Background—From Laddering to the Means End Chain
Clinical psychologists first introduced the laddering technique in the 1960s, as a method of understanding people’s core values and beliefs. The technique is powerful, because it provides a simple and systematic way of establishing an individual’s core set of constructs on how they view the world. Laddering is well established in the field of psychology, and its success has led researchers in other industries to adapt its core tenets to their fields.
Specifically, market researchers have adapted the laddering method for use in consumer and organizational research. However, in addition to adapting the research method itself, early marketing practitioners conceived and refined a model for describing the linkages between customers’ values and their overall purchasing behavior: the Means End Chain theory. This theory provides both a framework for capturing qualitative laddering research data in the consumer space and a model for assessing consumer values and behaviors.
According to the Means End Chain theory, there is a hierarchy of consumer perceptions and product knowledge that ranges from attributes (A) to consumption consequences (C) to personal values (V), as follows:
- attributes—At the top level of this hierarchy, attributes are most recognizable by individuals. Individuals recognize the attributes of a product or system easily. For example, “I like this car, because it is a convertible.”
- consequences—In turn, the attributes have consequences for the individual. For example, the convertible makes its driver feel young and free. Each attribute may have one or more consequences for any given individual.
- core values—Finally, each consequence is linked to a core value of the person’s life. For example, the sense of youth makes that driver feel attractive.
In theory, for each area of a product or application, an A-C-V sequence forms a chain, or ladder, that indicates the relationship between a product attribute and a core value. We can collect all the ladders for a given domain to form a Hierarchical Value Map that illustrates all the major means-end and attribute-consequence-value connections and describes individuals’ behavior based on their core values. Typically, these maps contain many product attributes that are linked to a smaller set of consequences, which are, in turn, mapped to a core set of individual values.
While particular individuals are likely to have specific nuances to their sets of ladders and value maps, we can recognize and document high-level patterns across different customer types or personas. The real power of the Means End Chain model is that it emphasizes why and how products are important in an individual’s life, going beyond a reported description of functional attributes or properties.
To better understand the limited significance of attributes, consider the following example. When you first ask individuals why they bought a product or like a particular application, they will likely respond by describing product attributes. These attributes may include quality, price, brand name, or the inclusion of particular features. However, while such product attributes may be recognizable to individuals, they don’t necessarily get at the underlying reason for purchase or use. For example:
Q: “Why did you select those wedding invitations?”
A: “I really liked the traditional design and the heavy card stock.”
This answer from a research participant accurately describes the reason for the purchase. However, a researcher who focuses only on such responses will miss the opportunity to explore the consequences that the individual associates with those attributes.
Understanding the impact of certain attributes—rather than just recognizing the presence of the attributes alone—reveals a significantly greater number of insights about the individual’s behaviors. The consequences of particular attributes reveal more personal aspects of the individual’s relationship with the product or application. Often, inexperienced researchers fail to follow up on the consequences of various attributes. Neglecting to do this is, obviously, not recommended, because we can use many of the insights we gain to inform strategy decisions for our products. To continue the previous example:
Q: “Why is the heavy card stock important to you?”
A: “The heavy card stock makes the event seem more formal and substantial.”
By asking Why? to get research participants to elaborate on their initial answers, we can elicit responses that reveal more about the emotional values of an individual. Compared to lists of product attributes, the responses at this level are much more thoughtful and come closer to the real reasons an individual chooses a particular product or behaves in a certain way. From a marketing perspective, understanding the consequences of product or application attributes can provide the basis for marketing messages or branding.
The reasons people buy something, opt-in to a community or service, or adopt a process are not always clear, even to the individuals making the decisions. As I noted above, people usually respond readily to questions about their selection of a given product or service at the attribute level, but their responses usually do not reveal their core reasons for adoption. The Means End Chain theory suggests that personal values play the most dominant role in directing individuals’ choices. These personal values are individuals’ core beliefs and are relatively stable perspectives that have a strong emotional impact. Examples are security, belonging, happiness, fun, and enjoyment.
Q: “Why is it important that the wedding be more formal and substantial?”
A: “My friends had fabulous weddings, and I really want to do something on par with them.”
According to the Means End Chain, if we can uncover the core values that relate to a given product or application domain, such insights can have significant potential to inform product strategy and design decisions.