Experiences or products? The products of an experience!

One would say that the consumption of experiences is the opposite of consuming products. Buying experiences such as travelling to a stunning island or spa treatments for a weekend normally is seen as different from buying a physical product like a car, or a house. It definitely is different, however, what we found in our article recently published in the Journal of Marketing Management is that individuals, while experiencing a religious pilgrimage, for instance, tend to materialize their experience through the consumption of products and, more importantly, the geographical displacement of these products is very important for them to achieve their goals.

To understand it, we investigated a pilgrimage experience in Northeastern Brazil, the pilgrimage to Juazeiro do Norte. Brazil is still the largest Catholic nation in the world and boasts some of the most popular religious destinations. One of them is Juazeiro do Norte (Juazeiro), a city that receives more than 2.5 million pilgrims per year as a sacred site of pilgrimage for those devoted to Father Cícero.

As pilgrimages are marked by the movement of people and sacred/profane objects from their ordinary life to these extraordinary (sacred) places and vice versa, we scrutinized these experiences to understand better how the flow of people and objects are important during the experience, what are the meanings related to these materials, and how they are connected with the practices of the pilgrims. In other words, we wanted to broaden the understandings of how individuals live experiences through materializing them.

System of object itineraries: how objects flow

Our findings suggest that there is a pattern of movement of objects between pilgrims’ home and the sacred site represented in four main itineraries in which pilgrims sometimes tend to liquefy attachment for gratitude of their blessings and, in the other hand, solidify attachment to other objects to materialize their experience, faith and identity, as depicted in our conceptual framework of itineraries and attachment below.

Itineraries 1 and 2 show evidence of liquid forms of object attachment, when pilgrims mainly use objects (e.g. shrouds, ex-votos, fireworks, candles) as part of a spiritual act for the purpose of fulfilling a promise; some of those objects were taken by the pilgrims from their homes (itinerary 1), while others were consumed on-site (itinerary 2). Thus, liquid attachment is mainly related to ephemeral attachment to physical consumption, and its value is context-related and instrumental. In those itineraries, pilgrims want the object to fulfil a role, i.e. to deliver the object to the sacred site, not staying with them for a long time, as a way to thank the saint with physical evidence of their blessings.

‘The pilgrims ask Father Cícero […] thus, the object the pilgrim materialize has the same meaning. I’m paying the promise, it’s part of me […] paying for Father Cícero, thanking what he did. […] I paid a promise in Juazeiro, I’m healed from an illness in my head, so I left a head (an ex-voto in the shape of a head) in Juazeiro’ (Joseph)

In itineraries 3 and 4, pilgrims developed solid attachments to objects (e.g. statues of saints, rosaries, and personal objects, such as purses or house keys) having an enduring, ownership-based and tangible consumption attachment to those objects. They purchase objects from the sacred site and bring them back home to place in their houses (itinerary 3), or they take objects from home, and after touching the very ground of the sacred site, the object return to their ordinary lives now protected and imbued with meaning of the mythologies of the place (itinerary 4).

‘I bought the statue in Juazeiro. Every day, I lit a candle and made her novena. I prayed every day at six o’clock. [..] In November, I received the first payment of my retirement. That was the grace and the cause that I bought her. I lean on her.’ (Helen)

We uncovered different types of consumer-product attachments in such a situation of spiritual consumption and mobility. In special, contrasting to previous research, we found that even when the attachment to the product is more liquid (ephemeral and more detached relationships with possessions), consumers tend to classify it as special and of high value, mainly because these objects represent their blessings and gratitude. We argue that even consumers’ sacred possessions can become disposable and replaceable (liquefied), by demonstrating that during pilgrims’ mobility the consumer–product attachment may become liquefied, although still remaining of high relevance to the self and of high identity value.

Based on the findings of this research, companies related to the market of pilgrimages and tourism can be aware of what are the meanings behind the displacement of pilgrims and their materials. More importantly, these businesses can be more prepared to provide appropriate market solutions that can facilitate the flow of products between the pilgrimage site and pilgrims’ homes. At last but not least, experience designers can also understand more about the relevance of the mobility of products on customer experiences and how it is related to their practices and identities.

Read the original research article: Santana, J. & Botelho, D. (2019). ‘If it comes from Juazeiro, it’s blessed’! Liquid and solid attachment in systems of object itineraries of pilgrimages. Journal of Marketing Management, 35(5-6), 514-539. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2019.1592210

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Jannsen Santana

Jannsen Santana is a PhD student at ESCP Europe – Paris Campus, France. This study is based on his masters’ thesis research at FGV EAESP. He is interested in the consumption of spirituality, materiality and applied research for social impact.

Delane Botelho

Delane Botelho is an Associate Professor of Marketing at São Paulo School of Business Administration (FGV/EAESP), Brazil. His current research interests centre on emotions and culture in consumer behaviour.

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.