Agreeably, consumers do not consume products for material utilities but consume the symbolic meaning of those products as portrayed in their images. For the customers of a product, there can be those who emphasize human relationships while at the same time, others have a preference for the acquisition and possession of material goods (Claxton and Murray, 1994). According to symbolic interactionism, society is continuously produced and reproduced through the processes in which individuals interact with symbolic representations of what is around them (Ibid, 1994). From this interactionism, the said individuals adhere to an interchangeable mechanism that enables them to substitute objects and subjects so as to function effectively in differing physical and social scenarios. This is the basic mechanism through which people understand themselves and their standing in a given society. Consequently, materials/products have a significant role for people not just by their own standing but also for helping individuals identify themselves and their roles as well as position in society.
In order to understand materialism that in turn drives consumption, it is important to first understand the origin of the concept. Essentially, materialism arises from the sociology of interchangeability described. This is the genesis of person's assumed roles as well as their mechanism for adapting in a society. It means that consumption is significantly correlated to how such a person then functions within the society/community.
In this paper, the focus will be to discuss how the symbolic meaning attached to a product goes beyond the material satisfaction derived from it. In addition, there will be relevant examples to aid in illustrating these stances.
Materialism as relates to consumption can be understood as the basic driver of people's satisfaction in life, their general happiness and also an indicator of whether they are progressive or not (Claxton and Murray, 1994). The way individuals view materialism is also significant in that, it determines whether they appreciate objects over subjects and vice versa. Essentially, a person who deems materialism to be positive, he/she is bound to want to accumulate material products for themselves. Conversely, a person who views materialism as negative, is more likely to value human relationships instead and thus he/she will have little or basic demand for products or material goods (Ibid, 1994).
Underlying consumption in terms of the consumer therefore, can be understood as an interplay of the personal values held in as far as materialism is concerned. Further, these belief or views on materialism are determined by some underlying factors such as the religious beliefs, cultural assumptions, upbringing, education as well as social status. To illustrate, religious people such as Quakers and puritans believe that materialistic consumption is but an outward expression of the exploitation of workers (Ibid2, 1994). Puritans in particular, believe that materialism is a hindrance to spirituality and thus products are deemed only necessary for survival and excesses in terms of consumption are frowned upon. On the other hand, the so-called bourgeois or the aristocracy, view common goods as inferior and thus there is a deliberate effort on their part, towards differentiating their tastes form the common place products in “lowly' markets.
Today, the distinction in the consumer market may not be as distinct to warrant the classifications of Bourgeois or Puritan but rather, there are people who seek status or prefer higher quality of life through products while at the same time, even among these, some will still look for ‘bargains' for certain commodities. To illustrate some college friends may insist on dressing in strictly designer clothes but when looking for school books, they will know the places to get them for cheap as well. The ordinary consumer of this day and age, better fits to this description and not the described classes that seem to have slowly vanished.
For the product marketer, it is essential that they take a more open-minded stance from the role assumed by the consumer. This is to say that, while they may have their preferences at a personal level, when dealing professionally, they must be objective in the classification of consumers' tastes and preference in order to be effective marketers. In addition, they must evaluate the underlying factors of cultural beliefs, religious orientation as well as social class and standing in targeting particular consumers of products. Given such need for objectivity, the marketer can thus benefit most, if he/she regarded materialism from a purely business angle and not wish to be drawn into the details of how and why people consumer at different preference. However, it is important to understand the human identities inherent in the things that they choose to consume. Indeed, human identities are more resident in objects as indicators of their culture and social category more than they are valuable materially.
From this background, product marketers and manufacturers have increasingly called upon experts such as product designers so as to understand the meanings that people attach to the symbolism of materials they purchase. The end objective is to allow them insights into how best to target the identified market or customer niche and a key term here is product semantics. Essentially, product semantics are defined as the ‘meanings” attached to products and these vary from person to another (Kurosu, 2011). Basically, the mentioned underlying factors lead to different consumers attaching different meaning to a similar product on offer. This in turn has a direct influence on the choice and successful purchase of what is being sold by the marketer or manufacturer (Ibid, 2011).
Product semantics therefore, aims to study the meaning of regular symbols as applied in regular products. This helps in creating a human oriented approach to consumers and thus marketing becomes more effective in terms of conveying intended meaning on the products on offer.
Perhaps the best example for illustrating how symbolic value becomes more important than the material value of a product, is the work of creative artists. Townley and Gulledge inform that for this category of products, such as artwork and music, the aesthetic qualities are more significant than the economic aspect attached to material involved (Townley and Gulledge, 2015). The nature of value in market goods from the creative industry can be correctly said to have higher or more significance on the symbolism attached to them than the material aspect of the same. For example, the preference of say, Scottish writing is more symbolic than it is material. This again goes back to the symbolic interactionism that defines the value a person places on products or goods such as books of Scottish writing design or origin.
The marketing Association appreciates the significance of symbolism and it is more important role than the material aspect in as far as the consumer is concerned. Essentially, the Association states that, the meaning of a product is not intrinsic in the object because the meaning attached to it, is that which is defined by the society (Management Association Information Resources, 2014). It means that through products people attach meaning to life and thus society's symbolism is important in choice and preference over and above the material value of a good. Indeed, according to the Association, such “intrinsic” value does not exist in an object/product (Ibid, 2014). In addition, it can be said that the consumer today, does not purchase a product merely, due to material value but also from the projected symbolic value. The symbolic value as illustrate comes from society and interactionism within it.
Wilson takes it a step further and informs that there has even emerged a category of products preferably, referred to as “symbolic goods' (Wilson, n.d). In essence, these are the intellectual and artistic goods and that are chiefly the possession of the upper class as well as institutions such as the state and the church (Ibid, n.d). The legitimacy of these products lies not in their material value or composition but rather on the “consecration” offered through their symbolic value which is in turn enforced by the said institutions and class.
Artists and intellectuals are therefore forced to produce for the purposes of the symbolic value of their work and not necessarily the material value of products produced. For this reason, Art and artistic work/products, are increasingly demanded to appeal to the intellect as opposed to the materiality of what is produced and marketed by extension. To illustrate, Artists today have even broken the custodial barriers of Museums and churches and the success they have found is attributed to the relevance of personal stories as well as the symbolic value they are able to tease out of unique experiences and lives. Artists and Artwork as become autonomous and products such as shows, CDs, videos and tours are bought primarily out of the symbolism depicted by the respective artists. The value is not intrinsic of itself but must also come from the society that consumes the work or products.
In conclusion, product symbolism as discussed, is more important than the material value attached to products. This is true of the consumer in the product market today as it was in the days of snotty hard-nosed aristocrats and bourgeois people. Essentially, the value of a product goes beyond mere material value but must find value through what it symbolized. This symbolic value on the other hand, is purely the creation of society and it dictates the acceptability or rejection of such a product.
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