My latest research* has to do with how people express themselves through the brands they consume. It's a topic that has interested me for some time.
I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of immigrants in a happy but definitely modest household. I didn't go to a fancy high school -- although, living in New York, I was very aware of fashion and labels. In fact, while riding the subway to school, I was regularly exposed to conspicuous consumption -- from Wall Street bankers in their custom suits, to fashionistas who sported the latest styles. I got the distinct impression that "when you got it, you flaunt it." So when I arrived for my freshman year at Harvard -- the ultimate ivory tower and in a way itself a luxury brand -- I had some pretty clear expectations of how people would signal their status. I had in mind something like Dan Ackroyd's country club-going character Winthrop in the movie Trading Places. But what I saw got me thinking about what status signals really mean.
I realized that people's perception of what Harvard people are like and how affluent people act and dress are often false. I remember being surprised when I got to Harvard and noticed that it was often the people who have the most money that dress the shabbiest. I started to develop a curiosity about status. How do people show their status by what they wear? How durable is that status? Why does it matter?
A lot of recent academic literature has shown that high-status individuals are eclectic and "omnivorous" in their tastes in brands, opting for both high- and low-end items. Two examples include Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, who famously wore a frock from Zara the day after getting married in a £250,000 Alexander McQueen dress, and Michelle Obama, who often wears mainstream brands like J. Crew and gowns by little-known designers.
These individuals wear brands at either end of the spectrum as a way to express who they are -- their authentic selves, beyond the intimidating titles of "her royal highness" and "first lady." They are also expressing their distinctiveness with their keen ability to put together things that are seemingly disparate: a $600 Diane von Furstenberg dress with a pair of flip-flops from Target, for instance. Perhaps they believe that the fact that they're able do this shows: I'm an individual, not a status.
It's logical to expect that these same people would be most excited by the recent partnerships between high-status luxury brands and lower-status companies -- Jimmy Choo's line of shoes at H&M, for instance, or Stella McCartney's dresses at Target. After all, they already own and mix both labels, so it would follow that these inter-status brand collaborations are perfectly suited to their tastes.
But this is not what my research found. Through a series of experiments, my research partner, Jeffrey Lee, a doctoral student at Harvard Business School, and I found that omnivores like mixing status brands, but they dislike interstatus co-branding. The explicit pairing of high- and low-status brands undermines their expertise at putting together items in an unexpected way. Now any person can walk into a store and buy one of these "pre-mixed" products. Like my mother-in-law, Connie, at Thanksgiving, these consumers take pride in making their own stuffing by hand and not buying it pre-mixed off the shelf. And trust me, that takes skill.
One experiment we ran involved 79 MIT Sloan MBA students with a median wealth of $850,000, all of whom ranked high on the self-expressive scale. This means they say they would like to be perceived as distinct from the general population, and that they often purchase products that let them express their unique identity. We told the students:
"Imagine that Prada creates a regular collection for Banana Republic, called Prada for Banana Republic. The collection would be designed by Prada, but feature lower-cost materials relative to those in typical Prada products. The collection would sell at Banana Republic stores, at prices halfway between those of current Banana Republic and Prada prices."
Lee and I had two key findings about this hypothetical collaboration. First, among those who currently own Prada and Banana Republic items, there was a significant decrease in the level of prestige of the Prada brand. Second, the perceived prestige level of the new Prada and Banana collection was very low among omnivorous shoppers, but generally high among those who just owned Banana items or Prada items. In other words, omnivores find interstatus brand partnerships less appealing than univores -- owners of only the high- or the low-status brands -- because the prefabricated collaboration doesn't allow them to demonstrate their cultural capital and expertise. And, importantly, the high-status brand takes a big hit to its cachet in the minds of these shoppers.
Back to my original question about why this matters. When consumers are seeking an authentic experience, it is crucial that brands understand and protect the meaning that the experience holds. Clothing is more than what we wear, it's how we tell the world who we are. And for omnivores, it's one way in which they display their skill. It is fantastic that high- and low-end brand collaborations afford people like me ready-made access to brands that were once out of reach. But it's no less important that consumers who seek to express themselves by challenging the rules of status are able to do so on their own terms.
Ready-made stuffing is not for everyone, so brands need to preserve the purity of ingredients that allow skilled chefs to craft something unique. Likewise, companies need to take care to preserve the purity of the stand-alone brand so that it is still an effective tool for self-expression.
* "Breaking Status Boundaries: Self-Expression and Omnivorous Consumption" by Renée Richardson Gosline, MIT Sloan, and Jeffrey K. Lee, Harvard Business School
Renée Richardson Gosline is an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Management Science group at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
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