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East Asia is fast becoming the world's largest brand-name luxury goods market. This study develops the concept of face and face consumption to explain why Asian consumers possess strong appetites for luxury products despite their relatively low income. This paper distinguishes the concept of face from a closely related construct, prestige, and examines the influence of face on consumer behaviours in the United States and China. Due to the heavy influence of face, Asian consumers believe they must purchase luxury products to enhance, maintain or save face. Accordingly, face consumption has three unique characteristics: conformity, distinctiveness and other-orientation. The results of a cross-cultural survey support the existence of these three subdimensions and show that Chinese consumers are more likely to be influenced by their reference groups than are American consumers. Furthermore, they tend to relate product brands and price to face more heavily than do their US counterparts. In addition, Chinese consumers are more likely to consider the prestige of the products in other-oriented consumption than are their American counterparts.
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How face influences consumption
A comparative study of American and
Chinese consumers
Julie Juan Li
Chenting Su
City University of Hong Kong
East Asia is fast becoming the world’s largest brand-name luxury goods market.
This study develops the concept of face and face consumption to explain why
Asian consumers possess strong appetites for luxury products despite their
relatively low income. This paper distinguishes the concept of face from a closely
related construct, prestige, and examines the influence of face on consumer
behaviours in the United States and China. Due to the heavy influence of face,
Asian consumers believe they must purchase luxury products to enhance,
maintain or save face. Accordingly, face consumption has three unique
characteristics: conformity, distinctiveness and other-orientation. The results of a
cross-cultural survey support the existence of these three subdimensions and
show that Chinese consumers are more likely to be influenced by their reference
groups than are American consumers. Furthermore, they tend to relate product
brands and price to face more heavily than do their US counterparts. In addition,
Chinese consumers are more likely to consider the prestige of the products in
other-oriented consumption than are their American counterparts.
With its substantial population and growing economy, East Asia is fast
becoming the world’s largest brand-name luxury goods market (Wong &
Ahuvia 1998; Jiang 2005). East Asians have been found to be avaricious
luxury consumers – it is not unusual to see Malaysians spending huge sums
of money on weddings to which the guests arrive in limousines, Chinese
consumers wearing extremely expensive suits and watches, and Japanese
consumers flooding Louis Vuitton showrooms. As Ram (1994) notes,
Asian consumers’ demand for luxury products extends beyond watches
and cognac to include a wide range of high-price consumer items, even if
they may not have secured adequate food, clothing and shelter.
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© 2007 The Market Research Society 237
Received (in revised form): 23 February 2006
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To explain this phenomenon, some researchers (e.g. Brannen 1992)
attempt to conceptualise it as globalised, western-style materialism.
However, materialism alone can hardly explain why Asian consumers
desire luxury products even when they earn a relatively low income (Wong
& Ahuvia 1998). Consumers in Asian and western societies may purchase
the same products but for different reasons; that is, their behaviours may
be heavily shaped by different cultural values. More specifically, Zhou and
Nakamoto (2000) and Zhou and Belk (2004) suggest that the concept of
face, an important cultural value that influences human behaviours
particularly in collectivist cultures (Ting-Toomey 1988), may be one factor
that leads to Asian consumers’ strong appetites for luxury products.
Face is ‘the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself
by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact’
(Goffman 1967, p. 5). In recent years, various studies have addressed face
and face-related issues, such as complimenting, compliance gaining,
embarrassment, negotiation, decision making and conflict management
(e.g. Brown & Levinson 1987; Kim 1994; Holtgraves 1997; Leung &
Chan 2003). However, research on how face affects consumer behaviours
is limited, with the few exceptions of Wong and Ahuvia (1998), Joy
(2001), and Bao et al. (2003). How face influences consumption remains
unclear, and its conceptualisation requires further clarification and
investigation.
This study extends our understanding of how face affects consumption
from a cross-cultural perspective. More specifically, we distinguish the
concept of face through a comparison with prestige. To capture the
influence of face on consumption, we advance the construct of face
consumption, operationalise it as a multi-dimensional concept, and test the
difference in face consumption between American and Chinese consumers
empirically. We study these two countries specifically because American
culture is characterised as highly individualist, whereas Chinese culture is
one of the most collectivist (Triandis 1995).
Conceptual development
Culture and face
Culture can be characterised as either individualist (e.g. American and
most western European cultures) or collectivist (e.g. Chinese, Japanese and
most Asian cultures) (Hofstede 1991; Triandis 1998). The basic difference
between individualist and collectivist cultures is that an individualist
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culture emphasises ‘I-identity’ and personal self-esteem enhancement,
whereas a collectivist one pays more attention to ‘we-identity’ and social
group esteem maintenance (Hofstede 1991; Triandis 1998). More
specifically, Chinese consumers take face into consideration differently
than do American consumers (Ho 1976; Ting-Toomey & Kurogi 1998).
As we mentioned previously, face refers to a claimed sense of favourable
social self-worth that a person wants others to have of her or him in a
relational and network context (Goffman 1967), such that people’s need
and concern for self-face, as well as for others’ face, influences their
everyday lives (Gao 1998; Joy 2001). The concept of face is not confined
to a specific culture; as social beings, most people have had face-related
experiences such as blushing or feeling embarrassed, awkward, shameful
or proud. On the one hand, people try to maintain or enhance their face.
On the other, when their social poise is threatened or attacked, people try
to save or defend their face. Losing face, saving face and enhancing face
are some of the key elements of face-related issues (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi
1998; Chan et al. 2003).
Whereas face is a universal phenomenon, how people shape its meaning
differs from one culture to another. For example, in China, nearly
everyone confronts face-related issues every day, including greetings,
shopping, invitations, and so forth. In the United States, people seldom
relate their social self-worth to face and may be unfamiliar with the
concept. Hu (1944, p. 45) compares the concept of face in China with
psychological constructs in the United States and finds that face ‘stands for
the kind of prestige that is emphasized in [the United States]: a reputation
achieved through getting on in life, through success and ostentation’.
However, though face seems similar to prestige in some ways, its
underlying psychological meaning in China differs considerably from that
of prestige in several aspects.
Group self-face vs individual self-face
In an individualist culture such as the United States, a person is an
independent entity with free will, emotion and a unique personality
(Markus & Kitayama 1991). Decision making is done, or encouraged to
be done, by individuals, and individuals are responsible for their decisions
(Reykowski 1994; Joy 2001). Thus, the individual person represents the
unit of analysis for social behaviour, and prestige, in a face context,
becomes individual self-face.
In contrast, in a collectivist culture such as China, the individual person
is not a complete entity (Sun 1991). For example, a Chinese man views
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himself as a son, a brother, a husband and a father but rarely as himself
(Chu 1985). That is, the traditional Chinese self is viewed in the context
of its relations with others. Therefore, face in China not only stands for
prestige for oneself but also for one’s family, relatives, friends and even
colleagues (Joy 2001). In other words, face in China means social self-face
for a broad group. As indicated by Ting-Toomey (1988), face is
fundamentally a ‘social self’ construct in China.
Obligation vs free will
In China, under the pressure of the social relational network, a person
tends to be sensitive to his or her position as above, below or equal to
others (Gao 1998). As a result, Chinese people tend to care a lot about
face. For instance, Chinese parents will emphasise ‘Don’t make our family
lose face’ to encourage their children to behave properly and succeed in
their education (King & Bond 1985). Also, Chinese people are under
strong pressure to meet the expectations of others to maintain their face,
as well as to reciprocate a due regard for the face of others. For example,
in a survey of Chinese businessmen in Hong Kong, face consistently was
noted as an important consideration in professional interactions, and the
fear of losing face formed the basis for the informal system of contracts
and agreements that is common in Chinese business (Redding & Ng
1982). Furthermore, in China, the social self is expected to engage in
optimal role performance, no matter what the personal self may
experience during an interaction (Markus & Kitayama 1991). As Yang
(1981, p. 161) indicates, a Chinese person tends to ‘act in accordance with
external expectations or social norms, rather than with internal wishes or
personal integrity, so that he would be able to protect his social self and
function as an integral part of the social network’. Therefore, a Chinese
must maintain or enhance his or her face because of the social aspect of
that face.
Compared with Chinese culture, American culture is more concerned
about ‘I-identity’ than ‘we-identity’, and American people tend to be more
worried about self-prestige than social self-face (Triandis 1998). An
individualistic culture like the United States emphasises personal self more
than social self, individual rights over group rights and personal self-
esteem over social self-esteem (Markus & Kitayama 1991). Thus, an
American is more responsible for his or her own face and emphasises
maintaining self-face, or individual prestige, according to his or her will.
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Others’-face orientation vs self-face orientation
In China, people pay significant attention to others’ face because face has
the same meaning for others. A Chinese behavioural norm like, ‘If you
honour me a linear foot, I should in return honour you ten feet’, clearly
reveals the relationship between self-face and others’ face. In the United
States, however, people care more about personal prestige than others’
prestige. For example, in a conflict resolution study, researchers find that
US subjects tend to use more direct and face-threatening conflict styles,
such as domination, whereas Taiwanese and mainland Chinese
respondents are more likely to use indirect, mutually face-saving conflict
styles, such as connoting either high mutual face or others’ face concern
(Cocroft & Ting-Toomey 1994).
From this discussion, we can recognise that face (a pervasive concept in
collectivist cultures) differs significantly from prestige (a concept heavily
studied in individualist cultures). In the next section, we investigate how
this construct influences consumers’ behaviours, which we term ‘face
consumption’.
Face consumption
As a tradition in Chinese culture, consumption is regarded more as a tool
to serve higher-order social needs than an activity in its own right (Tse
1996). For example, drinking alone is viewed as improper; such a drinker
would be labelled as in the ‘ponds of wine’. However, drinking is quite
appropriate to welcome guests or when enjoyed together with friends. In
the latter case, even drinking for a whole night would be considered
proper, and happens frequently in everyday Chinese life.
With the fast economic development in the Great China area, including
mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Chinese tend to pay more
attention to their face through consumption. As described by Ram (1989),
Rado watches, which were priced US$270–2400 in mainland China, are
owned not only by high officials but also, and mostly, by taxi drivers,
farmers and successful young entrepreneurs (see also Jiang 2005).
Currently, nearly all Chinese administrators and higher officials enjoy a
salary supplement called ‘special expenses money’, which they use to meet
the demands of face (Gabrenya & Hwang 1996). In a simple example, an
administrator takes his or her subordinates to dinner, which offers the
subordinates face, and gains face by paying the bill, which is actually paid
by the special expenses money. This phenomenon is very prevalent in
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Chinese society, which reflects the importance of maintaining face in
personal relationships.
Considering the prevalent and heavy influence of face on consumption
in China, we name this specific consuming behaviour face consumption
and define it as the motivational process by which individuals try to
enhance, maintain or save self-face, as well as show respect to others’ face
through the consumption of products. Face consumption has three unique
characteristics.
1. Obligation. As we discussed previously, the Chinese must and have to
maintain or save face because of its social meaning. Therefore, when
consumption becomes a tool to maintain or save face, a Chinese
person will have no choice but to mimic the face consumption of his
or her social group. Otherwise, that person will lose his or her face
among the group and make the group lose face to other groups.
2. Distinctiveness. For face consumption, the products must be either
name brands or more expensive than the products Chinese usually
consume; otherwise, they cannot stand for face. In other words, face
products must be distinctive, whether through brand or high price.
Because face stands for group face and group interests are more
important than personal interests (Ting-Toomey 1988), Chinese
consumers are willing to pay more for face products than they would
for the products they usually consume.
3. Other orientation. Given the importance of face in China, people also
must pay much attention to others’ face. Therefore, for face
consumption, the consumer must carefully judge the value of the
products or services when purchasing or consuming with others to
enable the others to feel full of face. Gift giving and dinner parties are
two typical ways to show respect to others’ face.
In the literature, a concept similar to face consumption – status and
conspicuous consumption – was first addressed by Veblen (1934) in his
economic theory of the leisure class. He defined conspicuous consumption
as expenditures made not for comfort or use but for purely honorific
purposes to inflate the ego and that occurs primarily to offer an
ostentatious display of wealth. Researchers further have defined status
consumption as the conspicuous consumption of luxury products that
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confer and symbolise status both for the consumer and surrounding
significant others and that improve social standing (Eastman et al. 1997).
Status consumption and face consumption are similar in the sense that
(1) face products are also luxury products, which is characteristic of status
products (Eastman et al. 1997), and (2) status seekers want to show off
and increase their distinctive social status through conspicuous
consumption, and some face consumption also intends to show off the
prestige of the group face. However, face consumption also differs from
status consumption in several ways:
Not all face consumption is intended to show off but instead may be
to maintain or save face.
Status-seeking consumers are willing to purchase conspicuous or
expensive products whereas face-saving consumers purchase not just
because they are willing to but because they have to.
Face consumption can be other oriented – that is, designed to show
respect to others’ face.
On the basis of the preceding discussion, we classify face consumption
behaviours into the following three categories according to their
characteristics: conformity face consumption; distinctive face consump-
tion; other-oriented face consumption. In next section, we compare these
three types of face consumption for Chinese and American consumers.
Hypotheses
Conformity face consumption
Conformity face consumption refers to consuming behaviour that
consumers must have because of social and group pressures. In China,
within the same social class or reference group, people must behave
properly and consume appropriately or they will lose their self-face and
cause their group to lose face (Sun 1991). Chinese also tend to reduce
social distance within their own social class through similar consuming
behaviours (Yang 1981). Conformity in consumption within groups
therefore is quite obvious.
In turn, Chinese consumers are more likely to be influenced by their
group members, who all tend to have similar consuming behaviours. For
example, according to a survey by Tse (1996), 86.1% of a sample of Hong
Kong students agreed that their consumption choices (particularly for
clothing) were influenced by their reference group, compared with 71.3%
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of the American students in the sample. Also, only 43.5% of Hong Kong
students said that they would want to behave differently to stand out,
versus 73.6% in the American sample.
Typical examples of conformity face consumption include dinner
parties, weddings and funeral ceremonies. Although many Chinese
complain about the waste of time, money and energy involved in these
behaviours, most engage in them and try to make them appropriate in
comparison with the consumption performed by other members of their
group (i.e. not too simple, not too conspicuous). For everyday
consumption, a typical example might be the purchase of electrical home
appliances such as television and high-fidelity stereo equipment;
sometimes Chinese people feel they have to buy a television because their
relatives, friends or even neighbours have one.
As we discussed previously, due to the influence of the individualist
culture, the degree of the conformity of American consumers, though it
may exist, is not as high as that of Chinese consumers. Therefore:
H1: Chinese consumers are more likely to be influenced by their
reference groups than are American consumers.
Distinctive face consumption
According to H1, Chinese may appear likely to purchase the same style
and colours of clothes, something like a uniform. But this is far from the
case. Chinese society has long encompassed a very strict hierarchical
structure, and Chinese people tend to be very sensitive to their hierarchical
positions in these social structures (Gabrenya & Hwang 1996; Leung &
Chan 2003). For example, the Chinese always greet one another with their
official positions, such as ‘Head Li’ or ‘President Wang’. Thus, the Chinese
behave in ways designed to display, enhance and protect both the face and
the reality of their own and others’ positions.
With rapid economic growth in China, consumption has become one of
the easiest ways to show distinctive face. People try to purchase different
products to distinguish one group or social class from another. As a result,
higher-priced and name brands function as symbols to demonstrate the
social distance between different groups. Therefore, and unsurprisingly,
name brands (especially foreign name brands) demand a premium price in
Chinese markets.
Typical examples for distinctive face consumption include ostentatious
weddings, gold jewellery, luxury cars, and so forth. This face-enhancing
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and face-distinguishing consumption may appear ostentatious and
irrational to westerners, especially when, as Ram (1994) describes,
Chinese consumers demand luxury products even before they have secured
adequate food, clothing and shelter.
In the United States, consumers’ concerns about face are not as strong
as those of Chinese consumers; furthermore, in American culture, equality
is believed to be innate. Therefore, though American consumers also
engage in conspicuous consumption, their connection of products to face
and the use of name brands to emphasise their face may not be as strong
as it is for Chinese consumers. Therefore:
H2: Chinese consumers are more likely to relate product brands
to their face than are American consumers.
Other-oriented face consumption
The Chinese also emphasise the need to show respect to others because of
the importance of face for everybody. Thus, the Chinese will carefully
consider face consumption as it relates to others in situations such as gift
giving and dinner parties (Joy 2001). In China, gift giving is a way to start,
maintain and reinforce social relationships, and gifts are often presented to
family members, relatives and friends. These gifts should be expensive
enough to match the income of the givers; generally, the price of the gift is
higher than that of any products the giver consumes. With this ceremony,
those who receive the gifts also receive face from the giver. The receivers
then are expected to reciprocate with gifts of equal or even higher value,
which in turn allows the original gift givers to feel full of face (Chan et al.
2003). A dinner party is a more subtle face-giving and face-maintaining
occasion, in which the host gives face to the guests through the quality of
the food, the proper degree of ostentation and the boisterous atmosphere,
and simultaneously maintains or gains face through the presence of
important guests and the number of guests (Chen 1990). In contrast, in an
individualist culture, consumers probably do not relate the prestige of a
gift or the food at a dinner party to their social status as much as the
Chinese do. Therefore, we propose:
H3: In other-oriented consumption, Chinese consumers are more
likely to consider the prestige of the products than are American
consumers.
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Methods
Survey design
To collect data in both the United States and China, we conducted a survey
that included measures of conformity, distinctive and other-oriented face
consumption, as well as demographic information such as age, education,
gender and comparative economic level among peers.
We designed the measures of face consumption specifically for this
study. We developed an initial pool of measurement items based on the
literature review. In-depth interviews were conducted with six American
and six Chinese to help obtain insights into the face consumption concept.
A few questionnaire items were subsequently revised to enhance their clarity.
We then conducted a pre-test among 20 students in China and 20 students
in the US to test the measures. After we deleted some items on the basis of
this pre-test, the final scales exhibited satisfactory reliability and validity.
To measure theoretical constructs cross-nationally, translation
equivalence must be considered (Mullen 1995). Following Mullen’s
suggestion, we designed the original survey in English, then had it
translated into Chinese by a bilingual native speaker. The Chinese version
of the questionnaire was then translated back into English by another
bilingual speaker. Discrepancies in the translation were carefully inspected
and corrected to ensure the translation equivalence of the questionnaire.
Self-administered questionnaires were served as data collection vehicles in
both samples.
Sampling
Two samples of students were utilised for the following reasons. First, the
purpose of this study is to examine the influence of face on consumer
behaviours in two cultures. Face is a culturally embedded concept and face
consumption is a culturally rooted behaviour. As a body of learned
behaviours common to a given human society, culture acts as a template
that shapes behaviour and consciousness within a human society
(Hofstede 1991). Because students are members of one culture sharing a
system of beliefs, values, customs, behaviours and artefacts, they may
serve as surrogates for other groups in the study of culturally-related
concept. Indeed, student samples are widely used in consumer research as
surrogates (cf. Peterson 2001). Empirical evidence also shows that students
may serve as surrogates for adult groups in some consumer research (e.g.
Beltramini 1983).
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Second, we focus specifically on younger consumers because they
represent a specialised global market segment for a variety of goods and
services (Moschis & Moore 1979). Furthermore, in China, compared with
older consumers younger people have greater appetites for and consump-
tion experience of western products and therefore share similar
consumption patterns with their American counterparts (Anderson & He
1998). Because students represent an important component of this target
segment, this sample provides direct managerial implications for foreign
companies seeking opportunities in China.
We employed a convenience sampling approach and recruited
respondents from a large state university in the United States and a major
state university in China. This type of sampling procedure has been used
in previous cross-cultural studies because a cross-national study requires a
matched sample of respondents (e.g. Dawar & Parker 1994; Aaker 2000).
In both universities, students from marketing courses were invited to
participate on a voluntary basis. The incentive was a small portion of extra
credit points. Participants were told that the focus of the study was to learn
about the influence of face on consumer behaviours. They were informed
that their responses would be kept strictly confidential and only be used
for academic purposes. A total of 106 American and 114 Chinese full-time
undergraduate students took part in the study. Data in both countries were
collected during the same academic semester to ensure the time
comparability. The demographic characteristics of the sample were similar
for the two data sets. For example, all the Chinese subjects were
undergraduate students, 49.1% were juniors, and all were aged between
18 and 25 years, with a mean of 20.4 years. The American subjects were
also undergraduate students, aged from 19 to 27 years with a mean of
21.1 years, and 72.9% were juniors.
Measures
Face consumption is the focal variable in this study. More specifically, we
consider the three subdimensions of face consumption: conformity face
consumption, distinctive face consumption, and other-oriented face
consumption.
1. Conformity face consumption. We operationalise conformity face
consumption as a person’s susceptibility to group members’ opinions
during a purchase decision. Subjects indicated their agreement on
three 7-point (1 = strongly agree; 7 = strongly disagree) Likert-scale
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items: (1) it is important that others like the products and brands
I buy; (2) it doesn’t matter what friends think of different brands or
products before I purchase a product (reversed item); and
(3) sometimes I buy a product because my friends do so.
2. Distinctive face consumption. We operationalise distinctive face
consumption as a person’s tendency to purchase name brands to
distinguish his or her status from that of others. For this construct, we
use three 7-point (1 = strongly agree; 7 = strongly disagree) Likert-
scale items: (1) name brand purchase is a good way to distinguish
people from others; (2) what I consume should be consistent with my
social status; and (3) name products and brands purchases can bring
me a sense of prestige.
3. Other-oriented face consumption. Finally, we operationalise other-
oriented face consumption as the subject’s consideration of others’
face in his or her consuming behaviours, especially gift giving and
dinner parties. We again measure this construct with three 7-point (1
= strongly agree; 7 = strongly disagree) Likert-scale items: (1) it is
important to have a dinner party in a good restaurant even though I
will pay a lot of money; (2) when buying a gift for others, I always
consider the prestige of the gift; and (3) if I buy a cheap gift for my
friend, both my friend and I will feel we have lost face.
We display the results of the factor and reliability analyses in Table 1.
For both data sets, the principal component factor analysis resulted in a
three-factor solution, in support of our structure. The Cronbach’s
reliability coefficient alphas for the US sample fall between 0.711 and
0.800; those for the Chinese sample are between 0.610 and 0.679, lower
than that of the US sample. The lower reliability suggests the difficulty of
scale development in cross-cultural studies. Additional measurement
refinement is needed for further research in this area. However, given the
exploratory nature of this study, the reliability is adequate and acceptable.
Covariate
The focus of this study is to examine the differences in face consumption
between American and Chinese consumers. However, in a cross-cultural
study, economic factors must be controlled to test for the effects of cultural
factors (Dawar & Parker 1994). Therefore, we include financial concern, a
key economic variable, as a covariate in this study. Because we conducted
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our study in cross-national contexts, a measure that indicates subjective
financial concerns is more appropriate than a measure of objective finan-
cial status. We developed three 7-point Likert-scale (1 = strongly agree; 7
= strongly disagree) items to measure this construct: (1) I keep myself on a
strict budget; (2) my financial situation is a big concern to me right now;
and (3) at this point in my life, it seems every penny is important.
Results
Correlation analysis
In Table 2, we summarise the means, standard deviations and Pearson
correlations of the four constructs for both samples. To make the
comparison more intuitive, the construct means are averaged and reverse
coded. Consistent with our discussion of the face concept, the results of
both samples show some support for the validity of its subdimensionality.
First, the correlations among conformity, distinctive and other-oriented
face consumption are positive and significant for both samples, which
suggests they are closely related subdimensions of face consumption.
Second, financial concern is not significantly related to any type of face
consumption, which indicates that the cultural factors (i.e. face
consumption) probably are not influenced by economic factors (e.g.
financial concern).
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Table 1 Measurement reliability in two countries
United States China
Factor Cronbach’s Factor Cronbach’s
Construct loading coefficient loading coefficient
Conformity face consumption 0.777 0.679
OBLI1 0.800 0.723
OBLI2 0.743 0.767
OBLI3 0.852 0.809
Distinctive face consumption 0.800 0.669
DIST1 0.842 0.725
DIST2 0.733 0.777
DIST3 0.857 0.694
Other-oriented face consumption 0.711 0.610
OTHER1 0.770 0.728
OTHER2 0.757 0.761
OTHER3 0.795 0.660
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Hypothesis testing
Because we compare the means of multiple dependent variables across
different cultural groups, a MANCOVA is appropriate for the analysis.
Before testing H1–H3 we compared financial concern between American
and Chinese samples. Both samples are composed of college students, so
we expect no significant differences in their perceptions of financial
situations; the results of the one-way ANOVA corroborate this prediction
(F(1, 218) = 0.118, p= 0.731).
We next ran a one-way MANCOVA, with financial concern as a
covariate, to test H1–H3. The results show that the covariate effect is not
significant (Wilks’ lambda = 0.970, F(3, 215) = 2.224, p= 0.115), but the
differences between the two consumer groups are significant (Wilks’
lambda = 0.460, F(3, 215) = 84.025, p= 0.000.); hence, financial concern
is not the factor that leads to differences in face consumption between
these two countries. We report the results of the test in Table 3.
In H1, we argue that Chinese consumers are more likely to be influenced
by their reference groups than are American consumers. On the con-
formity face consumption scale, Chinese subjects scored 5.345, whereas
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Table 2 Means, standard deviations, and correlation matrices in two countries
United States
1234
1. Conformity face consumption 1.000
2. Distinctive face consumption 0.419** 1.000
3. Other-oriented face consumption 0.365** 0.393** 1.000
4. Financial concern –0.112 –0.006 0.024 1.000
Mean 3.148 3.859 4.547 4.469
Standard deviation 1.168 1.304 1.156 1.315
China
1234
1. Conformity face consumption 1.000
2. Distinctive face consumption 0.189* 1.000
3. Other-oriented face consumption 0.232** 0.320** 1.000
4. Financial concern –0.075 0.111 0.153 1.000
Mean 5.345 5.243 5.544 4.415
Standard deviation 0.943 0.947 1.105 1.044
*Significant at the 0.05 level
**Significant at the 0.01 level
Li.qxp 16/02/2007 13:46 Page 250
American subjects scored 3.148 – a highly significant difference (p<
0.001). Therefore, H1 is supported.
H2 deals with the extent of distinctive face consumption by American
and Chinese consumers. The significance of the F-test (p< 0.001) indicates
that Chinese consumers (mean = 5.243) are more likely to relate product
brands to their face than are American consumers (mean = 3.859), in
support of H2.
With H3, we hypothesise that Chinese consumers are more likely to
consider the prestige of the products than are American consumers during
other-oriented face consumption, such as gift giving or dinner parties. The
results show that the difference in this construct is highly significant (p<
0.001) between the Chinese (mean = 5.544) and American (mean = 4.547)
samples, so H3 is supported.
Discussion
We distinguish the concept of face from a closely related construct,
prestige, and examine the influence of face on consumer behaviours in the
United States and China. As a social-self construct rooted solidly in
collectivistic cultures, face differs from prestige and influences consumer
behaviours. In addition, face consumption has three unique characteristics:
conformity, distinctiveness and other-orientation. On the basis of a cross-
cultural survey, we find that Chinese consumers are more likely to be
influenced by their reference groups, relate product brands and prices to
their face, and consider the prestige of the products in other-oriented
consumption than are American consumers.
Our findings offer some explanation for the seemingly irrational
phenomenon discussed at the outset of this paper – namely, that Asian
consumers have strong demands for luxury products despite their
relatively lower income level (Ram 1989, 1994; Jiang 2005). Due to the
heavy influence of face, Asian consumers must purchase luxury products
International Journal of Market Research Vol. 49 Issue 2
251
Table 3 Results of hypotheses testing
United States China
Construct (n= 106) (n= 114) F(1,217) pvalue
Conformity face consumption 3.148 5.345 237.115 0.000
Distinctive face consumption 3.859 5.243 82.540 0.000
Other-oriented face consumption 4.547 5.544 43.172 0.000
MANCOVA: Wilks’ lambda = 0.460, F(3, 215) = 84.025, p= 0.000.
Li.qxp 16/02/2007 13:46 Page 251
to enhance, maintain or save their face. Therefore, the conceptualisation
of face and face consumption provides a useful way to understand why
Asian consumers, on the one hand, are very thrifty in their everyday life
and consumption but, on the other hand, spend – and sometimes waste –
a large amount of money on luxury consumption.
Our findings also provide some preliminary implications for businesses
that seek to expand to China. A better understanding of the concept of
face in Chinese society can help companies understand what products
Chinese consumers prefer and why they favour them. This study also
provides some implications for product positioning strategies. For
example, companies may want to position their offerings as products that
can give Chinese consumers a sense of face. Furthermore, the brands and
products offered by western companies – whether high-technology (e.g.
personal computers) or low-technology (e.g. cosmetics) – are usually
perceived as name brands by Chinese consumers (Anderson & He 1998).
Because our findings suggest that Chinese consumers tend to relate name
brands to face and thus are willing to pay a higher price for a name-brand
product, western companies might consider adopting a premium pricing
strategy for China. In addition, when devising their advertising or
promotional messages, these companies should take the face concept into
consideration and emphasise the high quality and distinguished social
status of their products. Finally, the results show that Chinese consumers
are more likely to be influenced by their group members in terms of their
face consumption. Therefore, communication strategies such as word of
mouth could be used to attract consumers more effectively.
Our study also offers some implications for market research
practitioners. Because our findings show the heavy influence of face on
Chinese consumers’ consumption, market research practitioners should
take face consumption into consideration when they conduct research to
better understand Chinese consumers. For example, market researchers
can identify what type of consumer is likely to demonstrate conformity,
distinctive or other-oriented face consumption. Relating consumer
demographic and psychological profiles to their face consumption patterns
would help classify Chinese consumers into different categories. More
importantly, market researchers can further investigate the specific
purchase behaviour associated with different dimensions of face
consumption. Such an effort would generate fresh insights for us to better
understand Chinese consumers and predict their purchase behaviours.
Similar to most research, this study contains several limitations. First,
our study is limited by the use of student samples, which may raise
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questions about the generalisability of our findings. Although students
share many culturally embedded beliefs and behaviours with other groups
in a society, they also possess some idiosyncrasies and may be not
nationally representative. Further research should replicate our study with
non-student subjects to test the generalisability of the findings. Second,
this research provided some evidence that the face consumption construct
is unique from other constructs, though the conceptualisation and
operationalisation of face consumption is quite exploratory. We
acknowledge that more rigorous scale development and refinement is
needed for additional research in this area. For example, further research
is encouraged to employ statistical techniques such as confirmatory factor
analysis and discriminant analysis to fully validate the face consumption
construct. Future research is also welcome to use a broader sample and
follow the more rigorous scale development process to develop a better
measurement of face consumption. Third, we compare face consumption
only between American and Chinese consumers. Because face plays an
important role in collectivist cultures (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi 1998), and
given that more than two-thirds of the world’s population lives in
collectivist cultures (Triandis 1995), it would be worthwhile to study face
and face consumption using a worldwide context. Such an effort will
definitely enhance our understanding in this area.
Acknowledgement
This study is supported by the CityU Start-Up Grant (7200065) from the
City University of Hong Kong.
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About the authors
Julie Juan Li is Assistant Professor, Department of Marketing, City
University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include interorganisa-
tional relationships, international marketing and trust building.
Chenting Su (PhD Virginia Tech) is Associate Professor at City
University of Hong Kong and Adjunct Professor at Wuhan University, P.R.
China. His research has been published in Journal of Marketing Research,
International Journal of Research in Marketing, Psychology & Marketing,
among others.
Address for correspondence: Julie Juan Li, Assistant Professor, Faculty
of Business, City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Email: julieli@cityu.edu.hk
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