Consumer-object relationships in the digital age

Amazon reported that in the first year after it had introduced Alexa in its voice-interactive digital assistant Echo devices, half a million home users had told “her” that they loved her (Risley, 2015) and that half of them had asked Alexa to marry them (Murdoch, 2016).

Consumers start building relationships with smart devices possessing human-like attributes, such as voice controlled smart assistants (VCSAs). They engage with VCSAs through short conversations, commands, and queries. This paper investigates the spectrum of relationships between humans and smart objects. It reveals different relationships consumers build with anthropomorphized devices and how these relationships affect actual and intended future use.

  • What sorts of relationships do consumers build with VCSAs in this process?
  • How do those relationships influence the perceived value of interacting with such assistants in cumulative interactions?
  • And what types of perceived anthropomorphism occur?

By answering these questions this paper strives to obtain a deeper understanding of the challenges on the way towards consumers’ acceptance of smart devices.

Extended self and consumer object relationships

This paper builds on the extended-self theory (Belk, 1988) which holds that consumers perceive certain tangible and intangible possessions as a part of their self. Consumers incorporate certain consumer products into their lives, customize or individualize them and get attached to them. They use these products to expand their self – a self growing beyond the boundaries of their physical self. Products contribute in different degrees to the extended self, with anthropomorphized products leading consumers to like them more or rate them as more valuable.

Will objects become our friends?

This paper reports on an explorative research among 39 individuals who carried out several tasks using the voice control features on their smartphones over a prolonged period.

Three primary roles emerged from the research in which the VCSA was perceived as being either a servant, partner or master.

  1. The first group of participants showed a strong servant-master relationship, with the VCSA coming to be seen as the consumers’ servant. These informants accentuated the VCSA’s role as merely having to react to the users’ orders and as being dependent on users’ actions. The members of this group found it easy to interact with the VCSA and regarded the device as an empowering tool, which enhanced their capabilities.
  2. The second group regarded the VCSA as a more or less equivalent partner and also anthropomorphized it, often as an attractive and likeable character with an original and distinct personality. They considered it important to establish a positive relationship with the VCSA and became easily disappointed when the VCSA didn’t perform according to their expectations.
  3. The third group consists of participants who regarded the VCSA as a master and considered themselves a slave, who has to obey the VCSA’s rules. Members of this group regarded themselves as being in the position of a servant dependent on the VCSA’s goodwill. Such consumers anthropomorphize the VCSA mainly as an incapable other who cannot be trusted. Users who perceive the VCSA as a master tended to have more negative experiences with the VCSA interaction than the informants in the other two groups.


Do we increase interaction with servants, friends, and masters?

As in human relationships, ideally the relationship between a user and an anthropomorphized device is not all about functionality and what we can make the other do.  Instead it is about trust, empowerment and enlivened relationships with increasingly intelligent objects.

While the human-object relationship with the VCSA as a servant stimulates a sense of beneficial closeness, which encourages the consumer to incorporate VCSAs into their self, those consumers who perceive VCSAs as partners or masters build non-beneficial relationships that make them reluctant to interact with the VCSA.

In our research, those respondents who saw the VCSA as a servant were more prepared to use the VCSA in the future than those who regarded it as a partner or a master.

For those participants who anthropomorphized  the VCSA as partners on the other hand, with extended use, they showed a negative effect on the users’ future usage intentions. Those consumers soon became disillusioned by current VCSAs’ lack of “real” emotional interaction capacities.

Read the original research article: Schweitzer, F., Belk, R., Jordan, W. & Ortner, M. (2019). Servant, friend or master? The relationships users build with voice-controlled smart devices. Journal of Marketing Management.

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Fiona Schweitzer

Fiona Schweitzer is professor for Marketing at the Grenoble Ecole de Management. Her academic research focuses on the role of marketing in new product development, customer integration into the innovation process, and high-tech innovation’s adoption. She has won three best-paper awards and has presented and published her work at various scientific conferences and in academic journals, such as the Journal of Product Innovation Management, International Journal of Innovation Management, Creativity & Innovation Management, Psychology & Marketing, and Research Technology Management.

Russell Belk

Russell Belk is past president of the International Association of Marketing and Development and is a fellow and past president of the Association for Consumer Research. He co-initiated the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, the Association for Consumer Research Film Festival and the Consumer Culture Theory Conference. His awards include the Paul D. Converse Award, two Fulbright awards, the Society for Marketing Advances Distinguished Scholar Award and the Sheth Foundation/Journal of Consumer Research Award for Long Term Contribution to Consumer Research. His research involves the meanings of possessions, extended self, collecting, gift-giving, materialism, sharing and global consumer culture. His work is often cultural, qualitative and visual. He has published approximately 550 articles, books, chapters and videos.

Werner Jordan

Werner Jordan is Head of Experience Consulting at USECON. In this position he manages qualitative research projects for national and international clients mainly. As a practitioner with industry knowledge in telecommunications, e-business and e-government areas his work focuses on user experience, user interface design, and user centered innovation.

Melanie Ortner

Melanie Ortner is a Research Assistant at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.