Information searching and infant formula purchase: an exploratory study of families in China

Li, Kaiying (2021). Information searching and infant formula purchase: an exploratory study of families in China. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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This thesis explores the role of trust, anxiety, risk and consumer knowledge in Chinese consumers’ information searching process when purchasing infant formula. Health and safety problems regarding infant formula have constituted critical and long-term challenges, both for the Chinese government and consumers themselves. Therefore, this study focuses on the trust issues associated with consumers’ decision-making process. It does so by examining trust at different conceptual levels (i.e., government, industry, brand, individual), and also risk and consumer knowledge. These considerations are within a broader cultural context that identifies social, political, and ethical issues. Additionally, emotional factors such as the anxiety and stress experienced by mothers/parents in response to purchasing and feeding children the formula are examined.

The issues mentioned above were explored via a qualitative study that included 60 in-depth semi-structured interviews, used to investigate consumption experiences and meanings. Using a purposeful sampling technique, the interviewees were selected on the basis of being mothers living in the Mainland China, who had purchased infant formula before, and who had at least one child under five years old. The participants were recruited from various locations in China such as Tier 1 cities (i.e., Beijing and Shanghai), Tier 2-3 cities and rural areas to avoid potential biases caused by geographic differences. Similarly, to increase generalizability, participants with different occupations (e.g., nurses, teachers, business managers, and housewives) were approached. To explore in-depth participants’ personal feelings, opinions and decision-making processes, template analysis was used to analyse the qualitative data.

The findings of this study extend knowledge about parental trust when purchasing infant formula. It was found that trust issues exist at different levels in the infant formula market (e.g., trust can vary between other parents, grandparents, brands, industries, and the government), and these different types of trust influence consumers at different stages in their decision-making process. It was also discovered that feelings of anxiety and perceived risk remained unsolved despite the largest baby formula crisis taking place many years ago in 2008, with mothers consequently having developed several coping strategies. The importance of individuals’ trust in their decision-making process and purchases is also reflected in the fragility of trust in domestic formula brands, the Chinese dairy industry and the Chinese government. Trust in domestic formula brands is still low and seems to require more recovery due to the long-term damage caused by a series of quality crises and their impact on Chinese consumers. The findings also highlight the importance of social and cultural factors in understanding the parental anxiety surrounding formula feeding. An interesting insight is that perceived food safety risks are unequally distributed among different social classes. For example, consumers from the privileged class are perceived to have the access to rarer, safer and more expensive food in China. Thus, many consumers use upper-class parents as role models in their decision-making process and as anxiety and risk coping mechanisms. Moreover, the decision process is convoluted by two generations jointly raising the baby in China (i.e., grandparents and parents), which increases parental decisional anxiety among mothers.

The theoretical contribution of this thesis is the advancement of understanding how trust, risk and anxiety all affect consumers’ decision-making process for health and high-risk products such as infant milk powder. Specifically, it offers new insights into trust issues at different levels (i.e., government, industry, brand, individual) and how actors at these levels interfere with consumers’ decisions. Another contribution is the identification of a high level of trust in other parents and role models. This is due to the strong influence of the parental community and individual mother’s positive perceptions of other parents’ ethical behaviours. Consequently, they consider them to be more trustworthy than brands, manufacturers or the government. Besides, this study offers new insights into coping strategies when consumers are facing with challenge of making the right decisions in a high risky consumption situation. It releases that peer support and group decision-making are important for Chinese consumers when facing with information asymmetry.

The practical implications of this study relate to trust recovery, marketing communications and customer relationships in the Chinese infant milk powder market. More specifically, the present findings emphasise the significant role that the Chinese government can play in recovering trust and reducing perceived risks following multiple food and infant formula quality crises. Additionally, the research sheds light on the importance of the moral values in marketing communications for both domestic and foreign infant formula companies, which are more likely to encourage Chinese parents to purchase their products. This could be supplemented by the interaction between brands and parent communities as they could increase the trust levels, reduce the perceived risks, motivate actual purchase and build long-term customer relationships.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Social Sciences
School or Department: Birmingham Business School, Department of Marketing
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)


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