Why the Devil Wears Prada: Cross-National Meanings of Branded Products

This article first appeared in the UConn Business magazine, Volume 1, Issue 1 (Summer 2009)

We live in a world of brand names and registered trademarks. Each day we are confronted with dozens, if not hundreds, of products that have become household names: Coca Cola, IBM, Nike, just to name a few.

Companies jealously guard their branded products, spending vast sums to create, promote, and differentiate them. And many consumers respond to brands through a variety of complex behaviors, even identifying with some in a personal way (“I’m a Mac person”).

The concept of branding originated in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, but it has become firmly rooted throughout the developed world and is also a growing presence in emerging international markets, particularly in the budding global youth culture of the former Soviet bloc. As in the West, young urban consumers in Eastern Europe and Russia drive brand growth and awareness.

But what core meanings are attached to branded products, and are these meanings cross-national? What qualities or values does the global youth segment associate with brands? Are branded products better or more trusted than unbranded products? And do young consumers in Eastern Europe and Russia relate to brands in the same ways as their Western counterparts?

To answer these questions, UConn Marketing Professor Robin Coulter, working with Professor Yuliya Strizhakova of Rutgers University and Professor Linda Price of the University of Arizona, developed a scale to measure four dimensions of branded product meanings: quality, values, personal identity, and traditions. The results of their research can be invaluable for multinational firms seeking to design effective marketing campaigns aimed at young consumers in both developed and developing markets.

Coulter and her fellow researchers focused on college-educated consumers, aged 18 to 29, from the U.S., Ukraine, Romania and Russia. They chose this demographic for its high degree of homogeneity, which previous research indicated spans national and cultural boundaries. In fact, this global market segment appears to have more in common with each other, identifying with similar symbols and sharing aligned interests, than with their older countrymen.

Using a combination of research protocols, including indepth interviews, extant data, and surveys, Coulter and her team explored the complex reactions that these young consumers had to branded products generally, and to a variety of durable (automobiles and electronics) and non-durable (soft drinks and personal care) products. Their results revealed striking cross-national similarities.

For each national group, quality was the most important aspect of a branded product. This is perhaps not surprising because many internationally branded products have stressed quality and dependability as key selling points (Quality is Our Most Important Product – GE; Quality is Job 1 – Ford). Coulter’s research confirms that the global youth segment perceives quality as a key component of brand-name products.

In terms of how branded products help reinforce a sense of personal identity, Coulter and her colleagues discovered some interesting differences between the U.S. and the other national groups. In particular, branding as a signal of self identity, status, and group identity was more pronounced in the U.S. This finding is likely a consequence of more firms in the U.S. promoting the image of branded products, and the greater incidence of communities, such as Mac users, affiliated with particular brands. As firms begin to implement marketing campaigns focusing on personal identity issues in the developing countries, we are likely to witness consumers in these countries ascribing greater importance to this dimension of branded products.

The findings related to “values” suggest the possibility of different interpretations across countries. In the U.S. consumers indicated the importance of values related to socially responsible actions, whereas in developing countries, interpretations suggest that value may be linked to quality and price perceptions. Coulter and her colleagues suggest the need for  additional research to more systematically examine the various values associated with branded products.

Finally, the research reported that “tradition” was the least important meaning of branded products. Coulter and associates speculate that the low level of importance assigned to this category possibly signals that the global youth market, rather than following established traditions, may prefer to break with them, and also that consumers in developing countries have not had the time to establish ongoing traditions associated with specific brands.

This study provides evidence that brand awareness spans cultural and national boundaries, and is a powerful determinant in consumer behavior among the global youth market. Global marketing managers will find the scale developed by Coulter and her team to be a useful tool for developing successful international marketing efforts.

*Study cited in this brief: Strizhakova, Y., Coulter, R. and Price, L. “The Meanings of Branded Products: A Cross-national Scale Development and Meaning Assessment,” International Journal of Research in Marketing, vol. 25, no.2, pp.82-93.

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