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«Jill Cooke, Jennifer Harris, University of New South Wales Abstract Interpersonal relationship theory has been used to classify types of ...»

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How do Consumers Really View their Relationships with the Brands they Use?

Jill Cooke, Jennifer Harris, University of New South Wales


Interpersonal relationship theory has been used to classify types of relationships that

consumers form with the brands they use. Given that brand relationships are believed to dwell

in consumer’s perceptions, it is argued that it is the consumer’s perspective which determines

whether the extension of the metaphor is reasonable. This study questions the legitimacy of the Fournier’s (1998) typology as a means of classifying these relationships in FMCG categories. Findings suggest that Fournier’s theoretical dimensions may not be always appropriate within this context. The idea of a neutral or passive relationship with a brand is thus considered.

Introduction Despite increased attention and relevance drawn to the investigation of consumer-brand relationships, is the use of interpersonal relationship theory to classify types of relationships that consumers form with brands an appropriate extension of the metaphor? The suitability and utility of the domain extension to consumer markets, characterised by a large number of anonymous consumers, limited opportunity for interpersonal interaction and prevalence of low value and low involvement purchases (O’Malley and Tynan, 1999), has not been effectively challenged to date. The interactions explored between consumers and ‘cult’ or ‘iconic’ brands (Holt, 2004) such as Coke, Harley Davidson (Schouten and McAlexander,

1994) and Apple (Berry, 1992) have highlighted the idea that the brand and the consumer can be treated as partners in a dyadic relationship which is conceptually similar to a relationship between two people. Extension beyond this is no longer questioned, with researchers now treating exchange in consumer markets as though it should be relational (O’Malley and Tynan, 1999). Hence, it is important to question whether the idea that consumers form relationships with their brands is a valid one and also establish, if necessary, the boundaries for the metaphor transfer.

Fournier’s 1998 paper has been central to this area of research and is regarded as a modern classic by some (Ostergaard, 2002). Researchers had previously applied isolated constructs from relationship theory to products and brands (Ahuvia, 1993; Shimp and Madden, 1998).

However, Fournier’s work acknowledged other types of interactions between consumers and their brands and provided a framework for characterising types of consumer-brand relationships in order to generate a rich understanding of consumer-brand bonds. Whilst the typology has received much attention (e.g., Ji, 2002; Kates, 2000, 2004; Sweeney and Chew, 2002), relatively little empirical research has emerged that systematically addresses her intuitive conceptualisations. This study seeks to generate an understanding of how the consumer interprets their consumption experiences by exploring whether consumers perceive the interpersonal relationship dimensions Fournier uses accurately represent the relationships they have with the brands they use. Specifically, the study investigates the extension of the metaphor to FMCG product categories, markets where there is a prevalence of low value and low involvement purchases.

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Fournier’s Relationship Dimensions and Typology Drawing upon prior conceptualisations, Fournier (1998) proposed a set of seven interpersonal relationship dimensions to categorise consumer brand relationships that contribute to the consumer’s sense of self. Fifteen interpersonal relationship forms emerged from these dimensions. Various researchers have subsequently examined the metaphor extension with some suggesting extensions to the framework in various contexts: dominance vs subordination and friendly vs hostile in a services context (Sweeney and Chew, 2002); trust in a business-to-business context (Iacobucci and Ostrom, 1996); perceived risk (DelgadoBallester and Munura-Aleman, 2000); a social political dimension in the context of purchasing by gay men (Kates, 2000). However, it is uncertain as to whether this is an exhaustive list which is applicable to the relationships between a consumer and the FMCG brands they use.

Brands as a Relationship Partner

Various researchers have argued ways to legitimise the brand as a relationship partner. The ways in which brands are animated (Gilmore, 1919), humanised (Levy, 1985), personalised (Aaker, 1997) or assumed to articulate relationship views (Blackston, 1992) highlights the way a brand is able to serve as a relationship partner. The concept of animism (Gilmore,

1919) is the belief that objects possess souls and have human-like qualities. Between a consumer and a brand, it is the consumer that has the responsibility for imbuing the anthropomorphism in the relationship (Hess and Story, 2005). The brand’s role is to facilitate, through behaviours, the process by which consumers conceptualise or experience the relationship (Dall’Olmo Riley and deChernatony, 2000). Research on person-object relations also suggests that people assign human-like qualities through personification to a range of consumer goods (Belk, 1988). Holt (2004), in exploring “iconic brands”, notes that these relationships mimic interpersonal interactions in terms of intimacy, reciprocity and loyalty. It is envisaged, however, that in consumer markets, consumers may be reluctant to use the term ‘relationship’ to describe their interaction with most FMCG brands (Barnes, 1997) let alone classify these interactions. Despite the logic behind these theories and the relevant cases of intense relationships (e.g. Aggarwal, 2004), it is questionable whether consumers express brands that are purchased habitually as relationship partners.

The Concept of Invisible Brands

The question of whether customers of all consumer products actually want a relationship with the supplying company or the brand has been raised previously (e.g., Uncles et al., 2003).

They suggest that for low involvement brands it is not clear that customers do really want to engage in a relationship. Similarly, Coupland (2005) discusses the notion of ‘invisible brands’ where seemingly ordinary brands are a part of the lifestyle of a household. She suggests that the locus of meaning for such brands is not tied to its identity or to a relationship. Therefore it could be that, for these brands, that are designed to have unique personalities, consumers may not recognise and value this (Uncles et al., 2003). Coupland’s (2005) findings do not directly dismiss Fournier’s study, however they do suggest that constructs and dimensions are not applicable to all consumer-brand relationships. However, rather than having a negative attitude towards the brand, their overall attitude may remain neutral (Rowley and Dawes, 2000). Otnes, Lowery and Shrusm (1997) note that people also own possessions for which they feel apathy or a lack of fondness. Many grocery products which are typically ‘low involvement’ goods could be potentially valued less as individual units as they are inexpensive, replaceable, accessible and disposable (Coupland, 2005). Therefore, it is proposed that as people lack fondness for certain possessions, they could also be devoid of fondness for brands they use frequently. Thus, the idea of a brand acting as a passive or neutral relationship partner needs to be considered.


A two-phase approach was utilised to incorporate multiple methods in attempt to triangulate data and provide a means for cross comparison and cross-checking (Miles and Huberman, 1994; Hall and Rist, 1999). A cross-sectional self administered survey investigated to what extent consumers were able to classify their brand relationships within the framework and whether there were particular relationship forms more relevant to consumers. In-depth interviews explored informants’ brand portfolio, consumption and perceptions of brands as relationship partners to elicit further insights from the informants. Thus, the qualitative results were used largely to provide insight into the quantitative results. Brands were self-selected by participants so they only evaluated brands they were familiar with and had experience with.

They were asked to recall three brands from two broad product categories, beverages and personal care. Participants were drawn at random from a student subject pool. Though the use of a student sample may result in more homogeneity and a reduction in the magnitude of differences (Peterson, 2001), they have been found to be useful surrogates in a number of research areas, e.g., attitude-behaviour relationship (Yavas, 1994). They were deemed suitable for this research since they allowed age and occupation to be controlled, and facilitated exploration of Fournier’s concept empirically within a different brand and consumer setting, particularly the exploration of the Generation Y cohort who have unprecedented purchasing power (Ebenkamp, 1994). Prior studies by Fournier (1998) and Sweeney and Chew (2002) make use of female respondents as a means of eliciting richer data for analysis. The use of males and females in this study allowed further exploration of these findings, thus additional insights were anticipated. A total of 84 people were utilised, 69 for the questionnaire (65% females) and 15 in-depth interviews (60% females). Overall findings are summarised next under five key themes.


For many interviewees, the relationship framework was seen as applicable to some of their brand relationships. Respondents varied in their ability to classify their brand relationships within the framework. This ranged from being able to classify one to all three relationships within each product category. However, just over half could classify all six relationships.

Thus the relationship descriptions did resonate with some respondents. However, this result also implies that there are a number of “relationships” that cannot be classified within the framework or that respondents do not see themselves as having a relationship with the brand.

Though respondents could classify their relationship within the framework, there was a lack of clarity. Respondents indicated that there were multiple brand statements which could be used to describe their brand relationship – they did not perceive the relationship types to be mutually exclusive. Reasons uncovered in the qualitative stage indicated some informants were aware of their relationship changing over time or in response to different situations, e.g., moving out of the family home or moving to another country.

“…so things that I liked when I was at home I bring with me and things that I had negative relationships I would leave that. Cause you have more freedom of choice…It was like, empowerment, kind of, finally up to me to decide. So I just

looked to what I really liked, rather than what I had always been given.” (R4:

male) Thus it can be inferred that relationships going through transition stages due to situational influences may result in a change in how respondents perceive these relationships.

Not all brand relationships were able to be classified within the framework. Though respondents felt the relationship descriptors did describe many of their brand relationships, there were still a large proportion of brand relationships respondents were apprehensive to describe in terms of relational descriptors. The homogeneity of the brands also made it difficult to classify their interactions with the brand with words evoking emotion, indicating little emotional attachment to the brands they used.

“So, I don’t know, many of them were, didn’t describe my relationship because I don’t feel like I have one with any of the brands.” (R9: female) Rather than a relationship, respondents saw their interactions as habit, or preference of usage.

“… it was a little difficult; I don’t think there was an apparent link to certain products or beverage brand…. I wouldn’t say that it is a relationship, I think it is just a preference of usage.” (R2: male) “I don’t know if it’s so much that it’s addictive but it’s more, habit..I have used it and, it does the job” (R7: male).

Others described the relationship as neutral because they do not want to go to the effort to look for another brand.

“Because almost all brands are quite good, they are, but if you get something that you want, you feel it is good, then you go for it and try it, and then you stick to it because it just takes so much effort and time to look for something that is better. I mean you will never end up finding it. You know, I am just fine with whatever I have.” (R9: female) A difference was indicated between males and females in their ability to classify their brand relationships and their relevance. Results indicated that more females were able to classify more of their brand relationships under the framework than males.

“For a chick, maybe like who has perfume or some other like cosmetic stuff then they just relate to that first question more but like yeah, for my particular example no it wasn’t very good.”(R6: male) There were some indications that the categories were related to gender with some informants in the depth interviews indicating that it was easier to classify certain brands as relationship partners in some categories compared to others. Males indicated that it may be easier to classify beverage brands as relationship partners; female informants explained statements were more appropriate to describe their association with the personal care brands.

Respondents found it difficult to relate to or use certain dimensions. Though there were certain dimensions on which informants could classify their relationships, e.g., valence, engagement (voluntary – non-voluntary), there were certain dimensions rarely referred to by informants, in particular the symmetry and intensity dimensions. The very few brand stories that used the symmetry dimension were discussed in terms of Equality rather than Inequality, indicating possible difficulty relating to this dimension for brands in FMCG categories.

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