Sub-theme 32: Creating symbolic value through the manipulation of meanings and symbols

Micki Eisenman
Baruch College, City University of New York, USA
Davide Ravasi
Bocconi University, Milan, Italy
Pablo Martin de Holan
Instituto de Empresa Business School, Spain

Call for Papers

Organizations create economic value, and they do so on two distinct levels: a material one where resources are combined according to the specifications of available technologies, both product and process, and a symbolic one where resources are combined to evoke and signify particular cultural categories, trends, or identities (Rindova and Fombrun, 1999).

Organizational research typically attends to functional value creation, for example by studying improvements in the underlying technologies or in the way these technologies are combined in product design. In this track, however, we wish to attend to symbolic value creation – the purposeful attempt to imbue objects with meaning through the manipulation of material signs (e.g., designs, visual communication, retail environment, etc.).

Most products have dual value – functional and symbolic (Ravasi and Rindova, 2008). Obviously, consumers use products to fulfill an instrumental purpose, but products can also convey meanings about their users. As such, consumers value goods because they perform practical functions (e.g., sheltering from the cold or storing and processing electronic data), but also because these goods work as symbols that point at social or individual identities (e.g., a t-shirt with a logo that signals the consumer belongs to a group or a sub-culture or an expensive technological gadget that signals the consumer is affluent enough to purchase the technology). Shared interpretations inherent in such a system of material symbols facilitate interactions because products convey information (product cues) that helps define and clarify social roles and shape patterns in behaviors (Solomon, 1983).

Understanding symbolic value creation is important because it explains the growing emphasis on design occurring in many industries, not only those traditionally associated with design, such as fashion, but also in industries not necessarily associated with design or style, such as personal computers or cell phones. This emphasis suggests that competition in these industries is changing as firms move away from competition based strictly on concrete attributes to competition based on style, design, and other product intangibles. Therefore, scholars should understand why and how firms are engaging in symbolic value creation because not only is it an increasingly pervasive phenomenon, but also because it allows them to better understand new forms of competitive differentiation among firms.

By calling attention to the production processes underlying the symbolic level of goods, we aim to open up a novel and exciting area of research on innovation and creativity. We invite papers that attempt to understand the mechanisms through which meanings are attached to products, but also the mechanisms through which firms generate, transmit, and manipulate symbolic value.

In this track, then, we invite papers that investigate how products operate as material symbols as well as papers that investigate how firms create products that can be interpreted as material symbols that define and clarify social roles. Areas of inquiry might include, among others:

  • How are processes of symbolic innovation similar to or different from processes of technological innovation? Are the codes and conventions that guide firms who engage in symbolic value creation different from or similar to what we know about the codes and conventions that guide firms engaged in technological innovation?
  • Are processes that occur in creative industries useful for understanding processes for symbolic value creation?

  • Which actors trigger symbolic value creation? Is this lead by particular advocates within firms? Do industries have firms that lead such processes within an industry? To what extent is this a process of co-creation among producers and consumers?

  • Is symbolic value creation a supply- or demand-side phenomenon? Do firms push symbolic consumption by offering products with high symbolic value or do consumers pull symbolic production by creating a demand for such products?

  • What are the institutional logics that characterize industries and firms that create symbolic value? How are they similar to or different from than the institutional logics of more traditional industries?

  • What is the resource base for creating symbolic value?

Micki Eisenman 
Davide Ravasi 
Pablo Martin de Holan