Various streams of literature in organizational theory, the sociology of consumption, and marketing argue that organizational identity work is a critical component of consumer identification with an organization. Identity work generates feelings that engender consumer loyalty to, and feelings of oneness and belongingness with, the organization. Organizational characteristics such as mission, espoused values, specialization, quality, and form are understood to drive a bonding relationship between consumer and producer (Dutton and Dukerich 1991; Bhattacharya, Rao and Glynn, 1995; Bhattacharya and Sen 2005). Furthermore, this literature finds that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that enable them to signal this relationship, in part because they derive status from the products’ symbolic values (Velthuis 2005; Ravasi and Rindova 2008). For a number of markets, this archetype of socioeconomic relationship is bound up in an identity movement, an expression of “we feeling” among a band of actors for whom production and consumption of specialized products – most often in the domain of cultural production – is seen as an expression of individuality, cultural discernment, anti-mass consumption sentiments, and distinction (Rao, Monin and Durand 2003; Greve, Pozner and Rao 2006; Weber, Heinze and DeSoucey 2008).
This “we feeling” can be an amorphous one, however, and organizational theory holds that “faking it” is not possible for firms that attempt to appeal to identity movement participants who don’t otherwise subscribe to their principles. Consumers who represent the initial followers of market-based identity movements are also sufficiently savvy and motivated by the desire for authenticity and the opportunity to express their expertise that producers masquerading as specialists – but lacking the characteristic markers of specialists, namely small-scale production, often traditional production methods, and local craftsmanship – will quickly be sniffed out and penalized (Polos, Hannan and Carroll, 2002; Carroll and Swaminathan 2000). Consequently, theory predicts that markets may become partitioned, such that specialist organizations cater almost exclusively to discerning identity movement participants while generalists serve up a more homogeneous product to the masses, and never the twain shall meet (e.g., Carroll and Swaminathan 1992, Carroll and Hannan 2000, Carroll, Dobrev et al. 2002).
More recent research, however, suggests that the bifurcation of markets into distinct specialist and generalist domains based on identity movements is a relatively static view, and that a longitudinal-slash-interpretive perspective is needed to more fully understand the fluid and competitive dynamics of markets created and continually informed by identity movements (Sikavica and Pozner, 2013). According to this perspective, as identity movements grow, participants focus less on the identity and marked characteristics of the producer and more on the expression of choice on the part of the end-consumer. The modal consumer eventually becomes more focused on how specialist-generated products serve her own need to exercise choice, and less attentive to either the characteristics of the producer’s organizational identity or the production process itself (see Dittmar 2007).
Importantly, such a change enables the potentially risky process of decoupling, which might entail changes to the image of the organization or the product it is hawking, or to a growing distance between the producer’s intended image and its audience-construed image (Brown et al 2006). In other words, when consumers’ motivations become driven not by the purity of the organizational form and the production process, but rather by characteristics of the product itself, the opportunity arises for organizations to decouple their images, or external perceptions about them, from their identities, or internal characteristics that represent the “true” nature of the organization and what it organization signifies.
In this paper, we attempt to unravel the relationships among organizational and consumer identity, organizational image, and the possibility of decoupling in partitioned markets. Using the case of craft beer brewing, a well-studied market that emerged from and was shaped by an identity movement, we investigate how changes in organizational form and identity impact consumer evaluations of beer quality, and how those relationships change as the craft brewing or microbrew movement has matured. Specifically, we assess how changes in both micro-brewery organizational form, based on changing ownership and production capacity, as well as the language of brewers’ consumer-facing self-descriptions in branding and marketing materials, together lead to changes in consumer assessments and descriptions of beer quality over time. Our analysis will be based on in part on ratings and reviews from Beer Advocate, which is both a website for the “beer community” founded in 1996 that (as of 2014) has over 3 million visitors per day and a magazine founded in 2006 with an estimated monthly readership of over 150,000.
We hypothesize that in the early stages of the craft beer identity movement, changes in organizational form were closely followed by negative evaluations and lower average ratings, whereas such downward revisions are less likely to emerge as the micro-brew movement has gained participants. In other words, we hypothesize a decrease in overall consumer discernment regarding producer identity, namely as the movement matured and entered the mainstream. It is the modal consumer’s vague understanding of form identity and identification with the product rather than the producer that works in part to drive the changes that we observe. We explore the mechanisms that drive changes in reviewer- and consumer-based evaluation as the movement develops, to explore the dynamics of competition in these markets.