Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 17, 2019

Wearing Luxury Brands Might Give the Wrong Impression

by Christopher Cannon
Luxury Watches

Imagine you are going on a job interview, and you are deciding whether to wear your new Rolex watch. You want to give off a good impression because this is the job of your dreams. You might assume (correctly) that wearing your Rolex watch will make you seem like someone of high status. However, will your interviewer think of you as a warm and friendly person? Will he or she want to give you a job? Our research suggests that you might want to think twice before wearing that watch.

Decades of research on luxury consumption has found many positive outcomes of using luxury brands, from wearing Rolex watches, to carrying Burberry handbags, to driving around in a Porsche. For example, researchers from the Netherlands found that people were more willing to complete a survey for researchers who wore a luxury shirt, donated more money to them, and thought they were more suitable for a job. Other research has found that wearing luxury brands can also help to land you a date. Marketing professors Jill Sundie, Vladas Griskevicius, and their colleagues found that women were more interested in dating men who owned an expensive Porsche instead of a more economical Honda Civic.

Based on these studies, you might think that showing off luxury products is always a good idea.  Our research suggests that it isn’t.

In a series of four experiments, my co-author Derek Rucker and I explored whether wearing or being associated with luxury brands can cause people to view you as less warm. By warm, we mean someone who is friendly, kind, and trustworthy.

In one study, we had research participants view either a man in a Gucci t-shirt or a man with an identical piece of clothing but without the Gucci logo. We then asked participants to rate his status and his warmth. Not surprising, the man in the Gucci t-shirt was seen as higher status than the man in the plain t-shirt. However, the Gucci t-shirt man was also viewed as less warm.

But why does wearing luxury brands backfire? After all, the man could have worn the Gucci shirt because he thinks it’s a quality piece of clothing or because it was a gift from a friend. However, participants aren’t so keen to make this inference. Rather, we find that people tend to conclude that luxury consumers have strong impression management motives. In other words, people think that consumers wear and use luxury items specifically to show off and convince others they are well-off.

In the study I just described, people thought this man wore the Gucci t-shirt specifically because he wanted to show off. Because of this inference, they then viewed the Gucci man as less friendly. In a follow-up experiment, we found the same outcome. People viewed a woman with a Burberry purse as less warm than a woman wearing a non-branded purse. Again, this was because people believed she wore it specifically to show off.

A third study looked at whether luxury brands can also affect how other people behave toward those who use them. Does it matter that we think people who wear luxury brands are less warm? To examine this question, participants came into our behavioral lab thinking they were going to take part in a company simulation activity. As part of the task, they had to choose between profiles of applicants for a specific position within their company. To see whether luxury brands affected their choices, luxury brands were mentioned in one of the two profiles they read. For example, in the luxury profile, the applicant mentioned that her proudest moment was accepting an academic award, dressed in her new Armani blazer. In the other profile, no luxury brands were mentioned. This procedure allowed us to see if using luxury brands would help or hurt people’s chances of getting the job.

When the task was described as a Corporate Publicist, we found what other researchers have found: wearing or using luxury brands increased one’s chances of getting the job. However, when the task was described as a Human Resources (HR) Coordinator, luxury did not confer the same benefits. In fact, when the position was for a HR Coordinator, participants chose the profile that did not mention luxury items more often than the luxury profile. In other words, wearing luxury items actually backfired when being warm mattered to the job at hand, as it does for people in Human Resources.

Although luxury is a powerful signal of status, it also sends messages about warmth. So when you dress for a job interview (or to make a friend or find a spouse), think carefully about all the messages you are sending. Being seen as high status can have benefits, but our work suggests that it also has costs.

For Further Reading:

Cannon, C., & Rucker, D. D. (2019). The dark side of luxury: Social costs of luxury consumption. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 767–779.

Nelissen, R. M. A., & Meijers, M. H. C. (2011). Social benefits of luxury brands as costly signals of wealth and status. Evolution & Human Behavior, 32, 343-355.

Sundie, J. M., Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J. M., Vohs, K. D., & Beal, D. J. (2011). Peacocks, Porsches, and Thorstein Veblen: Conspicuous consumption as a sexual signaling system. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 664-680.

About the Authors

Christopher Cannon is a Ph.D. Candidate in Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. He studies how consumers’ motives influence luxury consumption, gift giving, and charitable giving.

Derek D. Rucker is the Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. His research focuses on the topics of social hierarchy, compensatory consumption, persuasion, and consumer behavior.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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