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Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science Official Publication of the Academy of Marketing Science Academy of Marketing Science 2007

7 10.1007/s11747-007-0057-x

Original Empirical Research

Consumer creations of product meaning in the context of African-style clothing

Bent DeBerry-Spence1
(1) Liautaud Graduate School of Business, University of Illinois at Chicago, 601 S. Morgan Street (MC 243), Chicago, IL 60607-7123, USA Bent DeBerry-Spence Email: Received: 26 December 2006 Accepted: 19 June 2007 Published online: 1 August 2007

Abstract In this article, the author conducts a multisite ethnography to examine how US consumers construct product meanings and assign them to African clothing worn in different consumption settings. Contextual product meanings both emphasize the changing role of the consumption setting and reveal the consumers use of place. A model emerges from the data to show that consumers establish contextual product meanings through the use of interpretive frameworks, or meaning domains, and that the consumption setting influences this process by affecting consumers use of meaning domains and their selection of potential influences on that meaning. Keywords Product meaning creation - Consumption settings - Multisite ethnography - African clothing

As you can tell, the kente cloth itself, the way its worn, its for traditional different occasions....Its normally used for occasions and festivals and weddings, and very, very important things, but if you want to go out to a friends dont want kente. If youre invited to the White House, you wear kente cloth....Recently we wore it on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia when Kofi Annan was giving a speech. We wear that to try to make him proud. [Kente cloth] makes you feel like youre the chief, youre the king, everybody else is your servant. This is our heritage, so to some extent I dont know what it involves, but it does something. Ive taken it to some all-white bars just to order a small beer, just for them to look at it. Like Im daring them to say something, ...and everybody is looking. But it gives me the strength and courage to do some stuff.African American man, in his early fifties

The epigraph here begins to show the pluralism in consumer-derived product meanings and demonstrates how meanings are contextually dependent. For the speaker, African clothing connotes a sense of pride; at other times, its transformational abilities also yield meanings of courage and power. Interpretations such as those expressed in the epigraph exemplify that product meanings extend beyond mere form and function. The question is, how do consumers construct personalized product meanings? Marketers are increasingly interested in that question. As the marketing field has moved away from examining solely how the marketer shapes the consumption experience (Kozinets et al. 2004), a host of studies in areas such as retailing, services, and relationship marketing have emphasized the importance of marketerconsumer cocreation. In addition, studies of consumers resistance to marketers efforts (e.g., Holt 2002) explore consumer agency in the creation of product meanings. Despite these efforts, current marketing theory would benefit from a better understanding of consumers creation processes. Researchers have most often examined marketing theories of consumers and product meanings in the context of actual consumption (Wallendorf and Arnould1988; Kozinets 2001; Mehta and Belk 1991) and have established that meanings are never fixed (Hall 1985). Instead, to interpret commodities, they must be unpacked and the meanings and memories must be searched for inside (Phillips and Steiner 1999). Existing models of how consumers create meaning provide a basis for discerning the movement, or directionality, of meaning. For example, McCracken (1986) establishes that for consumer goods, the meaning that consumers attribute to those goods is in constant transit, but he also implies that meaning moves unidirectionally, from the culturally constituted world to the consumer. This perspective seems to minimize the consumers role to being primarily receivers in the meaning creation process. Thompson and Haytko (1997) move away from that passive view with their portrayal of meaning creation as a transformative, consumer-centered undertakingin which consumers cocreate personalized meaningsbut they do not explore the impact of the consumption setting (i.e., place), a factor that exposes how meaning creation is both bidirectional and multidimensional. Current models of consumers product meaning do not fully capture that the consumption setting informs meaning. By implication, those models limit our view of meaning creation to a single setting; in fact, marketers and consumers infuse the same product with various meanings across places. The creation of product meaning does not have a well-defined beginning and end, which suggests two things: (1) theories should not be confined to observations or discourses in a single consumption setting, and (2) marketers and researchers should not rely only on the consumers ability to recount and reconstruct experiences of product meaning in multiple contexts. In contrast, significant insight can be gained from examining the meaning-creation process as it unfolds. To this end, I conducted a multisite ethnography exploring African Americans and their consumption of African clothing, and I moved with consumers across multiple consumption settings, which enabled richer insights into how consumers create meaning than does single-site research. The data give rise to an expanded model of how consumers create product meanings. The model builds on claims that a clothing system is always in process, with meanings generated in particular contexts (Hansen 2000). The model also advances current theories of how consumers develop product meanings by revealing consumers use of interpretive frameworks

and by incorporating the influence of the consumption setting. The subsequent sections of this article review key literature and discuss the methodology. Other sections then present consumers contextual product meanings, discuss the model of consumers meaning creation, and offer conclusions and discuss possibilities for future research.

Literature review
Studies on consumers and product meanings in various contexts have shown that researchers cannot understand the process of creating product meanings by simply tracing the product back to its origins (Hall 1985). Research in the areas of consumer acculturation (Pealoza 1994), cross-cultural consumption (Oswald 1999), comparative cross-cultural inquiry (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988), and product transculturation [Appaduri 1986; Mehta and Belk 1991; Steiner 1994 (aspects of this work are presented in the film In and Out of Africa, Barbash and Taylor 1992)] provide vivid demonstrations of how factors external to the consumer (e.g., marketing intermediaries) affect consumers experience and creation of product meaning. Such research also reveals the various relationships that consumers maintain with products, as well as the significance of consumer identity in product meaning. It also lays the groundwork for viewing context as an important contributor to changes in product meaning over time and in different places. Still, questions remain about the specific role of the consumption setting in meaning creation, and an opportunity exists to develop a model articulating consumers process of meaning creation beyond the current dominant models of McCracken (1986) and Thompson and Haytko (1997). Building on the anthropological work of Douglas and Isherwood (1978), which establishes that consumer goods have the ability to carry and communicate cultural meaning, McCracken (1986) presents a model of product-meaning creation in which meaning originates from the culturally constituted world and is subsequently passed to individual consumers. Transfer instruments (e.g., advertising, fashion systems) and rituals (e.g., possession, exchange, grooming, divestment) facilitate the movement of meaning. McCrackens model acknowledges that the meaning of consumer goods is in constant transit and outlines the flow of meaning among social locations and individual social actors (e.g., designers, producers, advertisers, consumers); thus, it is a start for future theories of meaning transfer that recognize product meanings as pluralistic and influenced by multiple sources. A major limitation of Mccrackens (1986) model, however, is that it does not concede that meaning transfer may be bidirectional. This is most evident in its incorporation of traditional trajectory transmittance: that meaning is drawn from the object and transferred to an individual consumer (McCracken 1986, p. 71). This suggests that meaning transfer is synchronic; in fact, they may be constitutively diachronic. Moreover, the model is limited in its ability to capture fully the consumers involvement because it deemphasizes consumers creative role by depicting them as passive receivers in the transfer process. Last, the model does not address consumers post-possession meaning re-creation. By analyzing the meanings that consumers use to interpret their experiences and ideas about fashion, Thompson and Haytko (1997) develop a model articulating consumers appropriation of

countervailing cultural meanings, which is an immediate acknowledgment of dynamic meaning transfer. They extend theory by providing a consumer-centered account of meaning creation in which consumers draw from meaning influences (i.e., sources of meaning) to construct personalized meanings. Here, consumers have heightened involvement in meaning creation when the relationships between institutional structure and diffused meanings are discursive, rather than direct (Thompson and Haytko 1997, p. 36). The model successfully addresses some deficiencies of prior research, such as unidirectional meaning transfer and consumers as receivers of meaning, but several questions remain unanswered. The most striking of these is, How does the consumption setting affect processes of creating meaning? Thompson and Haytko identify that consumers actively rework meanings, and they depict constructions of meaning across diffuse consumption contexts, but they give limited attention to how the consumption setting affects regenerative processes. Research has situated the consumption object in a context of the informants choosing, often interviewing consumers in private offices in a process heavily dependent on the consumers memory. Such context enables an understanding of generalized meaning-creation mechanisms but does not allow investigation of the impact of the consumption setting. Murray (2002) cites context as an important element in meaning creation, but he investigates the pertinence of context as it relates to a different type of informant base, not context as it relates to the consumption setting. Extant research has paved the way for an extension of the investigation of product meaning creation in consumption contexts and enables investigation of certain practices that consumers employ to select meaning influences. The literature establishes that consumers draw on everyday micro- and macro-societal influences to create product meanings, yet that process is not without structure. This article responds to Thompson and Haytkos (1997) suggestion for further research in social categories as a means to understand product meanings. This article also extends current theory by ascertaining the existence of such structures and clarifying their use in the creation of meaning in order to provide a deeper understanding of how consumers create product meanings in certain consumption settings.

Consumption object and research design
To investigate how consumers construct product meanings, this research examines the product of African-style clothing, to mean clothing with African origins. Because consumers are often highly involved in negotiating and redefining product meanings for cultural products in markets outside the products culture of origin, African-style clothing is an appropriate research area. In addition, in the United States, African and African-style fabrics are a multibillion-dollar market (Samuels 1992), and the products commercial success has led to their diffusion into many contexts. Dress, often defined as an assemblage of body modifications or supplements, also includes clothing and behaviors (e.g., dieting, plastic surgery, cosmetics; Lynch 1999). This study focuses on outer garments, where the terms dress, garment, outfit, and wear are used to mean clothing. Headgear of African-style fabric and form was included in the analysis as clothing, whereas jewelry was not analyzed on its own, but only when worn with African-style clothing.

As Rabine (2002) observes about African fashion, African American consumers often do not distinguish among countries and cultures; this study confirms her observation. Thus, although African-style clothing is a broad term (and it is not my intention to represent such clothing as homogenous), it represents African American consumers perceptions of clothing with African origins and the terms they use to describe this ethnic wear. With respect to authenticity, this study does not differentiate between handcrafted textiles and manufactured prints. Rabine (2002, p. 13) notes that there is a world of difference between African fashion that JC Penny mass-produced in sweatshops in Asia and the authentic African print fabric designed in Dakar for export, for the most part, consumers are unaware of such differences and unable to visibly distinguish between them (see also Pealoza 2001). Similarly, for the most part, consumers do not distinguish between formal and casual African-style clothing, except for headgear, the use of which they consider dressing up. Thus, this study bases its understanding and appreciation of consumer meaning on consumers interpretation of African-style clothing, the focal consumption object. This study builds on the idea that product meanings, as is culture, are generated in contexts and as a result of consumers engagement with their surroundings (Wade 1999). To this end, I conducted a one-year multisite ethnography in a large Midwestern city to map interconnections among personal aspects of the consumer experience (Caldarola 1994), following the connections, associations, and relationships among paths, conjunctions, or juxtaposed locations (Marcus1995). Ethnographic methods are well suited for exploring relationships in underresearched contexts (Arnould and Jakki 2005) and consumption phenomena. Also, mobile product meanings demand that investigative research methodologies be flexible, which renders single-site ethnography inadequate (Holub 1991). While US consumers wear African-style clothing on various occasions and in various settings, this research focuses on three settings: educational (e.g., schools), recreational (e.g., parties, celebrations, theater), and sacred (i.e., churches). In the United States, these three settings are the most common ones in which consumers wear African-style clothing and are consistent with settings for wearing African-style clothing in prior research (Ross 1998). Thus, the settings are good interpretive sites for untangling consumers meanings of African-style clothing and investigating the process of constructing those meanings.

Informant selection and data collection

The African American consumer base in this study reflects the current consumer base for African-style clothing, as such products are worn almost exclusively by African Americans. The study comprises depth studies of eight core informants (Appendix, Table 2) and more than 70 single-interview informants (interviews lasted approximately 1015 min; interviewees were two thirds female and one third male, with ages ranging from the midteens to the late fifties). Following a format similar to that of Coulter et al. (2005), in which the researcher and informant went shopping after the interview, I met with and/or interviewed core informants and then accompanied them to an identified consumption setting. The study required my extensive involvement in the core informants everyday activities, so that I could observe them wearing African-style clothing on multiple occasions in each of the three settings. I observed each of the core informants on at least nine occasions, and observations in each setting occurred over a period ranging from several days to more than a week. For example, I may have spent Monday

through Friday at the informants workplace; the weekend at events, shopping, and church; and the following Monday at a lunch meeting with the informant. I conducted depth interviews both in context and off-site. Single-interviews involved discussion of the meanings of African-style clothing in various settings. The final product included a compilation of single interviews with different informants, a series of depth interviews with the same informant, and extensive observational data. For purposes of comprehensiveness and to enable triangulation across informants, study informants were both male and female of various ages and included three types of consumption of African-style clothing: (1) pervasive consumption (i.e., consumers who rarely, if ever, wear Western-style clothing), (2) everyday consumption (i.e., consumers who regularly wear both African- and Western-style clothing), and (3) episodic consumption (i.e., consumers who wear African-style clothing only on special occasions, such as during Black History Month or only to church). Informants in the study were recruited in several ways. I approached some informants who I observed wearing African-style clothing in public forums (e.g., conferences, exhibitions, dance expositions) or retail settings. Consumers of African-style clothing, as well as informants and noninformants, introduced me to others. The sampling practices intended to identify and include informants who met the study criteria (i.e., wearing African clothing in more than one consumption setting) and to maintain broad enough sampling criteria to enable triangulation across informants.

Data recording and analysis

This study employs grounded theory and phenomenology. With grounded theory, the investigation began with an open, flexible approach to observe and understand informants views of themselves, their worlds, and how they give meaning to their own thoughts. I also conducted phenomenological interviews. This technique has been effective in studying experiential themes in consumer behavior (Fournier 1998) and enhances the researchers ability to become a part of the consumers world and understand the consumers perspective (Daymon and Holloway 2002). Data were collected and recorded via multiple methods (e.g., audiotaping, written field notes, photography) to encourage the building of ethnographic interpretations (Arnould and Wallendorf 1994). Cross-media triangulation also enhanced the thickness of description and sharpen[ed] the accuracy of researchers observations (Belk et al. 1989, p. 5). Audiotapes and nonverbal data were transcribed as written text and served as an autonomous body of data (Thompson et al. 1989) on which interpretation and analysis was based. Data analysis was ongoing, beginning with initial data collection and continuing throughout the study (Belk et al. 1988). The text was interpreted hermeneutically and analysis proceeded with the appropriate use of bracketing (Thompson et al. 1989, p. 140), coding, and close reading to analyze words and word groups in schematic fashion (Stern 1989, p. 323). Data were coded according to single words, word groupings, and themes. Subsequently, pertinent categories were formulated and identified. Both within- and across-person analysis was necessary to identify general patterns that helped structure insights into a detailed understanding of how consumers construct product meanings (Fournier 1998). To better capture the creation of meaning, data coding necessitated that specific attention be given to context-specific derived meanings; thus, I documented the specific meanings consumers assign in different consumption settings and analyzed the sources

informing those meanings as well as changes in consumers perceptions of self across various consumption settings. In the end, the data support all final interpretations. Member checks were included to examine the viability of the interpretation (Belk et al. 1988, p. 455), and key informants were asked to review and comment on written research interpretations.

The findings reveal consumers product meanings for African-style clothing and show how African-origin fashion has different meanings for African American consumers. I present data according to consumption settings to reflect the various meanings of African-style clothing in different settings and the changing role of the setting. Moreover, the emergent meanings and themes reflect a broader relationship between product and place.

Sacred setting
The Black Church (a term most scholars use to refer to the plurality of US Black Christian churches; ONeal 1999) has historically played an integral role in the preservation of African culture in the African American community (ONeal 1999), and dress is an integral component of such preservation. High-effect colors and elaborate patterns make dress worn in the sacred setting an exemplar of the African American aesthetic and a visual reminder of the cultural forms of Africa, including traditional and contemporary African religions (ONeal 1999). As revealed in subsequent paragraphs, the product-meaning themes of spiritual engagement, connectivity, and appreciation that consumers generate for African-style clothing in the sacred setting are related to a desire among many African Americans to reaffirm African culture and their own relationship with Africa, where place is a medium for transformation or a conduit for connection. Thus, use of African-style clothing in church corresponds to African Americans positive affirmations about their lives and the lives of others, including unmet ancestors, weavers, and sellersrelationships that are not confined to the present but may be grounded in a re-created or imagined past. When consumers wear African-style clothing to church, they are spiritually engaged, using the setting as part of the consumer process of reflection. At a local art show I attended, a Senegalese designertailormarketer indicated that, when some of his African American customers commission a piece to wear to church, they are taking the African spirit to the modern society. Thus, from its inception, African-style clothing destined for consumption in a sacred setting has intentions of spiritual temporality. To further illustrate this, a male informant in his late thirties recounted the funeral of his mother and described his use of African-style clothing in church: I bought some [African cloth] on behalf of my mother when she died. I also got one [piece of African clothing]. I guess I wanted to have something I could connect to, to give back to my momma since she brought me into the world. But what I really wanted [was] to be in touch with myself. Such comments capture one meaning of African-style clothing: spiritual engagement by letting go of external concerns and events and focusing more on oneself. An important component of this experience is the role of the sacred setting, which serves as a conduit of relocation,

consciously grounds the consumer, and prevents complete spiritual detachment (which was observed in the informants relaxed but pondering facial expressions as he talked about his African-style clothing). He further remarked, Im trying to get a perspective on things....Get beyond whats going on outside of church, which suggests an awareness of self-obligation that prevents complete transcendence. An informant in her midthirties acknowledged that wearing African-style clothing to church allows her to feel my own I should be and what I should be doing. Outside of church, consumers repeatedly state that African-style clothing does not prompt such inspiration or that they are not motivated or able to enact changes for themselves that they aspire to. An informant in his midforties addressed use of the sacred setting as a transformative medium as such: Last Sunday I just wanted to lay around...but I needed [church]. I really need it and so I put on my African stuff....You know I got there and you get into it....Im not saying [the clothing is] magic....Im looking like Im ready for church and its just part [of it]. Im just feeling it. Before I know it, Im looking and singing with the choir. And how you are, its better. Im much better. Maybe I should wear [African] clothes on other days? I need something for the other six days. But it wouldnt work....Im not [at church]. But, isnt it the point? ....Were supposed to be like that all the time. As many people do, he became self-reflexive when discussing African-style clothing in the sacred setting and perceives himself as a better personleading him to question whether better is a continuous process or an end goal. Consumers aspire to experience the spiritual engagement that occurs when dressed in African-style clothing but do not believe they can attain that outside of church. The sacred setting connects consumers and their relationships to the past. Specifically, the transnational product (and symbol) of African-style clothing connects consumersparticularly in church, where they can communicate with ancestorsto a romanticized world they long to know and be a part of, one that never really existed (Rabine 2002). A male consumer in his midforties remarked, Sometimes Im like sitting there with [ancestors] ...just thinking about them sitting with me and [Im] feeling good. This consumer finds comfort experiencing double vision, whereby he is watching himself watch the past (Jones 2001, p. 379) and he re-members himself a part of the African community. It also is a form of retro-consumption, as wearers are consuming a form of cultural heritage (Franklin 2002) or experiencing nostalgia or imagined nostalgic connections (Brown 2001). However, African-style clothing is not necessarily a retroproduct, as it is often made in Africa and many styles are consistent with those currently worn in West African countries. Still, because few consumers have knowledge about African clothing consumption or styles, many believe their own clothing represents that which their ancestors wore. In this way, the sacred consumption setting both contributes to the meanings consumers create about products cultural authenticity and connects consumers to their ancestors. In the sacred setting, consumers who wear African-style clothing also connect with craftspeople (e.g., weavers, tailors), and informants mentioned imagining that they were present when the clothing item was made. By connecting with craftspeople, consumers distance themselves from the activities of marketers and others they associate with todays contemporary, commoditized marketplace. For example, an informant in his midfifties commented: Im not talking about that

marketing and selling. This is about African clothing and my brothers and sisters making it? Such statements show that the meanings consumers construct for African-style clothing are intended to be free of the marketplace and more in line with perceived ideals of church as a sacred setting. The sacred consumption setting is also a way to connect with others, with dress a tool for engagement. One informant in his midfifties noted that his clothing brings him the attention of younger church members, who then listen to him and learn about African American history. After speaking with teens outside the church, the informant stated: Im teaching the kids that this is whats its about....[W]e need to let them know that [African-style clothing] is OK...a beautiful thing. In this setting, clothings communicative abilities are key (McCracken 1989): African-style clothing brings message senders and receivers together through a common language, where generational differences may become less pronounced. Historically, African Americans have emphasized dressing up for church (Starke et al. 1990). Similarly, in this study, informants were more aesthetically pleased in the sacred setting than in any other setting. Consumers infused function and sacredness (Levy and Czepiel 1974) into product meanings of appreciation and admiration. The remarks of a male informant in his early twenties captured these sentiments: Church looks like some art....Were like [in our African clothes] a work of art here. Both the consumer wearing African-style clothing and the place become pageantry on display for individual and collective admiration (Sherry et al. 2001). Color is a main factor of this admiration, as the high-effect colors and patterns prompt people to become more aware of the features and physical elements of the sacred setting. This informant also shared: When you see all those colorful outfits, then you look around....You see the stained glass and all the decorations and its just a sight to see... [African-style clothing] makes me see how beautiful [my church] is. Consumers feel obliged to see and appreciate their surroundings as if the place would not exist, vanish, or become dull were it not for their African-style clothing.

Recreational setting
In recreational settings, enjoyment is a main outcome; thus, it is not surprising that in this consumption setting, consumers assign African-style clothing meanings that reflect the self and the experience of pleasure. Because consumers choose their own recreational settings, those settings have more personal significance, leading consumers to magnify self-interests, intentions, and desires such that product-consumer relationships become intimate and personal. Subsequently, product meanings of beauty, individuality, and fantasy emerge to reflect how consumers use African-style clothing in the recreational setting for self-fulfillment, to create experiences they desire, and to be the person they want to be; that is, to be themselves in the recreational setting. As for many Africans, African American consumers in African-style clothing experience a symbiotic, harmonious relationship with nature (Asante 1983), and often attribute to the clothing

meanings associated with beauty, such as being natural or Mother Earth. For the individual, this is revealed in statements such as that of an informant in her late thirties who said she is able to touch earth, unlike with Western-style clothing where she must fit into the clothing, versus the clothing [fitting] me. Another informant in her early fifties noted, the natural fabric....Ive had it now 20 years and I still get the same compliments on it....It still has the same shape. This informant talked about fabric durability, but her comments extend beyond fabric preservation. Further discussion revealed she perceives that in the midst of the changing world around her, African dress allows her to maintain a relationship with herself. In this way, consumers express their coexistence with nature and attribute to African-style clothing meanings they believe are wholesome and not corrupted. In conjunction with product meanings associated with nature, meanings associated with beauty also include self-esteem. One informant in her early fifties noted: I had confidence...because it was just a wonderfully made outfit. It was beautiful and so I felt beautiful in it. As Schouten (1991) notes, body image is also important. Most informants wore oversized African-style clothing but frequently commented on the beauty of their figures in such clothing, despite that their figures were hardly discernable. One informant in her early 40swho has an ideal figure according to Western standards but dresses in loose-fitting African-style clothing, thus resisting Western media that often ridicules and devalues African beauty and attire (Franklin 2001) commented that in African-style clothing, all of [my] black beauty shows. In the recreational setting, she self-assuredly exposes her beauty, the intangible elements she associates with being a black woman. Thus, consumers in the recreational setting use African-style clothing to be comfortable and to call attention to beauty in terms of self-esteem and body image. When African Americans wear African-style clothing, it is not just imitation of African fashion or traditional wear (Hansen 2000); it means being different, one of a kind, unique. At a poetry reading, an informant in her midtwenties commented: I change myself from the norm. I dont want to have on the same things they have in all the stores. This distinction, though, should not be mistaken for the desire to merely look different; consumers also yearn to feel different. Relaxed and confident in the recreational setting, consumers dressed in African-style clothing achieve a sense of uniqueness much deeper than their clothing. Talking about her clothing, an informant in her early forties said she feels like the sun or a star, ...bright and theres only one. Creating a personalized comfort zone within a public place, she uses the consumption setting to feel good about herself and her uniqueness. During the research period, I never observed two informants wearing the same outfit in one place, which may be because most retailers do not carry large quantities of the same item. But in recreational settings where many consumers wear African-style clothing, do they continue to feel distinctive? An informant in her early sixties confirms that difference is indeed possible in the context of sameness: Im still an individual....[My sister] did an African-themed party and asked all her guests to wear African garb. No two garbs were the same. Youre just different in it. Different colors, its just cheerful. It looked awesome. It was awesome!

Being distinctive is an important consumer objective sought outwardly in the display of colors, patterns, and styles of African clothing and inwardly as pleasant feelings of individuality. Consumers also attribute meanings of fantasy, magic, or mystical powers and spirits to Africanstyle clothing, despite that it is widely available in the market (Miles et al. 2002). In the recreational setting, African-style clothing helps consumers see their surroundings and themselves differently. For example, a teenaged informant who attended a dinner given by her mothers employer said: [I am a] a castle. I walked in and it was like a royal entrance. The place was an old castle. Consumers fantasize and indulge their own selfimportance through enhanced perceptions of both the physical environment and ones self. After an African dance performance in an auditorium, an informant in her early fifties recounted that she felt like one [of] the elders sitting outside in Africa watching the young dance around a fire. For this consumer, being an elder is about age and respect; she elevated herself to a position of importance that she desired. Thus, in the recreational setting, consumers create a fantasy place. In the recreational setting, as in the sacred setting, relocation takes place, but here it is focused on the self and driven by recognition of the temporality of experience.

Educational setting
In the educational setting, consumer relationships with African-style clothing are less focused on the self and more focused on the broader society with the public message of cultural awareness and racial pride. In the United States in the 1960s, there was a surge in consumption of Africanstyle clothing and the educational setting was no exception. Media coverage showed students in African-style clothing at campus protests and national marches increased exposure of Africanstyle clothing (Starke et al. 1990), and consumers wore such clothing to express social disaffection (Hebdige 1988). Todays consumers are mindful of the clothings social and political significance, and the consumption setting serves as a forum for knowledge sharing and historicized consumer interpretations that allow for the emergent product meanings of communion, performance, and creativity. Even though consumers may not know the meanings of symbols on African-style clothing, their dress connects them to the past (e.g., Africa, the 1960s) and they come to recognize that their background is important for locating where they are on this planet (Rabine 2002). Frequently, the researcher observed that consumers asked about the meanings of symbols displayed on outfits, and these encounters reminded them of their clothings ancestral linkages and how they are part of that history. For example, an informant in her midforties who did not know that the sankofa adinkra symbol on the boubou she wore translates to knowing your past to know your future remarked, I dont really know the meaning. I know that its my culture, ...thats what Im more interested in. Possession of this knowledge is less important because she enjoys the feelings of African American-ness that this encounter provides. Consumers take advantage of the learning exchanges encouraged within an educational setting; thus, place is a natural backdrop for communal experiences to occur and together with clothing represents a means of sharing feelings of racial pride (White and White 1998) and visually communicating a newly felt identity (Starke et al. 1990). As Jones (2001) notes, a present-day artifact (e.g., African-style clothing) brings together a group of people who confronted similar conditions in a particular period and makes the journey less lonely and more communal. In addition, consumers become aware of themselves

as national entities (Kemper 2001) and together form a new whole greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, in the educational setting, people and places join together through African-style clothing, which makes for such powerful product meanings (Tselos 2000). In contrast with the fantasy product meanings in the recreational setting, in the educational setting, meanings pertain to the quotidian: consumers can play out their individual and collective roles and actions (e.g., student, teacher, administrator) (Goffman 1959). A college-student informant in his early 20s explained that distraction comes easily, but his African-style clothing reminds of him of what he is in college to do. However, being a student is not simply studying, listening, and learning; it means fulfilling perceived social expectations of ones own race. Also, because previously African-style clothing was a public display of ethnic consciousness (White and White 1998), informants expressed the need to live up to the importance of their clothing. For example, an informant explained that his father was the first in his family to attend college, in the 1960s, and pursue postsecondary education. When the informant wears African-style clothing to school, it reminds him of his fathers struggles and those of African Americans. Thus, the educational setting is a forum for historicized consumer interpretation and enactment, and the individuals goal of a college degree is also a social obligation to fulfill. Another informant in her mid 20s noted that she does not want to disappoint herself or other African Americans. Thus, cognizant of their surroundings, consumers in the educational setting use African-style clothing to play parts and to fulfill responsibilities and their perceptions of social accountability. In the educational setting, African-style clothing also takes on meanings of creativity and performance. In a postmodern marketplace where the roles of consumption and production are reversed (Firat and Venkatesh 1995), informants emphasized their ability to create. An informant in his early twenties commented: When I bust out in [an African shirt], its like hey, ho! Im feeling like making something happen. African-style clothing also helps break the monotony of every day, and one night student in his late 40s noted that his African-style clothing lets him express himself: I wear [African-style clothing] to school just for...expressing who I am. I can be more creative. The colors, patterns, and symbols on African-style clothes leave one feeling empowered and at times are accompanied by an emotional rush or high. I noted on several occasions that in even the very act of recounting the experience consumers showed signs of excitement. Thus, as ethnic wear, African-style clothing permits the rediscovery of individuality and represents transferred creativity (Dichter 1985). In the educational setting, African-style clothing expresses consumers imaginations and desires to express creativity, even though they may not consider themselves artists or creative (Dichter 1985).

The previous section revealed the meanings of African-style clothing in various contexts and affirms that product meanings are dynamic, not static. With the aim of more fully examining the role of place in the creation of product meaning, it also showed how the role of the consumption setting changes (e.g., transformation and connection in the sacred setting, self-fulfillment and self-elevation in the recreational setting, forum for knowledge sharing and historicized interpretations in the educational setting) and informs consumers use of place. The data reveal that consumers attribute different meanings and relationships to the same product in different

places. These findings have important implications for how consumers construct product meanings. Consumers exert agency not only in selecting sources of meanings but also in selecting their use of place. Thus, consumers do not passively abide the social constraints of public spheres, but inject personal intentions. This suggests consumers may use the same settings differently and different settings in the same way, which brings about different meanings for the same product. To provide a more comprehensive view of how consumers construct product meanings, I derived a model based on interpretations of African-style clothing that includes two additional elements: (1) consumption settings, and (2) meaning domains, or interpretive frameworks. I begin with a descriptive overview of the model and then discuss theoretical extensions (i.e., meaning domains and the consumption setting) with examples from the data.

Overview of model
The developed model, which comprises consumption setting, meaning domains, and meaning influences (see Fig. 1), situates the consumer at the center of meaning creation and leverages current knowledge of consumer relationships with institutional and individual structures (Thompson and Haytko 1997), the consumers role in meaning creation and appropriation (McCracken 1988; Belk et al. 1989; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988; Hannerz 1992; Thompson and Haytko 1997), and the importance of consumer agency in the production of self-image (Firat and Dholakia 1998). Furthermore, the model extends existing models of consumer meaning creation by incorporating the consumption setting as an agency element.

Figure 1 Model of consumer meaning creation process.

The consumption setting is the place in which consumer and product are situated. Consumers use the three meaning domains identified herein (i.e., material, social, and spiritual) to guide selection of meaning influences. Meaning domains contain strong links among clothing, cultural products, and self, and thus are based on social psychology literature that addresses the concepts of self and social. Meaning influences are the societal and individual sources that consumers draw on to construct product meanings. This study identifies five influences: (1) macro-societal

(i.e., broader social factors; e.g., references to the 1960s and black power), (2) individual (i.e., aspects of consumers personal life; e.g., goals and experiences), (3) other products (i.e., product interrelationships that help assign meaning to African-style clothing; e.g., comparisons to Western-style clothing), (4) other consumers (i.e., meaning exchanges to use learned new meanings to create ones own product meaning; e.g., discussion of adinkra symbols on anothers clothing), and (5) material intermediaries (i.e., efforts of cultural intermediaries; e.g., marketers, advertisers). In creating product meanings (see Fig. 1), the consumption setting affects the extent to which consumers apply different meaning domains, which in turn affects the construction of meanings due to the level of importance consumers give to different meaning influences. Consumers combine meaning domains and meaning influences to yield contextual product meanings (e.g., in the educational setting, the setting is a forum for knowledge sharing, the meaning domain is the social, and the meaning influences are macro-societal and other consumers). In consumers process of negotiating various meaning influences, the model recognizes that at any time certain influences may be more or less pronounced and positions meaning as a process of interruptions and reorganizations (Hall 1985). The data indicate that, with respect to consumption setting, consumers also may emphasize certain meaning domains and influences to create contextual product meanings. This acknowledges that consumers and their environments are mutually constitutive and reveals patterns of actions in this dynamic relationship (Ingold 1995), which improves our understanding of the product meanings assigned to Africanstyle clothing. More important is the broader theoretical finding that consumers use of setting and the existence of meaning domains affect creation of product meanings and lead to different meanings in different contexts.

Theoretical extensions
Consumers product meaning creation occurs as consumers operate selectively across rich contextually derived discourses, exert agency over use of place, and use meaning domains to help navigate and interpret information acquired from meaning influences. As a result, different consumption settings encourage different selves (Mead 1913) and meaning domains. Consumption settings When consumers wear African-style clothing in sacred, recreational, or educational settings, they play different roles and recognize different identities, both personal and social (Goffman 1959, 1963). Often they use settings in different ways, and moving among settings enables them to recombine and reemphasize different sources of meaning, such that the meanings they attribute to African-style clothing continuously transform. However, there is some consistency across domains; this study shows that in certain settings, consumers emphasize certain meaning domains or influences (see Table 1).
Table 1 Meaning domains and meaning influences emphasized by consumption setting

Consumption setting Sacred

Consumer use of consumption setting Medium for

Key meaning domain(s) Spiritual

Meaning influences emphasized Individual

Contextual meanings Spiritual

Consumption setting

Consumer use of consumption setting transformation

Key meaning domain(s)

Meaning influences emphasized

Contextual meanings engagement

Social Means for selffulfillment Recreational Elevate self-interests Forum for knowledge sharing Educational Material

Other consumers Individual Other products Macro-societal

Connectivity Appreciation Beauty Individuality Fantasy Communion

Social Stage to enact Performance historicized Other consumers Creativity interpretations An informant in her midtwenties illustrates the core model components in the creation of product meaning: [At church] I do feel different. I sort of feel distant. Im reflecting some...on whats going on in my life....But, you see the choir members are wearing [African-style clothing] too, so you kind of feel like youre with them....We like the way we all look together with all the colors and what not, but theres something to it.... [At school] I wear African clothing when I want to show power...when I want people to know my power as a black woman. [African clothing] sends a signal to people. Im from the hip-hop era, raised in hip-hop, so Ive got a little of that goin on in how I dress and look too....So at school Im going to just simmer up something. Because this informant uses the sacred setting as a medium to connect with others and she remarks of admiration and recognition by others, the social meaning domain prevails. The spiritual domain is also evident in her sense of reflection and detachment. She derives other sources of meaning from both other consumers, when they discuss their clothing, and from personal differences, when she reflects on her own life. Thus, appreciation emerges as a product meaning through fusing functional aspects of sacred consumption with aesthetic concerns (Levy and Czepiel 1974). In the educational setting, however, she enacts powerful performances and contextual meanings pertain to her ability to create. She is able to communicate racial pride (White and White 1998). Her product meanings reveal her use of the social meaning domain and emphasis on macro-societal and other consumers as key meaning influences. Notably, when consumers create meanings for African-style clothing they do not emphasize material intermediaries. Although such textiles are multibillion-dollar commodities (Samuels 1992), they are not mass marketed to the general public. In fact, for African-style clothing, there is little evidence of well-orchestrated marketing efforts typical of other product

categories of this dollar size. The research informants most often purchased their African garments from small boutiques, at cultural festivals, or at other public exhibitions, and few purchased their clothing online (although this channel is growing). While the product meanings assigned to nonbranded African-style clothing make it appear that consumers do not rely on marketers conveyed meanings, denial of marketers involvement may show consumers desire to invoke their own creativity and maintain the products special attributesstriving for a type of market emancipation. Meaning domains Meaning domains are based on research in social psychology and sociology that documents how people use frameworks to structure their lives (Berger and Luckmann 1967; Goffman 1974), to make sense of the world (Moscovici 1984), to make sense of public issues (Benford 1994), to clarify specialized domains of existence (Becker 1982), and to make sense of information they encounter (Fisher 1997). Research has applied interpretive frameworks to studies of how consumers structure consumption experiences (Holt 1995), and both culture and structure are linked to how people interpret events (Swidler1986). Thus, the incorporation of meaning domains into theories of consumers construction of product meanings implies that a set of meaning influences may articulate various product meanings (Hall 1985) depending on the consumption setting and the emphasized meaning domain. That is, meaning domains suggest that consumers use schemata to construct product meanings. Consistent with prior literature linking ideas of the self and clothing (Solomon 1985; Thompson and Haytko 1997) with consumption of cultural products and identity construction (Oswald 1999), in this study, meaning domains reflect the selfparticularly the material, social, and spiritual selvesin line with Jamess (1890, chapter 10) definition: the empirical self or me of each of us [is] all that one is tempted to call by the name of me. Informant narratives illustrate the three meaning domains identified in this study. With respect to the material meaning domain, James (1890) defined the material self as the love one has for body, clothes, family, home, friends, and things deemed intimately ones own. Similarly, informants in this study exhibited strong affection for their material possessions, cherishing their clothes and expressing happiness in terms of their look and their body. An informant in her late thirties described the small details on a pantsuit, from the flowing sleeves to the silvery trim, and her strong sense of ownership with respect to her material existence indicates the material meaning domain: African clothing is easy. Its just fabric, so its not as complicated....When Im in African clothing its just something to cover up with and its not so much about Oh do I have this in place. ....I value the material that comes from Africa. I have a higher value on it....I want [the African outfits] to be special, because thats a special part of me and I feel comfortable with it. She emphasizes the simplicity of her African-style clothing, but also believes that it shifts attention from her outer appearance to her inner self. Such a belief shows how African-style clothing may signal worth and well-being (Martin 1994). With her clothing, the informant reflects the need to safeguard nonphysical elements (e.g., feelings of peace and beauty). Exemplifying the material domain, she humanizes and elevates her clothing to the level of a cherished friend or close relative.

The social meaning domain is what James (1890) referred to as ones acknowledgment and recognition by peers, the consumers socially perceived self. When informants talk about others reactions to and interpretations of their African-style clothing, they refer to perceived social relationships. An informant in her midfifties commented: I remember one time we one of those [school] event things. People can look at you and think about it as being disrespectful and militant...and dont let your hair be short like mine and not be permed. But they can think what they want. Emphasizing the social meaning domain, she acknowledges that others may have distaste for her choice of clothing, yet she finds pleasure in using African-style clothing to participate in social resistance, which calls to mind historical product meanings of militancy associated with Africanstyle clothing in the United States. The spiritual meaning domain reflects ones inner or subjective being. When consumers accentuate this domain they seem to detach from their immediate surroundings. An informant in his midforties noted: Im at a whole different level....I mean, when Im in my clothes, Im in there. Im in a whole different place, a deeper thats within me. In African-style clothing, he is physically in the consumption setting but does not feel that he is. He experiences heightened awareness of introspection and his comprehension of various degrees of externality. In the spiritual meaning domain, consumers appeal to their own subjectivity and engage in a reflective process that results from abandoning their outward-looking point of view.

Conclusion and suggestions for further research

This study extends the understanding of how consumers create product meanings, moving beyond previous studies of product use in a single consumption setting that provided limited insight into contextual product meanings and creative processes. In addition, the study extends previous theory that failed to address the frameworks consumers use to create contextual product meanings. Specifically, this study explores consumers use of meaning domains and the influence of the consumption setting, including consumer agency with respect to use of place. In the marketplace, the speed with which things circulate, the volume of foreign things in the hands of ordinary people, the variety of things that show up in odd placesall define a new world order (Kemper 2001, p. 8). To this end, the research findings are important to marketers. Products today cross borders with ease and frequency (Mahon 2000), and consumers increasingly have greater product selection. This requires that marketers have a more thorough understanding of consumers and product meanings in order to make better strategic decisions about such matters as target market definition and product positioning (Keller 1993). This study implies that marketers need to move beyond attempts to understand more generalized, or macro, meanings of their products and strive for greater understanding of the product

meanings consumers assign to the same product in different settings. Fashion, art, food, and technology products are but a few examples that highlight the importance of people and place in the creation of product meaning. That consumers interpretations of meanings are contingent on a host of factorsincluding but not limited to product use, consumption context, attributes, benefits, and associations with other brands/categories (Martin et al.2005)also implies the need to understand the process that underlay and facilitate consumers product meaning. This study begins to address such needs and suggests that understanding consumers contextual product meanings will provide marketers with more specificity for developing niche marketing strategies and market segmentation plans. The model presented herein provides marketers with an initial approach for analyzing consumers product meanings. By identifying the meaning domains that consumers use in consumption settings and the corresponding meaning influences for other products, further research can develop a framework of consumers product meanings and processes of meaning creation. Such a framework would help practitioners in making changes to or developing new product identities and in product branding, positioning, and personality. Another contribution of this study is its methodology of multisite ethnography. It has been shown that naturalistic investigations of consumer product meanings are important to understanding consumer behavior. Previous research has suggested a need to study processes of consumer behavior with the same set of consumers over time (Delorme et al. 2004), which implies that there may be benefits from studying the same set of consumers across different settings. The use of multisite research in marketing remains limited, and studies that use multiple sites often use different consumer groups or products. In contrast, this research studied the same product and consumers across contexts, which provides unique access to consumer insights, particular consumer identity shifts across settings. Moving with consumers allowed me to identify how consumers use meaning domains and agency with respect to place, and it exposed relationships among meaning domains, consumption setting, and meaning influences. Future multisite research may offer similar benefits for marketing studies of ongoing negotiations, such as appropriation, acculturation, authentication, and transculturation. The study does present some limitations that present opportunities for future research. In this study, the core informants were members of the historical African Diaspora (referring to the Diaspora that precedes colonial states; Zeleza 2005). This group is the largest purchaser of African-style clothing in the United States and is therefore an appropriate focal informant base for this study. However, additional insights into the consumption experience could be gained from the inclusion of different racial and/or ethnic populations. With respect to the consumption object of this study, the various properties embedded in a textile (e.g., social, personal, spiritual, cultural, political, historical) make it flexible, which lends clothing to a broad range of interpretations (Weiner and Schneider 1989) and makes it conducive to examining changes in product meaning across consumption settings. However, personal relationships with body and dress often carry a unique set of circumstances and experiences that may differ from relationships with items of material culture that are perceived as less intimate. In addition, as previously noted, most often Americans are unable to distinguish types of African-style clothing (e.g. formal/casual, authentic/inauthentic), which makes African-style clothing not ideal for examining situational influences. Opportunities exist to further explore the meaning transfer

process by conducting empirical examinations that include a different product or product category.

Table 2 Core informant profiles

Type of clothing user Gender Age Episodic Episodic Episodic Everyday Everyday Pervasive Pervasive Pervasive Male Male Male


Female Mid 20s Poet, writer, teacher Mid 40s Cleaning business owner, student Early 20s Student Mid 20s Student, musician

Female Early 50s Teacher, nurse instructor Female Early 40s Administrative assistant Female Early 60s African-clothing store owner Female Late 30s Art gallery and creative center owner

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