The plastic dreams of Melissa consumers

Prior consumer research has established that individuals relate to consumption objects as a means to develop, reinforce, transform, or align their fragmented individual identities. This literature has mainly focused on understanding the identity-shaping potential of finished products (e.g., branded shoes). Less attention has been dedicated to understanding how materials, designer intentions, and marketing efforts jointly influence the materialities of consumption objects and their identity-shaping outcomes. My colleague Marcia Christina Ferreira (Liverpool John Moores University) and I studied an online community of plastic shoe aficionados – fans of the Brazilian brand Melissa - to extend current understandings of object-consumer relations. The model we developed includes pre-objectification – a process whereby cultural ideas are translated into material objects. Our study answers: How do consumers relate to pre-objectification elements? And what identity-related and cultural outcomes can be unveiled through an extended view on object-consumer relations? In this post, I share the highlights of the study. For the complete article, which is part of the special issue “Leaving Pleasantville: Macro/micro, public/private, conscious/non-conscious, volitional/imposed, and permanent/ephemeral transformations beyond everyday life” of the Journal of Business Research, click here!
Our inspiration to expand the model of consumer relation to products comes from object-relations theory, as developed in psychoanalytical research (Woodward, 2011). According to this perspective, as they relate with objects, individuals are socialized, from early infancy, into the world of object-symbols (Dittmars, 1992). In object-relations theory, objects are not limited to physical things, but also include “psychological objects such as a parent or body part” (Woodward, 2011; Winnicott, 1971) or, as the term is most frequently employed in psychopathology treating, to people. Hence, objects can be animate or inanimate, human or non-human. Further, the object-relations perspective differentiates between part-objects and whole-objects: “For example, a parent would be considered a whole-object, while the particular bodily part of the mother’s breast would be a part-object” (Woodward, 2011, p. 373). In the context of our research, we understand plastic shoes and consumer bodies as whole-objects, while plastic (material substance) and feet (body part) are seen as part-objects. We combined the notion of object-relations with current understandings of the outcomes of object-consumer relations in consumer research and other disciplines:
We call pre-objectification the phase in the materialization process where material substances, designer intentions, and marketing efforts are the elements involved in creating and producing a consumption object. Of note, these elements interact in a non-linear fashion: designers and marketers work with material substances to create an object and imbue it with meaning. The center of our model depicts the creative space emerging as object and consumer interact. This space is loaded with emotional energy, which feeds into the consumer’s transitions between her internal and external worlds, her current, past, and desired selves. The last stage in the materialization process is that in which such outcomes are materialized, and consumer and object transformations get embedded into consumer identity projects and cultural forms.
Our research context is the brand of plastic shoes Melissa and its aficionado consumers. This context can be introduced in relation to its pre-objectification elements: material substances, design intentions, and marketing efforts.
Material substances – Melissa shoes are made of a patented material called Melflex, which is composed of PVC crystals stabilized by calcium and zinc, arguably less toxic than the heavy metals usually employed in PVC compounds. This substance has allowed designers to create a myriad of different shapes and finishes for Melissa shoes, varying from high-gloss to opaque, from sequined to velvety looking. As a result, even though all Melissa shoes are plastic shoes, the experience of touching or wearing one of Melissa’s models is not necessarily similar that of touching or wearing another. One consistent element across models and collections is the shoes’ scent: aroma particles are incorporated into Melflex, attributing to all Melissa shoes a characteristic lingering bubble-gum scent. Most Melissa shoes will deform under excessive heat, and because plastic is not porous or breathable, most Melissa shoes will repel water and will not absorb transpiration. Plastic is a durable material, and Melissa shoes are consequently long-lasting. Yet, each of the different finishes employed in different Melissa models mean that different shoes will degrade in different ways throughout usage and interaction with consumers and their body parts.

Design - As interpreters of cultural ideas, designers’ intentions are influenced by the capacity of the plastic to introduce reflexive thoughts over their creative process. “Plastic is such a malleable material, so flexible, biomorphic, high performing, democratic, comfortable, soft, complex, moldable and variable,” says Karim Rashid, the designer of a high-heeled Melissa shaped as teardrops (Greenwood, 2010). Bringing their imagination to the development of new objects, designers are allured and challenged by the possibilities of plastic. Responding to a couple of years of sales stagnation in the early 2000s, Melissa started developing improvements in its material substance and production process. It also partnered with designers known for their innovative and audacious work. For the first time, the product design no longer looked like a reproduction in plastic of ‘real’ shoes and turned into an object whose conceptual form was chosen to be materialized in plastic. From that moment on, the interaction between the designer and the material substance became the catalyst of the object transformation, as Jason Wu, another fashion designer invited to collaborate with Melissa, explains: “It was really interesting for me to explore design possibilities with plastic. I wanted to take advantage of the materials I was given, make it all completely functional and waterproof and yet still remain extremely sophisticated” (Cullity, 2012).

Marketing – From the brand’s origins in 1979, Melissa shoes targeted the modern, fashion-oriented crowd of consumers. With the popularization of plastic shoes in Brazil through the 80s, prices dropped, devaluing the brand for fashionistas. Moreover, plastic became synonymous with cheap shoes, and perceptions of the material as uncomfortable, inferior to leather, and a producer of nasty odors gained relevance among Brazilian consumers. To change the image of plastic shoes and rescue the brand, Grendene decided to reapproximate consumers to the material substance and to elevate plastic shoes to the status of fashionable accessories. The company invited famous Brazilian soap-opera actresses to become spokespersons for Melissa and entered international markets through partnerships with fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and others mentioned above.
We capture the evolution through time of the proposed meanings for plastic, plastic shoes, and the brand, through an analysis of the digital version of 112 print ads for Melissa shoes launched over 34 years (1978-2012). We identified six phases distinctly marked by changes in how body and plastic relate in the ads. This analysis informed our understanding of how marketing efforts correspond to plastic in the pre-objectification stage and support our interpretation of the interactions between consumers and the material substance.
After studying the blogs of Melissa fans, we were able to identify two outcomes that arise from consumers’ interactions with these pre-objectification elements in the creative space: the Melisseira identity, and the cultural space shaped by Melissa fans. We show that, in selectively projecting their emotions onto one or another element of the pre-objectification stage rather than on the finished shoes, Melissa consumers can build flexible identities that minimize the risk of social disapproval of an identity choice. The cultural space created by Melissa fans unites the human subject with the external environment via transitional (Woodward, 2011) or “transformational objects” (Bollas, 1987; Woodward, 2011). Emotional energy still works as a catalyst of the cultural space, and it feeds into consumer’s transitions between her internal and external worlds, core, and extended selves. For instance, Melissas can are frequently treated as transitional objects by mothers, who have worn the shoes in their own childhood and are now keen to introducing their daughters to the shoes.

Since the publication of the article on the Journal of Business Research, Chris Ferreira and I have continued to work on this research context, now also collaborating with Emily Chung, from RMIT University, and looking at collectors of Melissa shoes. So keep tuned, for more posts on consumer-object relations through a materiality lens.

This study was funded by CONICYT/FONDECYT through a research grant FONDECYT Iniciación Etapa 2013.