The “laddering” interview techniques is used to disclose the consumer's underlying values linked behind the tangible product attributes( Thompson and Chen 1998). With reference to the study of Malhotra and Birks(2006), this technique is a cognitive structure technique which focus on detecting motivations hidden in the consumption process.
The means-end-chain (MEC) theory is developed by Guttman and it illustrates that laddering should be identified to follow the A-C-V (attributes->consequences-> values) chain, and we can use the HVM (hierarchical value map) to demonstrate the linkages between A-C-V, crossing stated levels of abstraction(Lin and Fu 2001). Here is an example to illustrate this technique and the analysis process, a Chinese girl- Mia, a MBS postgraduate student, who's major is in Finance was interviewed on the topic of “ideal clothes”.
[In the interview, Interviewee listed ‘Soft', ‘Simple', ‘Fashionable' and ‘Not too expensive' as four characteristics for her ideal clothes. In the following, the factor of ‘Fashionable' is being discussed.
- Interviewer: Besides of soft and simple, let's talk about fashionable. Why is fashionable important?
- Interviewee: Um...I think... fashionable means...for me, it usually means popular, you know. Because I think the fashionable people usually draw most of the attentions from other people. Because so many people like fashion, they consider fashion as one kind of sign of popularity. And...um...for common sense, I think fashionable people usually more confident, more energetic, and the ...um...tend to be more shinning.
- Interviewer: Shining?
- Interviewee: Yep.
- Interviewer: OK, So you mean you want to... when you choose a cloth which is fashionable, you mean you want to be more confident, be more energetic and these kinds of things, right?
- Interviewee: yep.
- Interviewer: So, why you want to be this kind of person?
- Interviewee: Um...maybe something is related to my major... You know, my major is finance, and the financial people usually work in a bank, you know...and...I really like the feeling that people in the bank wear...um... fashionable but also professional clothes. And... they behave elegant and have a good sense of fashion, and...maybe other senses...yep, I think that's really wonderful.
- Interviewer: So you like the feeling that people look like fashionable as well as professional, right?
- Interviewee: Yep.
- Interviewer: So... you want to be this kind of person?
- Interviewee: Yep
- Interviewer: why is it important that you want to be this kind of person?
- Interviewee: Um...[sigh...] I think maybe this point is somewhat similar to the other one, I think the ‘Soft'...Because...because when I doing these things because there are some value or ...um... Can you repeat your question?
- Interviewer: Yep, why do you want to the person that looks fashionable and professional?
- Interviewee: ... I want to do the things I really interesting to the best. Um...I think my career, my jobs are very important for me, and once I chose to do these, I want to be the best. ...yep...um...and be professional and be fashionable I think it is one kind of the way to achieve that...and...maybe. Maybe it makes you easier to be... get close to other people and be reliable.
- Interviewer: OK, so you want to get easier to get to other people, and you want people think that you are a reliable person...
- Interviewee: reliable, popular...
- Interviewer: So, why this is meaningful to you?
- Interviewee: Meaningful...because I am eager to um...know more people and get along well with more people and find a... find a group or a large group of people around me and share something and spend a lot of good things, because I hate being lonely. So... I think the recognition is important, yep...the recognition.
Analysing the discourse
(Sentence references in square brackets to ensure trustworthiness)
From the attribute of ‘Fashionable' of the Interviewee's ideal clothes, she elicited the psychosocial consequence-“draw attentions” as well as “being confident, energetic and shinning” . To reinforce her point, Interviewee stated that “fashionable and professional clothes” make people feel “elegant”, and she really liked this feeling . From this construction, the association that excellent appearance of the clothes can reflect or tend to reflect the good characteristics of people who wear them can be perceived.
By being asked “Why”, Interviewee constructed herself as a self-encourage person who want to “do things best” and find the right clothes is a “way to achieve” that. Thus, to draw out the further links from the consequence, she showed her desire to “get close to other people” , “get along well with more people”  and become “reliable” . By referring study of the list of important values in daily life (Leah Watkins and Gnoth 2005), the “achieve” has the similar meaning with the value of “Sense of accomplishment”, which defined as “reach a goal or achievement” and “get close to/ get along well with other people” is get into the value “Warm relationship with other”.
As the interview processed, to dig out more deeply motivations, the desired end from the product attributes, Interviewee concluded that she “hate being lonely”, what she need was “recognition” , which means to get related to both people and society. The term “recognition” can be changed to “Sense of belonging” in the L.O.V. (L. Watkins and J. Gnoth, 2005, p230).
Employing a clearly HVM can reveal the linkages and semantic associations between A-C-V which just presented (Chin-Feng Lin and Fu 2001). The figure below shows the HVM for this interview, using the symbols in the Wagner's (2007) study.
Figure 1. Hierarchical value map based on ‘Fashionable' attribute
This report establishes a practical use of the laddering interviewing technique and it shows that MEC analysis is an effective way to find out underlying reasons. The difficulty in this interview is that how to find a proper way to keep asking “why” until the truly valuable answers are found, and how to distinguish the boundaries between the attributes, consequences and values. To better utilize this method, the interviewers need to be trained and the definitions of A-C-V should be clarified. Though other scholars(Wagner 2007, Sørensen and Askegaard 2007) may argued the sample size and the challenge of “objective” express are the limitations to this method, the laddering technique is still a quick and accessible way to construct the relationships between the products and meaningful original motivations.
- Chin-Feng Lin and H.-h. Fu (2001). “Exploring logic construction on MECs to enhance marketing strategy.” Marketing Intelligence & Planning 19(5): 362-367.
- Elin Brandi Sørensen and S. Askegaard (2007). “Laddering: how (not) to do things with words.” Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal 10(1): 63-77.
- Keith E. Thompson and Y. L. Chen (1998). “Retail store image: a means-end approach.” Journal of Marketing Practice:Applied Marketing Science 4(6): 161-173.
- Leah Watkins and J. Gnoth (2005). “Methodological issues in using Kahle's list of values scale for Japanese tourism behaviour.” Journal of Vacaton Marketing 11(3): 225-233.
- Naresh K. Malhotra and D. F. Birks (2006). Marketing research: An applied approach Pearson Education.
- Wagner, T. (2007). “Shopping motivation revised: a means-end chain analytical perspective.” International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management 35(7): 569-582.