A Grounded Theory Approach in a Branding Context: Challenges and lessons learnt during the research process

Anne Rindell, PhD.

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to discuss challenges and lessons
learnt when conducting a classic grounded theory study in a
marketing context. The paper focuses on two specific challenges
that were met during a specific research process. The first
challenge related to positioning the study, namely, specifying
“what the study is a study of”. The second challenge concerned
the choice between formal or substantive theory. Both challenges
were accentuated as the emerged core category concerned a
phenomenon that has caught less attention in marketing, that is,
the temporal dimension in corporate images. By the temporal
dimension in corporate images we mean that corporate images
often have roots in earlier times through consumer memories. In
other words, consumers are not tabula rasa, that is, blank sheets
of paper on which communication messages can be printed.
Rather, consumers have a pre-understanding of the company that
works as an interpretation framework for company actions in the
present. The lessons learnt from this research process can be
summarized as “stay faithful to the data”, “write memos on issues
you reflect upon although they might be in another substantial
field” as they might become useful later, and, “look into thinking
in other disciplines” as disciplines do not develop equally.

Introduction

Classic grounded theory is not a mainstream methodology in
marketing, especially not in branding and image research. This is
surprising, as the original perspective marketing adopted was
that of the consumer, and therefore classic grounded theory
studies could provide important new insights into consumers,
given that the aim is to develop fresh insights and new theories
(Goulding, 1998). As Payne et al. state, although consumer
understanding expresses the initial perspective marketing
adopted, the mainstream marketing literature is largely
organization-focused in its nature (Payne, Storbacka, Frow, &
Knox, 2009). However, especially within marketing
communications and branding, leading scholars now urge for
genuine consumer understanding in a branding context (Schultz,
2006). This may enhance the interest for classic grounded theory
among branding and marketing communication scholars as this
area might benefit from the development of explanatory theory.
Nevertheless, from my own experience, there are only a few
academic articles that have a methodological approach and can
provide explicit guidance for novel researchers in using classic
grounded theory in a marketing context (see e.g. Goulding, 1998).
Practical advice from experienced CGT scholars in marketing can
also be hard to find in one’s home country. Moreover, differences
in methodological approaches concerning GT and especially
misconceptions among scholars (Goulding, 1998) made the
present research process challenging. However, my supervisor’s
full support was valuable here.

In sum, this paper examines a research process with a
classic grounded theory approach in a branding context. The
purpose of this paper is to discuss especially two challenges met
and lessons learnt during the research process. The first issue
concerns the challenge of positioning the study within an area in
marketing and the second challenge concerns the choice between
formal or substantive theory. In the paper, some reflections are
also made in relation to researcher experiences in doing the
research.

The paper is organized as follows: first, a short overview of
the conducted study is provided in order to give a context for the
discussion. Then, the first challenge, positioning the study within
marketing research, will be discussed together with some lessons
learnt from the journey. Then, the second challenge, to choose
between generating formal or substantive theory, is discussed.
Finally, concluding reflections, implications and contributions of
the paper are presented.

The Temporal Dimension in Consumers’ Corporate
Image Constructions

This research process was initiated by an episode in the
spring of 2004. It was Saturday and I came out to the parking
place outside our house. Our neighbor had just arrived from a
shopping trip and was unpacking his car. My presence obviously
got him embarrassed, he took his time when unpacking his car
and finally, as I didn’t leave, he began to excuse himself for
having shopping bags from a shop nearby for home decoration
that had opened up some time ago. He explained he got an
impulse all of a sudden to look into the shop although he doesn’t
usually shop there. It had been a real surprise to him to find out
that they sold nice, good quality things and that the shop was
really fresh and inviting. He hadn’t expected that and was still
embarrassed and tried to convince me to go to and visit the shop
to find out myself and to verify the difference.

I didn’t intervene but I was confused. What was he referring
to? What was the difference he wanted me to verify? What is he
thinking of? I hadn’t paid attention to the opening of the
warehouse and didn’t think “anything” of the company although I
knew it and had visited it years ago.

This episode became the inspiration for a series of five (5)
studies with 23 informants focusing on understanding “how do
consumers construct their corporate images, focusing on the
temporal dimension in the image constructions”. The whole data
set consisted of 12 interviews, 11 written accounts, one group
interview with five persons, and seven learning diaries from
students. (see (Rindell, 2007)

In the first inductive and exploratory part, six (6) open-ended
conversational interviews were conducted with adult male and
female informants at differing ages. The informants were asked
to freely elaborate on one initial question: “what comes to mind
when you hear XX” [the name of a Finnish retailer]. The data
were open coded and a temporal dimension emerged, that is,
informants referred to past and present times and future
expectations with representations of the company.

The temporal dimension emerged as the most salient code
throughout the data and was chosen as a core category. For
generating a theory on the temporal dimension theoretical
sampling was conducted and data was analyzed and constantly
compared in accordance with a classic grounded theory approach
(Glaser, 1978; Goulding, 1998). Therefore, the process of data
collection was “controlled” by the emerging theory. The chosen
core category was also considered as the most relevant category
for prediction and explanation.

Discovering the temporal dimension was not difficult as
informants expressed it very clearly, but it was surprising; “why
do informants refer to past times, the founder of the company and
earlier corporate strategies and own and others’ experiences?” As
the study was positioned and thereby also contributed to
branding research the time dimension was conceptualized and
labelled image heritage. Within this literature, corporate [brand]
image stands for the consumer’s view of the company (Stern et al
(2001). Image heritage stands for the consumers’ activated
memories over time with representations of a company based on
which they construct corporate images today. In essence, image
heritage stands for those consumer memories that are activated
on certain occasions and become the interpretation framework for
corporate images in the present.

Based on the emerged view, a theoretical proposition of
corporate images was formulated as “consumers’ corporate
images are constructed through dynamic relational processes
based on a multifaceted network of earlier images from multiple
sources over time.” Therefore, corporate image constructions were
found to be processes in the consumers’ minds with roots in the
past. These past activated memories were not only initiated by
the company or by consumers’ own personal experiences; other
“sources”, like other people or other happenings in the past, also
influenced them.

The study met the current challenges within the branding
research of consumer-orientation and added to the understanding
about consumers’ corporate image constructions, especially by
introducing the temporal dimension into corporate images.
Additionally, the study supported process and relationship
oriented views on corporate images as it recognizes that corporate
images may change, they are multiple and constructed over time.

Next, two specific challenges that were met during the
research process will be discussed.

Positioning the Study: “What is the study a study of?”

The dictum not to generate concepts from data with
preconceived ideas and thereby to force data in the wrong
direction (Glaser, 1978) is essential in classic grounded theory.
However, as the theory emerged, difficulties in situating the
study within the marketing literature surfaced. In essence, the
question concerned the overall phenomenon. What were these
past and present representations of the company that consumers
referred to and how do they influence their thinking today?

Within marketing, some scholars do focus on consumer
images and perceptions; however, the temporal dimension at the
consumer level had not been the focus of research. For example,
service marketing has a focus on customer experience. Customer
experience can be regarded as the internal and subjective
response a customer has to any direct or indirect contact with a
company (Meyer & Schwager, 2008). Within relationship
management, the guiding principle is on building relationships
between buyers and sellers (Hollensen, 2003). This approach in
marketing therefore takes account of the temporal dimension in a
buyer-seller relationship. Within branding research the
relationship approach has been recognized in research focusing
on what kind of relationships consumers build with the brand
(Fournier, 1998). Within branding research, corporate brand
images are a frequently studied phenomenon. However, the
majority of studies look at images as attributes and static endstates
(Stern, Zinkhan, & Jaju, 2001), not as dynamic consumer
constructions over time as the findings of the present study
indicate.

Literature reviews were made within the service and
relationship management literature, branding, postmodern brand
research, and consumer behavior. Additional literature reviews
were made within management studies on sense-making and
identity. After the understanding emerged that the study was
related to memory, psychology, neuroscience and pedagogy
literature on memory was also reviewed. For example, Bar and
Neta (2008) propose that the human brain should be
considered as proactive, continuously producing predictions of the
environment based on similarities between novel inputs and
closest familiar representations stored in memory. They suggest
that mental life and behavior are guided by “scripts” developed
from experiences and stored memory. Bar and Neta’s study can
be considered to support findings in this study.

The challenge was, however, accentuated as the findings did
not support mainstream marketing thinking, which was
confusing and challenging. Our department and especially my
supervisor supported me as they considered the findings to be
based on empirical evidence although no studies were found with
similar or related data for support. Researchers at my
department are world renowned for new thinking within service
marketing, and thus they were familiar with the confusion and
conflicts new thinking may create and encouraged me to
continue. Their support was invaluable but it also enhanced the
challenge.

As the study progressed I became convinced that
participants were engaged in the process of image construction;
especially during the interviews this could be observed not only in
what informants said but also in how they expressed themselves
through body language and mimic. All the multiple images they
constructed during the interviews became a body of consumer
experiences out of which the images were constructed.

Moreover, according to Alasuutari (1995), qualitative
research processes often have deep roots that can extend well into
the researcher’s past, making it difficult to specify an exact
starting point for the research process. Likewise, Glaser (1998)
has argued that grounded theory is especially appropriate for
lifelong interests. During my study, I discovered that this
research had a long history. I had occasionally been puzzled
about how people perceive things, for example, students seem to
perceive companies so differently, and even apologize for having
misunderstood advertisements and company intentions. A
question posed by a colleague after a presentation of the results
became important: “are you taking about memory?” This question
inspired me to undertake a multidisciplinary literature review.
Nevertheless, the question of situating the study within
marketing was kept open for as long as possible and frequently
discussed during the research process.

The lesson learnt was to believe in emergence and to stay
faithful to and to believe in the data. The interviews became
experiences for the interviewer as well, and many other things
beyond spoken words convinced me about the emerging issue.
Especially during the exploratory highly inductive phase, it can
be hard to foresee what is to be regarded as data. The lesson
learnt became therefore the emphasis made in textbooks in
relation to taking a broad view on what can be considered as
data. However, as expressed by Glaser (1978, 37) “it is never clear
cut for what and to where discovery will lead”. Thus, personal
support from experienced CGT researchers, supervisors and
researcher networks especially within one’s own discipline could
be extremely helpful. Likewise as positioning the study, the
decision of the status of the generated theory may not be easy and
evident in the beginning of an inductive study. This will be
discussed next.

Formal or Substantive theory

Theory generated using grounded theory is of two types:
substantive or formal. Substantive theory emerges from research
conducted in a substantive area and is relevant to that, while
formal theory is a theory of a substantive theory’s general
implications generated through data and literature outside of the
substantive area (Glaser,2007).

In a grounded theory approach, a substantive theory aims at
explaining ‘what is going on’ in the data in one substantive area.
The present study is a “one substantive area” study as it concerns
how consumers and employees perceive a retailer. The emerging
theory on the temporal dimension in images is generated based
on data from this one area but the findings have general
implications within marketing. Therefore, in the research report
it was specified that the focus was on generating a starting point
for a formal theory within marketing
, that is, on the temporal
dimension in consumers’ image construction processes within
marketing. The reason for this specification was due to the fact
that the body of collected data at the end of the research process
was also from substantive areas other than retailing, like B-to-B
and international marketing.

This discrepancy is due to how the research process evolved.
Based on data analysis in the inductive phase, theoretical
sampling focused on the temporal dimension in corporate image
construction processes. As good grounded theory should be
modifiable (Glaser, 1992, p. 24), additional episodes were
analyzed during the research process in other substantive areas
so as to gain a deeper understanding of the emerged theory. No
memos were added however, to “the official data set” due to
inexperience in using CGT. Also, new research projects focusing
on the emerged theory were conducted in other business areas
but they were reported separately. Additionally, as the generated
theory is in its core about understanding the role of consumers’
memories in a business context the findings were also compared
with knowledge from other fields of science concerning memory.
For example, Biggs and Tang (2007) emphasize within pedagogy
the role of earlier knowledge and understanding as the
framework upon which new understanding is constructed.

Glaser and Strauss (1967) emphasize that in advancing a
substantive theory to a formal one, a comparative analysis of
groups from many kinds of substantive areas may be the most
powerful method. At the end of the research process, confidence
in and conviction about the theory was reached. Therefore
the status of the theory was stated as a starting point for a
formal theory.

There were two lessons to learn. First, when undertaking
one’s first grounded theory study it is hard to know in the
beginning or even during the research process what becomes
important in the end when the puzzle takes shape and one starts
to understand the emerging theory more fully. The first lesson
learnt was to continuously write memos on every occasion that
probably relates to the emerging theory and add that to the data
set, instead of following strictly a structured, albeit emerging
research plan.

The second lesson learnt was related to writing research
reports. As my understanding about the emerging theory
developed, based also on the other conducted studies with the
same focus, a discrepancy between my understanding about the
phenomena and what can be reported based on one single study
developed. The lesson learnt was to try to keep focused on
reporting and theory development although it is extremely
challenging in the beginning when the phenomenon under study
has yet to emerge, since such understanding develops slowly.

Summary

The purpose of this paper was to discuss challenges and
lessons learnt while conducting a classic grounded theory study
in a marketing context. As marketing studies using classic
grounded theory with emphasis on methodological issues sparse
in academic marketing journals, to learn and to get confidence in
the method from other studies becomes a challenge. Therefore, a
special issue in an academic marketing journal on CGT research
could provide useful guidance for those who are inexperienced
with the method. Discussion of discipline specific issues could
provide help here as it is sometimes difficult to learn from papers
written in other disciplinary contexts when one is unfamiliar with
the substantive area. Additionally, articles that make more
explicit the research process could be used as the reference point
for proper application of the method and lessen the researcher’s
work to convince other non-CGT researchers of methodological
issues. Finally, classic research reports provide the good
overviews of research findings; however, research reports
following and opening up the research process may contribute in
new additional ways as guidance for others. Therefore, it could
also be helpful and interesting to read research reports based on
actual experiences of using the method rather than the sanitized
accounts presented in the literature.

As a concluding remark, the challenge of situating the
conducted CGT study within one’s discipline is not an indication
of a lack of knowledge about the discipline; rather, it simply
indicates that the emerging theory may oppose mainstream
thinking quite radically. In the present study conviction in the
emerging theory was also gained from other disciplines. As a
result, the lessons learnt can be summarized as “stay faithful to
the data”, and “look into thinking in other disciplines” as
disciplines do not develop equally.

Author

Anne Rindell, Ph.D.
Department of Marketing
HANKEN School of Economics
Helsinki, Finland
E-mail: anne.rindell@hanken.fi

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