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Opportunities for Agri-entrepreneurs: Build Brand Community around Consumers' Love of Collecting

By Pauline Sullivan and Jacqueline Gutierrez. Presented in May 2014 at the National Value‐Added Agriculture and The Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development "What Works" conference.

Authors

  • Pauline Sullivan, Ph.D., Associate Professor and  Graduate Program Coordinator, Merchandising and Consumer Sciences, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX 78666, 512.245.2448,
  • Jacqueline Gutierrez, Graduate Student, Merchandising and Consumer Sciences, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX 78666,

Abstract

This case study focuses on a business driven by desire to return rural Texas. It answers the research question how a rural entrepreneur can use their environment to build a sustainable business, with a competitive advantage, and engaged brand community. Additionally, this paper explores consumers’ use of up-cycled/repurposed clothing at the retail event, Junk Gypsy’s “Promo-o-Rama”, 1) as an expression of individual and group identity, 2) to document group and individualistic repurposed attire, and 3) demonstrate collecting’s role in reinforcing brand community.
Junk Gypsy uses post-consumer goods to create second market products appealing to their target market.  Also, they stage the semi-annual extravaganza, “Promo-o-Rama”, to satisfy post-modern consumers’ desire for entertainment and a break from the ordinary.  Junk Gypsy actively interacts with their customers in real-time and in social media with messages that encourage the brand community to collect goods to use in upcycled/repurposed garments for “Promo-o-Rama”.

This exploratory, qualitative research used photoelicitation, which is a type of ethnography, to study consumers’ use of collected goods at Junk Gypsy’s “Promo-o-Rama”. The Grounded Theory Method guided data analysis.

Analysis of photographs supports Tian et al.’s (2019) three collection categories.  Informants’ comments reflect how these collections of repurposed garments contribute to building and reinforcing participation in a brand community. Brand community members receive symbolic value from upcycling garments as their creations. The upcycling process adds authenticity consistent with the Junk Gypsy brand message (Ritzer, 2010), personalizes the consumption experience at “Promo-o-Rama” and connects with the brand culture. Other rural and agri-businesses start-ups can learn from this business model; be different, start small, grow wisely, engage your brand community in real-time and through social media, satisfied customers spread word-of-mouth information about your company and return for brand extravaganzas that have consumption experience exchange value. Alternatives to brick and mortar locations exist.

Key Words: Retail event, Brand Community, Post-modern consumer behavior, Sustainability

Introduction

The retail sector provides employment in rural areas, but the number of jobs, as well as wage values, have declined since 1970 (Council of Economic Advisors, 2014).  In addition, the number of people, particularly those between the ages of 25 to 65, living in rural areas has dropped. Resource limited, rural communities, challenged to stave off social and economic decay, benefit from entrepreneurship.
Small retailers may not be able to compete with the large retailers’ price, but they can create competitive advantage through customer experience and company expertise (Cheek, Ferguson, & Tanner, 2013). Smaller retailers have a greater flexibility, than large ones, in responding to customers, their changing individual styles, and creating personalized emails. Thus, entrepreneurial small retailers that take advantage of creative imitation (Drucker, 1985) are in a position to provide bespoke, genuine experiences (Cheek et al., 2013). This creativity is essential to their success (Rantisi, 2011).

One solution to the challenges facing rural communities is a consumption center that uses nostalgia to remind visitors of times past (Mitchell, 1998). This allows post-modern consumers to experience and receive a sense of authenticity in the products purchased (Beverland, Farrelly & Quester, 2010; Mitchell, 1998). An example of this is the Amana Colonies in rural Iowa.

The focus of this case study is a business driven by the owners’ desire to return to their rural Texas roots and love of “junking” or finding treasure in others’ trash motivated their business.  It answers the research question of how can a rural entrepreneur use their environment to build a sustainable business, with a competitive advantage, and engaged brand community. Additionally this paper explores consumers’ use of up-cycled/repurposed clothing at the semi-annual retail event, Junk Gypsy’s “Promo-o-Rama”, 1) as an expression of individual and group identity, 2) to document the group and individualistic styles, and 3) demonstrate collecting’s role in reinforcing brand community.

This qualitative study uses photoelicitation ethnography, a type of research uses pictures for analysis to record informants’ opinions as they take pictures of attendees at “Promo-o-Rama”.  Then grounded theory guides data analysis. This case study and data analysis provide insights other small rural businesses may find useful in as they start-up and build brand community,

A.    Literature Review

Brands and Brand Communities

Brands communicate social status through recognizable images, individual’s endorsements appealing to market segment, opinion leaders, and other people who influence customers (Tain, 2005). Branded products have symbolic value as they portray people as associated as tasteful, with a desirable lifestyle, and as members of social groups related to the product’s brand character or meaning.. Similar identities and lifestyles among participants in a specific brand community contribute to a shared culture that bonds the group together (Belk, 1988). Collective culture includes common meaning, rituals and traditions, associated with brand or consumption situation.

Brand communities establish both group boundaries and cross-group coalitions (Hirschman  2010).  Thus a consumer can belong to one brand community or complementary groups. Post-modern, brand-related consumption communities offer sense of authenticity (Beverland, Farrelly & Queste, 2010). Consumption communities surrounding brands originally were conceptualized as geographically bound (Boorstin, 1974), but have progressed to exist in any space or time (Wenjing, 2005). A common bond resulting from brand use and affiliation creates unity among group members.

Evolution of Consumer Behavior

Figure 1 shows the progression of consumer motivations as they change from modern through post-modern periods. Circumstances during each time period influence consumer desires and behavior.  The modern time period is associated with the industrial revolution that allowed mass production of goods which represented growth in material culture (De Vries, 1994). During this time, wages earned in factories provide consumers money to purchase products. The emphasis is on maximizing household utility.

modern vs. postmodern flow chart

The time period of modernity exists beyond the infancy of the stage industrial age (Friedman, 2001). Economic expansion in the West, globalization, emphasis on urban culture, and increasing power of the middle class define this period. Standardization of learning and production yield a rational, linear model of social order (Friedman, 2001). Products symbolizing middle class success enchant consumers (Ritzer, 2010). However, emphasis on urban culture and sophisticated production and distribution methods distance consumers’ purchases of products from the origin of these material goods. Consumer disenchantment begins to appear as meaning associated with the natural world vanishes (Ritzer, 2010).

Disillusionment with the modern period and modernity provides agri-entrepreneurs unique opportunities for success. Post-modern consumption is defined by consumers’ feelings, religiosity, perceptions of reality, personal experiences, myths, and reflections, for example (Ritzer, 2010).  This is in contrast to modernism and modernity’s emphasis on production and rational value focused on product utility or function  The post-modern economy is intertwined with culture, as the life span of goods becomes brief and then disposable.  Consumption is evaluated by its symbolic exchange value. Rural and agri-entrepreneurs can re-enchant consumers through creative brand experiences, such as extravaganzas and simulations.  This allows commodities to create their own realities, by turning the ordinary into extraordinary. Extravaganzas gather consumers for entertainment and allow a break from the mundane (Ritzer, 2010). One example of this is the annual Luling, Texas watermelon festival.  It celebrates local agriculture and Texas culture.

In contrast, a themed educational tourist destination, the pizza farm, is a simulation that links the reality of meeting market needs and consumption fantasies through a sense of authenticity in the consumer experience (Ritzer, 2010). This is exemplified in pizza farms, which are circular land plots, divided into slices, where they produce ingredients used in pizzas. After touring the farm, visitors can order a pizza made from the ingredients grown there. The situation and time bound non-substitutable consumption experience offers symbolic value to the consumer.

Examining Creative Sustainable Entrepreneurship

Junk Gypsy was started by two sisters with a passion for recycling and repurposing old goods.  They started their business by making second market products to sell in a pop-up tent at antique fairs around Texas (Junk Gypsy, 2013). Then Junk Gypsy developed an online store front, added more products (such as jewelry), used social media to engage their brand community, and created a bi-annual event, “Promo-o-Rama”. Junk Gypsy’s promotions encouraged their brand community to talk about the company. The buzz garnered the company exposure on HGTV, as well as a television series. Fall 2013, Junk Gypsy opened their first brick and mortar store. They expanded their product lines to sell new products and regional foods, like buttermilk biscuits.

The eclectic assortment sold by Junk Gypsy provides consumers with opportunities to cross-shop product lines and build collections of Junk Gypsy’s lifestyle related items. Junk Gypsy’s brand community collects objects and product that represent meaning to the individual (McIntosh & Schmeichel, 2004) and meeting symbolic requirements for brand community participation (McCracken, 1990). Consumers’ product collections range from Junk Gypsy furniture and clothing to old prom dresses. Junk Gypsy’s brand community’s identity is free-spirited and consumes products that mirror their personality, to a considerable extent. It fosters a sense of kinship, belonging, and a support for others. Members of Junk Gypsy's brand community collects old prom dresses to up-cycle or repurpose for the retail event, “Promo-o-Rama”.  The consumption experience becomes personalized and cannot be substituted as it is define by a specific time, in a certain place, and with a particular group of people. 

Junk Gypsy’s “Promo-o-Rama” engages their brand community through simulation and extravaganza. They use social media to increase their customer touch points and encourage consumers to broaden their collection of Junk Gypsy products and experiences (Junk Gypsy, 2013). For example, they use social media to instruct the brand community how to upcycle or make clothes, such as a prom dress, from used materials to wear to “Promo-o-Rama”. The retail extravaganza encourages the brand community to gather in real-time and virtual reality, as event attendees post pictures of their costumers on Instagram and Pinterest. Lastly, Junk Gypsy’s second market products and education on how to repurpose and recycle products contributes to sustainability by keeping post-consumer goods out of landfills.

Collecting Theory

Collecting theory frames this study. Collecting products is a hobby, with its own classification. Collecting motivates the gathering of tangible items to create worlds of accumulated objects meaningful to the individual (Tanselle, 1999). Consumers building product collections display similar behavioral patterns. Product collection motivations include curiosity about times past, fascination with certain types of products, and desire for indulgent consumption. Collections are visible examples of personal identity, as well as social self-expression (Prentice, 1987), and allow opportunities to socially engage individuals in communities based on procession of similar items (Tanselle, 1999).

Building collections of material goods is explained by a series of steps (McIntosh and Schmeichel, 2004). In the first step, the consumer identifies the product category for their collection. In the second step, the consumer seeks information about items in the product category. The knowledge gained in the second step helps the consumer begin to plan how to collect. In the fourth step, the consumer acquires the products essential to their collection. Lastly, the consumer’s collection classification of items is created. Collecting is a continuous and recreational pursuit in which consumers add to his or her collection by investing both time and money to purchase additional products.  Through the different steps in creating product collections, a bond is formed between the consumer and object.

Once a collection is created, the products can be categorized. For example, Tian, Bearden, and Hunter (2001) identify three categories of collecting. They are “Creative Choice Counterconformity,” “Unpopular Choice Counterconformity,” and “Avoidance of Similarity.”  Table 1 provides a description of the different collection categories.

Table 1. Collection Category Descriptions

CategoryDefinition
1.1 Creative Choice Counterconformity Creative Choice Counterconformity (Tian et al., 2001) refers to the outward self-expression of uniqueness. Material goods show one’s individuality or unique style. Individuals either use one-of-a-kind items or unique pieces to produce a new or original style with the items.
1.2 Unpopular Choice Counterconformity Unpopular Choice Counterconformity (Tian et al., 2001) when consumers purposefully select brands or products to separate them from the group’s social norms. In this category, consumers face disapproval from the rest of the group. They decide to show their distinctiveness or individuality.
1.3 Avoidance of Similarity Avoidance of Similarity (Tian et al, 2001) shows consumers’ wish to totally avoid similarity with others. They avoid styles favored by the majority in order to establish their uniqueness. Choices would include highly common brands or products, considered unfavorable. These consumers have a profound desire to be different. They watch other consumers’ behavior to escape acting in the same way. However, their uniqueness lasts a short time, as innovative people attract a following, as other group that imitate them or what they like  related to innovators’ lifestyles or taste.

B.    Research Design, Data collection, and Methods

This exploratory study used qualitative research methods to study consumers’ involvement with collected goods displayed at Junk Gypsy’s “Promo-o-Rama”. This method allowed investigation of individualism and socially constructed relationships in brand communities created around material culture (Oestigaard, 2004). The ethnographic method allows informants to engage in the activity they are observing, as well as   observe subjects (Lee & Broderick, 2007).
Photoelicitation, a type of ethnography, records images and description of the observers’ thoughts as the picture is taken. This provides two types of data (Harper, 2002).  Advantages of this data collection method are  1) visual material is processed by the brain processes at a deeper level of perception than verbal messages and 2) it yields a different type of data, created through combining the visual and verbal information. The data allows analysis of multi-sensory indicators of consumer behavior and culture (Valtonen, Makuksela, & Moisander, 2010; .Schembri, 2008). The unit of analysis is each picture.

Data Collection

Data were collected by nine trained informants between the ages of 21 to 27.  Each informant was asked to take 10 pictures in public places at Junk Gypsy’s “Promo-o-Rama” (Heisley & Levy 1991). Also informants were requested to document their thoughts as they took each picture in a comment log.  They were to record their thinking, feelings, and what they were doing as they took each picture.
All informants explained the purpose of the study to potential participants, prior to taking their picture. They established each potential participant was over 18 years and asked permission to take their picture. All participants were told their identity information would not be collected. Each participant could withdraw their photo from the research at any time up until December 1, 2013 (Allen, 2009). All participants were given a card with study details and contact information. The process yielded 110 usable photographs for data analysis.

C.    Data Analysis

This study uses the Grounded Theory Method (GTM) to systematically examine data, as well as the continuous interactions associated with interpretation during analysis and constant comparisons (Gasson, 2003; Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Trained coders used the GTM which includes three stages of analysis:

  • Open coding - data with similar characteristics provide a basis for a label representing the idea (Medley-Rath, 2010; Gasson, 2003)
  • Axial coding - establishes data linkages through connections between categories established through open coding (Gasson, 2003)
  • Selective coding - integrates the data to further establish categories core to the foundation of theory development.

If coders had different opinions about classifying a picture, consensus building provided a basis for reaching agreement. The process of analyzing data continued until no new information was obtained (Gasson, 2003). This meant that additional analysis failed to identify anything new, but confirmed previous data categories.

D.    Findings

The first stage of analysis using the GTM was open coding.  Data was categorized as to whether or not the repurposed garment expressed the event attendee’s individuality or unique style or group identity. One picture provides insights as to how a sense of individuality is created through these repurposed garments. An informant writes:

“From head to toe, this outfit is an excellent representation of an outfit that symbolizes the emotional benefits of displaying intimate pieces of ‘junk’. The girl in this photo creatively embellished her blazer with vintage pins, which stays true to the theme of ‘junking.’"

This informant speaks to event attendees’ group identity:

“Mother/Daughter: The Junk Gypsy “Promo-o-Rama” was a nice social event for family and friends. It was an opportunity for everyone to dress-up and enjoy each other’s company. It was nice to see a mother and her daughter both dresses in prom style outfits having a good time.”

Secondly, axial coding was used to develop product categories for the upcycled garments.  Participants collected post-consumer goods to create their upcycled garments. Product categories for upcycled garments were prom dresses, accessories, old time looks, Native American fashions, costumes, Texan, and transgendered.

One example described by an informant is:

“Texas Pride: This gentleman instantly caught my eye with his large Texas flag cape. The choice to display your patriotism for Texas at such an event seemed highly appropriate. From this cowboy hat to his cowboy boots, his choice of costume for the prom was Texas themed head-to-toe.”

Lastly selective coding allowed grouping of garments as “Creative Choice Counterconformity,”  “Unpopular Choice Counterconformity,” and “Avoidance of Similarity” (Tian, et al., 2001). An example of “Creative Choice Counterconformity” in an upcycled outfit including a blue prom-like dress with a poufy sleeve decorated with a detached babydoll’s corsage and a headband adorned with deer antlers and Christmas lights. “Unpopular Choice Counterconformity” is described by an informant as follows:

“A man dressed in a dress reminiscent of the showgirls of the Old West, with chandelier earrings harkening to higher levels of class. The gruff appearance of the man is juxtaposed by the feminine details of the outfit. An example of how cultural norms are specific to time and place.”

Another informant writes of “Creative Choice Counterconformity”:

“These women, dressed as a vintage bowling team, symbolize the benefit of a public event. It allowed this group of friends to express a collective admiration for a hobby and activity. Attending the “Promo-o-Rama” dressed in a uniformed costume is a popular custom. Overall, the feeling of being part of a community is symbolic to the “Promo-o-Rama”.”  

Qualitative analysis of the 100 pictures confirms Tian et al.’s (2001) three collection categories.”

E.    Discussion

The purpose of this case study was to explain how a rural entrepreneur could use their environment to build a sustainable business, with a competitive advantage and engaged brand community. The rural company studied has a unique story and developed a brand community around junking. Junk Gypsy use post-consumer goods to create new products that appeal to their target market.  They actively interact with their customers in real-time and in cyberspace. The company stages an extravaganza, their “Promo-o-Rama”, to satisfy post-modern consumers’ desire for entertainment and a break from the ordinary.  Furthermore, Junk Gypsy uses social media to encourage the brand community to collect goods and actively engage in upcycling and repurposing garments for “Promo-o-Rama.” Junk Gypsy’s products are differentiated; appealing to target consumer with a particular lifestyle. The company produces non-substitutable consumption experiences that are differentiated because they are specific to time, place, and group of people.

Junk Gypsy’s position as a sustainable business also is due to their use of post-consumer goods to make second market products, and product repurposing education for their brand community using social media. Junk Gypsy “Promo-o-Rama” demonstrates how the brand’s up-cycling identity is fused with personal appearance at a situation bound event.

The photoelicitation ethnographic study confirms consumers’ use of up-cycled/repurposed clothing at the retail event, Junk Gypsy’s “Promo-o-Rama.”  Pictures show objects and garments meaningful to the individual (McIntosh & Schmeichel, 2004), group identity, and brand community (McCracken, 1990; Belk, 1988).  Photographs and informants’ comments describe attire consistent with what Tanselle (1999) suggests as meaningful to individuals and in group participation.
Analysis of photographs supports Tian et al.’s (2001) three collection categories.  Informants’ comments reflect how these collections of repurposed garments reinforce building brand community. Brand community members receive symbolic value from upcycling garments, as their creations are authentic and consistent with the Junk Gypsy’s brand message (Ritzer, 2010). This provides a personalized, non--substitutable experience at “Promo-o-Rama.” This strengthens the bond between the company, Junk Gypsy, and the brand community’s culture. Additionally event attendees’ participation in the online community, real-time interactions, and participation in “Promo-o-Rama” contribute to brand equity.

F.    Implications

Staged extravaganzas appeal to post-modern consumers because they are entertaining and a diversion from the ordinariness of every day (Ritzer, 2010). Events, such as “Promo-o-Rama,” differentiate and personalize the consumption experience to provide symbolic value for post-modern consumers.  Rural and agri-entrepreneurs have increasing opportunities to engage customers in their brand community. Many rural communities are recognized for producing a product or having a beautiful environment. These communities can host events related to their product. For example, there is the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival with a cooking contest.  The Gilroy Garlic Festival has an organization website and Facebook page that garlic and festival enthusiasts can join. Thus Facebook help connect the place branded Gilroy Garlic Festival community and tweets updates to its members. This also allows the brand community to learn about Gilroy Garlic Festival related products that they can purchase.

Harley Farms is an example of how on agri-business sells an assortment of cheese made from goat milk. It also offers customers an assortment of products made from goats’ milk, such as soaps, face cream, lotion and house paint, so they can collect goat related products.  In addition, Harley Farms has tours, a restaurant, and Christmas fair that provide additional customer experiences. They communicate with their brand community using an assortment of social media platforms, such as their webpage, electronic newsletter, Facebook, twitter, and vimeo videos.

Social media is an integral component in building brand community and maintaining buzz, especially for small businesses in rural locations. These strategies increase the consumption experience exchange value for customers. Junk Gypsy’s brand message and reason for “Promo-o-Rama” allows participants in the repurposing of collected items to express self-identity. The event communicates benefits of up-cycling which the brand explains how to do online and actively engage their customers in recycling, and reinforces their core “junker” values. “Promo-o-Rama” gathers the community for multi-sensory activities that strengthen brand awareness.

H.    Conclusions

This is a case study about one company which limits its generalizability.  Also, other methods of data analysis, for example the software program NVivo, could provide additional information relevant to agri-business’ marketing and promotions.
Nevertheless, the business model developed by Junk Gypsy provides insights for other rural or agri-entrepreneurs considering start-up opportunities. Lessons learned from the Junk Gypsy are to be different, start small, grow wisely, and engage your brand community in real-time and through social media. Staged events that are non-substitutable add symbolic value to the consumption experience for your consumer. This increases the exchange value for the brand. Satisfied customers willing to spread word-of-mouth information about your company in a variety of social mediums add to the return on investment for brand extravaganzas.

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