When brand meaning gets personal: understanding the prevalence and antecedents of brand idiosyncrasy
Alvarez Martinez, Claudio
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Despite a rich stream of qualitative research demonstrating that brands gain meaning as individual consumers engage in relationships with them, most branding research and practice proceeds on the assumption that brand meaning is predominantly consensual and shared across consumers. The assumption of consensus underpins the branding practices used by most companies today, which strive for consistency, simplicity, and clarity in a brand’s positioning. Still, this assumption has not been empirically validated by systematic research. Hence we do not know whether brand meaning is predominantly consensual, as generally assumed, or idiosyncratic to individual consumers. Based on a conceptual model inspired by the Social Relations Model for interpersonal perception, three empirical studies with more than 50 brands in nine consumption domains test the assumption of consensus and find that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, a brand’s meaning is predominantly idiosyncratic rather than consensual. Managers miss a lot of what brands mean to consumers when they focus only on meanings that are shared across individuals. Managing idiosyncratic meanings requires different tools than managing consensus, but managers are ill-equipped for this task because no prior research has investigated what makes brand meaning more or less idiosyncratic or how managerial actions can influence idiosyncrasy. This dissertation first explores which brand characteristics are associated with higher idiosyncrasy. Two studies suggest that brands are more idiosyncratic as they become more familiar to consumers and when consumed in private rather than in public. Secondly, four studies investigate how marketer-led interactions between consumers and brands, in the forms of marketing communications and direct experience, impact brand idiosyncrasy. Results suggest that narrative communications lead to more idiosyncratic meaning than argument-based communications. They also indicate that increased brand experience results in higher idiosyncrasy. Overall, this pattern of results suggests that brands become more or less idiosyncratic depending on how and how much they interact with consumers. Based on the findings that brands are predominantly idiosyncratic rather than consensual and that brand idiosyncrasy can be measured, predicted, and managed, this research argues for a reconsideration of current theories and practices related to brand positioning and meaning management.