Attribution of Symbolic Brand Meaning: The Interplay of Consumers, Brands and Reference Groups

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The purpose of this paper is to examine the role played by both, self-brand connection and reference groups, in attributing symbolic meaning to a brand. Current studies focus either on the influence of reference groups or on the role of self-brand connection. We demonstrate that both interact in attributing symbolic meaning. To explain interactions between the consumer, the brand and the reference groups, we draw on Heider’s balance theory.

A questionnaire was developed which included scales on self-brand connection, reference group belonging and symbolic brand meaning. Data were collected through an online survey and analyzed with factor analyses, analyses of variance and correlation analyses.

Our findings suggest that consumers may alter their beliefs about a brand depending on both, their self-brand connection and the influence of reference groups. If a consumer feels a strong connection with a brand and this brand is used by a dissociative reference group, the consumer will not attribute high symbolic meaning to that brand. The same is valid if the consumer’s in-group uses a brand which the consumer does not feel connected to.

The present study introduces Heider’s balance theory to the fields of reference group research and self-brand connection research. Balance theory has proved to be a valuable framework for analyzing the relationships of consumers, their brands and their reference groups in the context of attributing symbolic brand meaning. Building on these insights, researchers and practitioners may better understand the emergence of symbolic brand meaning hereafter.