Saving face by making meaning: The negative effects of consumers' self -serving response to brand extension

by Avery, Jill, D.B.A., HARVARD UNIVERSITY, 2007, 225 pages; 3269226


This dissertation pursued a different theoretical and methodological approach to study a question of interest to both researchers and managers: to understand the branding ramifications of brand extensions. By substituting a socialized view of consumers, their consumption, and the meanings of brands in everyday life and by studying the collective, rather than atomistic, response of existing consumers to brand extension, this dissertation contributes new understandings about the longer-term feedback effects of brand extensions on their parent brands. I exploit a natural experiment, the Porsche Cayenne SUV launch, to ethnographically observe consumers' phenomenological experience of brand extension in the social environment of a brand community to understand how hardcore consumers collectively respond to an extension which changes the identity meanings of their brand.

I propose that new identity meanings brought by a brand extension disrupt the self-presentation efforts of the brand's existing consumers, putting them "out of face" due to their use of the brand as an identity marker. While previous research suggests existing consumers will discard a brand which no longer delivers the desired presentation of self, I show that consumers endowed with social and cultural capital through their participation in a brand community instead engage in face-saving meaning-making which preserves their ties to the brand. Rather than discarding the brand, these consumers "save face" by engaging in meaning-making designed to self-servingly influence their social audiences' interpretation of the brand's evolving meaning.

Discourse analysis of a brand community's meaning-making uncovers dominant discourses which are institutionalized within the group and amplified to a broad audience through consumers' participation in popular media. These dominant discourses illustrate that a brand community is a self-serving, and not necessarily brand-serving, author of meaning. The meanings they make distance existing owners from a stigmatizing brand extension by shifting the locus of the brand's identity meanings within the brand hierarchy, so that they are preserved for existing owners and less accessible to undesirable others. Existing consumers, through their meaning-making, become gatekeepers of the brand's identity meanings, which no longer transfer to the brand extension's consumers upon purchase as intended by the brand's managers. This renders the brand less useful to consumers and, hence less attractive as an identity marker.

Key words. Branding, brand extensions, brand meaning, self and identity, impression management, brand community, brand loyalty, consumer behavior, ethnography, netnography

AdviserJohn A. Deighton
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsMarketing; Social psychology
Publication Number3269226

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