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Sustainability Driven Innovation

Means End Chains and Laddering


Means End Chains and Laddering


Although Means End Chain thinking has been around for quite some time, it began to receive elevated attention and application in academic journals in the 1980s, with significant contributions by Olson, Reynolds, and Gutman. Unlike some tools and methodologies which fall into and out of favor, the Means-End Chain (MEC) is a classic model, and one that has grown in popularity and refinement over the years.

The thinking behind the Means End Chain is quite simple: That we, as humans, may think that we "hire" a product or service to do a tangible "job" for us, but that there are very important emotional drivers underlying all of it. It may seem a simple rationalization that we choose one product over another only because of "what's in the box"... but this, at best, is only part of the story.

Ultimately, the most important decisions we make about products and services are the decisions we do not realize we are making, as they are emotional and subconscious. To give you some frame as to how important the subconscious** is to the purchase decision, Gerald Zaltman of Harvard is popularly quoted as stating that around 95% of decision making takes place in the subconscious. (**See "A note on terminology" at the bottom of this page.)

When taken in isolation, the connections between the products we buy and the ultimate end benefits we seek from them may seem quite detached and ridiculous.

For example:

  • We buy a soft frozen dairy food to comfort us in times of distress.
  • We buy machines that transport us more quickly than others to reassure our feelings of masculinity.
  • We purchase expensive forms of ethanol from different countries and drink them from the comfort of our sofas in order to feel worldly.
  • We buy new shoes that are already scuffed and worn to allow us to feel more authentic and soulful.
  • We buy the brands of our parents and grandparents when we want to feel nostalgic and connect to the past.

While many innovation development cycles tend to take a heavy focus on product attributes and "what's in the box" early in the development cycle, pushing forward our understanding of the deeper and more emotional associations customers have with a prototype offering can bear significant dividends. From Zaltman [emphasis is mine]:

The insights offered by methods that probe the unconscious mind are relevant at all stages of the product life cycle. For instance, when introducing a radically new product, it is necessary to understand how consumers currently frame their experience of the problem addressed by the new offering. That is, no matter how radical a new product is, it will always be perceived initially in terms of some frame of reference. It is essential that this frame be understood, especially if it is an inappropriate one, detrimental to early trial of the product. For a mature product, insights about the category or a specific brand can lead to modifications that will extend its life and sustain its economic value to the firm. One firm with a very "tired" brand explored consumers' hidden thoughts and feelings and discovered a relevant, basic emotion that had been overlooked by all brands in the category. They were able to connect this emotion with their brand giving it a major sales boost. Other firms use the hidden treasures of the unconscious mind to identify new product opportunities.
As we will see in the coming pages, the rigorous use of the Means End Chain and laddering is a very tangible and practical way to understand the entire experience of the offering, and one which is especially valuable early in development.

The Means End Chain

There are quite a few different versions of the Means End Chain that have been born and refined by various professors and practitioners, and some with quite a few levels of classification and nuance. These granular models may be well suited to applications which require a very high level of resolution, but, in practice, are likely overcomplicated for our purposes. For this reason, the four-level Means End Chain is more than enough for our purposes, and will allow us ample resolution to understand our concepts.

Click here for a text description.

The four-level Means End Chain (MEC)

There are two hierarchical triangles. The first is the basic components of the Means End Chain and the second is an example of the MEC in use.

The MEC starts as very tangible and concrete at the Attribute level (i.e., there is no interpretation) and is extremely interpretative and personal at the top.

The basic components of MEC include the attributes, benefits, psychosocial consequences, and emotional ends.

The attributes are the tangible aspects of the product/service.

The benefits are the specific "job" the attribute does for the consumer. Benefits build on top of Attributes.

The psychosocial consequences are the emotional or social outcomes derived from experiencing the benefit. They build on top of the Benefits.

The emotional ends are the deep, personal, and emotional benefits derived from the use experience.

Now we will look at the MEC applied to harvesting goose down.

The attribute = The Thing, which in this case is "Responsibly harvested goose down".

The benefits = the outcome. In this case, geese are treated well and do not experience pain.

The psychosocial consequences = the feeling. In this case, I feel responsible, and I help protect animal rights.

The emotional ends = the self. In this case, I am a thoughtful, good person.

A few notes on the Means End Chain itself:

  • Think of them, quite literally, as sequential "chains" (we are actually going to visualize some in the next page).
  • The MEC starts as very tangible and concrete at the Attribute level (i.e., there is no interpretation) and is extremely interpretative and personal at the top.
  • We can not "jump" levels of the MEC. If a level is not apparent, you may be thinking of two levels as one (i.e., collapsing a Benefit and a Psychosocial Consequence).
  • At the moment, start at the Attribute level and work upward. It's easier to get started that way (we will be working from the top down when talking about designing experiences).
  • It is not a 1:1 relationship at any level, so many Attributes could create one Benefit, or many Psychosocial Consequences could lead to one Emotional End.

Try This

Pivot your chair to the left (if in a fixed chair, please turn your head as to not strain yourself).

Find the first thing you have purchased nearby. It may be a window, a book, or some souvenir you bought on your last trip.

Try to write a Means End Chain for that product from your own perspective. If you were lucky enough to choose a lower involvement item (i.e., the air vent on the floor), you might find that creating a MEC is a little hard. Perfectly normal, and you're illustrating a point we'll cover later.

If you hit an impasse, or it doesn't feel right, start with a higher involvement item you bought recently and try another MEC.

Revealing the Means End Chain Through Laddering

What is useful to the interviewer is that much of the Means End Chain may be revealed through effective in-depth interviewing, which we covered in the last Lesson. If you have done a good job interviewing, chances are that you will be able to recreate a significant portion of the interview's thoughts as MEC, from which you can then do further analysis.

While Means End Chains may make perfect sense in a static model, in my experience, much of being able to identify MEC during a live interview (i.e., "out in the wild") depends on:

  1. A concerted effort to listen for and elicit MEC in the interview.
  2. A significant amount of practice.

There are some specific interview techniques referred to as "Laddering" which are designed to specifically elicit the most valuable MEC, which are chains that are robust, descriptive, and complete from Attribute to Emotional End. The following article gives some specific examples of these techniques and what they look like in a live interview.

Read "Laddering Theory, Method, Analysis and Interpretation" by Reynolds and Gutman, paying special attention to the "Laddering Methods" section beginning on page 4 of the document. You will see that they refer to Attributes, Consequences, and Values as the levels in the Means Ends Chain, but the laddering methods themselves are unchanged.

Five words: Mapping the entire customer experience.

**A note on terminology: Let me elaborate on that "subconscious" point for a moment, and help make sure that we understand the difference between subconscious and unconscious thought. When we say that there are subconscious drivers in decision making, we are not lapsing into some far flung decision of "triggers," "buy buttons" and subliminal messaging, but instead referring to those drivers which we do not actively think about, but can be revealed through research and interview. For example, we see the subconscious at play on those commutes home where we have little recall of the trip, and seemingly just "appear" at home. We did not require some intense amount of cognitive processing during the trip, and we can recall the trip itself in hindsight, and so it is just below our active consciousness: it is subconscious.