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What Makes The Perfect Wedding?

Published: May 1, 2015

Wedding bells mean research to Marketing’s ThucDoan Nguyen, author of an article for the Journal of Consumer Research titled “Harmonization Processes and Relational Meanings in Constructing Asian Weddings.” She presented her research to the 2013 College of Business Administration’s Research Colloquia.

Nguyen says that consumers buy products based on a special meaning they give those products.

“There is a difference between a gift from a husband and a gift from a boyfriend,” she said. “People consume products to which they attach a special meaning. They create a relationship with the product.”

Her study focused on the $60 billion-a year wedding industry.

“My research is about how members of a family negotiate their preferences and how they work together to create a wedding,” she explained. “A wedding is for more than the couple. It is for the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and friends. How can they make decisions? How can they negotiate with each other? How can they balance their preferences and come out with the perfect wedding?”

Nguyen’s research was done face-to-face with 53 bridal couples and 16 sets of parents. She accompanied them to wedding stores, reception sites and print shops for wedding invitations.

“I tried to interview everyone involved in the wedding decisions,” she said. “I observed the wedding and reception and interviewed the couples before and after the weddings. What are the problems and conflicts? What did they do to solve them?”

Product consumption in the context of a wedding involves what Nguyen describes as “relational meanings” or the creation of different meanings for the same product. For example, she cited Vietnamese weddings that involve two wedding gowns, a traditional one for the formal ceremony and a white Western wedding gown for the reception. She recalled one interview subject who did not want to wear the white Western wedding gown.

“The traditional wedding dress looked nice on her but her future mother-in-law argued that the family had risen from poverty and she hoped the bride would not regret later that she did not wear the Western gown,” Nguyen said. “The groom was left to decide how to resolve the conflict between his mom and his bride. The groom told the bride his mother loved her and that was why she was thinking of her. The meaning of the wedding gown was the love of the mother-in-law. The bride realized that if she pleased the mother-in-law now, life would be easier later. She attached the meaning of obedience to the wedding gown. When the groom accompanied her to the wedding gown store, he saw how the gown represented a new page in their relationship. They looked at different products in different situations and gave them different meanings.”

“Projective techniques” helped Nguyen study her subjects’ feelings without getting too personal.

“I showed the couples pictures of other people’s weddings,” she explained. “I asked the couples to describe what was happening in the pictures. It is not easy for people to talk about themselves. But when they project onto the pictures, they are not talking about themselves.”

Nguyen’s research revealed the fundamental importance of negotiation. “What if there is an alternative to a win-lose situation?” she asked. “What if the couple could come to a compromise? If people can create different meanings attached to a product, people with difference preferences can feel happy because they have found the meaning of the wedding not because they won over others in negotiation. Another layer of meaning has been put on the product. That meaning helps to create, maintain and improve the relationship.”

At the core of Nguyen’s research is family consumption. “When you buy a house, it is not just your decision. Wives, husbands and kids participate,” she explained. “Look at vacations. There is not much I win-you lose there. Family consumption is another strategy to solve conflict. It is a way to motivate instead of compete.”

Nguyen had several reasons to research Asian weddings, not the least of which was her own. Six months after the project began, she married, so her research is based as much on her own experience as ethnography.

“My experience helped with insights into what people were really thinking. Sometimes, it meant holding back my own experience when I watched what other couples did. By choosing the context of weddings, it helped to bring out individual contributions to decision making.”

She has advice for those about to marry. “The wedding itself is not the end. It is the start of a new stage in your lives,” she said. “It is easy to understand why brides are stressed and nervous. What makes a perfect wedding? Is it a perfect dress? Is it the best reception? Is it the best photographer? The wedding that doesn’t leave the bride feeling angry and frustrated is the perfect wedding.”