As Gutman points out in the introduction to his early article on consumer categorization processes, “knowing that consumers want to look well dressed doesn’t tell us much unless we know why they want to look that way” (Gutman, 1982). Specifically, this points towards the problem of identifying the value-level considerations of consumers. The underlying assumption is that consumers have different reasons to buy a certain product, in the case of clothing for instance, these include but are not limited to wanting to express sexual attractiveness, accomplishment or neatness (Gutman, 1982)
While these general problems are not new to marketers, they are enhanced by rapid developments towards two opposing forces in the market place that create additional complexity: on the one hand, tendencies towards a global-consumer culture with similar demands, while at the same time some aspects call for a higher tendency to localize products and to tailor them around the needs for given cultural segments.
Consumer research is undoubtedly one of the key elements in informing marketing strategy and a key factor in the battle for competitive advantage. In fact this is only heightened by a growing, globalizing competition in retailing and other sectors alike. Therefore, consumer research and the need for insightful research approaches has probably never been greater than at this point (Devlin, 2005). Marketing failures in the product design or in the positioning phase must be prevented at all costs, as ill-designed or positioned products can be the cause of tremendous financial and reputational losses, especially if the product is launched globally. Thus, of particular value to retailers would be a more sophisticated research approach that helps gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the dynamics of consumer's perceptual orientations and the heuristics that govern their store choice (Devlin, 2005).
All in all, “one of the central functions of marketing is to create […] a psychological relationship between consumers and a product (Walker & Olson, 1991) and from this perspective, models should give the marketer an idea how the consumer perceives a product or a service. In this light, this essay will discuss the value of the so-called means-end chain approach to positioning products and new-product development, with a separate focus on the use of hierarchical-value map.
Positioning, as it is used in this essay, can be defined as “the design and implementation of a retail mix to create an image of the retailer in the customer's mind relative to its competitors" (Levy and Weitz, 2001). In line with this definition, it must be the goal of the marketer to create an offer/image that fits these expectations of the target group. Comparable demands are created in the product-development phase, where innovative ideas have to be screened and combined towards a novel product. Moreover, a “key element in the successful development of a new product is the availability of a core benefit proposition” (Vriens & Ter Hofstede, 2000), which relate product attributes to provided benefits.
This essay discusses the tools of the so-called means-end-chain theory to tackle the above cited problems. It follows a structure in which first means-end chain theory and two related methods are elaborated before the focus will turn specifically to using hierarchical value maps (HVMs). The conclusion aims at giving a guideline on the practical application of means-end chain theory.
Means-end chain theory
With the problems introduced before, the means-end chain theory (MEC) can potentially be used to effectively tackle the problems of contemporary marketing. Ultimately, the MEC and its related tools are based on two core assumptions. In line with Gutman’s thought introduced before, it accepts the notion that “consumers do not buy products for the product’s sake” (Ter Hofstede et al, 1999) but for a variety of other reasons, such as what benefits a product can provide for them.
It is the products towards which consumers secondly have a variety of associations which cannot be observed or measured openly. The MEC thus aims at identifying and visualizing consumers’ associations towards a product by creating a framework for these associations. It can therefore be regarded as a tool to identify cognitive structures in the consumers’ minds. Based on the assumption that consumers will rationally choose the product or service that more closely achieves the benefits they desire most, means-end theory seeks to gain a better understanding of the consumer by explaining why these consequences are important, i.e. what are the desired end-states gained by the consumer from these benefits. In the theory of the means-end-chain analysis. “product are [thus] seen as means through which consumers obtain valued ends” (Ter Hofstede et al., 1998). In line with Gutman’s thought brought forward in the introduction of this essay, products are chosen because the consumer believes that the product’s attributes ultimately help to achieve desired values. In this context, attributes can be defined as concrete and tangible characteristics of a product, whereas benefits or consequences refer “to what the product does or provides to the consumer at the functional or psychosocial level” (Ter Hofstede et al., 1998). Values are then defined as “intangible, higher-order ends that reflect the most basic fundamental needs of the consumer.” (Ter Hofstede et al., 1998)
Summing up, the MEC theory posits “that the way in which physical product attributes are linked to personal values define how products gain personal relevance and meaning (Ter Hofstede et al, 1999)
In identifying means-end chains, two archetypes will be discussed in the following paragraphs, soft-laddering and the Association Pattern Technique (APT). Both represent ends on a continuum ranging from highly qualitative to quantitative approaches. A third approach, the so-called hard-laddering which allows less freedom for the respondent, will thus not be included hereafter.