Why do people become attached to their products? - 14 September 2007
by Ruth Mugge
Read this article in Chinese (translated by Liang Zhang)
How can a designer increase the degree to which people bond with a product? This is the question researcher Ruth Mugge tackled, who has recently received her PhD degree on this topic at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering of Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands.
During the doctoral research, Mugge investigated the topic of product attachment – the strength of the emotional bond a consumer experiences to a specific product (Mugge 2007). This definition implies that a strong relationship or tie exists between the individual on the one hand and the object on the other. If people feel strongly attached to a product, they are also more likely to handle the product with care, to repair it when it breaks down, and to postpone its replacement as long as possible (Mugge, Schifferstein, and Schoormans 2006a). Product attachment may thus increase a product’s lifetime. From the viewpoint of sustainability, it can be valuable for designers to influence the degree of attachment people experience to their products (van Hinte 1997). Nowadays, people dispose of products although they still function properly, for example, because these products look old-fashioned. Extending the psychological life span of durables could be instrumental to reduce the demand for scarce resources and the rate of solid waste disposal. Up to now, the role of the product and its design in stimulating the degree of attachment experienced toward this object remains quite obscure. As the product is under the designer’s direct control, understanding these issues is valuable for designers. Accordingly, this research contributes by establishing the role of the product for bringing about product attachment, and by proposing several design strategies to strengthen the emotional bond between a person and his/her product (Mugge, Schoormans, and Schifferstein 2005).
Factors influencing product attachment
Past research suggested that consumers become attached to certain products, because they convey a personal and special meaning over and above the product’s utilitarian meaning. Based on the literature, four factors were distinguished that can influence product attachment: self-expression (can I distinguish myself from others with the product?), group affiliation (does ownership of the product connect me to a group?), memories (related to the product) and pleasure (provided by the product) (e.g., Kamptner 1995; Kleine, Kleine, and Allen 1995; Richins 1994).
Although these factors are all relevant for stimulating the experience of attachment to products, they differ in the degree to which designers can influence them through product design. As a result, we focused particularly on the issue of self-expression, because this factor provides designers with the best opportunities to stimulate the degree of product attachment. Specifically, we explored product personality and product personalization as possible means to influence the factor self-expression and, consequently, affect the experience of product attachment.
First, product personality was investigated as a means to influence this self-expression. Product personality is defined as “the profile of personality characteristics that people use to describe a specific product variant and discriminate it from others” (Govers 2004). By making decisions regarding the product’s shape, material, color, sound, texture, and interaction, designers can create a product with a certain personality that consumers can recognize (Govers, Hekkert, and Schoormans 2002; Jordan 2002). For example, a Volkswagen Beetle has a happy and friendly personality (see Figure 1). The findings of our research showed that consumers bond more strongly with products that have a ‘personality’ congruent to their own personality, because these products enable them to communicate their individuality (Govers and Mugge 2004). However, a second study on watches suggested that feeling attached to a product with a congruent personality does not necessarily lead to a long-term relationship with such a product (Mugge, Schifferstein, and Schoormans 2006b). We found support for the relationship between product attachment and product lifetime for the watch with the introvert personality (see Figure 2). However, experiencing attachment to the extravert watch did not result in an extension of the watch’s product lifetime. Our research showed that these differences are related to fashion changes. The extravert watch has an eye-catching and colorful design (see Figure 2), which is associated with a short-lived fashion style. A short-lived fashion style reaches obsolescence quickly, making the products belonging to this style outdated. To stimulate long-lived product attachment and thus extend the product lifetime, designers should try to create products that remain to be in general fashion acceptance. Otherwise, evaluation of the product as being old-fashioned will decline the product’s value for maintaining a positive view of the self, resulting in early detachment and a premature replacement of the product.
Figure 1. Product personality: A happy and friendly Volkswagen Beetle
Figure 2. Watches with an extrovert (left) and introvert (right) personality
We also investigated the self-expression factor by determining the influence of product personalization on the degree of product attachment (Mugge, Schifferstein, and Schoormans 2004). Product personalization is the degree to which the consumer can exercise control over the product. Implementing product personalization thus requires that consumers operate as co-designers of their own personalized product. An example of product personalization is the mass customization service of Nike (http://nikeid.nike.com). Nike enables consumers to design their own pair of personalized shoes by allowing consumers to specify the colors for the various shoe parts (see Figure 3). The result is a unique pair of Nike shoes that matches the personal preferences of an individual with respect to taste. Changing the cover of a mobile phone and redecorating one’s cupboard are examples of product personalization as well.
Figure 3. Mass customization service of Nike
By personalizing a product, an individual invests effort in the product. The outcome of the personalization process is that the consumer adds a personal touch to the product and, consequently, the product becomes more self-expressive of a person’s unique identity. Self-expression in turn has a positive effect on the degree of attachment to a product. For designers who wish to extend a product’s lifespan, it is thus a good strategy to incorporate the possibility of product personalization. Based on our findings, we conclude that the more a person is involved in the design process and can act as the co-designer of his/her own product, the more effort (s)he will invest in the product, and the more self-expressive the product is likely to become. Accordingly, some personalization options may be more valuable to stimulate product attachment than others. A popular way for manufacturers to personalize durables is by offering mass customization services (e.g., Nike). However, the degree of consumer effort invested in a mass-customized product is relatively low, because consumers are in general only allowed to make choices among predetermined alternatives and thus cannot be truly creative. To stimulate product attachment, designers should implement those types of product personalization that demand a sufficient level of consumer effort. This provides consumers with the opportunity to create a more personal and unique product.
Although personalization options with higher degrees of consumers’ effort can result in stronger attachments, these options also have a downside. Consumers may not have the know-how, experience, and practical skills to personalize their products. Furthermore, consumers may become confused with the great number of options available (Huffman and Kahn 1998). It is the designer’s task to create a context in which a balance is found between creating design opportunities and guaranteeing adequate product quality. Accordingly, designers could create a toolkit to support the consumers in their choice, while they still may take credit for the product design. An example of a company that offers a toolkit with a satisfactory balance between risks and benefits of product personalization is Freitag (see Figure 4). Freitag sells personalized bags made of recycled printed canvas from truck tarpaulins. On the website (http://www.freitag.ch), customers can create their own bag by ‘reserving’ individual pieces of canvas and positioning them in a specific place on their bag. During the ‘design process’, the consumer can see which pieces of the tarpaulins are still available and which are already used for other bags. Because each part of each tarpaulin can only be used for one bag, every bag is different. Moreover, the bag becomes irreplaceable, because only this particular specimen resulted from the person’s involvement and it is impossible to create an identical product again. In comparison to most mass customization services, the input of the consumer is enhanced, while restricting the risks.
Figure 4. Product personalization on Freitag’s website
Product personalization is an interesting strategy to stimulate long-lived product attachment and, thereby, contribute to a sustainable society, because consumers may perceive the personalized product as irreplaceable. If the product is perceived to be irreplaceable, other products in the market cannot convey a similar meaning to the owner. Replacing and disposing of such a product is thus perceived as a loss of its special meaning. As a result, the experience of attachment to a product is likely to last over time, resulting in product longevity (Mugge et al. 2005). Nevertheless, we do not claim that product personalization is the only or best way to stimulate long-lived product attachment. Designers should continue to search for other opportunities to design products in such a way that they are more likely to convey a special meaning that is considered to be irreplaceable to the owner.
For more information, please contact Ruth Mugge (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Govers, Pascalle C. M., Paul Hekkert, and Jan P. L. Schoormans (2002), "Happy, Cute and Tough: Can Designers Create a Product Personality That Consumers Understand?," in Design and Emotion: The Experience of Everyday Things, Eds. Deana McDonagh, Paul Hekkert, Jeroen Van Erp and Diane Gyi, London: Taylor and Francis, 345-349.
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Govers, Pascalle C. M. and Ruth Mugge (2004), "'I Love My Jeep, Because Its Tough Like Me': The Effect of Product-Personality Congruence on Product Attachment," in Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Design and Emotion, Ed. Aren Kurtgözü, Ankara, Turkey.
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Mugge, Ruth, Hendrik N. J. Schifferstein, and Jan P. L. Schoormans (2006a), "A Longitudinal Study on Product Attachment and Its Determinants," in European Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 7, Eds. Karin M. Ekström and Helene Brembeck, Duluth, MN: Association for Consumer Research, 641-647.
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Ruth Mugge is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering of Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. After obtaining her Master Degree (cum laude) in Industrial Design Engineering in 2001, she started her PhD project (completed in 2007) on product attachment. The research objective of this project was to explain and stimulate the the emotional bond a person experiences with his/her product. She presented her research at several international conferences on product design, psychology, marketing, and consumer behavior, and published in the Design Journal, the Advances in Consumer Research, as well as in several peer-reviewed books.
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