Quality of Life / Consumer Well-being

Program coordinator: Prof. Peter Verhoef (University of Groningen)


As consumer affluence in large parts of the world increases, fulfillment of basic needs is increasingly guaranteed for many consumers, especially in the developed world. From a hierarchy of needs perspective, consumers in these parts of the world are not so much anymore striving to fulfill these basic needs, but rather are increasingly focusing on self-actualization. Self-actualization means the fulfillment of a person’s unique potential- the becoming of everything that one is capable of becoming (Wilkie 1994). Whereas for most of world history, people were focused on increasing the Quantity of Life (starting from the amount of food stuffs they could acquire to, more recently, the quantity of material possessions in general), in the 21st century, that concept has become increasingly moot in the Western world. Quantity of Life as guiding concept is being replaced by Quality of Life. Quality of life is an overarching construct, including societal factors related to politics, freedom, regulative institutions, and normative systems, as well as personal and social-network factors. It is expressed in various ways, such as attitudes, behaviors, and tradeoffs between time and money, between immediate gratification versus responsibility to others and the world at large. Quality of life can be examined at the level of societies as well as at the level of the individual consumer. Our interest is to model and study the quality of life at the consumer level, while taking into account societal influences.

The central component of quality of life at the individual level is consumer well-being, which refers to people’s cognitive and affective evaluations of their lives. The cognitive component is an individual’s life satisfaction while the affective component is a person’s hedonic balance between positive and negative affect. (Schimmack et al. 2002). In our view, to increase the quality of their lives, within the societal, personal and social context in which consumers operate, striving for well-being implies searching for the fulfillment of health, happiness, sustainability and social responsibility.

micro (individual-level) needs – health and happiness;
macro (societal) needs – sustainability and social responsibility.
Macro-needs are distinguished from micro-needs in that macro-needs deal with needs related to the broader society while micro-needs are more directly part of the experience of the person. But of course perceptions regarding both types of needs reside in the individual.

Health has become one of the most important, if not the most important well-being issue in Western societies. However, malnutrition and lack of food is not the issue, but rather health problems associated with excessive food intake. Obesity – and illnesses caused by obesity are becoming of crucial importance to consumers, public policy makers, and companies. A strong countervailing force is physical activity, sports, work-out, which are also booming.

Arguably, the pursuit of happiness is underlying all human behavior. But people in the self-actualization phase are especially characterized by placing much weight on life satisfaction, which is no longer achieved through duty, conformity, and materialism, but rather through consumption of products and brands that allow for a personal projection. Products and brands are chosen that allow consumers to express their unique personality, rather than being chosen primarily on functional qualities or lifestyle projections. This calls for entirely different marketing approaches.

Self-actualizing people place much weight on sustainability of the production systems. They want to know where products come from, how they were produced, and what the impact on the environment is. Alarming reports on the greenhouse effect strengthen this tendency. As a consequence, consumers are giving more weight to environmentally friendly production systems such as organic farming and renewable energy (“Green electricity”). Consumer trust in companies and production systems, and traceability are commonly classified as sustainability issues.

We distinguish between two components of social responsibility – Consumer Social Responsibility and Corporate Social Responsibility. Consumers in self-actualization phase increasingly base their decisions on a holistic view of products and the world. Consumers feel personally responsible for the effects of their choices on the well-being of others. By purchasing products that have been produced in a “socially responsible” way they feel they contribute to a better world. They derive no direct tangible benefit from this but from a holistic world perspective, it contributes to fulfillment of self-actualization needs. Major examples of such responsible behavior are purchase of products that respect “fair trade” and animal welfare (including products that are not tested on animals).

Consumers increasingly also hold companies accountable for perceived adverse effects of company strategies on the wider social and physical world. In response companies have increasingly begun to emphasize corporate social responsibility. Rather than just focusing on the profit dimensions, companies attempt to balance their profit dimension against their responsibility on the social (people) and environmental (planet) dimensions.

Antecedents of consumer well-being
Consumer well-being is created, and affected by the institutional, interpersonal, and personal context in which a consumer lives. Drawing on institutional theory and adapting the work by the famous sociologist Scott (2001), we distinguish three interrelated but distinct “pillars of institutions,” viz., the regulative-economic, normative, and cultural systems (see also Grewal and Dharwadkar 2002, Steenkamp and Geyskens 2006).

The regulative-economic system involves the capacity to establish formal rules, inspect society members’ conformity to them, and if necessary, impose sanctions. It includes the presence and efficacy of regulatory institutions (government agencies, trade associations, central labor agreements, etc.) and the associated legal system that exist to ensure stability, order, and continuity of societies. Subsumed in this system are legally endorsed production systems and modes of economic exchange, competition, and rules of legal competitive conduct.

The normative system involves societal norms of right and wrong and “introduces a prescriptive, evaluative, and obligatory dimension in social life” (Scott 2001, p. 54). It defines goals or objectives (e.g., making a profit, loving one’s country), but also specifies appropriate ways to pursue them (e.g., conceptions of fair business rules, purchase of domestic products). Consumer advocacy groups and NGO’s are part of this system.

The cultural system represents the culturally supported beliefs, attitudes, habits, and behaviors. It maintains that internal interpretive processes are shaped by external cultural frameworks and shared understanding (Steenkamp et al. 1999). Certain routines (e.g., shaking hands when you meet somebody) are followed because they are taken for granted “as the way we do these things” (Scott 2001, p. 57).
The interpersonal context is also of great importance to somebody’s well-being. After all, humans are “social animals” and the need for social interaction is universal and fundamental to human happiness. Finally, a person’s own personality, value system, and sociodemographic make-up are important drivers of well-being.

Expressions of consumer well-being
Consumer well-being is expressed in a person’s attitudes and lifestyle, product purchases, media behavior, and allocation of resources across product categories and consumption domains. Further, since enhancement of consumer well-being often implies a tradeoff over time, and with respect to time. Particularly relevant tradeoffs include short-term gratification versus long-term responsibility, time versus money, and work versus leisure. Understanding the tradeoff involving time is fundamental to understanding why self-actualization needs are expressed (or: are not expressed) in actual behavior.

Figure 1 (below) summarizes our framework for studying quality of life at the level of individual consumers. Our model highlights the central role of consumer well-being in quality of life, outlines its societal, personal, and interpersonal antecedents, and identifies key consequences.



Focal areas

Given that the area of consumer well-being is fairly new, both academically and managerially, our research in this area follows a two-pronged strategy. To strengthen the foundation of consumer well-being, we conduct several studies to better understand the construct and its drivers. Survey data on well-being topics tend to be contaminated by socially desirable responding. We need to control for this bias to arrive at valid results. Moreover, the literature currently lacks solidly validated measurement tools for several of the components outlined in Figure 1, especially tools to measure sustainability, consumer social responsibility, and corporate social responsibility.In addition to this foundation-laying research, we are currently also addressing several questions that are of immediate relevance to companies, including obesity, food safety, and sustainable growth. Note that projects might cover both goals (foundation-laying and action-oriented) as scale development can be followed by testing in managerially relevant settings.

This leads to the following focal areas:

  • Identification and valid measurement of consumer well-being and its drivers; across consumers and countries.
  • Relation between consumer well-being needs and actual behavior – what intervenes between needs and behavior, why, and how can that be addressed?
  • Perceptions and behavior for individual components of the consumer well-being framework – measurement, changes over time, and role of marketing activities, differentiated by consumer segments, cultures, consumption domains, and industries.

Our published and under construction work on Quality of Life / Consumer Well-being.