A Sociological Approach to Brand Choice: the Concept of Situational Self Image

ABSTRACT - Symbolic interactionism, a subset of sociological theory, offers a theoretically-sound way of conceptualizing brand choice for frequently-purchased products with well-developed and easily-distinguishable brand images. The concept of the situational self image, deriving from symbolic interactionism, is defined and posited as a way of linking past research on self-image/brand-image congruency with that on situational effects. A theoretical model of the interrelationships among perception of others, self image, and brand choice is developed in the paper.


Carolyn Turner Schenk and Rebecca H. Holman (1980) ,"A Sociological Approach to Brand Choice: the Concept of Situational Self Image", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 610-614.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 610-614


Carolyn Turner Schenk, Burke Marketing Research

Rebecca H. Holman, Pennsylvania State University-

[Most of the research and writing of this paper was done while the first author was a Master of Science candidate at The Pennsylvania State University.]


Symbolic interactionism, a subset of sociological theory, offers a theoretically-sound way of conceptualizing brand choice for frequently-purchased products with well-developed and easily-distinguishable brand images. The concept of the situational self image, deriving from symbolic interactionism, is defined and posited as a way of linking past research on self-image/brand-image congruency with that on situational effects. A theoretical model of the interrelationships among perception of others, self image, and brand choice is developed in the paper.


Sociology represents an area rich in its potential for contributing to research in consumer behavior; that it has been largely neglected was pointed out by Nicosia and Mayer (1976) and by Zaltman and Wallendorf (1977). This paper makes one step in the direction of rectifying that situation by introducing a subset of sociological theory called "symbolic interactionism". When the conceptual frameworks of symbolic interactionism are applied to analysis of brand choices, new insight into this important aspect of consumer behavior issues as a result. More specifically, symbolic interactionism defines a concept of self that is new to consumer behavior research, namely the "situational self image". This concept allows a union of previous work on self-image/brand-image congruence with that on situational effects to produce a theoretical statement about brand choice for frequently-purchased products which have well-developed and easily distinguishable brand images. The purpose of this paper is to summarize the major propositions of symbolic interactionism; to briefly review the salient works on self-image/brand-image congruency and on situational determinants of behavior; and to develop a set of theoretical relationships between situational self image and brand choice.


Symbolic interactionism developed from study of individuals as they meet and relate to one another in various social milieus. Symbolic interactionists (see McCall and Simmons 1978 for example) treat the self not as a dependent variable, but as a most important variable intervening between the antecedent events of the social world and the consequent actions of the individual. The approach agrees with the tenets of cognitive psychology which hold that intrapsychic processes mediate stimuli and responses. The difference between the positions taken lies in the specific emphasis by symbolic interactionists upon the effects upon behavior of social stimuli in various situations. Symbolic interactionism can be seen as having been designed specifically to develop sound theoretical statements concerning social determinants of behavior. Consumer research can benefit from theory focusing upon social stimuli as has been pointed out in previous papers (e.g., Bonoma, Bagozzi, and Zaltman 1975).

The symbolic interactionist approach to human behavior is based upon six propositions (McCall and Simmons 1978).

1.  Man is a planning animal continuously formulating alternative courses or plans of action for himself.

2.  "Things" in the environment (e.g. physical objects, other individuals) take on meaning in relation to their implications for the individual's plans.

3.  The execution of a plan is contingent upon the meaning of what is encountered in the situation in which the plan is to be carried out.

4.  Before carrying out a plan, an individual must identify (name or categorize), and determine the meaning for what is in the environment.

5.  For social plans of action, there must be consensus about the meaning of objects and other people among all those interacting in a situation.

6. The basic, and most important "thing" to be identified in the situation is the individual himself.

Thus, symbolic interactionism proposes a dynamic theory about how individuals formulate and reassess their plans of action in terms of the objects and people encountered in their environments, and in terms of their own assessments of themselves. All of these elements will be used to formulate a statement about brand choice following a discussion of these propositions in the context of consumer behavior.


Proposition 6 above addresses an individual's identification of him/her self within the encountered situation. The image of "self" includes attitudes, perceptions, and feelings about what is the individual's character, and what should be the appropriate behavior in the situation (which is also part of an individual's plan).

The concept of self has been used by consumer behavior researchers to explain both product choice (Hamm and Cundiff 1969; Landon 1974; and Belch and Landon 1977) and brand choice (Grubb and Hupp 1968; Dolich 1969; Cocanougher and Bruce 1971; Grubb and Stern 1971; and Ross 1971), although brand choice will be the focus of the balance of this paper. Researchers have operationalized the impact that self image has upon brand (and product) choice [The theoretical basis for the existence of brand images that are more or less the same for members of a social system lies in proposition 5, that individuals have consensus about objects encountered in the environment.] by creating a measure of the congruency of the brand image with the consumer's self image. The argument is that as the brand may serve as an expressive device by the individual (a way in which a person identifies his/her self image to others), individuals will therefore prefer brands whose image is closest (i.e. most congruent) to their own self images.

A major theoretical issue in image congruency research concerns the appropriate theoretical definition of self image. [Debate over the appropriate operational definition of self image and brand or product image is also in evidence in the literature. Although an important issue, it will not be pursued here.] The questions take the following forms: "Which of the possible self images (i.e. actual, ideal, or some other self) does the consumer use when selecting a brand? If there are differences among the self images for an individual, then which one does the individual try to match with the available brand images in order to make the brand choice decision?"

In attempting to answer these questions, Dolich (1969) distinguished between "actual self" and "ideal self" a distinction shared by others (Hamm and Cundiff 1969; and Landon 1974). Actual self image refers to an individual's perception of what he/she is like, while ideal self image refers to the way the individual would like to be. While definition of self image has been limited in the consumer behavior literature to these two designations of self, this research has been quite successful in explaining consumer choice behavior (Birdwell 1968; Grubb and Hupp 1968; Dolich 1969; Hamm and Cundiff 1969; Ross 1971; and Landon 1974) although one of these images has not been demonstrated to be superior to the other in predicting brand choice. As there are significant theoretical differences between these two self-images, the research has not done a good job of identifying the type of self whose image is matched with that of brands.

With the inclusion of symbolic interactionism into the conceptual framework about brand choice, another type of self image emerges. "Situational" self image is defined simply as the meaning of self that the individual wishes others to have of him/herself. This situation-specific image includes attitudes, perceptions and feelings the individual wishes other individuals in the situation to formulate about his/her character, and appropriate behavior. As will be established, this self image has more potential for explaining brand choice, as it is a logical consequence of the propositions of symbolic interaction-ism.


[This section was taken extensively from McCall and Simmons (1978). Interested readers should consult this reference for a more expansive explanation of the concepts.]

Just as the individual assesses the meaning of him/her self and other individuals in the environment and determines how other individuals relate to his/her plans, so do all individuals in a situation engage in the same assessment of themselves and others in the interactional situation. When a person identifies him/herself and others, he/she names or categorizes the participants in order to determine what is appropriate behavior for each. These broad categories are called "social positions" (Gross, Mason, and McEachern 1958). Examples are wife, husband, doctor, student, and daughter. The set of behavioral expectations held toward the occupant of a given position is called "social role". [For a more detailed treatment of the concept of "role" see Thomas and Biddle (1966), especially pp. 41-44.] Social role performance is the actual behavior of an individual in occupying a particular position. The individual will attempt to match his/her performance to the social expectations if this permits the individual to reach some goal within the position occupied.

Social role performances are learned behaviors that are culturally determined. An individual's actual role performance cannot be studied by assessing only the requirements of his/her social position since the individual combines the broad culturally defined demands of his/her position with individually-defined goals. For example, a university professor is obliged to perform certain functions such as advising, teaching, and research to obtain specific goals (e.g., salary increases, tenure, a national reputation as a scholar). Each individual occupying the position of university professor fulfills the advising, teaching, and research expectations differently depending upon the goals selected. Therefore, in a teaching situation, for example, professors behave quite differently from one another, but there is a commonality in their performances that derives from the expectations of the social system for the social role.

The individual's subjective assessment of appropriate role behaviors combined with knowledge of the others to be present in a situation determine the choice of the self to express in any situation. Thus, part of the meaning of one individual for another is how the self is perceived by the other. If that assessment of self has an effect upon the individual's attainment of the plans he has set for himself, then the individual has a vested interest in accurately expressing the self that will best lead to realization of the individual's plans through a favorable impression formed by others in the social situation. Therefore, the self image is expressed to others in order to create particular impressions and to obtain positive reactions. An example of these elements and their relationships clarifies the point being made here. Consider the situation in which a young man invites his prospective in-laws Mr. and Mrs. Smith to dinner. Part of his assessment of the situation involves an evaluation of the meaning of alternative restaurants; part of it is in his judgment of how Mr. and Mrs. Smith fit into plans he has for himself (e.g., continued association with them over time at many such dinners). The other part of his assessment of the situation consists of how he would like to be perceived by them at this point in time in order to realize what plans he has.

The choice of the self to express in any situation is dependent upon the others in that situation because those others may have the ability to apply positive or negative sanctions as a result of the individual's behavior. As the individual encounters many different social situations, the individual develops a repertoire of self-images which are different from one another and emerge as the situation requires. That self which is dependent upon the parameters of the social situation is the situational self image. Thus the young man in the above situation behaves differently (presents a different self image) when he is having dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, than he does when having dinner with Miss Smith or with his own parents. All of these individuals differ in the sanctions they can apply, and thus he presents them each a different facet of his personality. This is not to say that an individual will behave the same way in the presence of one individual (or group of individuals) in all social situations. The young man's self to be projected to the Smiths at dinner while he is playing a host role may differ from the self expressed to them while attending religious services (in which he may play the role of a devout member of the congregation). Both situations have in common the young man's desire to please his future in-laws.

Once an individual decides what image to express in the social situation, he/she looks for ways of expressing it. One means by which an individual is able to express his/ her self image in a situation is through use of particular products (Goffman 1951, was one of the first to comment upon this, and Belk 1978 one of the most recent). Products which are conspicuous (Bourne 1968) visible (Robertson 1970) or for which the brand images within a product category are highly differentiated are likely to be used in this manner. Those which have a high repurchase rate, or for which the consumer is likely to own multiple brands (e.g. perfume) are also products likely to be used by consumers to express an image in a situation.

Goffman (1959) discussed how products can serve as props to aid in communication of the situational self image. It therefore follows that the brand of the product whose image is most congruent with the desired situational self image will be preferred for use in the situation. For example, consider a set of situations for which wine consumption is appropriate. [Wine satisfies the criteria specified above in that its use is conspicuous and visible (if poured from the bottle), and the brand images within one wine category (e.g. white dinner wines) are highly differentiated.] If a woman is serving her new boss, she may try to express the image of a career-minded, intellectual, and possibly conservative woman; she will select a wine whose use displays that image. The same woman, while entertaining a close friend may desire to project an image of a hospitable, friendly, and possibly "happy-go-lucky" woman; she will then select a wine that is quite different from the wine selected in the first situation. Likewise, the young man from the previous example will probably choose different restaurants for dining with prospective in-laws, with a prospective wife, and with his own parents. The choices depend upon the match between situational self-image and brand (in this case restaurant) image.


The illustrations just presented suggest the advantages to be gained by conceptualizing self image in terms of the consumption or social situation. One advantage is that it accounts for the influence that persons to whom the self image is expressed exert on the image expression process. Actual self image does not account for the influence of others, and ideal self image lumps all of these others together in a single category. The situational self is a combination of ideal (in terms of what others expect, or what will best achieve one's plans) and actual (in terms of the behavior that expresses the ideal).

Another advantage of the situational self-image concept is that it specifically includes a behavioral component which is derived from the desire of the individual to complete the plans that have been formulated. This image expression is of central concern to consumer behavior researchers as it encompasses the purchase and use of products.

The third and perhaps most important advantage of the situational concept of self is that it acknowledges that consumers have many self concepts and that consumption of a brand may be highly congruent with the self image in one situation and not at all congruent in another situation, because the self images needed in the two situations are different from one another. This does not suggest that consumers are capricious or have multi-person-alities, but rather that different facets of the self emerge depending upon the others with whom one interacts. Thus the devilish child (in the presence of siblings) may act like an angel at times (in the presence of doting grandparents, for example). Ideal or actual definitions of self image assume that self image is a static cognitive state that remains more-or-less constant across situations. Such an assumption is clearly at variance with the symbolic interactionist perspective of behavior, and may be an oversimplification of individuals' cognitive states.


The concept of situation has been evoked throughout this discussion without having been properly defined or discussed. Within the last twenty years, researchers have stressed the importance of consumption situation variables in determining product or brand choice as they question the dominance of psychological approaches to choice behavior which emphasize intrapsychic evaluative states and processes. Several papers have called for recognition of the importance of situational as well as individual determinants of behavior (Lavidge 1966; San-dell 1966; Green and Rao 1972).

Most definitions of situations used in empirical research are derived from Belk's conceptualization. Situation is defined as:

all those factors particular to a time and place of observation which do not follow from a knowledge of personal (intra-individual) and stimulus (choice alternative) attributes, and which have a demonstrable and systematic effect on correct behavior (1974, p. 157).

This definition implies that situational factors are external to the individual and can be controlled and manipulated in experimental settings since they can be objectively defined.

Situational research in consumer behavior has been very successful in showing how individuals prefer different brands for different consumption situations (Sandell 1968; Bishop and Witt 1970; Belk 1974; Bearden and Wood-side 1976; Miller and Ginter 1978). The majority of these studies have employed a projective technique in which situational scenarios (product consumption situations) are described to subjects in written form; the likelihood of a subject purchasing an alternative brand (or product) is the usual dependent variable. (See Bearden and Woodside 1976, for an example of this type of research.)

As research on situations has focused either on choice response to objectively defined anticipated [An anonymous reviewer has correctly pointed out that the discussion here is concerned only with anticipated situations. As the paper deals with product choice, the discussion must necessarily deal with consumers' expectations for situations as products must normally be purchased at some time interval prior to their used in situations. (The product purchase situation is a notable exception.) During an interaction which contains an unanticipated situation, either the consumer must literally bring out of the cupboard those products that are appropriate (if they have been purchased in the past) or the consumer will have to get along without those products necessary for expression of the situational self image.] consumption situations or upon the interaction of intrapsychic attributes (e.g. attitudes toward alternative brands) and the situation, it is easy to see how the concept of situational self image can contribute to explaining brand choice. With this conceptualization, situational self image becomes an organismic variable with considerable potential for explaining variance in brand choice.

The concept of situational self image may be a particularly important one for situational research because of the difficulty in detecting the effects of the objectively-defined aspects of the situation. One difficulty lies in the multidimensionality and interrelatedness of extra-individual factors. While the physical surrounding, social surrounding, and task can be defined relatively easily in isolation from one another, the interactions on the multiple dimensions of all of these aspects form a highly complex network. This makes tracing the effects of a change in one aspect a highly problematic task.

Situational research, however, has begun to make progress in constructing relevant taxonomies of consumption situations (Sherif and Sherif 1956; Sells 1963; Bellows 1963; Allen i965; Kasmar 1970; Mehrabian and Russell 1974; Belk 1975; Srivastava, Shocker, and Day 1977). Recently, Belk (1975) proposed five groups of situational variables which affect behavior: physical surroundings, social surroundings, temporal perspective, task definition, and antecedent states. Srivastava, Shocker, and Day (1977) identified two primary factors of situations for use of breath freshening products: a social versus personal dimension (accounting for 52% of the variance), and an away versus home dimension (accounting for 35% of the variance).

Although relevant taxonomies have emerged, cause-effect relationships between specific dimensions of situations and choice responses cannot be determined since, as stated previously, such dimensions are interrelated in objectively-defined situations. Consequently, the concept of situational self-image may add new insight into situational research as it is-an intervening organismic variable mediating the social dimensions of objectively-defined situations and subsequent choice responses. Pursuing this type of research may prove more fruitful in understanding the effects of specific situational dimensions upon choice behavior using objectively-defined situations until the complexities involved when implying cause-effect relationships are unraveled. Social dimensions of consumption situations can be controlled and manipulated in experimental settings in order to explore their influence upon situational self-image and consequent choice responses. More specifically, the symbolic interactionist perspective posits that the kinds of people with whom product consumption occurs (in a particular situation) will in turn dictate the situational self-image and brand choice.


The essential elements have been discussed for deriving a descriptive model of brand choice for frequently purchased products [As stated previously, the case in which the consumer is likely to possess or purchase many different brands within the product class (e.g. clothing) also is included within the set of products whose purchase is modeled here.] with well-developed brand images that are to be selected for an anticipated usage situation. It now remains necessary to group them into some meaningful framework. The relationships among situation, situational self-image, brand image and brand choice are depicted in Figure 1. As the individual forms a meaningful evaluation of others encountered in the anticipated social situation (meaningful in terms of the plans of the individual) the individual draws from his/her repertoire of self images (or creates a new self-image) to select an appropriate self image for the situation. If the situation requires that a product be used to express the situational self image, a scan is made of the brand images for the product class. The individual then compares the images of brands with the situational self image selected for the interaction. The brand whose image is closest to the situational self image will be the one selected (or will be the most preferred) for use in the anticipated situation.

This model is limited in its applicability in that it does not deal with brand choice for products that do not express the self image of the user, for products whose repurchase rate is low and hence are not easily changed from situation to situation, or for products whose brands do not have a highly developed and differentiated brand structure. The model also lacks in its inability to account for unanticipated usage situations and/or situations in which the consumer does not have total control over brand choice. The model could probably be extended to include alternative choice of products for expression of self image, but it has not been done so here in order to simplify the presentation.



The model does have the advantage of being derived from a strong theoretical base residing in sociology. Its linkage to symbolic interactionism which explores the processes of social relationships provides needed insight into a largely overlooked aspect of consumer behavior. The model also contributes to consumer behavior theory as it merges two seemingly unrelated explanations of choice behavior (situational effects and self-image/ brand-image congruency) under one conceptual theme. As these two approaches to brand choice have independently been very successful in explaining consumer behavior, their merger while having the advantage of logical clarity, also promises practical benefits for greater understanding of brand choice.


This paper has discussed an area of sociology know as "symbolic interactionism" and derived implications for brand choice from its six fundamental propositions as stated by McCall and Simmons (1978). Two areas of research into brand choice, self-image/brand-image congruency and situational effects, were merged through the concept of the situational self image. A model of brand choice for products which may be expressive of the self in different situations was developed.

Before the model developed here can be demonstrated to be useful, it must be tested empirically. The model is logically sound given the assumptions of symbolic interactionism. But ultimate usefulness in explaining or predicting behavior rests upon empirical validation. It is hoped that such validation will be forthcoming in the near future.


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Carolyn Turner Schenk, Burke Marketing Research
Rebecca H. Holman, Pennsylvania State University-


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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