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ABSTRACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES

Brand relationships have traditionally been theorized as simulating interpersonal relationships, which are reflected in self-identity or self-expansion theory. However, such a perspective often ignores or overlooks conceptual differences between true interpersonal relationships and parasocial brand relationships. Considering the characteristics of parasocial relationships, the present study explored the role of imagination and brand personification in the formation of brand relationships. A total of 468 subjects evaluated their favorite brands in a 2 (high vs. low product involvement) × 2 (utilitarian vs. symbolic products) factorial design. The results provided an alternative explanation of brand relationship formation: Imagination may play a greater role in brand relationships than traditionally conceived in self-expansion theory, and brand personification may moderate the effect of self-expansion theory. The implication of the research is that encouragement of consumers’ imaginative ability is one route to strengthening consumer–brand relationships.

The concept of brand relationships (i.e., the bond between consumer and brand) has attracted abundant research interest since its conception by Fournier in 1998. Most studies show that brand relationships result in brand commitment (Sung & Choi, 2010), connectedness (Escalas, 2004), attachment (Thomson, MacInnis, & Park, 2005), trust (Elliott & Yannopoulou, 2007), and love (Batra, Ahuvia, & Bagozzi, 2012)—all by simulating interpersonal relationships (Reimann, Castaño, Zaichkowsky, & Bechara, 2012). Here, we explore the lack of conceptual comparability between brand relationships and interpersonal relationships in order to address two main controversies that have emerged in the literature.

The first controversy has to do with disagreement as to whether brand relationships exist at all (Bengtsson, 2003; O'Malley & Tynan, 2000). For example, some studies show low brand relationship quality (BRQ) scores, even when consumers evaluate their favorite brands (Breivik & Thorbjørnsen, 2008; Huang, 2009; Park, Kim, & Kim, 2002). This finding is at odds with the brand relationship concept. Self-expansion theory can be used to explain how brand relationships are cultivated through the overlapping of identities between self and brand (Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991; Reimann et al., 2012) at the personality level (Huang, 2009; Reimann & Aron, 2009). For example, Apple has been viewed as a creative brand and creative consumers are connected with how Apple is portrayed. The result is the consumers’ close brand relationship with Apple. However, not all brands have distinct personalities. Consider in this context well-known household brands such as Knorr sauces, Tide laundry detergent, and Charmin toilet paper, which are difficult for consumers to personify. Such obstacles to personification may obstruct the formation of self-brand congruence.

The second main issue is the inherently problematic nature of brand relationships (Avis, Aitken, & Ferguson, 2012; Huang, 2012; O'Guinn & Muñiz, 2009). Many qualitative studies have shown that consumers are capable of using the brand relationship as a metaphor to describe how they feel about brands even if those brands are household names without clear brand personalities (Fournier, 1998; Huang, 2009; Robinson & Kates, 2005). Fournier (1998) argued that brand relationships also facilitate researchers’ understanding of consumer behavior. According to Fournier (2009), the conscious recognition of a brand relationship is not necessary, as long as the brand in some way supports the consumer in a manner similar to an interpersonal relationship.

Perhaps because metaphors are “literally impossible but imaginatively suggestive” (Stern, 1988, p. 85), the role of imagination is paramount to understanding metaphors (Black, 1979; Van den Bulte, 1994). Moreover, brand relationships are similar to the parasocial relationships that exist between media audiences and media figures (Horton & Wohl, 1956). Imagination plays a key role in such relationships because of the complete absence of genuine social interaction (Giles, 2002; Tsao, 1996). A consideration of the nature of parasocial relationships raises questions relating to the relative roles of imagination and self-expansion theory in explaining brand relationships, particularly when brands differ in the degree of personification. Does imagination positively influences BRQ, irrespective of brand personification strength? Is self-expansion theory significant only when brand personification is strong? What is the role of imagination in the formation of brand relationships and what possible moderating role does brand personification play when self-expansion theory is considered?

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES

The role of imagination in brand relationships is properly considered in a context that acknowledges that brand relationships are a type of parasocial relationship (Horton & Wohl, 1956). A parasocial relationship is an imagined relationship between two parties who do not know each other and have never met. An example of such a relationship is the one that exists between a movie-going audience and a movie star (Tsao, 1996). Unlike a typical interpersonal relationship, the parasocial relationship does not involve reciprocity (Bengtsson, 2003; Horton & Wohl, 1956; Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). This is so because the interaction is “one-sided, nondialectical, … and not susceptible of mutual development” (Horton & Wohl, 1956, p. 215). The audience can withdraw at any time and break up the relationship (Cohen, 2004; Huber, Vollhardt, Matthes, & Vogel, 2010). Parasocial interaction thus relies heavily on imagination, which fills in gaps between interpersonal and parasocial relationships (Giles, 2002).

Two perspectives on imagination have been presented in the marketing literature. First, imagination has been used interchangeably with perception to represent how people connect information to produce an orderly, meaningful understanding of reality (Petrova & Cialdini, 2008; Schau, 2000; Unnava, Agarwal, & Haugtvedt, 1996). Research has suggested that imagination and behavior share cognitive neural structures, so that imagination has the same effect as behavior in people's minds. For example, imagining a word (Paus et al., 1993) or a gesture, such as moving a finger or toe (Ehrsson, Geyer, & Naito, 2003; Michelon, Vettel, & Zacks, 2006), may activate the same neural structures as actually uttering the word or performing the movement. Consequently, imagination has been used as a research strategy in experiments to examine participant reactions to experimental scenarios (Petrova & Cialdini, 2008). This first perspective of imagination in the marketing literature confines imagination to what is known, perceived, or experienced.

A second perspective on imagination in marketing involves its connection to fantasy (Martin, 2004). Imagination can be a form of mental representation that expresses unreality (Arndt, 1985) and involves creativity (Coleridge, 1983). For example, creators of literary work (such as poets or writers of fiction) rely on imagination to transfer their imagined creations through sensory experience (Sherwood, 1975). The distinction between imagination and perception is that the latter evolves and shapes human knowledge (Hopp, 2011), while the former is holistic and immediate and able to express unreality (Arndt, 1985). Imagination exceeds the boundaries of human knowledge and possibility (White, 1990); it is an agent of “innovation, novelty, originality and genius, in its capacity to unite into new wholes from previously unrelated elements” (Wheeler, 1989, p. 99).

One way imagination is produced is through the interaction of a person with an object. The term “imaginability” could be coined to indicate how easily an object triggers imagination in an individual. The elaboration of perception depends on the ease of information processing (Schwarz, 2004), and since imagination shares the same information-processing mechanism as perception (MacInnis & Price, 1987), imagination also relies on the ease of information processing about an object. If consumers are able to imagine a brand relationship with their favorite brand, the imagined relationship will inevitably be favorable, because of prior positive attitudes toward a favorite brand (Adaval & Wyer, 1998; Green & Brock, 2000). Once imagination with respect to a brand relationship is aroused, stimulating imagination helps the consumer visualize a relationship, transforming what Coupland (2005) considers as a passive brand partner into an active one (Fournier, 1998). On the other hand, if consumers find it difficult to imagine a brand relationship (Bengtsson, 2003), BRQ, even for their own favorite brands, is likely to be underestimated (Breivik & Thorbjørnsen, 2008; Huang, 2009; Park, Kim, & Kim, 2002). Thus, it seems that the easier it is for the consumers to imagine a relationship with their favorite brands, the better the BRQ. This leads us to formulate our first hypothesis:

H1:

The ease of imagining having a brand relationship positively influences its quality.

IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES

Self-expansion theory originated in the interpersonal relationship literature. A key concept in self-expansion theory is that the greater the overlapping of identities between an individual and a relationship partner, the better the relationship quality (Aron et al., 1991). Extending self-expansion theory to a consumption context suggests that the more an individual identifies with a brand, the better the quality of the consumer–brand relationship (Reimann & Aron, 2009; Trump & Brucks, 2012). However, inherent in self-expansion theory in interpersonal relationships are two assumptions that may hinder its application to brand relationships. The first is the assumption that overlapping identities in an interpersonal relationship occur through interactive sharing of material resources, social resources, and ideas (Aron, Aron, & Norman, 2001). In a brand relationship, overlapping identities are restricted to idea sharing; that is, the congruence between consumer and brand images, also referred to as consumer–brand congruence (CBC; Hong & Zinkham, 2006; Huang, 2009; Sirgy, 1982; Sirgy & Danes, 1982). For example, a consumer who is concerned about the environment may share the green values of a brand that claims to dispose of materials in an environmentally friendly way. In this case, the identity congruence of being an environmentalist is high. But while identity congruence is high, in reality, the parties in such a brand relationship have limited interaction; they typically do not share material and social resources (such as using parents’ money to finance one's education or relying on friends’ help to access data for one's research in interpersonal relationships; Aron, Aron, & Norman, 2001; Berk & Andersen, 2000; Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). CBC is a concept limited to the sharing of ideas through image congruence, as opposed to being a concept that has all of the characteristics of overlapping identities in self-expansion theory.

The second assumption inherent in, and problematic to, self-expansion theory is that a brand must have a personality; that is, in order for a consumer to identify with a brand, the brand must have a sufficiently developed image or personality to which the consumer can relate. However, not all brands have a clearly articulated personality. Consequently, such brands cannot be easily personified. Lacking personality or personification, consumers have difficulty identifying with the brand. Coupland (2005) characterized consumers’ relationships with these nondescript brands as weak or passive.The validity of each of the two assumptions for self-expansion theory as applied to consumer–brand relationships is questionable. Consequently, the explanatory power of self-expansion theory for brand relationships is likely to be limited. The explanatory power of self-expansion theory for brand relationships would seem further limited by findings related to “imaginability” of brand attributes on consumers’ evaluation of a brand (Keller & McGill, 1994; Petrova & Cialdini, 2005) as well as consumers’ positive attitudes when favorable imagination is elicited (Adaval & Wyer, 1998). Accordingly, a second hypothesis is proposed.

H2:

The ease of imagining a relationship has a greater effect on BRQ than CBC.

THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES

Based on Guthrie's (1993) definition of animism, brand personification suggests a consumer tendency to attribute human life to brands. Thus, a close relationship would seem to exist between brand personification and brand personality. Aaker (1997) has also suggested that the formation of brand personality approximates the same impression formation process as that for human beings. If individuals have weak impressions of others, they are unable to describe their personalities, and therefore inclined to assign midpoints (as opposed to assigning either extreme of a bipolar scale) in a personality inventory, when assessing such people (Paulus & Bruce, 1992). This logic suggests that strong brand personification can be inferred from the ease with which distinct brand personalities can be assigned.

Although some brands do not have obvious brand personalities, others have successfully imbued brands with human personalities, thereby strengthening consumers’ ability to personify brands. When consumers regard brands as having human qualities, this facilitates consumer perceptions of them as potential and active relationship partners. Hence, the relationship between CBC and BRQ would be more obvious. By contrast, in cases where there is no clear brand personality and consumers cannot easily consider brands as people, their identification with brands may diminish and any BRQ will be weakened. Therefore, when brand personification is strong, the relationship between CBC and BRQ is stronger than when brand personification is weak. Accordingly, this brings us to our third hypothesis.

H3:

Brand personification moderates the effects of CBC on BRQ.

METHOD

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES

Procedure

A 2 (high vs. low involvement) × 2 (utilitarian vs. symbolic products) factorial, between-group design was used. In an initial product selection stage, the rationale for selecting the four product categories complies with Ratchford's (1987) classification. Using 11 interviews and a survey of 121 undergraduates, we followed Aaker's (1997) method to pretest and choose our final four products from a set of 16 preselected products. Manipulation checks confirmed that jeans (t(df) = −5.86(28), p < 0.01) and soft drinks (t(df) = −4.82(29), p < 0.01) were more symbolic than utilitarian, and laptop computers (t(df) = 4.38(29), p < 0.01) and dish-washing detergent (t(df) = 4.83(30), p < 0.01) were more utilitarian than symbolic. Jeans (Mean(SD): 0.97(2.05)) and laptop computers (Mean(SD): 2.94(1.57)) produced high involvement and soft drinks (Mean(SD): −.09(2.42)) and dish-washing detergent (Mean(SD): −3.72(1.92)) produced low involvement (F(df) = 53.63(3), p < 0.01).

A total of 468 undergraduates aged 18–24 were recruited to participate in the study by entering them in a cash prize draw (£5, £10, and £20). The male/female split was approximately 50/50. Each respondent was assigned randomly to one of four groups, and the number of participants for each group was between 118 and 128. Respondents evaluated their own personalities and assessed the brand personality of and BRQ with their favorite brands in the assigned product categories. In cases where respondents did not have a favorite brand, they were instructed to rate their most frequently used brand. This procedure ensured that respondents had a close connection—emotionally or behaviorally—with the brands. In the four product categories, 204 respondents indicated that the brands they rated were their favorites, and 264 identified themselves as having behavioral brand loyalty. This process generated 90 brands.

In contrast to existing studies that use either brand choices such as Infiniti (Reimann et al., 2012) or Apple (Batra, Ahuvia, & Bagozzi, 2012), for which consumers have strong affection, or informants who can easily use the relationship metaphor (Cova & Pace, 2006; Fournier, 1998; Schau, Muñiz, & Arnould, 2009), the present study explored how ordinary consumers perceive brand relationships during general consumption. Different product types were used in an effort to ensure that brand personification of various strengths would be generated.

Measures

Fournier's (1994) scale of BRQ was used in this study. The scale has seven dimensions: behavioral interdependence, personal commitment, love and passion, intimacy, self-concept connection, nostalgic connection, and partner quality. To avoid any tautology when examining the relationship between CBC and BRQ, self-concept connection was reserved for scale validation, but removed during hypothesis testing.1 Saucier's (1994) scale of 40 descriptive items measured respondents’ personalities and the personalities of their favorite brands. The scale is reliable and valid for examining both human (Dwight, Cummings, & Glenar, 1998; Mooradian & Nezlek, 1996) and brand personality (Huang, Mitchell, & Rosenaum-Elliott, 2012). A personality inventory was favored over Aaker's (1997) scale of brand personality, because the Big Five2 personality inventory has been validated for examining brands (Geuens, Weijters, & De Wulf, 2009; Huang, Mitchell, & Rosenaum-Elliott, 2012). By contrast, there is no evidence to suggest that Aaker's (1997) brand personality scale is suitable for examining human personality. Using the same personality inventory for consumers and brands was essential in the creation of a viable CBC index (Sirgy & Danes, 1982).

After evaluating the brand personality and BRQ of their favorite brands, respondents examined their own personalities and explored the ease of imagining a brand as a relationship partner and as a person. Measures for ease of imagination were taken from Berry and Carson (2010) and Broemer (2004), with the wording adapted to the specific context. Three items captured imagination regarding having a relationship with brands: (1) it is easy for me to imagine a relationship between me and a brand, (2) it is easy for me to imagine a relationship between me and my favorite brands, and (3) it is easy for me to imagine a relationship between me and my least favorite brands. The wording was adjusted to examine the ease of imagining a brand as a person. A CBC index was created, based on the difference between consumer personality and brand personality, following Sirgy and Danes’ (1982) suggestions. The formula for the congruence index is

  • display math

where CBC is the CBC index, i is the Big Five, CP consumer personality, and BP brand personality. A high index indicates that consumers perceive high congruence between themselves and their favorite brands.

To examine the hypothesis relating to brand personification strength, a strong/weak categorization was created from the mean scores on the brand personality scale. Scores around the midpoint of the scale suggest that respondents have difficulty assigning personality characteristics to brands, which thus have low personification. The rationale of this approach is consistent with the view that personality ratings prone to midpoints imply weak impressions (Paulus & Bruce, 1992). Thus, brands with mean scores between 2.5 and 3.5 are classified as having weak brand personification, whereas a mean score above 2.5 and below 3.5 indicates brands with distinct personalities. The relationship between the respondents’ imagination of brand personality and their score for brand personality was U-shape (inline image, where y is imagination of brand personality and x, the brand personality, R2 = 0.04, F = 8.74, p < 0.01), indicating that brand personification is strong when the respondents were able to assign personality ratings toward either of the extremes. The average score for brand personality was calculated without the consciousness dimension, since this dimension represents functional attributes that reflect limited personification (Huang, Mitchell, & Rosenaum-Elliott, 2012). This approach was a simple, straightforward method, which is close to the reality of how consumers see and describe their brands, should they wish to in their daily lives. Based on this approach, the categorization resulted in 284 brands in the weak brand personification category and 184 respondents in the strong brand personification category.

RESULTS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES

Scale Validation

The analysis used a two-step approach, with the first validating the measures and the second examining the hypotheses (Anderson & Gerbing, 1988). All four measurements (consumer personality, brand personality, brand relationship, and ease of imagining a brand relationship) were verified and strengthened by exploratory (EFA) and confirmatory factor analyses (CFA). The validation results for personality and relationship quality measures accorded with extant studies (Mooradian & Nezlek, 1996; Park, Kim, & Kim, 2002). Standardized factor loadings were above 0.40, with satisfactory average variance extracted (AVE; >.50) and composite reliability (>.60), which suggested convergent validity (Bagozzi & Baumgartner, 1994; Fornell & Larcker, 1981). Chi-square difference tests indicated that all constructs were identifiable (χ2 difference >7, p < 0.01), so that discriminant validity was verified (Bagozzi & Phillips, 1982). Model indices were satisfactory (consumer personality: χ2 = 404.02, df = 142, p < 0.01; SRMR = 0.063; RMSEA = 0.063; TLI = 0.92; CFI = 0.94; brand personality: χ2 = 717.47, df = 142, p < 0.01; SRMR = 0.088; RMSEA = 0.093; TLI = 0.90; CFI = 0.92; BRQ: χ2 = 454.20, df = 202, p < 0.01; SRMR = 0.042; RMSEA = 0.052; TLI = 0.99; CFI = 0.99).3 Table 1 shows a correlation matrix among constructs, with descriptive statistics and Cronbach's alpha coefficients.

Table 1. Correlation Matrix (n = 468)
 MeanSD1234
  1. *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.

  2. Cronbach's alpha shown along the diagonal.

  3. a

    Consumer–brand congruence is an index calculated from the difference between consumer personality and brand personality; therefore, Cronbach's alpha is not applicable in this case.

  4. b

    This Cronbach's alpha excludes the dimension of self-concept connection. The Cronbach's alpha including the self-concept connection dimension is 0.89.

1. Consumer–brand congruence−4.11.85NAa   
2. Brand relationship quality2.30.800.09*0.86b  
3. Imagination (brand personality)2.21.140.000.32**0.89 
4. Imagination (brand relationship)2.21.00−0.020.34**0.65**0.90

Hypothesis Testing

The results of regression analyses (Table 2) suggest consistent, positive relationships between imagination and BRQ across all product categories (R2 > 0.05, F > 5.00, βIMG-BR > 0.20, t > 2.20, p < 0.05). Whether the brand is a favorite does not influence consistent, positive relationships between imagination and BRQ (inline image = 0.09, Ffavorite brand = 6.29, p < 0.01, βfavorite brand,CBC = 0.12, p > 0.05, βfavorite brand, IMG-BR = 0.24, t = 3.33, p < 0.01; inline image = 0.14, Ffrequently used brand = 13.59, p < 0.01, βfrequently used brand, CBC = 0.08, p > 0.05, βfrequently used brand, IMG-BR = 0.37, t = 6.32, p < 0.01) (ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ = 0.09, p > 0.05; ZIMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ = 1.11, p > 0.05). Therefore, H1 is supported.

Table 2. Regression Analysis Results
 Dependent Variable: Brand Relationship Quality (BRQ)
    By Evaluated Brands as
   By Brand PersonificationFavorite or Frequently Used
  By-ProductStrengthBrands
     Dish-Washing  FavoriteFrequently
Independent VariablesOverallJeansLaptopsSoft DrinksDetergentsStrongWeakBrandsUsed Brands
  1. *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.

  2. Bracketed values are F-statistics if followed by R2; the remainder are t-statistics.

Consumer–brand congruence (CBC)0.10 (2.36)*0.07(0.77)0.19 (2.18)*0.05 (0.58)0.05 (0.58)0.16 (2.25)*0.06 (1.00)0.12 (1.71)0.08 (1.40)
Ease of imagining a brand relationship (IMG-BR)0.35 (7.95)**0.34 (3.73)**0.37 (4.33)**0.39 (4.25)**0.20 (2.21)*0.32 (4.68)**0.35 (6.08)**0.24 (3.33)**0.37 (6.32)**
CBC × IMG-BR0.08 (1.72)−0.06 (0.68)0.10 (1.11)−0.01 (0.14)0.13 (1.42)0.09 (1.36)0.05 (0.40)0.05 (0.674)0.02 (0.29)
R2 (F)0.12 (22.74)**0.12(4.92)**0.20 (9.00)**0.16 (6.89)**0.06 (2.60)0.14 (9.85)**0.12 (12.62)**0.09 (6.27)**0.14 (13.59)**
          
N468112114116126184284204264

Correlation analysis further shows that respondents’ ease of imagination has a positive association with their ability to personify brands (ρ = 0.15, n = 468, p < 0.01). However, this relationship disappears for the product categories of jeans (ρ = 0.05, n = 112, p > 0.50) and soft drinks (ρ = 0.04, n = 116, p > 0.50), but remains for laptops (ρ = 0.29, n = 114, p < 0.01) and dishwashing detergents (ρ = 0.18, n = 126, p < 0.05). This suggests that imagination is associated with the respondents’ brand personification ability for functional, but not for symbolic products.

The findings indicate that imagination and CBC influence BRQ independently (i.e., interaction effects are insignificant; Table 2). Moreover, imagination outperforms CBC when predicting BRQ across product categories (ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, overall = 5.37, p < 0.01; ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, Jeans = 2.91, p < 0.05; ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, Laptops = 3.71, p < 0.01; ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, Soft drinks = 3.66, p < 0.01; ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, Dish-washing detergents = 1.85, p < 0.05), regardless of brand personification strength (ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, strong brand personification = 4.16, p < 0.01; ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, weak brand personification = 5.32, p < 0.01) or whether brands are favorites (ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, favorite brand = 2.24, p < 0.05; ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ and IMG-BR[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, frequently used brands = 5.37, p < 0.01). Therefore, H2 is supported.

Under circumstances of strong brand personification, the relationship between CBC and BRQ is significant (R2 = 0.14, F = 9.85, p < 0.01; βCBC = 0.16, t = 2.25, p < 0.05), but the relationship between CBC and BRQ does not hold for weak brand personification (R2 = 0.12, F = 12.62, p < 0.01; βCBC = 0.06, t = 1.00, p > 0.05; Table 2 and Figure 1). In other words, respondents’ ability to personify a brand moderates the relationship between CBC and BRQ (ZCBC[RIGHTWARDS ARROW]BRQ, brand personality strength = 2.60, p < 0.01). H3 is therefore supported.

image

Figure 1. The moderating role of brand personification.

Download figure to PowerPoint

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES

This study addressed and clarified several concerns related to the formation of brand relationships. Although previous studies have demonstrated conflicting findings regarding the use of self-expansion theory in brand relationships (Aron et al., 1991; Bengtsson, 2003; Huang, 2009; Reimann & Aron, 2009; Reimann et al., 2012), the present study identified the boundary condition of high brand personification strength, where self-expansion theory can be applied successfully. If consumers are easily able to personify their brands, their personification of brands can become perceptual reality. When this happens, self-expansion theory is effective in explaining brand relationships.

Symbolic products that have clear, symbolic meanings used for identity construction do not require as much imagination as utilitarian products to personify a brand (Aaker, 1997; Elliott & Wattanasuwan, 1998). As a result, self-expansion theory applies and BRQ can be reflected by means of CBC. In such cases, a similarity emerges between brand relationships and interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, brand personification for utilitarian products is usually more subtle or nonexistent. This lack of brand personification makes brand relationships difficult to establish according to self-expansion theory. However, because of the creative nature of imagination focusing on unreality (Arndt, 1985), the gap between reality and unreality of brand relationships can be filled by imagination (Fauconnier & Turner, 1998). This logic suggests that utilitarian products rely more on imagination to establish brand relationships as compared with symbolic products.

Past studies have focused purely on the application of self-expansion theory to brand relationships (Aron et al., 1991; Reimann & Aron, 2009; Reimann et al., 2012). Inherent in such an approach is the implication that self-identity reflection (i.e., CBC) shapes BRQ. Although this approach is understandable from the standpoint of the interpersonal relationship literature, clear limitations must be noted. Brand relationships are a type of parasocial relationship that relies heavily on imagination (Giles, 2002; Horton & Wohl, 1956). Unlike traditional parasocial relationships involving media audiences and figures who demonstrate clear personality characteristics, brand relationships require even more imagination to produce contexts in which consumers form relationships with their brands. This imagination mechanism explains why some consumers are unable to apply the relationship metaphor to brands and why self-expansion theory may generate weak effects regarding brand relationships. Moreover, the mechanism offers an explanation of why we sometimes see weak BRQ when we evaluate our favorite brands.

Avis, Aitken, and Ferguson (2012) suggested that brand relationships are either the result of consumers’ perceptual reality or of researchers’ metaphorical interpretation. A more moderate position, as suggested by Fournier (2009), is that this is not an either/or question; it depends on the strength of brand relationships. While we agree with Fournier's position focusing on the strength of brand relationships, the findings from the present study dispute Fournier's (2009) notion that it is unnecessary for consumers to cognitively recognize the relationship metaphor for it to apply. The present study challenges this view because being able to imagine a relationship with brands improves perceptions of BRQ; imagination is necessary for a metaphor to work (Stern, 1988), especially as a mechanism for shaping brand relationships.

Brand managers have traditionally focused on brand personality to move brand anthropomorphism—a passive brand partner—in the direction of brand personification—an active brand partner (Aggarwal & McGill, 2007). However, since imagination outperforms self-expansion in influencing BRQ, when marketers communicate about weakly personified, more functional brands, it is even more important to facilitate consumer imagination of a brand relationship to improve consumer perceptions of relationship quality. For example, a functionally oriented brand such as Ronseal (http://www.ronseal.co.uk/) can stress “how good a pal Ronseal is” when it comes to do-it-yourself projects. This depiction inserts relationship quality into the brand without losing its traditional, functional focus; “It does exactly what it says on the tin.” Similarly, although symbolic brands with clear personalities may be able to improve their relationship quality with consumers through identity reflection (as predicted by self-expansion theory), the improvement in the relationship would probably be marginal as compared to imagination. The implication for brand managers is that they stimulate imagination in their brand messages.

CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES

The present study contributes to the brand relationship literature by suggesting that ease of imagination can move consumers toward a deeper brand relationship. The strength of brand personification can help determine whether interpersonal relationship theory (i.e., self-expansion theory) can apply to brand relationships. Self-expansion theory, traditionally the primary mechanism for understanding brand relationship development, may be applicable to brand relationships only when brand personification is strong. The influence of imagination on brand relationships surpasses that of self-expansion regardless of brand personification strength. Findings such as these call in to question Fournier's (2009) argument that consumers’ ability to recognize brand relationships is insignificant. Without recognition through imagination, BRQ can be underestimated. As a result, marketers are encouraged to cultivate consumers’ imagination with regard to brand relationships.

One limitation of the present study was its use of a convenience sample of student subjects. Prior research has suggested that applications and interpretations of imagination may differ as a function of age (Dias & Harris, 1990; Fisher & Specht, 1999). Thus, it would be desirable to learn the extent to which the results of the present study can be replicated in different age groups. In addition, future research might also profitably investigate whether imagination generates effects similar to those observed in the present study with different demographic groups. In what ways might imagination be utilized differently as a function of group membership?

Another limitation in the present study was the lack of control of imagination and the reliance on self-report measures. Our initial findings were suggestive in terms of exciting insights into the effect of imagination as well as of brand personification in brand relationships. However, the results would have been more robust if we could have shown how imagination and brand personification could be manipulated and how imagination and brand personification could be stimulated. Therefore, future research might investigate whether consumer imagination of a brand relationship can be encouraged. If it can be encouraged, how long is the effect, and what are the consequences of the effect? In addition, given that imagination stimulates consumers’ perceptual reality, at what point might interpersonal relationship theories apply? Such research may be helpful in determining the conditions under which the concepts borrowed from other disciplines (such as the interpersonal relationship literature) are useful in a branding context.

Still another direction for future research has to do with unraveling the relationship between imagination and the formation of brand personification. Can brand personification be developed through brand communications that do not associate the brand with a living, breathing person? What are the consequences of using animals, cartoon figures, or other nonhumans in attempting to personify a brand? How do living versus nonliving brand personifications differ in terms of their ability to stimulate imagination of a brand relationship? Are these differences the same for children and adults? Although imagination is commonly used in consumer research (Petrova & Cialdini, 2008), there is a dearth of literature regarding its role in brand relationships. More studies of the role of imagination in brand relationships are needed. We leave to the reader's imagination the many other kinds of studies to be conducted in further exploring the role of imagination in brand personification and brand relationships.

  1. 1

    Both self-concept connection and consumer–brand congruence measure the extent to which self-identities reflect (or are constructed by) brand image. The approaches are dissimilar, since self-concept connection is a direct approach (i.e., through asking respondents directly how much brands reflect self-identities) and CBC is indirect (i.e., through calculating the distance between respondents’ self-reported personality and brand personality). Although studies suggest that both direct and indirect approaches result in discriminantly valid constructs (Huang, 2009), we removed the self-concept connection from brand relationship quality during testing, so as to avoid any possibility of tautology.

  2. 2

    Big Five refers to the personality dimensions generated by factor analysis; that is, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to new experience.

  3. 3

    The fit indices for ease of imagination of a brand relationship are perfect, because the model is saturated (three indicators).

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  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. THE CONNECTION BETWEEN IMAGINATION AND BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  4. IMAGINATION VERSUS SELF-EXPANSION THEORY IN BRAND RELATIONSHIPS
  5. THE EFFECT OF BRAND PERSONIFICATION
  6. METHOD
  7. RESULTS
  8. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
  9. CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. REFERENCES
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