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Journal of Consumer Psychology 25, 1 (2015) 166 171

Research Dialogue
From experiential psychology to consumer experience
Bernd Schmitt a,, J. Joko Brakus b , Lia Zarantonello c
Columbia University, USA
University of Leeds, UK
University of Bath, UK

Received 1 September 2014; accepted 14 September 2014

Available online 23 September 2014


We comment on Gilovich and colleagues' program of research on happiness resulting from experiential versus material purchases, and critique
these authors' interpretation that people derive more happiness from experiences than from material possessions. Unlike goods, experiences cannot
be purchased, and possessions versus experiences do not seem to form the endpoints of the same continuum. As an alternative, we present a
consumer-experience model that views materialism and experientialism as two separate dimensions whose effects on consumer happiness, both in
the form of pleasure and in the form of meaning, depend on the type of brand experiences evoked. Thus, a good life in a consumerist society means
integrating material and experiential consumptions rather than shifting spending from material to experiential purchases.
2014 Society for Consumer Psychology. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Experiential psychology; Consumer experience; Materialism; Experientialism

About 10 years ago, psychologist Tom Gilovich and one of experiential and material aspects of purchase and consumption
his colleagues published an article titled To do or to have? have been studied for decades in consumer psychology. Long
That is the question in the Journal of Personality and Social before the work of Gilovich and his co-researchers, Hirschman
Psychology, which marked the start of a research program and Holbrook wrote a series of classic and widely cited papers
comparing material and experiential purchases (Van Boven & conceptualizing the experiential aspects of consumption
Gilovich, 2003). Based on a review of this research and the (Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982; Holbrook & Hirschman,
consistent finding that people derive more satisfaction from 1982). Their work was followed up in the late 1990s by related
experiential purchases than material purchases, Gilovich, theoretical work on experiential versus instrumental modes of
Kumar, and Jampol (2015) have presented a broad based consumer decision-making (Batra & Ahtola, 1990; Pham,
critique of consumerist society, recommending that consumers 1998), and theoretical and applied work on experiential
should shift their consumption from material goods toward marketing and the experience economy (Pine & Gilmore,
experiences and that communities and governments should 1999; Schmitt, 1999). Consumer psychology and marketing
encourage experiential pursuits. scholars have also studied brand experiences and related
While the distinction between material and experiential phenomena such as brand attachment, brand relationships,
purchases may seem to be novel in social psychology, the and brand love (Batra, Ahuvia, & Bagozzi, 2012; Brakus,
Schmitt, & Zarantonello, 2009; Fournier, 1998; Keller, 2003;
Park, Eisingerich, & Park, 2013; Thomson, MacInnis, & Park,
This article was written, in part, when Bernd Schmitt was the Executive
2005). In parallel, there has been significant research on
Director of ACI (the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight) in Singapore.
Corresponding author at: Columbia Business School, Columbia University, consumer materialism (Belk, 1985; Richins & Dawson, 1992).
3022 Broadway, 518 Uris Hall, New York, NY 10027, USA. As consumer psychologists and experiential marketing
E-mail address: (B. Schmitt). scholars, we are no doubt delighted to see that psychologists
1057-7408/ 2014 Society for Consumer Psychology. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
B. Schmitt et al. / Journal of Consumer Psychology 25, 1 (2015) 166171 167

have come to acknowledge the importance of experiences in market or online. Obviously, people can sell their goods at a
people's daily lives. We welcome Gilovich et al.'s (2015) overall flea market or on online, but not sell their experiences.
recommendation of experientializing various aspects of our A phrase such as acquiring a life experience is a metaphor.
personal lives and lives as consumers. However, we feel that the When dining outone frequently-used example of experien-
research program by Gilovich and his co-authors is misguided by tial purchase in this researchconsumers buy food, drinks,
a false dichotomy between material and experiential purchases, and service from a service provider. They may also get the
and promotes an ideology that equates material possessions with company of another person, a stimulating conversationand
materialism. As a result, they recommend that consumers should perhaps a kiss. But they only buy and pay for the food, drink,
forego the fleeting joy of material possessions for more and service, and perhaps dining in a particular atmosphere.
substantial contributions to well-being (p. 3) because the benefits However, they do not pay for the company of a friend, the
of material abundance in a consumerist society have come at conversations with a business associate, or the intimacy of a
a significant psychological cost (p. 2). Based on our own date. For other experiences, too, that are frequently mentioned
decade-long program of research on experiential consumption and in this line of research, say a vacation, consumers also pay only
experiential marketing (Brakus, Schmitt, & Zhang, 2014; Brakus for the tangible items (e.g., the airline ticket to be transported to
et al., 2009; Schmitt & Zarantonello, 2013; Zarantonello, Jedidi, & a destination, the hotel to stay in, the tour guide to be shown
Schmitt, 2013), we have arrived at a different conclusion. Living a around with, and food and beverage). They do not pay, for
good life in a consumerist society is not about a contrast or example, for viewing a sunset from the plane, or feeling
trade-off between material possessions and experiences. Material energized during a bike ride, or seeing the Eiffel Tower from
possessions (commercial goods and services), and in particular Trocadero (although they may pay for a view of Trocadero
brands, are inherently part of our lives and embracing them can from the Eiffel Tower). Indeed it would be odd to say, I am
create pleasurable and meaningful moments of happiness. sorry, I did not enjoy the sunset, or the bike ride, or the view of
the Eiffel Tower; and therefore I want my money back!
Consumers understand that, although they may play along with
Material versus experiential purchases: A false dichotomy
the experimenter's metaphorical instructions; but it is up to the
researchers as scientist to sort out the conceptual ambiguity. To
The dichotomy between what Gilovich and his co-researchers
be sure, it is entirely legitimate, and valuable, to study the
have called material purchases versus experiential purchases
psychological processes that tend to be invoked by experi-
is problematic in several ways. Conceptually, the two types of
ences and material goods (Gilovich et al., 2015, p. 4). But
purchases are quite different; moreover, the two constructs do
experiences and material goods are not comparable types
not seem to be at the opposite ends of the same continuum.
of purchases, and thus it is not clear what is being examined,
Empirically, there seem to be confounding factors that cast doubt
from a consumer psychology perspective, when the psycho-
about the view that material possessions and experiences rather
logical processes that tend to be induced more by one type of
than some other constructs such as (in)tangibility or self-construal
purchase than the other (Gilovich et al., 2015, p. 4) are being
are the main driving force behind the results summarized in the
Gilovich and colleagues' target article. Most importantly, the
conceptual category that is most relevant for consumer psychol-
Extraordinary experiences versus ordinary possessions
ogists and marketersexperiential products, while acknowledged,
has been entirely left out of Gilovich and colleagues' empirical
Another issue concerns the explanations provided to research
research. We offer some observations and clarifications below.
participants for material and experiential purchases, and the
potential biases that these instructions might induce. Experiential
Material goods can be bought and sold; experiences cannot purchases have been described as those made with the primary
intention of acquiring a life experience: an event or series of
Gilovich et al. (2015) argue that research participants events that one lives through (Gilovich et al., 2015, p. 3).
readily understand the distinction between material and Despite the subsequent qualifier, the term life experience seems
experiential purchases. The fact that research participants to imply, or at least prime, an experience that lasts in memory and
seem to understand the distinction does not mean that the is significant for the individual for personal development and
distinction is conceptually and theoretically meaningful. When growth. Such extraordinary experiences have been referred to as
consumers engage in a material purchase, they purchase and peak experiences (Maslow, 1964) or as epiphanic experi-
acquire a physical good and pays for its features and quality. In ences (Denzin, 1992). They include reaching life milestones,
contrast, when consumers engage in so-called experiential travel and culture, romantic love, and social relationships
purchases, they do not purchase an experience per se. An (Bhattacharjee & Mogilner, 2014). Note that most of them are
experience may occur after the purchase as part of a purely psychological and have nothing to do with commercial
self-generated, internal, psychological process. If Gilovich exchanges.
and colleagues' material and experiential purchases were In contrast, when asked about material purchases, partici-
conceptually on an equal footing, one should be able to change pants were asked about spending money with the primary
the direction of the exchange and be able to ask consumers to intention of acquiring a material possessiona tangible object
imagine selling their experiences (and their goods) at a flea that you obtain and keep in your possession (Van Boven &
168 B. Schmitt et al. / Journal of Consumer Psychology 25, 1 (2015) 166171

Gilovich, 2003, p. 1194). This instruction does not imply their friends would think (Gilovich et al., 2015, p. 13). This
anything special, extraordinary, or lasting for a lifetime. Indeed, confound has been identified and has been the focus of a recent
many of the purchases that participants list (e.g., clothing, study by Caprariello and Reis (2013) who show that the
laptops, and televisions) are fairly ordinary goods that can be inclusion of others is an important element for deriving
replaced and are usually kept in possession for a short period of happiness from discretionary spending. When the social
time. They are not extraordinary lifetime purchases, such as a solitary and experientialmaterial dimensions were considered
precious piece of jewelry, a painting, a vintage car, or a house. simultaneously, social discretionary spending was favored over
Significant material possessions can be central to consumers, by solitary discretionary spending; experiences as such, however,
extending, expanding, and strengthening their sense of self (Belk, showed no happiness-producing advantage relative to posses-
1988) and may result in extraordinary experiences. But they sions, and the solitary experiences were not valued more than
typically cost more than the USD 50 or 100 cut-off frequently material possessions.
imposed by the researchers. By comparing life-lasting extraordi-
nary experiential purchases with ordinary material purchases,
Possessions and experiences are not opposite ends of
Gilovich and his co-authors have neglected the life experiences
a single continuum
that can accompany meaningful material possessions.
Gilovich et al. (2015) seem to suggest that material
Confounding dimensions
purchases and experiential purchases are at the opposite
ends of a single continuum. In-between these two extremes,
While reviewing the empirical studies conducted over the last
Gilovich and his colleagues place a so-called ambiguous
decade, Gilovich et al. (2015) present different dimensions that
categorypurchases that are both undeniably a material good
underlie the materialexperiential dichotomy and are responsible
and something that serves as a vehicle for experience
for their differential effect on well-being (p. 4)such that
(Gilovich et al., 2015, p. 3). This categorywhether it is
experiences are more likely to enhance social relations; they form
located in-between the two ends or notis certainly of great
a bigger part of a person's identity; they evoke fewer
interest to consumer psychologists and experiential marketers
comparisons. Besides these psychological dimensions, there are
because a material good, either in and of itself, or as a brand,
important consumer and marketing-related dimensions along
may be the trigger for experiences. Gilovich and co-researchers
which material and experiential purchases may vary as well.
have not studied this category directly. At best, they would look
These dimensions may evoke similar psychological processes
at a single (material) purchasea 3-D TV (Carter & Gilovich,
and thus confound the empirical results.
2010) or a dresser (Rosenzweig & Gilovich, 2012)and use
For example, the material possessions frequently mentioned
manipulations similar to those used by, for example, Dhar and
by participants and studied in this research (clothing, laptops, and
Wertenbroch (2000) to frame that object as material or as
televisions) are consumer goods whereas the experiences involve
experiential. Per their conceptualization of a continuum ranging
services (restaurants, concerts, theme parks, and vacations).
from material purchases to experiential purchases, the
Consumer and marketing researchers have identified tangibility
ambiguous category should produce results falling in-between
as one of the key differences between goods and services. Thus,
the opposite ends. Recent empirical research suggests that this is
goods are tangible; services are intangible (Lovelock, 1983).
not the case. Experiential products produce the same positive
Moreover, goods are manufactured, standardized objects;
effects as experiences, and in fact even more positive effects
services, in comparison, extend over time, are more variable
(Guevarra & Howell, in press). One possible explanation for this
and involve people (Lovelock, 1983; Lovelock & Gummesson,
effect is that experiential products and brands allow the consumer
2004). As a result, services are inherently more difficult to
to repeat experiences whereas one-time experiences can only be
compare, and because they include interactions with people, they
retrieved from memory and relived, but not be experienced
are naturally more tied to identity and socio-cultural associations
directly again (Brakus et al., 2009; Guevarra & Howell, in press).
(Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993; Crosby, Evans, & Cowles, 1990;
In sum, material purchases and experiential purchases are not two
Goodwin & Verhage, 1989; Grove & Fisk, 1997; Grove, Fisk, &
ends of a spectrum; they do not form one continuum.
Laforge, 2004; Mittal & Lassar, 1996).
Moreover, in some of the framing manipulations,
self-construalinterdependent or independent (Markus & A conceptual model of the consumer experience
Kitayama, 1991)rather than possession versus experiences
may have been primed. For example, respondents in one In the following, we present a conceptual model of the
experiential condition were asked to imagine the fun they consumer experience that addresses the shortcomings that we
would have watching a new 3-D TV with friends (Gilovich et identified in the research by Gilovich and his colleagues. Using a
al., 2015, p. 13). This manipulation implies an interdependent, consumer psychology perspective, we focus on experiences
communal, and shared consumption (Chang & Chieng, 2006; which result from the purchase and consumption of commercially
McAlexander, Schouten, & Koenig, 2002) that satisfies the branded products (goods and services) as part of a value
hedonic goal of having fun, whereas in the material condition exchange between a buyer and seller. We exclude purely
they were to imagine an independent consumption, that is, psychological experiences (such as walking on the beach,
where a 3-D TV set would go in their apartments and what climbing a mountain, visiting a neighbor, or having a
B. Schmitt et al. / Journal of Consumer Psychology 25, 1 (2015) 166171 169

conversation) because they usually do not have commercial value created based on the perceived experiential aspects of the
aspects and/or do not involve a value exchange. purchase. In other words, consumer experiences have both
Fig. 1 contrasts the psychological model resulting from research materialistic and experiential components. When buying and
by Gilovich and his co-authors with our own conceptual model of consuming goods or services, and when remembering and
the consumer experience. As shown in Fig. 1, rather than judging them, consumers can derive happiness and related
contrasting material purchases versus experiential purchases, psychological value from both material and experiential compo-
we distinguish two value-creating purchase and consumption nents. For a consumer good (say, a watch), focusing on the
dimensions: materialism and experientialism. Moreover, compared material dimension, consumers may assess whether they received
to the psychological dimensions that Gilovich and his co-authors a good deal, whether the watch has monetary value, tells the time
have claimed to underlie the material versus experiential accurately, and can easily be resold or exchanged. Focusing on
dichotomy, we propose the construct of brand experience as a the experiential dimension, consumers may assess the design and
key mediator between consumption and happiness. Finally, instead its esthetics, whether the watch is a fine piece of craftsmanship; or
of a one-dimensional happiness construct, we follow the positive consumers may recall the special moment when the watch was
psychology literature that has shown that there are two distinct bought. The value may be low on both dimensions (e.g., it may
happiness outcomes: pleasure and meaning (Ryan & Deci, 2001). be just a typically priced watch that tells the time), or high on one
and low on the other (e.g., a watch that works well but does not
Materialism and experientialism look good, and vice versa), or high on both (e.g., a watch of great
craftsmanship and esthetics with high resale value). Or consider a
Instead of viewing material possessions and experiences at service such as a vacation in Paris. On the material dimension,
two opposite ends of a continuum, we propose that any purchase consumers might judge the monetary value of the flight, the hotel,
that results in consumption may be viewed and judged by the and the restaurants, for example. On the experiential dimension,
consumer along two value-creating dimensions. The two consumers may take into account the view of the Eiffel Tower,
dimensions are (a) materialismthe value created for the the museums, and the joie de vivre. In other words, it is not that
consumer based on the perceived material and monetary aspects certain goods or services are inherently material (and thus
of the purchase and consumptionand (b) experientialismthe constitute material purchases), whereas others are inherently

Fig. 1. Contrasting views of materialism, experientialism, and happiness.

170 B. Schmitt et al. / Journal of Consumer Psychology 25, 1 (2015) 166171

experiential (and thus constitute experiential purchases). experiencesmediate the relationship between the consumption
Rather, for consumers, it is about the mix of materialism and of goods or service brands and well-being.
experientialism, and how the two dimensions manifest them-
selves in a particular purchase and consumption situation. The Consumer happiness from pleasure and from meaning
key objective of the researcher then should be to understand how
material and experiential values are created independently and Instead of viewing happiness and well-being as a unitary
jointly, rather than pitching the two against each other. potential outcome of consumption, we follow recent research in
In that respect, we expect that there will be individual, positive psychology that distinguishes two paths to happiness,
contextual, category, and cultural differences. Some people are each with distinct characteristics and processes: (a) a hedonic
more materialistic than others and derive well-being from material path, where people experience happiness as pleasure (e.g., eating
possessions (Rindfleisch & Burroughs, 2004). Mortality salience a succulent Haagen-Dazs ice cream); and (b) a eudaimonic path,
seems to be a context that primes materialistic tendencies (for a where happiness arises from the fulfillment of meaningful goals
review of empirical evidence, see Arndt, Solomon, Kasser, & (e.g., conquering a mountain peak; Ryan & Deci, 2001).
Sheldon, 2004; Rindfleisch & Burroughs, 2004). Luxury products Research by Gilovich and his co-authors assumes a unitary
may afford more experiences than mass-market products (Atwal concept of happiness and well-being that is implicitly biased
& Williams, 2009; Berthon, Leyland, Parent, & Berthon, 2009). toward meaning-based happiness. In their work Gilovich and his
Finally, certain culturessuch as Buddhist culture may be less colleagues often contrast fleeting joy with more substantial
materialistic than Western cultures (Inglehart, 1997, 2000; contributions to well-being, and instruct respondents to focus on
Inglehart & Welzel, 2005; Rindfleisch & Burroughs, 2004). life experiences versus inexpensive objects that they obtain
and keep in possessions.
Brand experience We believe that in consumer psychology it is useful to examine
the two types of happiness independently. We suspect that the
The construct of brand experience is another key materialism dimension discussed earlier may be more predictive
component in our conceptual model (see Fig. 1). Consumers of pleasure-based happiness, whereas the experientialism dimen-
do not just buy products (goods and services); they buy brands. sion may be more predictive of meaning-based happiness. These
And the brand experience can enhance or diminishin other effects are likely to be mediated by brand experiences. Consumers
words, mediatethe relation between the materialism and may derive pleasure primarily from consumption that evokes
experientialism dimensions of products and outcomes such as sensory, affective and bodily experiences; and derive meaning
consumer happiness. primarily from intellectual and social experiences.
To be sure, brands have material aspects but they are also
marketing tools for creating consumer experiences (Holt,
2002). Consumers establish deep, meaningful relationships Conclusion: Bo had it right
with brands (Fournier, 1998); they become emotionally
attached to them (Thomson et al., 2005), and use them to Gilovich et al. (2015) prefaced their article with a quote by
express their personality (Swaminathan, Stilley, & Ahuluwalia, actress Bo Derek, who had said, Whoever said money can't
2009) and their social self (Escalas & Bettman, 2005). Once a buy happiness didn't know where to go shopping (p. 2). They
brand disappoints the consumer, the break-up of the consumer concluded by advising her and all of usto skip shopping
brand relationship may resemble a relationship break-up or sprees, and head to the beaches instead. Our view paints a
divorce (Aaker, Fournier, & Brasel, 2004; Grgoire, Tripp, & different picture. A good life in a consumerist society is, as Bo
Legoux, 2009; Johnson, Matear, & Thomson, 2011). wisely realized, not about material versus experiential
Brakus et al. (2009) have defined brand experiences as purchases. It is about shopping and experiencing the beaches,
subjective, internal consumer responses (sensations, feelings, and, most importantly, feeling happy when wearing the right
and cognitions) as well as behavioral responses that are evoked brand of swimsuit.
by brand-related experiential attributes when consumers interact
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