Possessions and Storytelling

The Props Used in the Stories People Tell

2016 Volume 19 Issue 2

Consumers are attracted to brands. This is evidenced in the ability of some brands to charge a premium and have greater loyalty than others. Fueled by a number of factors, such as the brand’s personality, associations, and equity, brands elicit an emotional connection with the consumer with roots to his/her self-concept. By understanding self, a common thread of storytelling can be uncovered that loosely ties the marketing theory of “self-concept” together with the narrative view of “identity.”

This article suggests that the exploration of possessions and their role in storytelling may strengthen the bond between consumers and brands. For instance, perceiving the influence of a specific possession in consumers’ self-perception presents an opportunity for a brand to reinforce the consumer’s particular identity with its products and services, and in doing so increasing its appeal to them. Moreover, understanding the public and private meanings consumers attach to their possessions provides the basis from which a brand may strengthen its alignment with these meanings and therefore with the consumer. In addition, discerning the role of possessions in the continuity consumers seek for their identity supplies the footing for a brand to reinforce that continuity and therefore the consumer’s loyalty to the brand. Finally, comprehending consumers’ identification with certain values yields a framework in which a brand may reinforce its genuine connection with these values and thereby enhance the significance placed on its products by consumers. By exploring the role of possessions in storytelling, tactical approaches for accomplishing the strategic initiative of forming a strong bond with consumers may be highlighted.

Introduction

Brands are a ubiquitous part of everyday life. From the name on the box of cereal we eat in the morning, to the organization(s) we work for, and the vehicle we use to get there, we are immersed in them. More than mere logos or symbols, however, brands today embody a vast array of organizations exerting their influence in business, politics, entertainment, athletics, non-profit, government, and education. Understanding why brands appeal to consumers has been the subject of inquiry for many theorists. Beginning with the psychologist who probes cognitive learning and dissonance, to the social scientist who studies the effect of global brands on local culture, the influence of brands on consumer behavior warrants attention. More than functional utility, studies have shown that brands are imbued with a range of unique marketing effects that combine to yield “brand equity,”[1] [2] the product of brand awareness and meaning.[3] The American Marketing Association defines brand equity as:

The value of a brand. From a consumer perspective, brand equity is based on consumer attitudes about positive brand attributes and favorable consequences of brand use.[4]

While brand equity reflects the attributes contributing to a strong brand in the marketplace, some would go as far as asserting that brands “have a life and meaning beyond and independent of that intended by their initiators.”[5] Part of this “life and meaning” is the occurrence of self-expression that brands as possessions provide their owners.[6] Coincidentally, while branding studies have explored this phenomenon, a parallel stream of investigation has taken place within the narrative field of inquiry. Although not specifically related to possessions, this research probes the self-expressive qualities of the stories people tell.[7] This paper puts forth several analogous concepts in the branding and narrative fields that may further aid and reinforce the exploration and understanding of self. The implications may be highly relative to brands endowed with characteristics that fuel consumer’ ability to tell their story and therefore build the consumer’s connection with the brand.

Possessions and the Extension-of-Self Measures

“We cannot hope to understand consumer behavior without first gaining some understanding of the meanings that consumers attach to possessions.” — Russell W. Belk[8]

It has been conjectured that consumers do not just buy the “nuts and bolts” of a product or service when making a purchase decision, but rather “they are buying their identities as one kind of person, or another.”[9] Possessions, in effect, provide an outlet to express the individual characteristics and values of their owner.[10] This expression is linked back to the attraction consumers have to brands that they perceive as similar to themselves.[11] It has also been shown that certain brands associated with “in-groups,” or those groups in which consumers feels connected, have a positive brand connection.[12] The literature provides the basis for which possessions are extensions of self[13] as well as the private and public meanings of possessions.[14]

The concept of possessions and extension of self has its roots in self-perception research that asserted that the extended self includes people, places, and things in addition to possessions. This holistic view had its origins in James’ (1892) theory of “me” and “mine.”[15] This theory makes the claim that a person’s kids, spouse, or career are in many ways as special to them as their bodies, compelling the same defensive response to an attack on their physical beings. In this way, people take an almost legalistic perspective, judging intent by the actions taken. Another way to think about possessions and the extension of self is the degree to which an individual’s control is controlled by an object. Categories of extended self coincide with the relative control in the relationship. Ellis (1985) describes these categories as “one’s body, personal space, ingestibles, territory, domicile, copulatory partners, offspring, friends, tools, and objects of aesthetic appeal, play and amusement, pets and mementos.”[16] Nuttin (1987) asserted that individuals view even the letters in their name selfishly.[17]

Whatever the relative degree of control, possessions tend to give owners extra power, to do things they normally may not be able to do. For instance, they may enable owners to perform acts that their bodies alone are incapable of achieving, such as when they use a power tool to cut a metal pipe or an oven to roast a filet mignon. Moreover, they may make the role owners are playing believable to themselves, such as when they don a uniform, tie, or other ritualistic garment. Finally, they may inflate the sense of what owners can do in comparison to an obstacle, such as when they drive a fashionable sports car at high speed through the crowded city streets on the way to work. Whatever the function, possessions tend to enhance the perception of a person’s abilities.[18]

By investigating the significance of possessions in consumers’ self-perception and extension of self to others, brands have the opportunity to reinforce their value as a participant in the consumer’s realization of a particular identity. For instance, an athletic wear brand that conducts primary research to discover the contribution of its products to the realization of its targeted teenage consumer’s aspiration of becoming “cool,” may strengthen its bond with these consumers by using the findings to reinforce this identity in its product design and marketing. In addition, by evaluating the significance of these aspirations among targeted non-consumers, a brand may gain a share of this market, as well. For instance, by researching the self-perceptions of Gen Y customers of competing automobile brands, an automobile brand may better understand how to reposition itself to penetrate the Gen Y market with a more relevant connection to the consumer’s self-concept.

The role of self-concept also has a bearing on brand associations with another person,[19] such a consumer’s “in-group” and “out-group” of individuals with whom he/she either belongs or doesn’t.[20] Brands that consumers associate with their in-group, such as members of Gen Z who favor authenticity and genuineness[21] will have a positive connection with the consumer’s self-concept.[22] For instance, a brand targeting this generation may form a strong connection with messaging that acknowledges this generation’s confidence and optimism. Conversely, brands that consumers associate with an out-group will not have a positive connection with the consumer’s self-concept.[23] For instance, an energy drink marketing to members of the Depression Generation using images of youthful irreverence is unlikely to connect with this demographic which values morals and ethics.

While possessions may be prized for the extension of certain abilities, their value to their “owner” may be divided between public and private meanings. For instance, possessions may convey a variety of subjective meanings to public observers. This may include visible cues of authority or rank, such as the uniform discussed earlier, which extends the power of self. It may also denote a sense of wealth or achievement, as when a person disembarks from an exotic sports car. Depending on the instrumental and terminal values[24] of the observer, however, these public meanings may differ from observer to observer. For example, when an owner arrives in a luxury car he or she may not be perceived by some observers as one who is capable and intelligent, but rather as one who seeks self respect and an enjoyable, pleasurable life.[25] Similarly, the public meanings of possessions may coincide with or be in contrast to the possession’s private meanings. For instance, an older convertible may or may not hold the same meaning for its owner as it does for the public observer. It may also represent other private meanings to the owner that give it special significance, such as memories of important occasions. These private meanings may be influenced by the degree of the owner’s interaction with the possession that would be essentially invisible to the public observer. For instance, the public observer would not be aware of the private meaning to the owner of an old pair of chinos who last wore them on a special date, at a book signing, or during the run of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.[26]

By recognizing the significance of public and private meanings consumers place on their possessions, a brand has the opportunity to leverage its calibration with these meanings. For example, if a stroller brand understands the importance to a young mother of feeling that she is properly caring for her infant son, and that this fact is publicly evident to others, it has an opportunity to reinforce the significance of both the private and public meanings attached to its products and corresponding marketing message. In addition, it may also provide the brand with a competitive advantage when competing against brands that do not fully understand the private and public meanings attached to the product.

Narrative and the Stories People Tell

At least since Henry James (1862) referenced the importance of self, dividing between the “sense of I” and the “sense of Me,” it has been become apparent that people construct stories.[27] These stories enable individuals to convey important meanings about themselves to others, past stories that may be reconstructed to reconcile with the present.[28] As these stories take new shapes, the thread of continuity stays the course for the owners of these narratives to rely upon. This reliance is prompted by the desire for stability in one’s self, of permanence. Maslow (1954, 1970) would undoubtedly make the point that what individuals are describing is the desire for freedom from worry about possible loss or danger, from anxiety, for order.[29] In essence, people chronicle themselves in a running narrative intended to recall the past, convey the present, and picture the future. Or, as Elliott aptly states it, “a beginning, a middle, and an end.”[30] It is part of their identity. While doing so, however, these narratives may begin to resemble more fiction than fact.[31]

As part of the everyday interaction with their environment, individuals weave tales and construct accounts of events in an effort to maintain balance between their image of self and the image others have of them. These stories are part of their identity, an ongoing performance that seeks to incorporate the important while silently discarding the trivial. An artistic rendering if you will. What is cast aside is perhaps as telling as what is kept. The silent crying at the love story on TV, the spilled coffee during the interview, the drunk uncle at a family gathering. The list is perhaps endless, and yet entirely familiar. It is conceivably no accident that words such as “yarn,” “gossip,” and “fairy tale” are part of the lexicon to delineate the true story from the false one. While people often rebuke obvious “tall tales,” the fuel for such exaggeration is the same as that prompting authenticity, genuineness. Between the two extremes of absolute truth and incredible fiction lies the middle ground that serves to provide the order people seek in their identity.[32]

In thinking about how stories are constructed, Gergen (1994) suggests that stories include the five aspects of “method,” “stability,” “signposts,” “causality,” and “endpoints.”[33] These elements form a framework that helps the storyteller maintain an identity and provides the interpreter with cues to that identity. For instance, orderliness to the past, present, and future provides meaning to the identity of the person telling the story. It contributes consistency in the connection between what has happened before, what is happening now, and what is yet to be to understand who they are. While orderliness connects between times, a stable identity permits navigation between the storyteller’s relationships. The enduring qualities of an identity allow the storyteller to understand where he or she belongs. Guiding the storyteller along his or her narrative journey are signposts that provide the storyteller egress points along the way. These “exit” or transitional signs enable the storyteller to evaluate their role and purpose during times of disruption to the routine. Bringing some understanding to why things are the way they are, links between events provides the storyteller with a sense of causality. The ability to grasp the meaning of events yields the storyteller a greater ability to communicate with others. Finally, the endpoints furnish the storyteller with a fulfilling journey, permitting insight into the decision making process.[34] The combined framework provides an overall sense of meaning for both the storyteller and the interpreter.

By investigating the function of possessions as contributors to the continuity consumers desire for their identity, a brand may gain a footing upon which it may play a consequential role in that continuity. For instance, a manufacturer of industrial equipment may appeal to the aspirations of industrial customers who wish to be viewed as capable and responsible by their peers by emphasizing the quality, reliability, and reputation of the equipment they use. By understanding the function of possessions as contributors to the customers’ identity, a brand may play a meaningful role in reinforcing the consumer’s identity by using imagery and other marketing techniques reinforcing the identity.

The Role of Possessions and the Stories People Tell

The studies of self, possessions, and narrative suggest an analogous thread of storytelling, of people expressing the story of themselves. Moreover, if James’ (1892) holistic view of self[35] and the extended meaning of self[36] to include people, places, and things is conceivable, it is not a giant leap to readily accept the concept that storytelling is not constrained by the physical act of speaking. In other words, talking is not the only way people tell stories. It seems entirely conceivable that people use objects as part of their extended self to provide the listener with cues that make their story understandable, tangible, and believable.[37] As with the crossing guard outside the grade school who barely utters an audible word, but who exerts authority through his or her uniform. Or, a female member of Generation Y visibly expressing her self-absorption in her expensive designer shoes and dress. These things are like movie props that convey time, space, and relevance in a fictional story with actors projected on a screen. They provide important insight into a person’s storyline, becoming part of the human narrative an individual uses to tell his or her story.[38] For instance, the person who identifies with the values of “an exciting life,” “social recognition,” and “a sense of accomplishment”[39] may place high value on the possessions that symbolize these values, such as a sports car driven at high speed through crowded streets. Exploring the role of possessions in storytelling from the perspective of both branding and narrative identity promises to enrich the study of each.

Through a process of discovery and understanding of the values important to consumers, a brand has the opportunity to reinforce its connection with these values and thereby enhance the significance placed on its products by consumers. For instance, an automotive brand that uncovers the importance of its cars in the consumer’s expression of particular values, such as “pleasure” or “imaginative,”[40] may strengthen its bond with these consumers by reinforcing those values in its product design and marketing. In addition, by assessing the importance of particular values expressed among targeted non-consumers, a brand may gain a foothold into an untapped market by expressing these values in its product design and marketing.

Conclusion

The modern brand is a powerful force in the lives of today’s individual. The significance of brands in the lives of consumers, employees, and investors[41] has made the elements contributing to their success a focal point of inquiry for both academics and practitioners alike. The value of a brand has been variously described as one imbued with certain qualities fueling the consumer’s connection with it, such as brand equity,[42] [43] brand trust,[44] and brand personality.[45] This article discussed the storytelling prowess of possessions in the lives of their owners as a possible contributor to consumer brand connection. A strong connection to the consumer ultimately has an impact on the overall performance of the brand. For instance, well-differentiated brands generate higher response levels to advertising and marketing, leading to greater revenue, lower costs, and higher profits.[46] Moreover, well-differentiated brands can also claim credibility[47] and implicit quality assurance[48] while commanding greater consumer loyalty.[49][50] Finally, branded differentiation also enhances the degree of relevance between the needs of the decision maker and the solutions offered by the brand to the decision maker.[51]

The implication for practitioners is the need to understand their products not simply as functional equivalents within a category, but as possessions uniquely used as a prop in their customer’s storytelling. This requires that the brand investigate their target consumers in a more profound manner to gain a deeper understanding of the consumer’s voice. They need to set upon a path using qualitative methods to assess their customers along a new dimension, one in which the strength of the brand’s connection to the consumer will be revealed. To hear the stories first hand as only the consumers themselves can. To bring brand management into the story. Only then will a brand fully comprehend the significance of its role in the story, at which point they can set upon a path to continually play a role in the tale. In doing so, brands will be better equipped to design, execute, and evaluate an updated marketing and branding strategy leveraging the uniqueness of its role in the consumer’s story. By tracking the relevance of its role in the consumer’s story over time, brands may adjust their performance simultaneously with the next chapter to remain a valued contributor to the consumer’s tale. Furthermore, comprehending both the private and public meanings associated with their brand and its correlation with certain human values may be useful in forging a lasting bond with their target market or expanding to new, global markets. This may take on an even greater impetus for exclusive or luxury brands that rely on their reflection and self-image to help define their identity in the market.[52]

 

[1] Aaker, D. “Measuring Brand Equity across Products and Markets.” California Management Review: Spring 1996, 38, no. 3 (1996): 102.

[2] Keller, K. L. “Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Managing Customer-Based Brand Equity.” Journal of Marketing 57, no. 1 (1993): 1, 22.

[3] Berry, L. L. “Cultivating Service Brand Equity.” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 28, no. 1 (2000): 128.

[4] American Marketing Association. “Brand Equity,” Dictionary of Marketing Terms, retrieved from http://www.marketingpower.com/mg-dictionary-view336.php

[5] Berthon, P., Holbrook, M. B., Hulbert, J. M., and Pitt, L. F. “Viewing Brands in Multiple Dimensions.” MIT Sloan Management Review (2007): 49-54.

[6] Belk, R. W. “Possessions and the Extended Self.” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988): 139-168.

[7] Drake, D. B. “The Art of Thinking Narratively: Implications for Coaching Psychology and Practice.” Australian Psychologist 42, no. 4 (2007): 283-294.

[8] Belk, R. W. “Possessions and the Extended Self.” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988): 139-168.

[9] Dichter, E., Henry, W., Leavitt, H., Riesman, D., Brown, G. H., and Levitt, H. J. “Selling and the Social Scientist.” The Journal of Business, Part 2: Second Annual Management Conference, Papers and Proceedings, 27, no. 2 (1954): 41-43.

[10] Woodside, A. G., Sood, S., and Miller, K. E. “When Consumers and Brands Talk: Storytelling Theory and Research in Psychology and Marketing.” Psychology & Marketing 25 no. 2 (2008): 97-145.

[11] Rapier, S. M., Ralph, D. L., and Schmidt, S. M. P. “Consumer’s Achieving Styles (ASI) Similar to the Brand’s Achieving Styles (OASI) in a High Involvement, Relational Exchange within an Academic Setting.” The Journal of American Business Review, Cambridge 3, no. 2 (Summer 2015).

[12] Escalas, J. E., and Bettman, J. R. “Self‐Construal, Reference Groups, and Brand Meaning.” Journal of Consumer Research 32, no. 3 (December 2005): 378-389.

[13] Belk, R. W. “Possessions and the Extended Self.” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988): 139-168.

[14] Richins, M. L. “Valuing Things: The Public and Private Meanings of Possessions.” Journal of Consumer Research 21, no. 3 (1994): 504.

[15] As cited in Belk, R. W. “Possessions and the Extended Self.” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988): 139-168.

[16] Belk, R. W. “Possessions and the Extended Self.” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988): 139-168.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Keller, K. L. “Brand Synthesis: The Multidimensionality of Brand Knowledge.” Journal of Consumer Research 29 (2003): 529.

[20] Escalas, J. E., and Bettman, J. R. “Self‐Construal, Reference Groups, and Brand Meaning.” Journal of Consumer Research 32, no. 3 (December 2005): 378-389.

[21] Williams, K. C., and Page, R. A. “Marketing to the Generations.” Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business 3 (April 2011).

[22] Escalas, J. E., and Bettman, J. R. “Self‐Construal, Reference Groups, and Brand Meaning.” Journal of Consumer Research 32, no. 3 (December 2005): 378-389.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Rokeach, M. Understanding Human Values: Individual and Societal. (New York:

The Free Press, 1979).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Richins, M. L. “Valuing Things: The Public and Private Meanings of Possessions.” Journal of Consumer Research 21, no. 3 (1994): 504.

[27] As cited in Drake, D. B. “The Art of Thinking Narratively: Implications for Coaching Psychology and Practice.” Australian Psychologist 42, no. 4 (2007): 283-294.

[28] Elliott, J. Using Narrative in Social Research. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications (2005).

[29] Maslow, A. H. Motivation and Personality, (New York: Harper & Row, 1954, 1970).

[30] Elliott, Elliott, J. Using Narrative in Social Research. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications (2005): 7.

[31] Drake, D. B. “The Art of Thinking Narratively: Implications for Coaching Psychology and Practice.” Australian Psychologist 42, no. 4 (2007): 283-294.

[32] Ibid.

[33] As cited in Drake, D. B. “The Art of Thinking Narratively: Implications for Coaching Psychology and Practice.” Australian Psychologist 42, no. 4 (2007): 283-294.

[34] Janis, I. L., Mann, L. Decision Making. A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment. (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1977).

[35] As cited in Drake, D. B. “The Art of Thinking Narratively: Implications for Coaching Psychology and Practice.” Australian Psychologist 42, no. 4 (2007): 284.

[36] Belk, R. W. “Possessions and the Extended Self.” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988): 139-168.

[37] Woodside, A. G., Sood, S., and Miller, K. E. “When Consumers and Brands Talk: Storytelling Theory and Research in Psychology and Marketing.” Psychology & Marketing 25 no. 2 (2008): 97-145.

[38] Drake, D. B. “The Art of Thinking Narratively: Implications for Coaching Psychology and Practice.” Australian Psychologist 42, no. 4 (2007): 283-294.

[39] Rokeach, M. Understanding Human Values: Individual and Societal. (New York:

The Free Press, 1979).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Balmer, J. W. T, Gray, E. R. Corporate Brands: What are they? What of them? European Journal of Marketing, (2003) 37 (7/8), 972.

[42] Aaker, D. “Measuring Brand Equity across Products and Markets.” California Management Review: Spring 1996, 38, no. 3 (1996): 102.

[43] Keller, K. L. Strategic Brand Management. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2013).

[44] Rapier, S. M. “Brand Trust: The Connection between Behavioral Achieving Styles, Brand Authenticity, and The Consumer’s Trust Building Process. PhD diss., Claremont Graduate University 2013.

[45] Aaker, J. “Dimensions of Brand Personality,” Journal of Marketing Research 34, no. 3, (August 1997): 347-356.

[46] Keller, K. L. “Brand Synthesis: The Multidimensionality of Brand Knowledge.” Journal of Consumer Research 29 (2003): 529.

[47] Aaker, D. “The Power of the Branded Differentiator,” MIT Sloan Management Review. (2003).

[48] Webster, F. E. “Understanding the Relationships among Brands, Consumers, and Resellers,” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 28, 1 (2000).

[49] Russell, G. J., and Kamakura, W. A. “Understanding Brand Competition Using Micro and Macro Scanner Data,” Journal of Marketing Research 31, no. 3 (1994): 289.

[50] Aaker, D. “The Power of the Branded Differentiator,” MIT Sloan Management Review. (2003).

[51] Ibid.

[52] Chevalier, M., and Mazzalovo, G. Luxury Brand Management. (Singapore: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

 

About the Author(s)

Stephen M. Rapier, PhD, has been actively engaged in branding and marketing as both a practitioner and lecturer since 1982. As a practitioner he has held executive positions on both the agency and client side, providing strategic insight relative to branding, marketing, advertising, public relations, and market research for a variety of organizations. As an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Graziadio School of Business and Management, Pepperdine University, Dr. Rapier has taught 14 different marketing classes and has recently launched a new Luxury Branding week-long program in Paris.

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