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Means-End Chains of Product Knowledge

After you have learned about the three types of product knowledge in my
previous post, now it’s time to know how consumers form a simple
associative network called a means-end chain when they combine the three
types of product knowledge.

This post contains the following:

 What is a Means-End Chain?

 Examples of Means-End Chains
 Identifying Consumers' Means-End Chains

What is a Means End Chain?

Means-end chain is a simple knowledge structure that links product
attributes to more functional and social consequences and perhaps to high-
level consumer values. Means-end chain links consumers' knowledge about
product attributes with their knowledge about consequences and values.
Consumers see most product attributes as a means to some end. The end
could be a consequence (a benefit or a risk) or a more abstract value.

Means-end chain has four common levels:

To discuss the representation above, consumers create means-end

knowledge structures linking tangible product attributes to functional and

psychosocial consequences and, in turn, to more abstract and personal
values and goals. It is also useful to keep in mind that different consumers
are likely to have different means-end chains for the same product or brand
-- but there are some similarities. As a result, consumers' meanings for a
product can be quite different from those of a marketing manager.

Let us discuss each step in the four lever of means-end chain.

1. Attributes. These are the physical characteristics of product as well as

more subjective, less tangible characteristics. For example, the high-price
attribute of Ferrari car.
2. Functional consequences. These are the immediate, tangible
consequences of product use. It answers the questions "What does the
product do?" and "What functions does it perform?" For continuation of our
example, Excellent performance of Ferrari car.
3. Psychosocial consequences. Talk about two types of consequence of
product use: psychological (How do I feel?) and social (How do others feel
about me?). Example, Others notice me.
4. Values. Refers to the end states of being and preferred modes of
behavior. Self-esteem is an example.

Examples of Means-End Chains

Here are several means-end chains that represent one consumer's product
knowledge for a product class (hair spray), a product form (flavored potato
chips), and a brand (Scope mouthwash). This figure illustrates four
important points about means-end chains.

1. Means-end chains vary considerably in the meanings they contain.

2. Not every means-end chain leads to a value. The end of a means-end

chain can be a functional consequence (Stops cavities), a psychosocial

consequence (I can be the real me), an instrumental value (I will be clean),
and to a value (Self-esteem). If the product attributes have no connections
to consequences, this means that consumers do not really know what the
attribute is good for.

3. Some of the means-end chains are incomplete, with missing levels of

meanings. This means that the actual product knowledge in consumers'
means-end chains does not necessarily contain each of the four levels of
product meaning.

4. Some product attributes may have multiple means-end chains. Although

not shown in the figure above, these means-end chains can be conflicting.
This means that some attributes can lead to both positive and negative
ends. Consumers who engage in this line of means-end chain may have
difficulty making purchase decisions.

Identifying Consumers' Means-End Chains

The best way to measure means-end chains must be done one-one-one,
personal interview to really understand consumer's meanings for product
attributes and consequences. There are two basic steps that can be used.
First, the researcher must identify or elicit the product attributes that are
most important to consumers when he or she make a purchase decision and
the other one is in the process of laddering.

Identifying the product attributes that a consumer considers when he or she

makes a purchase decision involves three ways of identifying the most
relevant attributes: direct elicitation, free-sort task, and triad task. Below is
an example:

Direct elicitation

 Researcher: Please tell of what characteristics you usually consider

when deciding which brand of running shoe to buy.
 Consumer: Let's see. I think about the cost, the high-tech features,
the color and style, and the lacing pattern.

Free-post task

 Researcher: Here are several brands of running shoes. Assume that

you are thinking of buying a pair of running shoes. I want you to sort
these brands into groups so that the shoes in each pile are alike in
some way important to you and are different from the shoes in the
other piles.


 Here are several brands of running shoes. I want you to sort them into
groups using any basis you wish.


 Now please describe what each pile means to you. Why are these
brands together? How are these shoes different from those other
 Consumer: Well, these shoes are all high-tech and expensive. Those
are cheaper and have fewer fancy features. And these brands are in-

Triad task

 Researcher: Here are three brands of running shoes. Assume that

you were thinking of buying a pair of running shoes. In what
important way are two of these similar and different from the third?
Are there any other ways?
 Consumer: "Hmmmm. Well, these two shoes have special
construction features to keep your heel stable and solid. This one
doesn't. And there two have a staggered lacing system while this one
has a traditional lacing pattern."

The next one is an interview process called laddering. It is designed to

reveal how the consumer links product attributes to more abstract
consequences and values. This process may help managers understand what
product attributes means to the consumers. Below is an example of a
laddering interview:

Example of a Laddering Interview

 Researcher: You said that the lacing pattern in a running shoe is

important to you in deciding what brand to buy. Why is that?
 Consumer: A staggered lacing pattern makes the shoe fit more
snugly on my foot. [physical attribute and functional
 Researcher: Why is it important that the shoe fit ore snugly on your
 Consumer: Because it gives of better support. [functional

 Researcher: Why is better support important to you?
 Consumer: So I can run without worrying about injuring my feet.
[psychosocial consequence]
 Researcher: Why is it important for you not to worry while running?
 Consumer: So I can relax and enjoy the run. [psychosocial
 Researcher: Why is it important that you can relax and enjoy the
 Consumer: Because it gets rid of tension I have built up at work.
[psychosocial consequence]
 Researcher: Why is it important for you to get rid of tension from
 Consumer: So when I go back to work in the afternoon, I can perform
better [value -- achievement]
 Researcher: Why is it important that you perform better?
 Consumer: I feel better about myself. [value -- self-esteem]
 Researcher: Why is it important that you feel better about yourself?
 Consumer: It just is!

The End

To summarize, the means-end chain model proposes that the meaning of a

product attribute is given by its perceived consequences. A basic advantage
of means-end chain models is that they provide a deeper understanding of
consumers' product knowledge than methods focusing only on attributes or
benefits. In addition, marketing managers can then use the consumer
insights gained from the means-end research to develop more effective
marketing strategies. Effective marketing strategies connect the product to
important psychosocial consequences and values, thus making the product
personally relevant to consumers.

» Source
Pages 81-86, Consumer Behavior and Marketing Strategy, 7th edition,
J. Paul Peter and Jerry C. Olson, McGraw-Hill International Edition
» Image


It seems we can never have enough help when it comes to organizing our
thinking. As one of our favorite authors says -- via his main character -- in one of
his novels, “I never know (for sure) what I think until I see what I say.” Writing
down your thoughts and “displaying” them with colleagues always invites helpful
dialogue and, usually, better overall thinking. Among the many organized-thinking
tools that we have used so effectively for years now is the Benefit Ladder.

The tool probably owes its genesis to a combination of sources: first, from Abraham
Maslow, the famous American clinical psychologist; and second, from the fairly
common market research technique called “laddering.” Maybe you recall from
school that Maslow created a “hierarchy of needs,” which he used to demonstrate
that we humans require an ascending series of needs -- from basic physical ones,
like hunger and thirst satisfaction -- in order to reach the higher, more emotional
ones, like being loved and, ultimately, feeling “self-actualized.” One of the keys to
fulfilling those higher-order needs was, in fact, the order of them: in other words, if
one’s basic physical needs were not met, then the higher ones would not be me
either. Said another way, the linkage in the hierarchy is critical.

As for the market research technique called laddering, it followed from Maslow’s
theory. Roughly sometime in the 1970’s market research firms began adapting
Maslow’s hierarchy theory for consumer interviews… as a way to better understand
the linkages among consumer’s purchase behaviors and their end-values. Upon
completion of a quantity of interviews, the researchers would construct a kind of
chain-map that linked product features & attributes (at the lowest, most obvious-
tangible level of the chain) to ultimate consumer values (at the highest level of the
chain). In this way brand marketers might find potential emotional need-benefits
that best fit their product’s attributes and functional outcomes.

So, in keeping with this history, the Benefit Ladder literally begins with meaningful
product features and attributes (at the bottom-most rung) and progresses up to
lower-order functional benefits, higher-order functional benefits, and finally to the
highest-order emotional benefits (at the top-most rung). When completed, a
Benefit Ladder—or even a series of different Benefit Ladders—enables a brand team
to better understand and check out with target consumers the strongest, most
competitive Benefit & Reason Why proposition for the Brand Positioning.

As you can see, each rung addresses a progressively logical link to the ones above
it…starting with those meaningful features and attributes that suggest or explain all
of the benefits. When completed, a given ladder enables a sound dialogue among
the brand team. Sometimes, teams are inclined to load multiple benefit options into
each of the benefit rungs; but we’ve found that it’s much better to limit the benefits
per rung as much as possible -- and to construct multiple ladders instead. That way
it’s much easier to perceive the logical linkages. In fact, prior to conducting any
consumer research around potential Benefits & Reasons Why for a brand’s
positioning, it’s really helpful to construct multiple ladders, assess each one’s
soundness, and then select the best options for sharing with consumers or

But, prior to sharing any ladders (or parts of ladders) with consumers or customers,
we recommend the brand team “inspect” each ladder for the following:

 Are the components of the ladder in the right places? For example, are
what’s listed or bullet-pointed on the bottom rung truly features and
attributes? And, are the emotional benefits truly expressive of feelings?

 Are the components expressed as competitively as possible? If the
brand can truly claim and support a product benefit such as “makes teeth
cleaner and whiter,” is the benefit articulated this way? Or, if the ladder
contains two consumer functional benefits, is at least one of them written as
a legitimate advantage—as in “Bayer is the only leading brand that can
effectively relieve pain (parity benefit) and also save your life (superiority

 Is there an inherent integrity to the ladder? As you read from bottom to

top, do the parts link tightly? Would a target consumer/customer see this
integrity the same way?

 Most important of all, does the ladder also link cohesively to the rest
of the Brand Positioning? In other words, does it address (on a real or
perceived basis) true needs the target consumer/customer has? Is the
emotional benefit consistent with the target’s psychographic profile and
driving attitudes? Does the ladder’s content fit with the brand character?


If you and your team haven’t used the Benefit Ladder, we highly recommend
it. When you think about it, there’s a lot to like about the ladder as a metaphor for
what we do in positioning our brands. Like a well-constructed brand positioning, a
well-made, reliable ladder (one that you are confident to believe in and stick with):

(1) Requires that the bottom rungs be rock-solid--you cannot trust yourself to
go to the next higher rung if one of the bottom rungs is wobbly or broken;
(2) Requires that all the parts be made of sturdy material and form into a single
unit; and,
(3) Takes people up, to some higher place.

But one of the things we like best about ladders is that they are pretty darn simple.

Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney