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Despite our enduring fascination with the lifestyles of the one percent, it’s well documented that we—as consumers—value experiences over things. However, when managers study consumer experiences as individual events in an attempt to understand reactions to products, services and brands, they’re missing the bigger picture. A longer view reveals that consumers continually seek out products and services because of what those things allow them to do and be versus caring deeply about the things themselves.

The importance of understanding how consumers’ extended experiences evolve is illuminated in “Value Creation in Consumption Journeys: Recursive Reflexivity and Practice Continuity,” a paper co-authored by University of Denver Daniels College of Business Associate Professor of Marketing Melissa Archpru Akaka and Hope Jenson Schau, a marketing professor at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. The paper was recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

“If companies can see beyond their firm-centric approaches and work to understand consumers’ extended experiences, they can determine where they can insert their brands into peoples’ lives and consumption journeys,” said Akaka, citing one of the paper’s key findings. “It’s clear that people have relationships with brands not because they’re passionate about the brand itself, but because the brand enables them to do something they’re passionate about.”

Melissa Akaka

Using surfing as the context to examine the consumption journey—or an individual’s progressive engagement with a particular experience, action, practice or lifestyle—Akaka and Schau (both of whom have strong ties to surfing) developed a framework that is grounded in practice theory. Their study of practice-based consumption journeys highlights the idea that the things we do shape who we are.

“We conceptualized consumption journeys as extended identity projects through which people can have enhanced experiences,” Akaka said. “Engaging with surfing, for example, is about more than just [the act of] surfing. It’s also about wearing surfing brands and speaking a language that resonates with other surfers. So, from a management perspective, when you start to examine consumption journeys, you start to more deeply understand the uses and meanings your goods and services have for consumers.”

And understanding that peoples’ circumstances, identities, journeys and values change over time can help companies solidify their brands. “As we age, for example, companies must decide whether they want to evolve with us or misalign themselves with this now older generation to attract a younger set of customers,” Akaka said. “If they don’t recognize these changes and make an explicit choice, companies will end up with a diluted brand that means nothing to anyone. It’s critical that they purposefully align brand identities with the people they’re trying to engage.”

While surfing is a specific lens through which to study this aspect of the consumption journey, Akaka and Schau’s research has broad applications across many industries, including outdoor sports and recreation, higher education, financial planning, and health and wellness. “This is because consumption journeys may not be centered on hedonic experiences or recreational practices, and progressive identity work can be studied in consumption journeys that range from growing wealth, to weight loss, to cancer treatment or managing chronic diseases,” write the authors in their paper.

Wrapped up in all of this are opportunities for innovation as well. “When we understand the depth of the value these extended consumption experiences bring to consumers—when we take a consumption-journey approach—we can design better products and services,” said Akaka. “Once we understand what consumers really value and how that changes over time, it leads us to innovation: How can we rethink the design of our products and services to meet our consumers’ extensive and evolving needs?”