The Economist: Status Displays

The Economist recently reported on a study conducted by Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands on how brands change our personal interactions. Through a series of experiments, the researchers showed that a well-known designer brand alone confers a higher perceived status and wealth on the wearer that alters how others interact with him or her.

The positive effect from the label allowed a subject to get more people to take a survey, solicit donations, obtain a job, and receive a higher salary. In a game where participants were asked to risk giving money to a stranger with the possibility of losing the money or doubling it based on whether the stranger was trustworthy, people were willing to risk 36% more money with a stranger wearing designer clothes as opposed to the same clothes without a label.

While other studies have shown that people respond to brands, this study implies that the reason is biological rather than cultural. The author compares the brand to the tail of a peacock in that both the brand and the label signal superior quality although the peacock’s traits are intrinsic while the quality of the label is transferred to the wearer.

With such a clear economic effect, particularly a 9% higher salary offer to the wearer of a well-known brand, it is surprising that more sales programs do not include particular wardrobe requirements. A business with no links to consumer clothing might benefit from studies on the particular brand preferences of their target market and require their sales force to dress appropriately. Job seekers would benefit from access to similar studies on the preferences of the hiring managers in their industry and the article suggests that anything less than 9% of a year’s salary would be an appropriate price to pay while still benefiting the job seeker.

What is most interesting about this study is not what it suggests about brand names; it is what it suggests about human behavior. In order for the brand to affect behavior, most people would need to behave according to a few assumptions. The first assumption is that all people value different brands in the same manner. This requires a long term disciplined marketing effort that defines the brand in a manner that is easily understood by everyone, not just the target market.

The second assumption is that the qualities such as wealth or taste that permit a person to select and purchase the clothes are the best indications of the attribute that we are trying to judge such as skill or trustworthiness. This assumption is troublesome because it implies that we may be cognitive misers more than we would care to admit. Since transference seems to occur so easily, a marketing message can focus on one or two positive attributes and, if successful, the brand can represent all that is good in the world.

The third assumption is that people are generally not concerned with a fake signal. This explains why when a brand may have so much influence over behavior, people are still willing to buy counterfeit goods with a fake brand even when the imitation is of poor quality. People do not respond to the brand if the wearer received the clothing from someone else so what appears to be important is the ability to select and obtain the brand rather than having access to it.

Author: Probable Pattern

Former Marine and Curious Critter

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