Katarina Hellén works as Associate Professor at the School of Marketing and Communication at University of Vaasa and is a Friend of the InnoLab. Her research interests are consumer psychology and innovations.
However, the careful observer probably notices that the logic of consumer rationality is seldom applicable at the consumer market. Very many popular consumer products are neither technologically superior nor cheap whereas many inexpensive and technologically good products fail. How can this be? The answer is that technological superiority and price are not the only aspects that affect consumers’ decision-making. Indeed, research has shown that symbolic value of a product is the most important predictor of buying intention at the consumer market.
Homburg, Schwemmle and Kuehnl’s (2015) study documented that the symbolic value of a product is even more important than its function and aesthetics. These results should alert firms to ponder upon how to attach symbolic value or meaning to their products.
What is meaningfulness in products and what are its psychological implications? A meaningful product refers to a product that conveys an immaterial value, i.e. symbolic or intangible values, typically social meanings. For instance, Apple has for years linked their products to different types of social values, such as creativity, coolness and to some extent status.
Research shows that meaningful products often serve a self-expressive need, such that consumers consuming Apple’s products are perceived to have the personality traits and status that is associated with the Apple brand.
Interestingly, it seems that the meaningfulness of the product also impacts how consumers use the product. For example, one study showed that exposure to the Apple brand makes people more creative (Fitzsimons, Chartrand and Fitzsimons, 2008) and another found that a higher price on sports drinks makes people perform better in both cognitive and physical tasks (Shiv, Carmon and Ariely, 2005). Thus, meaningfulness in products impact consumers on many levels.
The most common way to attach meaning is of course branding, where marketers try to create a psychological link between the brand and certain values, attributes or personality traits. However, the problem is that this approach is not only costly, but also takes a long time to implement. Branding can be very challenging, if not impossible, for small start-ups with an unknown brand and new products.
This is the starting point for our project “Creating meaningful products” that I lead together with Maria Sääksjärvi. In this project, we investigate how meanings can be attached to innovations. So far, we have conducted five empirical studies where we have defined meaningfulness, developed a measurement tool for empirically assessing meaningfulness, as well as investigated how meaningfulness operates at the market.
These are some of the things we have learnt to this point. First, meaningfulness and sibling concepts such as symbolism have been the subject of much research attention in the marketing literature. Although there is no consensus of how meaningfulness should be defined many researchers argue that meaningfulness is the self-expressive value that the product conveys.
However, our results suggest that self-expression is only one aspect of meaningfulness and that functionality also impact perceptions of meaningfulness. Moreover, we suspect that some dimensions work as drivers for other dimensions and that some dimension combinations are more effective than others and this is what we will focus on in future studies.
Second, products that consumers perceive as meaningful have become meaningful to them very early in the purchase process, often before the product has been bought. As such, meaningfulness should be evoked very early in the purchase process, ideally before the consumer has bought the product.
In contrast, consumers report that the brands they consider meaningful have become meaningful to them during the course of several years. Thus, meaningful products and brands should be seen as separate phenomena, which serve complementary purposes; meaningful products are immediate attractors, whereas meaningful brands are long-term companions.
Third, meaningfulness of products is linked to several positive outcomes. For instance, consumers are more likely to recommend these products to other people and also willing to pay a higher price in comparison to competitors.
So what can firms do? It has often been argued that Finnish firms tend to obsess about the technical aspects of products and pay less attention to marketing efforts, such as, linking social value to new products. This is worrisome as attaching meaning is essential for market success in the long run.
Many questions are still unanswered about meaningfulness in products and more research effort is needed. However, currently, our measurement tool can be used for assessing meaningfulness in products both quickly and easily. Its usage enables testing of perceived meaningfulness of a large range of products that already exist at the marketplace but also product prototypes.
Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of consumer research, 35(1), 21-35.
Homburg, C., Schwemmle, M., & Kuehnl, C. (2015). New product design: Concept, measurement, and consequences. Journal of Marketing, 79(3), 41-56.
Shiv, B., Carmon, Z., & Ariely, D. (2005). Placebo effects of marketing actions: Consumers may get what they pay for. Journal of marketing Research, 42(4), 383-393.