Exploring Women's Brand Relationships and Enduring Themes At Mid-Life

ABSTRACT - This humanistic research explores the brand relationships of five women surrounding the age of fifty using depth interviews to construct ethnographies of consumption at mid-life. While American women are socialized to a standard maturation blueprint and give in to purchasing wrinkle creams and low fat alternatives, interviews revealed another concurrent layer of consumption woven in the fabric of life history. The latter is an internal dialogue in which we reconstitute the puzzle of our past in the legacy of life themes negotiated, in part, by building strong relationships with favorite brands and consumption practices.


Barbara Olsen (1999) ,"Exploring Women's Brand Relationships and Enduring Themes At Mid-Life", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 615-620.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 615-620


Barbara Olsen, State University of New York, Old Westbury


This humanistic research explores the brand relationships of five women surrounding the age of fifty using depth interviews to construct ethnographies of consumption at mid-life. While American women are socialized to a standard maturation blueprint and give in to purchasing wrinkle creams and low fat alternatives, interviews revealed another concurrent layer of consumption woven in the fabric of life history. The latter is an internal dialogue in which we reconstitute the puzzle of our past in the legacy of life themes negotiated, in part, by building strong relationships with favorite brands and consumption practices.


This discovery oriented research (Wells 1993) explores consumption at mid-life among a small group of women. Extensive literature already exists on the consumer behavior throughout the life span (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981, Moschis 1987), from understanding children as consumers (McNeal 1987) to the elderly (Curasi et.al.1997; Moschis 1987), and involving varieties in consumption of those in between, i.e., working mothers (Thompson 1996), impulsive and ritualistic consumption (Rook 1985, 1987), compulsive (Faber and O'Guinn 1992) and addictive consumption (Hirschman 1992), nostalgic (Davis 1979; Havlena and Holak 1991; Holbrook and Schindler 1991), and thematic consumption (Mick and Buhl 1992), and the role of brand relationships (Fournier 1995, 1998; McCracken 1993; Olsen 1993, 1995; Schouten and McAlexander 1995). Few in consumer research, however, have addressed the significant middle aged cohort of 75 million who began turning 50 in 1996. It seems incumbent upon researchers to probe how aging impacts on mid-life consumer practices.

I begin by establishing the parameters of mid-life and the significance of humanistic inquiry. Then I present the methodology and findings organized by life themes and brand relationships, followed by a discussion, limitations, future direction and conclusion.


Research conducted for this paper explores women during a time defined as, "The period between youth and old age... neither young nor old" (Oxford English Dictionary 1961, p.421), hence, representing a transition between our youth and elder years. O'Rand and Henretta (1982, p.58) cite the difficulty of pinpointing a woman's mid-life because of differing "age-related role sequences" defined by child rearing and career trajectories across the life course, but distinguish this period as somewhere between the ages of 35 and 54. Lenz (1992, p.200) asks what it means to be middle-aged and responds that somewhere between 45 and 60 "Middle age begins when you stop living in the future and aren't ready to live in the past." When I asked my participants what was the natural stage of life they were in at the moment, Ann (age 48) said, "I think that your 40s are the other side of your youth, like early 40s whatever, and your mid 40s are the early side of old age." Elizabeth (age 53) said she was "in the middle," because "people in my family live to be very old." Joan (age 47) said she was in "mid-life" because she was "menopausal."

Every culture has its own definition of life cycle time and every epoch an anticipated life expectancy predicating the social and biological clocks of the human life span. In North America during late twentieth century for both genders the middle of life is idiosyncratically somewhere between age 40 and 60. For most women, the age of menopause (different for each, but more often around age 50) represents a mini-death (of reproductive capacity) and a liminal period between status's (Turner 1969). Thus, approaching old age signals one's own finite existence. Many now begin to "'...figure backward from the end'" (Neugarten 1980, p. 171), or come to understand that "Our middle life is a progress story, a series of little victories over little deaths" (Sheehy 1995, p.xvii). O'Connor and Wolfe (1987) contend transitions take several years, "A person's life structure is the pattern of activities, relationships, roles, and physical settings at a given time which enables one to pursue a set of life choices and values. ...Typically, such a structure outlives its usefulness in about 7 years. (And) ...it generally takes approximately 5 years of transition to fully establish a new life structure suitable to the new conditions" (p.801).

This research was conducted to discover the particularities of consumption for women at mid-life with the consideration that it is during the junctures between stages that we are left in what Turner (1969) calls "liminal" states of being neither here nor there, and "liminal people" (Schouten 1991) search for anchors to ground identity. Beyond low fat alternatives and wrinkle creams, it is suggested by this research that our anchors are situated in product relationships which help satisfy life themes.


While consumption anthropologists (Appadurai 1986; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; McCracken 1988; Miller 1987; Rutz and Orlove 1989) opened the door to understand culturally defined economic behavior, consumer research increasingly utilizes humanistic inquiry (Hirschman 1986) to locate the significance of consumption events and practices for genders and generations in individual histories (Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie 1979; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Curasi, Price and Arnould 1997; Holt 1997; Mick and Buhl 1992; Thompson 1996; Thompson, et.al. 1990, 1993, 1994). Few have studied brand relationships (Fournier 1995, 1998; McCracken 1993; Olsen 1993, 1995; Schouten and McAlexander 1995), particularly during transitions (Fournier 1998, Schouten 1991). Fournier notes that, "Consumers' acceptance of advertisers' attempts to humanize brands and their tendencies to animate products of their own accord suggest a willingness to entertain brands as vital members of the relationship dyad" (1998, p. 345). My research with five modern female consumers, struggling under postmodern conditions of fragmented and multiple realities, adds to this field by building on Fournier's seminal work in relationship theory (1995, 1998).

This research indicates that certain nostalgia brands enhance life's meaning. Havlena and Holak (1991, p. 327) note that we are often more susceptible to nostalgia marketing particularly during life stage transitions. Other products passionately interact with identity play or form partnerships to accommodate mid-life physiology and lifestyle. Favorite brands also act as facilitators by which we satisfy unique themes inscribed in youth (Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie 1979; Fournier 1998; Mick and Buhl 1992). Thematic preoccupation also helps stabilize the mid-life transition. While traditional societies ease disruptive "liminal" periods (Turner 1969) connected with transitions by institutionalized rites of passage (van Gennep 1960), we seemingly find comfort using the marketplace for maintenance and reconstruction (Schouten 1991). Significantly, it is through the continual satisfaction of life themes that we form the strongest brand relationships during life status changes.


This research is situated in humanistic inquiry, using in-depth interviewing and participant-observation. To obtain a subjective reading of the lived experience with brands, a life history approach was utilized to better "...understand the phenomena on its own terms," to learn "...the group's construction of reality and ... how possessions, purchasing, ... and leisure time activities fit into that reality" (Hirschman 1986, p. 241). The participants were well known to the author and chosen for the familiarity their long term association might provide. Joan, age 47, is a married working (social worker) mother of two sons. Ann, age 48, employed as a secretary, is single and lives with two cats. Rachel, age 50, is a lawyer and single, living with two cats. Sue Lyn, age 51, is a real estate agent who never married and lives with her mother. Elizabeth, age 53, is a retired advertising executive who was divorced at 27, had no children, and lives with two cats. Two of the participants shared membership in a twelfth step program and three were fellow members of a health club at the local Y. Each chose her own pseudonym and received a $20 gift certificate at Cosmetics Plus for sharing her time and contribution.

Interviews (averaging two hours) were recorded in the homes of three women and in the offices of two. A loosely structured phenomenological interview guide was prepared beginning with, "How do you define your own natural stage of life now? Which of your transition points have been the most important? What helped you through it? What brands figured in these transitions?" Each respondent was encouraged to follow her own stream of thought. The guide merely provided organizational flow. I probed the feelings stirred by product use which often brought up historical connections. Tapes were transcribed by the author yielding a total of 95 single spaced pages. Each interview transcription was read by its informant for accuracy. Multiple rereading of the transcripts by the researcher yielded significant brand relationship-life theme correlation. Follow-up elaboration about these insights produced meaningful emic contextual significance (for the participants) often not consciously realized, and verified the etic interpretation (by the researcher) about product relationships and personal histories. Each interview, transcription, reading and follow-up was done one at a time to allow for understanding the data, synthesis and elaboration for mining the next participant. As Thompson (1996, p.393) also notes, a pattern takes shape during this "iterative process" that focuses attention on discerning relationships and themes that similarly structure lives in process. A hermeneutic analysis (Hirschman 1986; Thompson, Pollio, and Locander 1994) of the interviews found confluence between favored product categories and brands with the significance of aging, life's transitions, and thematic experiences. However, as will be noted later, there are problems with the methodology when compared with Hirschman's guide for humanistic inquiry (1986).

In the following section I present research findings from the interviews. In the interest of time and space, I specifically focus on participants' relationships with products and brands that performed inordinate thematic capacities derived from lived experiences.


Brand Relationships

A new research stream is emerging from the premise that we participate in interpersonal brand relationships that "...are frequently distinguished by the nature of the benefits they furnish to their participants," i.e., friendship, social image, security, nurturance, stimulation, guidance, and assistance (Fournier 1998, p.346). Fournier's (1995, 1998) research interprets how we form these relationships with brands as vital participants in our lives. She found the strength of the relationship depends on "Brand Relationship Quality" (BRQ). "Seven facets of BRQ are identified (as): nostalgic attachment, self-concept connection, intimacy, personal commitment, interdependency, love/passion, (and) brand-partner quality" (Fournier 1995, p. 661). Fournier claims the products we form meaningful relationships with are those we use on a regular basis in our daily routine. It is thus within the social context of a life history that a brand acquires personal significance and segues into "enduring life themes" (Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie 1979; Fournier 1998; Mick and Buhl 1992).

Life Themes

Considering brands, Fournier (1998, p.346) notes that "...relationships may help resolve life themes-profound existential concerns or tensions that individuals address in daily life. Though they may cooperate below the level of conscious awareness, life themes are deeply rooted in personal history and are thus highly central to one's core concept of self." Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie (1979) found the source of life themes in early childhood experiences. "A life theme consists of a problem or set of problems which a person wishes to solve above everything else and the means the person finds to achieve solution" (p. 48). Their study of 30 adult white males situated career choice as the route to enacting life themes. Mick and Buhl's thematic advertising analysis (1992) builds on McCracken's (1987) "life project" approach. McCracken situates an individual's redefinition of self according to life's situations and the cultural choices available to hone one's identity.

During the interview process each woman repeated words and concepts that on reflection represented historical connections linking current consumer behaviors to childhood experiences. It was found that Ann "mothers" herself with "comfort" brands, Sue Lyn negotiates a childhood of wealth and poverty through nostalgia brands conveying "status" and "security." Elizabeth's European identity brand partners help her "pretend" to be "European." Rachel seeks order and control by "cleaning" and atomizing a homey atmosphere through "smell." Joan achieved a career and successful mothering, in part, through "education" and intellectually commands situations role playing with "power clothes." Themes were well established in each life. Probing product usage uncovered connections to life experience.

The following section relates how brand relationships intersect with life themes established in early experiences using a few examples provided by the research data.

Comfort through self-mothering

Ann is currently an executive secretary at a Fortune 500 corporation. She has had a checkered career history from nurse to stock broker. Over the years she bought her apartment and has invested in financial markets to secure her future. Her discretionary income, since becoming sober ten years ago, is lavished on self gifts; a Seiko watch, Rollerblade in-line skates, foreign travel, yoga classes and cosmetic surgery. Mid-life has become a time when she recognizes what she likes and can afford to treat herself well. Ann's was the first interview and I was surprised to find the consistency of comfort running from her life goal to brand relationships.

Her childhood nostalgic brands, Johnson & Johnson's Baby Lotion, Quaker Oatmeal, Skippy Chunky peanut butter, and Land O'Lakes butter (also from the midwest) are comforting. Johnson's is particularly integral to her comfort theme. She said:

Ann: You, you get kind of, um comfortable with certain brands. I guess there's a comfort in knowing that my mother rubbed Johnson's Baby Lotion on my bottom since I was born and I'm still rubbing it on my bottom here a half a life later (laugh) you know.

The last question I asked was, "If you had to look over your life to see if you had a theme what would it be?" She began by telling me about her wealthy childhood in Dallas where the family employed a maid and nanny until her father had a breakdown. After moving to the mid-west for recuperation her brothers and sister went to live with relatives, but she was put in an orphanage for almost a year. She had very little contact with her family. She said, "My life was never the same after that. It was very traumatic," and continued:

Ann: Maybe it's like, you know, my parents had so much going on in their lives, I never felt mothered. ...I just love being mothered. Not, the need is not as acute as it was, but I've always been like that and once I made the discovery that I could mother myself that was, you talk about important crossroads, I mean as I'm talking to you, I'm like, you know, I'm thinking about them and that is a major one. And I guess maybe the fact that I use these brands that I'm familiar (with) all my life, that make my skin feel good and maybe it has to do with being able to take care of yourself, to mother myself, to make myself feel comfortable. Yeah.

Ann's comfort theme extends to self-care to replace the mothering she missed as a child using moisturizers and lotions as partners to help absorb that attention. Her mid-life beauty maintenance also depends on facilitating partners like Max Factor, Maybelline, Body Works Colorings, and CamoCare to keep wrinkles at bay. Creating a comfortable lifestyle is a personal commitment to insulate against future loss and recapture a period when she was rich, indulged and felt loved.

Status and security

Sue Lyn is an agent for a prestigious real estate company. Over the interview she repeatedly stressed avoiding the brands of her childhood she associated with poverty. For instance, I asked how her food preferences had changed:

Sue Lyn: No canned or frozen foods. Only my mother eats Birds Eye brand. I grew up on TV dinners (Swansons) and never eat any frozen foods. They are cheap foods to me... Uh, I will not touch Sara Lee or Pepperidge Farm frozen cakes and they were delicious at the time, but I don't feel good about them because they bring up, um, poor. To me food is, um, different things mean poor. I grew up on eggs for breakfast, we were an egg family. When I went with ___ he ate Cheerio's every morning with one spoon of raisins and skim milk. After we broke up I wanted to lose weight so started eating Cheerios, but I always thought it was a cheap food. Now I think it's healthy.

Other nostalgia brands, such as Skippy peanut butter, she keeps on the shelf "for security." Similarly she said,

Sue Lyn: I will always have (Hershey's) Candy Kisses and M&M's (in decorative dishes) in the house... I still buy all the candy (as she did as a child) but wouldn't eat it (now). I just know that it is there. It was an extravagance, a luxury.

Sue Lyn's life theme, similar to Ann's, has been to create a comfortable life surrounded by status brands signifying wealth. This security theme is related to her first memorable transition she describes as:

Sue Lyn: Moving from a big house in Sherman Oaks, California where we lived with my great aunt from when I was two and a half until eight. My mother went through a five year divorce. I was seven when she got the divorce. In California the house was on three acres and I had a horse. We moved to a small apartment (NYC borough) opposite an elevated train. My mother struggled to raise my brother and me. We lived hand to mouth. She worked hard in the jewelry business and I never saw her. She was never there for me. That's why I never wanted children.

Another transition she said came after college, "...becoming independent and getting a job. I could treat myself well. I buy myself gifts when I can afford it. I treat myself well." In particular, she gave herself cosmetic surgery to fix her nose at age 25 and braces to correct buck teeth at 37. Another self-gift she purchased was:

Sue Lyn: ...a Baume & Mercier watch ($2,700) as a marker of professional achievement after my first real estate deal. My mother was in the jewelry business. I like name brand jewelry. I have several gold watches but I love this one. Brand names and status are important to me.

Sue Lyn's history of deprivation shares a commonality with Ann's. Both indulge themselves with comforting consumer behaviors. Both take excellent care of themselves, including cosmetic surgery. In preserving self-concept, Sue Lyn avoids "cheap" and strives toward "status" and "security" buffered by pleasant reminders from a youth when she never did without.


Elizabeth is a retired advertising executive. She began her interview by saying that one of her major life experiences was "foreign travel" and being "exposed to other cultures" in her teens. She had only recently disposed of the American Tourister luggage that had gone around the world with her "two or three times." Over the course of the interview it became apparent she interacts with her brands as active partners in identity play that integrate foreign brand influence with her self concept. When I asked what brands enhanced her personality now at mid-life, she said:

Elizabeth: But, ah, it's a process of discovery. There's an age and a time of maturity at which you know more who you are and what you look like... I think my whole demeanor is a little different when I'm more dressed... I even feel different if I have all my makeup on and a layer of fresh lipstick. There's something about that sensation of fresh lipstick.

Regarding the brand of lipstick, she said it was:

Elizabeth: Yves St. Laurent. I've experimented with different lipsticks, but I keep coming back to St. Laurent. They're, they don't pretend to be natural, but they have wonderful colors. They're very French... It's like a color that's very fashionable but also flattering. Like this wonderful red that I have I get compliments on.

Elizabeth said she prefers "French mustard. Dijon mustard. Since my 20s I've always used French mustard," not because it's European, but, "It tastes better to me." She avoids frozen foods, but said, "...you can get baby carrots in glass jars from Belgium. Baby peas too in glass jars from Belgium." European influence applies to perfume as well:

Elizabeth: I always use perfume. Everyday since I was very young. I have a daytime and a nighttime one. Norell I loved in the seventies... (and) Madame Rochas. When I was a teen in Europe, I found this perfume I'd never heard of (Madam Rochas) and I loved it. And I bought it in Bon Marche in Paris. And when we got back to the hotel and there was a new international Newsweek with this ad introducing this new perfume, so I thought it was my discovery. I don't like it anymore... Oh, and I love Shalimar because my teacher wore Shalimar. She was so elegant... And I love Guerlain perfumes. I think they're wonderful.

Europe also factored in her choice of toothpaste. She claimed, "I used to be totally devoted to this Swedish one. Vademecum... And I took to it because it had a grown up taste. It didn't have icky stuff in it." She says it is now too expensive so she uses Rembrandt instead to remove stain caused by her admitted addictions, "Bloomingdale's AM brand coffee, Diet Coke and Benson & Hedges cigarettes." Regarding the cigarettes:

Elizabeth: They're a habit. They're also an addiction. They're gratifying. They're something I live on and can't live without. I really should quit but I like to pretend I'm European... Cause you know, Europeans think Americans are crazy with all this health and fitness stuff... Europeans believe in the quality of life in the present and enjoying themselves.

Elizabeth's European self-concept is fueled by foreign brand partners as facilitators. I asked her, "Is Europe where your mind set is then?" She replied, "Well, I've got to pretend." She even bought house paint from Holland to paint her kitchen a royal blue. Her primary activity is spent reading novels, nonfiction and biographies, but when she goes out, she loves dressing up. Her Euro-chic contributes to her sophistication. Elizabeth's life theme is to live indulgently through European identity play.

Organization and control

Rachel is a lawyer and during the interview it became apparent that order and control are important. Rachel is involved with many of her favorite brands because of the way they smell and communicate cleanliness to maintain her body and home.

Certain brands made her feel clean. Neutrogena body oil with sesame she said makes her feel "Clean. Very Clean." I asked how the Listerine mouth wash made her feel and she responded, "It just makes me feel cleaner." Realizing she had used the word for several descriptions, she added, "Clean is important to me. I can't go to bed unless I've had a shower. I can't, you know, I can't sleep. I can't stand to feel grimy." Further in the interview Rachel mentioned, "I love hair products... I like hair products that smell good... I love Kerasilk, ah, cream rinse. Redkin cream rinse is very nice too." When asked how these products made her feel she responded:

Rachel: Good. I don't like people who smell. And there are certain smells that I can't stand. Like today, I was in the pool and this guy in the lane must've taken a bath in garlic. Every time I turned to breathe I thought I was going to throw up. And smells I am pretty sensitive to. I'm always concerned that I might smell like that... I like to feel confident that I'm not emitting some foul odor. Nothing's worse.

Rachel's living room seemed like a sanctuary with scented candles (pumpkin and spice in fall, evergreen in winter, vanilla or peach for spring and summer) glistening in crystal holders. She said the scents were selected to make the house smell "...as if someone was baking, which I don't do. So it does give the illusion that you come into a home." Back in the kitchen, when I asked what we may have missed, she said, "I love cleaning products." I asked her to tell me about them.

Rachel: Well, my total addiction lately is a fairly new product, Clorox Clean-Up. As you will see. (She opened the sink cabinet and it was stocked with supplies, especially a spray dispenser of Clorox Clean-Up and three gallon jugs of the same). When they're on sale, I buy a lot of them. I have three of them in there. And a small one just in case I run out. It's the best stuff. Well, first of all in terms of any surface, only Clorox, only bleach kills bacteria. No other products do. I saw that on Good Morning America. And, um, I like the smell of it... it has a smell like a kitchen or a bathroom should smell after it's cleaned.

Even her choice of Pledge Wood Cleaner was chosen because it had a "..much better smell," than Murphy's Oil Soap. When I asked if she liked cleaning, Rachel said:

Rachel: I consider that (cleaning) a leisure activity. And I like cleaning things out. Cleaning closets out. I don't always do it, but sometimes they get way out of, ahead of me. I like that. And then I like to, like, look at it all organized. Um, ah, but I like cleaning, it's a leisure activity.

In the follow-up discussion I learned from Rachel that mother (deceased) was the loving nurturer and father was, and still is, the strict controlling force in the family of five daughters. The children were raised to perform well and excel in sports, school and career. Childhood homelife was a well orchestrated formula conducted between mother and father, with each providing cohesion amidst the various activities of five sisters. An etic interpretation of Rachel's ongoing preoccupation to facilitate homeyness can be understood by listening to the unspoken word in the sentence about cleaning out her closets, "...sometimes they get way out of control...". "Control" is the key word. Cleaning organizes the home and smells order the psyche. Odor is important as homey smells bring her mother back to life. Scents help master the domicile. As a lawyer, organization and winning are important, so at home Rachel plays with partner brands in cleaning to exercise control, whether killing bacteria or creating mood.

Satisfying challenges

Joan is the married mother of two sons, aged 13 and 17, and recently began considering a divorce. She is a classic "juggler" who says her life is "a little chaotic." Currently, Joan coordinates social workers in a job where she described, "We do a lot of mothering." Two years ago she returned to college to finish a master's degree in social work. Joan's story unfolded with a clear message she alone was responsible for decisions to change the circumstances of her life. On reflection about childhood, she said,

Ann: I think it's interesting, they (parents) were both the youngest of very big families (she has 65 first cousins), and I think they were both looking for someone to take care of them. So, in a lot of ways, I had a lot of power and decision making it's probably not good for a kid to have.

Most decisions involved education. Her mother dropped out of school in tenth grade and father left in sixth grade. He told her, "'Don't worry about what people think.. it's too late for me.'" She continued, "So, he really encouraged me in a lot of ways to be, um, different." In third grade she decided to go to Catholic school. In eighth grade she decided to go back to public school. At age 21 Joan fulfilled her "life long ambition" by graduating from Cornell with a major in Child and Family. Reflecting on education Joan said, "...so all these decisions I had to make myself because they didn't understand the education system... They were intimidated by the system, so I had to do all this on my own." At 29 she married and wanted children. The sons put education and career on hold.

Joan said her most important transition is now, at "mid-life," because her son is leaving home for college (Harvard) and an impending divorce. When I asked what products were helping her through this period, she said melatonin to help her sleep and some expensive brands she felt "guilty" about buying.

Joan: In terms of other products, I mean, I use Clinique. It's sort of a little more expensive makeup, more expensive than others. I use Turn Around Cream. Um, you know, I think it makes my face look better, even though I know it's expensive, um. I also use kind of an expensive shampoo, Framesi, F r a m e s i (spelling it out). Yeah, cause I buy it from where I had my hair done. So that's some of the indulgences I have, you know and where I get my hair done is kinda expensive. Ah, those, to the point that I feel guilty about (laughs).

Joan felt "guilty" because, true to Thompson's (1996) working mothers as "caring consumers," mothers learn to put themselves second. Joan's responses share many similarities with Thompson's informants:

Joan: One of the things about being a working mother, one of the difficult things, is that you don't get to do anything well. You really end up doing just good enough because you gotta get on to do the next thing just good enough... And you know, I got better at it than when they were young, putting myself second.

Joan stayed home with her two sons for their first nine years and said, "You know I really enjoyed, I enjoyed being a mother more than anything I've ever done. Although I look back on it, probably it was, ah, at times I was bored, sometimes I was overwhelmed, overwhelmed a lot by being a mother."

Near the end of our interview I asked:

Interviewer: Do you see any themes in your life that sort of guide or direct you?

Joan: I mean I like challenges. Um, one of the things about possibly getting a divorce is the idea of, like thinking, I don't know what the future's going to hold. ...I don't want to be 70 and look back and say, 'Well, the major theme in my life was I stuck out a marriage that wasn't that,'... see, it's one life, and one life. So, I guess if it's a theme, I look for challenges. I do look for challenges.

I asked, "Are there any products that you use that help you attack the challenge?" and Joan said, "Well, I miss caffeine... (Colombian coffee) If it's the only thing I miss, I miss caffeine." As a graduate student, her Eddie Bauer backpack helps her play the student role. Earlier when I asked, "How has your sense of beauty evolved?" she said:

Joan: It's sorta now, the nice thing about, ah, (it's) important for me to look good. There are certain things, you know, I, I joke with myself, I have power clothes or things that make me feel like I can sort of command, have command in a situation. You know, because of my New York clothes.

Interviewer: What are your power clothes?

Joan: Ah, tends to be like a blazer. Black usually, black pants, white shirt or something (Jones New York and Harve-Benard). They tend to be my power clothes... There are times when I just know that I will handle situations better if I am dressed a certain way.

Joan's power brands, the Jones New York pants suits and jackets and Harve-Benard slacks provide a social image in her command arsenal and expensive cosmetic brands are nurturing rewards. Her Eddie Bauer backpack assists her role as a student. Joan said she enjoys role playing, being different people in multiple realities. Her optimism for challenges and education facilitate the juggling lifestyle.


This research provides insight into life theme consumption at mid-life of five middle-class, urban, professional women. Fournier's (1995) Brand Relationship Quality criteria coincides with the satisfaction of life themes, Ann's comfort, Sue Lyn's security, Elizabeth's Euro-play, Rachel's control and Joan's challenges. Nostalgic attachment was shown to overlap with other relationships, most significantly with brands as partners, i.e., Ann's pampering with Johnson's Baby Lotion, Sue Lyn's security knowing that Skippy peanut butter, Hershey's Kisses and M&M's are in the house, and Elizabeth's Yves St. Laurent lipstick and other foreign products that reinforce a European self-concept and satisfy nostalgia for traveling around the world. Rachel's nostalgia relates to childhood foods and cleansers, like Nestle's Chocolate Chips, M&M's, Fanny Mae candy, Windex and Viva paper towels, but especially to smells of home. Her relationships were strongest using brands as partners to control homeyness. The cleaning supplies Bounty, Pledge and Clorox Clean-Up give superior authority to accomplish the task. Joan is in the process of life project revision wherein her strongest relationships were with brands facilitating role playing. Her Eddie Bauer backpack and the designer brands Jones New York and Harve-Benard "power clothes" help command challenging situations.

There is an interesting distinction between the single women and the married working mother. Joan's career choice of social work involving children and family and her own motherhood reflect Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie's (1979) correlation of childhood experience with career choice. Also, while the single women felt they deserved indulgent rewards, Joan typified the guilt "jugglers" experienced in previous research on working mothers (Thompson 1996). Her recent decision to get a divorce and return to graduate school echoes McAlexander"s "anticipatory prepration" (1991) when she said, "I was going to need more money for him for school." I asked if it was also connected to her desire for a divorce? She responded, "Yeah, I think I was in some level preparing to be more independent financially."


Considering Hirschman's (1986) criteria that guide humanistic inquiry, "Credibility, Dependability, Confirmability, and Transferability" and her dictum that "humanist inquiry entails no right ending, only a right process" (p. 243), this analysis falls short on several facets of the process. Credibility was confirmed by participants reading their transcripts and interpretation. Transferability is not possible with such a narrow selection of participants. It has been suggested, however, that intensive mining of life history for qualitative research can be probed deeper with fewer participants (McCracken 1988). Although Fournier's (1998) analysis of brand relationships was obtained from only three women, but of different ages and circumstances, and Thompson's (1996) data resulted from seven participants, future research on mid-life consumption should incorporate other mating status, with and without children, a diversity of socio-economic classes, ethnicity, geographic regions and a comparison of genders. Dependability was not totally assured by an outside reader who could corroborate or contribute to the interpretations. Comparisons were made however, with Thompson's (1996) working mothers' consumption experiences and Fournier's (1995) brand relationship guide. Finally, regarding Confirmability, the transcripts remain unobserved by outside auditors.

Thus, this research can best be positioned as a preliminary exploration into the consumption behaviors and product relationships of five women at mid-life. The material presented here represents only life theme experiences extracted from the data. There is a volume of material yet to explore considering other brand relationships in the aging process. Another fertile field to mine are the brands that were abandoned and dearly missed as a consequence of aging. Expanding the participant pool and analysis will generate a deeper understanding of the dynamics of mid-life consumption.


The benefit of a discovery orientation resulting from phenomenological inquiry associated with life history interviews is that patterns and associations become apparent during the research process yielding unanticipated rewards. The revelation of life themes was totally unexpected. I thought I would find breaks with the past and new directions signifying the "death" of youth and revitalization. I expected to find the usual product categories associated with mid-life transition that the informants and I discussed in our social spheres. This proved true as all five women were dealing with the inevitable physical consequences of aging, weight gain, menopause, heavier eyelids, sensitive drying skin and graying hair.

I also discovered another layer of consumption woven in the fabric of each unique life story. This internal dialogue frames a significant portion of our consumer behavior as we try to reconstitute the puzzle of our past in the legacy of our life themes.


This paper contains a select subset of the total references.  For a complete set contact the author.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and O. V. Beattie (1979), "Life Themes: A Theoretical and Empirical Exploration of Their Origins and Effects," Humanistic Psychology, 19 (1), 45-63.

Fournier, S. (1995), "Toward the Development of Relationship Theory at the Level of the Product and Brand," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 22, ed. F.R. Kardes and M. Sujan , Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 663-667.

Fournier, S. (1998), "Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (March), 343-373.

Hirschman, E. C. (1986), "Humanistic Inquiry in Marketing Research: Philosophy, Method, and Criteria," Journal of Marketing Research, 23 (August), 237-239.

McCracken, G. (1988), The Long Interview, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

McCracken, G. (1993), "The Value of the Brand: An Anthropological Perspective," in Brand Equity and Advertising: Advertising's Role in Building Strong Brands, ed. D. Aaker and A. Biel, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum, 125-139.

Mick, D.G. and C. Buhl (1992), "A Meaning-Based Model of Advertising Experiences," Journal of Consumer Research, 19 (December), 317-338.

Neugarten, B. L. (1982), "Middle Age and Aging," in Growing Old in America, ed. B.B. Hess, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 164-181.

O'Connor, D. J. and D. M. Wolfe (1987), "On Managing Midlife Transitions in Career and Family," Human Relations, 40 (12), 799-816.

Olsen, B. (1993), "Brand Loyalty and Lineage: Exploring New Dimensions for Research," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 20, ed., L. McAlister and M. L. Rothschild, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 575-579.

Olsen, B. (1995), "Brand Loyalty and Consumption Patterns: The Lineage Factor," in Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook, ed., J. F. Sherry, Jr., CA: Sage Publications, 245-281.

O'Rand, A. M. and J. C. Henretta (1982), "Women at Middle Age: Developmental Transitions," The Annals of the American Academy, 464 (November), 57-64.

Thompson, C. (1996), "Caring Consumers: Gendered Consumption Meanings and the Juggling Lifestyle," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (March), 388-407.

Thompson, C., H. R. Pollio, and W. B. Locander (1994), "The Spoken and the Unspoken: A Hermeneutic Approach to Understanding the Cultural Viewpoints that Underlie Consumers' Expressed Meanings," Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (December), 432-452.

Wells, William (1993), "Discovery-Oriented Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 19 (March), 489-504.

This paper is dedicated to the memory of my Mother, Rae Hall Olsen, 1912-1997



Barbara Olsen, State University of New York, Old Westbury


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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