of the relational mode of equality matching which involves in-kind reciprocity, e.g., exchanges of gifts and invitations to dinner among friendly acquaintances. The parties in the relationship have subjectively autonomous identities and strive to maintain an even balance in absolute terms in all relevant domains of the mutual exchange which necessitates that culturally similar things be reciprocated, e.g., an invitation to dinner in exchange for one to a cocktail party. Fiske emphasizes that successive exchanges are carried out at appropriate delays; in fact, immediate reciprocation is felt as insulting and aversive.

The fact that culturally similar things are exchanged suggested to us that the exchanged objects are functionally unneeded, and led us to the conclusion that the purpose of equality-matching transactions lies elsewhere. The exchanged things can be conceived of as symbolic tokens of recognition, or "payment", for the worthy personal presence of the other individual. In other words, relationships of the equality-matching mode serve as the social means of exchanging personal recognition and respect. The very insistence on keeping the exchange appropriately delayed and balanced in absolute terms supports this position. The delay plausibly serves the essential role of emphasizing the spontaneously sincere and genuine nature of the mutual esteem.

In the context ofrelationships to brands, Blackston (1993, p. 119) reports of credit-card holders who perceive the brand as recognizing their personal worthiness. The emphasis on receiving personal recognition and respect from the brand ensures the unmediated nature of the matching schema, but the importance placed on the equality of the exchange renders it reciprocal.

The market schema corresponds to Fiske’s mode of market pricing and to Mills and Clark’s exchange relationship. Subjectively independent individuals strive for a completely equitable, i.e., equal in relative terms, exchange. The existence of a universal metric of utility, e.g., money, enables proportional comparisons and allows for the reciprocation of culturally dissimilar goods. This schema has been observed governing relationships to brands: Fournier (1998) reports of Karen who believes that all national brands are alike and purchases the one that is cheapest or most convenient (p. 354). The equitable exchange of dissimilar goods for their own sake qualifies the market schema as unmediated and reciprocal.

The contemporary theory of play in adulthood (Apter 1991) provides the grounds for a fourth relational mode which is best exemplified by the interactions among recreational partners, i.e., people who get together only for the purpose of a sport or another recreational activity. In the domain of brand-consumer relationships, this schema most commonly operates during playful interactions with a brand, such as while sampling cosmetics. In this case, consumers seek excitement from sensory experiences, manipulating objects, or playing a role. They insist on undergoing pleasant experiences for which the obtaining of the product merely provides a necessary structure without constituting the main purpose of the activity. The purchase is subsumed by the principal goal of having a nice time.

Since Apter’s understanding closely conforms to Alderson’s (1957) definition of congenial behaviors, we have adopted the latter term for designating this relational schema. Shopping for recreation and entertainment has been consistently reported by scholars of retailing (e.g. Tauber 1972; Westbrook and Black 1985).

Since the relationship to the brand constitutes merely the means for ensuring an exciting experience, the congenial schema is clearly of a mediated nature. Moreover, as the obtaining of the product has assumed secondary significance, the consumer has plausibly lost interest in the balance of the interaction which renders the schema unreciprocal.

The following section defines the attributions and reactions of interest and formulates empirical propositions for the anticipated effects of the two relational dimensions on these constructs.

Attributions for an Experience with the Brand

Consumers have been found to make attributions for locus, stability, controllability (Curren and Folkes 1987; Folkes 1984, 1990; Folkes et al. 1987), and blame (Richins 1983) to organizations providing products or services.

The present study focuses on the attributions for intention and for selfishness because these have been shown to affect relational attitudes (Fincham and Bradbury 1987). The definitions that have been formulated for the purposes of this investigation adhere to the understanding of Jones and Davis (1965) and Jones and McGillis (1976). An attribution for intention reflects the degree to which consumers perceive that the brand (i.e., the social organization that markets the products or services bearing the brand name) has produced their experiene in order to obtain an effect from it; an attribution for selfishness denotes the extent to which consumers perceive that the brand has produced the effect for its own benefit. The subsequent propositions are based on bringing together the proposed relational model and the existing theoretical understandings of and empirical findings on the attributions for intention and selfishness.

Empirical works on marital attributions have shown that people in satisfying close relationships attribute pleasant events to intentionally unselfish actions by the spouse and unpleasant events to accidents (Bradbury and Fincham 1990; Fletcher and Fincham 1991). Assuming that consumers who derive their principal benefit directly from the relationship with the brand are generally satisfied with it, we propose that consumers entertaining an unmediated relationship are inclined to attribute pleasant experiences to intentionally unselfish actions by the brand and unpleasant experiences to accidents. In contrast, consumers entertaining a mediated relationship tend to attribute pleasant experiences to accidents and unpleasant ones to selfish and intentional actions by the brand. The subsequent two predictions proceed from these considerations.

Proposition 1:   The greater the degree of mediation of a relational schema, (a) the less likely consumers are to attribute intention to the brand for pleasant experiences and (b) the more likely consumers are to attribute intention to the brand for unpleasant experiences.

Proposition 2:   The greater the degree of mediation of a relational schema, the more likely consumers are to attribute selfishness to the brand for unpleasant experiences.

Reactions to Unpleasant Experiences

The study has focused on examining reactions to unsatisfactory experiences. Eight different reactions have been investigated: exiting, loyalty, neglect, voicing, collaboration, compromising, competition, and retaliation. The first four have been adapted from Rusbult et al.’s (1994) taxonomy. Exiting designates a voluntary termination of the relationship: the consumer ceases purchasing the brand or visiting the store. Despite feeling dissatisfied, neglectful consumers passively remain in the relationship without attempting to amend the unfavorable circumstances, allowing them to deteriorate. Loyal consumers likewise passively persist but, in contrast, anticipate that the quality of the merchandise and service will improve. Finally, voicing is defined as expressing one’s discontent before a representative of the brand. Curren and Folkes (1987) and Folkes et al. (1987) found that attributing controllability to the brand enhances intentions to complain.

Four reactions constituting active attempts at improving the state of affairs have been examined: collaboration, compromising, competition, and retaliation. The first three proceed from the approaches to conflict management suggested by Thomas (1992). Retaliation is defined as an attempt at hurting the brand, e.g., by spreading unfavorable word-of-mouth publicity. Blaming the brand for an unsatisfactory experience (Richins 1983) or attributing such an experience to factors controlled by the brand (Curren and Folkes 1987; Folkes 1984) have been found to enhance retaliation.

Consumers who derive the principal benefit directly from their association with the brand, i.e., entertain an unmediated relationship, can be plausibly anticipated to refrain from severing the connection too readily and to strive at phenomenologically recovering its initial quality by entertaining optimistic expectations. Since mediation is expected to influence the attributions for intention and selfishness, the latter are anticipated to affect reactions to dissatisfactory experiences in a manner similar to that of mediation:

Proposition 3:   Attributions for (a) intention and (b) selfishness encourage exiting, neglectful, and voicing reactions and discourage loyal ones.

By highlighting that exchange should be consistently balanced, reciprocal relational schemas motivate consumers to equalize the outcomes of an unsatisfactory experience through seeking redress by compromising, competitive, or retaliatory actions. In contrast, unreciprocal relational modes de-emphasize balancing the interaction and, for this reason, are more likely to motivate consumers to seek for a general improvement in the products or services that will benefit other customers, i.e., to undertake collaborative efforts.

Proposition 4:   Reciprocity encourages compromising, competitive, and retaliatory reactions and discourages collaborative ones.

The four propositions were tested in a simulation study described in the following section.



Two hundred and twenty-five undergraduate students from a large Southeastern state university volunteered for participation in exchange for extra credit towards an introductory marketing class.


Before collecting the main measurements, a pre-test on a sample of 67 undergraduate students drawn from the same population was conducted with the goal of finding fictitious stories sufficiently ambiguous so that they would allow for variation in the attributions for intention and selfishness. Upon conducting a correspondence analysis and visual comparisons of the empirical distributions for the attributions of interest, four scenarios, two relating a pleasant event and the other two C an unpleasant one, were selected for the main study.


The empirical measurements constituted completing a questionnaire. First, subjects were asked to think of a store selling apparel which they like to visit, whereby the construct of brand was operationally defined as a retail store. Then subjects completed scales assessing the degree of mediation and reciprocity in their perceived relationship to that store. Thereupon they were asked to read a fictitious scenario, pleasant or unpleasant, about visiting this store and to express their attributions for and reactions to the event of the story.

The procedure was designed to follow the natural order of subjective events in shopping contexts. Since, upon entering a store, the relational schema entertained by a consumer becomes inevitably activated, the relational dimensions were measured before introducing a scenario and soliciting attributions and reactions.




All constructs were measured on seven-poit, from 1 to 7, scales. The unidimensionality of every initial scale was investigated, and its reliability was estimated with Cronbach’s coefficient alpha.

The scales of the constructs and their means, standard deviations, ranges, and intercorrelations may be obtained from the authors. For example, "The Store means more to me than just its merchandise and service," is one of the statements measuring mediation, while "It is important to me that our inputs and benefits are balanced," is one of those assessing reciprocity.

For the sake of expositional comprehensibility, the two pleasant experiences are designated as Scenario 1 and Scenario 2, and the two unpleasant ones B as Scenario 3 and Scenario 4. The full texts of the four scenarios may be obtained from the authors.

Propositions 1A and 1B were tested by estimating the following equations:

(1) Intention = b0 + b1 * Scenario 1 + b3 * Mediation + b4 * Reciprocity + b5 * Mediation * Scenario + b6 * Reciprocity * Scenario. (This model was estimated from all pleasant scenarios, and b3<0 tested Proposition 1A.)

(2) Intention = b0 + b2 * Scenario 3 + b3 * Mediation + b4 * Reciprocity + b5 * Mediation * Scenario + b6 * Reciprocity * Scenario. (This model was estimated from all unpleasant scenarios, and b3>0 tested Proposition 1B.)

The interactions between the dummy variable for Scenario 1 or Scenario 3 and the relational dimensions served to control for unique characteristics of the scenarios.

The next model tested the second prediction.

(3) Selfishness = b0 + b2 * Scenario 3 + b3 * Mediation + b4 * Reciprocity + b5 * Mediation * Scenario + b6 * Reciprocity * Scenario. (This model was estimated from all unpleasant scenarios, and b3 >0 tested Proposition 2.)

The remaining two propositions were tested only for the unpleasant scenarios. The subsequent equation shows the variables included into the regression models.

(4) Reaction = b0 + b2 * Scenario 3 + b3 * Mediation + b4 * Reciprocity + b7 * Intention + b8 * Selfishness.

A separate regression was estimated for each one of the eight reactions. The propositions were tested by examining the estimates of the parameters b4, b7 and b8.


The manipulation of the pleasantness of the scenarios was assessed by comparing subjects’ evaluations of their fictitious experience for the pleasant vs. the unpleasant stories. A t-test yielded a significant difference in the expected direction (t=9.09, p<.01).

Tables 2 and 3 show the estimated models: all coefficients and their significance levels as well as the F values and the explained variance.



Proposition 1

Both parts of the first prediction received empirical support. The greater the degree of mediation in a brand-consumer relationship, the less likely consumers are to attribute intentionality to the brand for pleasant experiences (b3=-0.18, p<.05) and the more likely they are to attribute intention to it for unpleasant occurrences (b3=0.15, p<.05).

Prposition 2

The second prediction was likewise fully supported. Mediation did encourage attributions to selfishness for unpleasant events (b3=0.21, p<.05).

Propositions 3

Attributed selfishness did encourage exiting (b8=0.30, p<.01) and discourage loyal reactions (b8=-0.27, p<.01). Voicing reactions were enhanced both by selfishness (b8=0.42, p<.01) and by reciprocity (b4=0.32, p<.05), the latter constituting an unexpected finding. Neither the relational dimensions, nor the attributions had any influence on neglect. The attribution for intention was not found to affect any of the reactions.

That the attributions mediate the effect of mediation was evidenced by the fact that excluding them from the model increased the effect sizes of mediation for exiting, loyal, and voicing reactions, making them significant at the .10 level. The parameter estimates for the reduced model and their significance levels are shown in the second row of the respective cells of Table 3.

Proposition 4

In accordance with the predictions, reciprocity encouraged compromising (b4=0.29, p<.05), while attributed intention discouraged it (b7=-0.32, p<.05). Competition and retaliation were enhanced by reciprocity (b4=0.22, p<.05 and b4=0.24, p<.01), attributed intention (b7=0.28, p<.05 and b7=0.32, p<.01), and attributed selfishness (b8=0.23, p<.01 and b8=0.23, p<.01). The positive effects of attributed intention and selfishness upon retaliation agree with Richins’ (1983) finding that blaming the brand fosters unfavorable word-of-mouth publicity. Opposite to our expectations, reciprocity enhanced collaboration (b4=0.39, p<.05).



The present study has demonstrated that the relational dimensions of mediation and reciprocity affect the attributions consumers make for an experience with a brand and their reactions upon an unpleasant encounter.

Consumers who entertain a mediated relational schema tend to regard a pleasant experience with the brand as accidental and an unpleasant one as selfishly intended by the brand. Upon dissatisfactory experiences, such consumers are more prone to exit the interaction or to voice their discontent, and less inclined to remain loyal.

Reciprocity encourages consumers to pursue restoring the state of affairs through all four means: collaborating, compromising, competing, or retaliating. Consumers who attribute the unpleasant experience to a selfishly intentional action of the brand tend to compete or retaliate, while those who regard the occurrence as accidental prove inclined to compromise.


Since it is unlikely that meaningful relationships with brands can be experimentally manipulated, we have been compelled to measure existing relational schemas and to resort to a correlational analytical technique, thereby precluding a strong inference of causation.

The simulated nature of the shopping experience may have strengthened or weakened the effects of the relational dimensions upon the attributions. On the one hand, hypothetical experiences more readily lend themselves to biased interpretations and evaluations, and, as a result, our empirical operation may have intensified the anticipated effects. On the other hand, unreal occurrences do not truly confirm or violate one’s relational expectations, and people do not feel compelled to reconcile the two. Subjects may have answeed to a discrepant scenario as if it did not apply to their favorite store, thereby weakening the predicted effects.

Avenues for Future Research

The dimensions of mediation and reciprocity have been conceptually derived from the theoretical models and empirical works of Fiske (1991), Mills and Clark (1994), and Apter (1991). The inferred arrangement of the four relational schemas B communal, matching, congenial, and market B along the two relational dimensions requires empirical verification.

The attributions for intention and selfishness were unexpectedly found to affect compromising, competition, and retaliation. This suggests that mediation may be indirectly influencing these reactions and doing so in different directions: encouraging competition and retaliation, and discouraging compromising. This possibility calls for a detailed examination.

Fiske’s model includes another relational mode, authority ranking, which is exemplified by feudal societies. Its defining feature is an hierarchical inclusion in which the self of the superior extends to encompass all his/ her subordinates. The superior is responsible for protecting and caring for them in exchange for loyal obeisance and preemptive appropriation of properties and products. Authority ranking fits in an extended dimensional model which includes a third dimension, instrumental dependence, defined as the rewarding and/ or coercive power of the brand over the consumer. The effects of this dimension upon attributions and reactions require an empirical investigation. We anticipate that instrumental dependence interacts with mediation and reciprocity. Fiske’s description of authority ranking gives us grounds to expect that unmediated and unreciprocal relationships legitimize instrumental power and, as a result, make consumers who identify with a brand subjectively experience rewarding (e.g., a gift with a purchase exceeding a certain amount) or punitive (e.g., a monthly fee on bank accounts below a certain minimal balance) actions as less manipulative.

The effects of the three relational dimensions upon other types of attributions, e.g., those for causal locus and controllability, likewise invite examination. The influences of the relational dimensions upon reactions to pleasant experiences offer another opportunity for empirical work.

An extensive investigation into the effects of the relational dimensions upon brand loyalty and into the effects of various managerial actions upon the relational dimensions themselves is bound to enhance our theoretical understanding of consumer behavior and to improve marketing management.


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Velitchka Kaltcheva, University of Florida
Barton Weitz, University of Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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