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Effects of symbolic product design on brand evaluations Jungen, Patrik Ullrich, Sebastian Brunner, Christian Boris Esch, Franz-Rudolf Purpose of the paper Consumers who are looking for a new kettle have many choices, but most kettles look pretty similar. However, as brands such as Apple show, product design can help a brand to differentiate from competitors. The possibilities of product design have gained a lot of attention in practice due to its effectiveness on corporate financial performance (Hertenstein, Platt & Veryzer, 2005; Verganti, 2006; Brunner, Emery & Hall, 2008; Rubera, 2014). Also in academia, research on product design has increased (e.g., Bloch, 1995, Crilly, Moultrie & Clarkson, 2004; Rindova & Petkova, 2007; Luchs & Swan, 2011; Ravasi & Stigliani, 2012).
In the present paper, we focus on visible design attributes, which can communicate functional, aesthetic and symbolic information (Koffka, 1922; Levy, 1959; Lee, 1990; Rafaeli & Vilnai-Yavetz, 2004; Creusen & Schoormanns, 2005; Noble & Kumar, 2010; Eisenmann, 2013). More specifically, we concentrate on symbolic information, presented by product design connotations (PDCs). Users may perceive a smart phone as noble (symbolic information), but this PDC does not stand in correlation to the product’s functional features.
Building on customer-based brand equity we analyze the impact of different PDCs on brand connotations.
Development of hypotheses According to Keller (1993) customer-based brand equity can be described as the impact of customer’s brand knowledge on his/her response towards a specific brand. Such brand knowledge consists of two components: brand awareness and brand image (Keller, 1993).
Whereas the former one defines a consumer’s brand recall or recognition, the latter one describes a network of brand associations the customer has about the brand in mind (Low & Lamb Jr, 2000; John et al., 2006). These associations can include attitudes about the brand, benefits when using the brand’s products as well as product-related and non-product-related attributes. Because customers have a direct contact to the product when purchasing and/or using it, PDCs should play a key role for the brand associations.
According to the SARA (Selective Activation, Reconstruction, and Anchoring) model, when doing judgment, human beings elaborate external and internal information in their working memory. According to this model, especially internal cues stored in the long-term memory which have strong associative links to external cues have a high impact on the final decision outcome (Pohl, Eisenhauer & Hardt, 2003). They are used as heuristics to make the judgment. Therefore, a symbolic PDC (as external cue) which activates a connotation (e.g., ‘noble’) in the long-term memory of the consumer (as it is associatively linked to it) will be used as heuristic to judge the brand itself and will enrich the connotations (or associations) to the brand itself.
H1: PDCs influence the evaluation of the brand connotations.
We further look at the kind of PDCs. On the one hand, if the PDCs are congruent with the product category, the need for mental processing should be limited. On the other hand, if the connotations are incongruent, consumers should process these pieces of information more deeply due to the fact that their attention increases to elaborate the incongruent PDC (Lee, 1995).
H2: The impact of PDCs on brand connotations is higher when the PDCs are incongruent to the product category than when they are congruent.
Consumers perceive a lower risk when they buy low involvement products compared to high involvement products (Kapferer & Laurent, 1986). Therefore, in case of a low involvement product peripheral cues such as PDCs should play a more significant role compared to high involvement products (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).
H3: The impact of PDCs on brand connotations is higher for low involvement products than for high involvement products.
According to customer-based brand equity, the associations with weak brands can be changed more easily than those with strong brands (Keller, 1993). Hence, the impact of PDCs should be higher for weak brands compared to strong brands.
H4: The impact of PDCs on brand connotations is higher for weak brands compared to strong brands.
Due to the fact that consumers’ acceptance of products with an aesthetic design is higher (Veryzer, 1993; Bloch, 1995) we expect a higher impact of PDCs on brand connotations if the respondents perceive the product design as more aesthetic.
H5: The impact of PDCs on brand connotations is higher if consumers perceive the product design as more aesthetic.
Methodology A 2 (PDC: congruent/incongruent to product category) x 2 (product category: high/low involvement) x 2 (brand strength: strong/weak) between-subject factorial design was used for the main experiment. The research process included five preliminary studies and one main experiment (Appendix 1).
Preliminary studies: First, we asked the participants (N=150) about their knowledge of 15 different product categories and selected two low (toasters and kettles) and two high involvement product categories (digital cameras and mobile phones) using Kapferer and Laurent’s (1986) product category involvement scale.
Second, we determined two strong and two weak brands for each of the product categories based on Keller’s (1993) dimensions of brand knowledge (brand awareness and brand image) (N=120).
Third, we chose two different connotations - one congruent (“noble”) and one incongruent (“feminine”) to the product categories selected. The participants (N=30) described their associations with these two connotations, which were used to derive scales for the connotations “feminine” and “noble”. Thirteen other items were added to our connotations scale to cover the objective of the study (Appendix 2).
For each connotation in each of the four product categories the stimuli were professionally designed considering product materials, shapes, colors, signs and surfaces (Appendix 3).
Fourth, the stimuli for each product category were presented to respondents in a computerassisted 3D-animation for 30 seconds to ensure that the PDC “noble” was also perceived as noble from the respondents (N=120, similar for the PDC “feminine”) (p.001, Appendix 3).
Fifth, we asked respondent to rate the congruence between the PDCs (either “noble” or “feminine”) to each product category, using Lee’s (1995) scale to measure schema congruity.
The findings confirmed that the “noble” PDC was perceived as congruent to each product category, whereas the connotation “feminine” was perceived as incongruent (n=120).
In the main study 490 participants (52% female; average age: 24) were randomly assigned to one of experimental groups. We first asked respondents to evaluate a real brand in regards to their attitudes and connotations. Then we showed the participants an unmarked product and asked them to rate the PDCs and aesthetics (based on Hirschman, 1986). After a filler task we presented the same product again, now marked with the brand name. Respondents rated again their brand attitude, connotations and aesthetics, followed by demographic questions.
Findings Results show that participants transfer PDCs to the brands (Appendix 4). We used global distances (root of the summarized squared single items distances) and dependent t-tests to analyze if PDCs have an impact on brand evaluations.
The findings show that participants shifted the brand significantly into the direction of the PDCs (p.05), supporting H1. One-sample-t-test results showed that participants did not evaluate the brand after the treatment based on the prior brand connotation only or the PDC only (p.05). They rather used the PDCs as an anchor for the brand evaluations in all but one of the 16 groups.
In regards to the congruity between PDCs and each product category, further results of t-tests confirmed that brand connotations were significantly more adjusted when PDCs were incongruent (p.01), which supports H2.
Further, we tested the influences of the brand strength, the product category involvement and of the control variable product aesthetics with an overall model for the incongruent and congruent connotations separately.
In case of an incongruence between PDC and product category, the results of an univariate analysis of variance demonstrated significant influences of product category involvement (F1,190=8.102, p.05), but not in regards to brand strength (F1,190=0.157, p.05) and product aesthetics (F1,190=1.716, p.05). Hence, for incongruent PDCs H3 and H4 are supported, but not H5.
In case of a congruence between PDC and product category, findings were different. While the product category involvement was not significant (F1,178=.169, p.05), brand strength (F1,178=6.667, p.05) and product aesthetics F1,178=4.303, p.05) had significant impacts on brand connotations. Therefore, for congruent PDCs H3 has to be declined, while H4 and H5 are supported.
Theoretical implications Our findings demonstrate that PDCs have a significant impact on consumers’ brand evaluations. In regards to our theoretical contribution, consumers use product design as anchor for brand evaluations. This supports the SARA model for visual product design when consumers judge brands.
Practical implications The results indicate that brand managers need to consider PDCs to enhance brand evaluations and therefore to increase customer-based brand equity, particularly if the brand is weak.
Perhaps surprisingly, the impacts of PDCs are particularly strong when the PDC is incongruent to the product category. This means that a brand can evoke consumers’ attention especially if the brand differs from ‘stereotype’ product design. However, such differentiation through new and extraordinary PDCs has to be carefully implemented as consumers need to be able to recognize the advantages of the design to buy the product.
In industry, some brands already use PDCs. For example, Apple uses a simple PDC that expresses the simplicity of their products when using them, while differentiating at the same time to competitors.
Limitations Research in the field of product design in the branding area is still limited. In our experimental study we focused on two connotations in four product categories with eight brands. Future research should include additional control groups and gain further findings in other product categories and brands. In addition, qualitative research such as in-depthinterviews and laddering techniques could help to obtain further insights how product design influences consumers’ brand knowledge, elaboration and decision processes.
Originality/value Research about product design in the marketing discipline is limited. We analyze the impact of product design connotations on brand evaluations in an experimental setting of 490 respondents in four product categories. The findings support that consumers use product design as heuristics to evaluate brands.
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