by Barbara Olsen

As an anthropologist and academic now teaching in the School of Business at SUNY Old Westbury, I decided several years ago to explore the changing consumer behaviors of several women entering middle age for a presentation at the Association for Consumer Research annual conference.

I thought that most of us at this juncture would be primarily concerned with the aging process as it affects our physical bodies. While we are socialized in this direction by the media and product advertising, what I discovered instead from interviews with five women (the study was only exploratory) was another layer of consumption that evolved with each life history.

The interviews revealed that many of us are stigmatized by early events that recede beneath our consciousness, and we continue during our later years to try to satisfy the unresolved issues that happened long ago in our daily consumption of market products. This internal dialogue frames a significant portion of our consumer behavior as we try to reconstitute the puzzle of our past in the legacy of our life themes.

All but one of the interviews took place in the homes of the women. The questions included: “Which of your transition points have been the most important? What helped you through it? What brands figured in these transitions?”

We looked in cupboards in the kitchen and bath while I probed the feelings stirred by product use triggered by historical connections. I already had done quite a bit of research on brand relationships and discovered early on that we stay related to some brands much longer than we do to most people and places that factor significantly in our lives.

Brands become friends, facilitators and partners, as Susan Fournier, an associate professor at Boston University School of Management, found from her research on brand relationships.

The participants (a convenience sample) were middle-class, urban, professional women. They were well known to me and were chosen for the familiarity their long-term association might provide.

Joan (each chose her own pseudonym), 47, is a married social worker with two teenage sons. Ann, 48, is a single secretary with two cats. Rachel, 50, is a lawyer and single, also living with her two cats. Sue Lyn, 51, is a real estate agent, single, and lives with her mother. Elizabeth, 53, is a retired advertising executive who was divorced at 27, has no children, and lives with two cats.

During the interview process, each woman repeated words and concepts that on reflection were historical connections to childhood, teen or early adult experiences that now inform current consumer behavior and brand relationships while satisfying an unconscious life theme:

Ann was the first one I interviewed, and it was from her story that I realized there were important words to listen for, as these would be links to the subconscious satisfying latent desires. It turned out that Ann was put in an orphanage at age 5 for a year during her father’s breakdown.

Consequently, she revealed that she missed being mothered and now “mothers” herself with “comfort” brands (Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Lotion, Quaker Oatmeal, Skippy Chunky peanut butter and Land O’Lakes butter among others).

Sue Lyn experienced a young childhood of wealth while living with an aunt during her mother’s long divorce. This was followed by remembrances of poverty after the divorce living with mom in the Bronx next to an elevated subway.

She associates certain food as “rich” (Hershey’s Candy Kisses and M&M’s) or “poor” (Birds Eye, Swansons TV dinners, Pepperidge Farm and Sara Lee frozen cakes) and uses nostalgia brands to convey “status” (Baume & Mercier) and give her “security” (Skippy peanut butter).

Elizabeth was the stepdaughter of a newspaper editor and she traveled extensively around the world with her parents as a teen.

Today this experience frames her relationship with smoking (a European enjoyment) and says her European identity brand partners help her “pretend” to be “European” (Yves St. Laurent, Madame Rochas, Guerlain, Vademecum tooth paste).

Rachel’s loving mom died while Rachel was in her 20s, but she’s still close to her controlling father. We find the combination of her parent’s influence in her desire to establish “order” and “control” in her home.

Rachel said, “I love cleaning products” (Clorox Clean-Up, Pledge Wood Cleaner) and creating a homey atmosphere by burning pie-scented candles to “give the illusion you come into a home.”

Joan is a juggler who during our interview admitted an impending divorce and a son going off to college represented a good part of her mid-life transition. She had achieved a career and successful mothering by being aware that she was role playing.

Joan mentioned that both of her parents were the youngest children of large families and she “thought they were both looking for someone to take care of them,” which she did. This was the connection to her job that does “a lot of mothering” and taking her father’s advice to get as much education as possible. Our interview revealed how certain brands had facilitated her roles.

It was important to continue her “education” (Eddie Bauer backpack to carry books) and said that she now intellectually commands work situations with her “power clothes” (Jones New York, Harve-Benard). She also buys more expensive makeup and personal care products (Clinique, Framesi), purchased as “indulgences” though as a mother she feels guilty treating herself.

In conclusion, the revelation of life themes was totally unexpected.

I thought I would find breaks with the past and new directions signifying the “death” of youth and revitalization. I expected to find the usual product categories associated with mid-life transition that the respondents and I discussed in our social spheres. This proved true as all five women were dealing with the inevitable physical consequences of aging, weight gain, menopause, heavier eyelids, sensitive drying skin and graying hair.

But, I also discovered a more important layer of consumption woven in the fabric of each unique life story. Unconsciously, we traverse the marketplace trying to satisfy unresolved issues in our lives with brands that become best friends and help mates. It is perhaps simultaneously the most personal and revealing layer of all.

Barbara Olsen, Ph.D., is an associate professor at SUNY, College of Old Westbury who focuses on marketing, advertising, consumer behavior and brand strategy. She previously worked in advertising as artist, executive and agency owner. The full study, “Exploring Women’s Brand Relationships and Enduring Themes at Mid-Life,” was published in Advances in Consumer Research (Vol. 26) and is available here.

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  • dr pat allen August 13, 2007 at 10:00 am

    This is the first time I have ever seen a connection between how people connect to brands based on both stage of life and emotional background. It could do a great deal to change how products are marketed.