We recorded consumers talking about the products they owned or the services they used. A linguistic analysis of their conversations revealed that consumers value products or services along 3 independent dimensions:-
Utility – i.e. what I use the product or service for. For example, I use my mobile ‘phone to call my friends; I use my car to commute to work and I use my clothes to keep me warm.
Experience – i.e. how the product engages my senses, my mind, my emotions and/or my imagination. For example, I choose my car on the basis of how it feels to drive it, I choose to fly with Virgin Airlines because it’s more fun and I drink Guinness because it reminds me of holidays in Ireland.
Symbolism – i.e. what owning or using this particular product or service says about me. For example, I buy The Economist because it suggests I’m intellectual, I drive a Porsche because it makes me look rich and sexy and I own the latest DVD because I’m a technical sophisticate.
Any product can be (and indeed often is) valued along all 3 dimensions simultaneously. However, during their lifetime, products vary in terms of which dimension or combination of dimensions dominates their perceived value. To succeed initially, even completely new products seem to need to ‘score’ on either the experiential or symbolic dimension because no-one has yet discovered their utility. This is how the Microwave oven (‘cool’) and the home PC (‘entertaining’) became established. In the early days, no-one knew what these devices were actually for. Their utility eventually emerged and then their value profile slowly changed. In other cases, where no clear utility emerges, new products (from fold away scooters to Wap enabled ‘phones) eventually tend to disappear.
At a later stage, if the utility of a product becomes established and eventually standardised, then once again experience and symbolism become the primary dimensions along which suppliers compete. This is certainly true in the case of cars, clothes, airline travel and, more recently, mobile ‘phones. It was not true, as it happens, of the humble vacuum cleaner (a strictly utilitarian device) until James Dyson managed to transform it into a device more highly valued for its experience and symbolism than its utility. At the height of its popularity, when owning or not owning a Dyson was a common topic of dinner party conversation, I even found one displayed in the window of a specialist Hi-Fi shop in Bath. The shop owner explained that, as far as he was concerned, people came to his shop to look for ‘cool technology’. Needless to say, he did not stock any other domestic devices!
Other studies of why people value their everyday possessions (in particular, their houses, cars, books, photos, furniture, clothing, paintings, tools, etc) suggest that, in general, the experiential dimension may dominate the other two. An emotional component (e.g. romantic connotations surrounding an object’s purchase) often plays the most important part.
In each case, it is important to recognise that consumers are not passive recipients of the utilitarian, experiential and symbolic aspects of a product or service but rather active shapers in each product’s evolution.
The Prospectory looks for product innovation possibilities along all three dimensions and for ways to stimulate and harness the innovative capacity of the consumers themselves.
Some related research
Belk, R. Possessions and the extended self, Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 139-168, 1988.
Cockburn C. and Ormrod S., Gender and Technology in the Making, Sage, London, 1993.
Dittmar, H. The Social Psychology of Material Possessions: To Have is to Be, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1992.
Richins, M. Valuing Things: the Public and Private Meanings of Possessions, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Research, 21, December 1994.
Wicklund, R. and Gollwitzer, P. Symbolic self completion, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1982.