Brands Count – Seen or Unseen

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We’re in the midst of the busiest shopping season of the year, and lots of us will be shopping for stylish gifts. One of the choices we’ll be confronted with is whether to buy an item from a well-known brand or opt for a less expensive item from a store or cheaper brand.

If we opt for the expensive brand, we have another decision – do we select an item with visible branding, like a Polo shirt or Gucci purse emblazoned with the brand logo? Or, do we choose an item that lets the recipient see the brand but which doesn’t expose the brand to others?

Visible Brands

While some may view logo apparel as gauche or ostentatious, products from premium and luxury brands command higher prices and occupy plenty of retail floor space. Now, there’s evidence that such products deserve at least some of that treatment. A study by Dutch researchers showed that people wearing apparel with visible premium branding were viewed more positively and actually treated differently in person.

The least surprising experiment experiment had subjects evaluate photos of people wearing Lacoste or Tommy Hilfiger apparel. Some subjects saw photos with the logos digitally removed, but with identical models and styles. The people with the visible branding were judged to be of higher status and wealthier than those without. I’m not shocked – take a picture of me in a Ferrari, and people will likely think me wealthier than a similar photo in a Ford. But, one can at least conclude that the subjects in the experiment actually did observe the brand icon either consciously or non-consciously.

Another experiment showed subjects a video of a simulated job interview. The male “interviewee” was seen either with or without the visible brand. Not only was the candidate with branding judged more suitable for the job, on average, but his recommended salary was 9% higher.

The most surprising experiment in the series took place in a real-world setting: a shopping mall. An experimenter approached shoppers and asked them to participate in a short survey. While only 13% cooperated when she wore an unbranded sweater, fully 52% agreed when she wore an identical sweater with the designer logo. That difference, more than a fourfold increase, is stunning.

In short, visible branding on apparel does affect the attitudes and actions of people you encounter. These effects no doubt vary by region and socioeconomic status. An aspirational brand in Tuscaloosa may not be perceived in the same way in the Hamptons, and a CEO may not find the same brands attractive as a mailroom clerk. Still, if you think nobody notices the little alligator or pony on your shirt, you’d be wrong.

Invisible Branding

Some people eschew visible brand indicators. If you’ve got someone like that on your list, should you spend the extra money to buy him a designer product? Well, it depends. Often, gift giving is as much about the giver as the recipient. A premium or luxury apparel item says something about the taste of the giver, as well as how special the recipient is to them. (To a few hard-nosed recipients, of course, buying an “overpriced” designer item may signify waste and a lack of common sense.)

There’s evidence, though, that even our own behavior can be altered by what we are wearing. As I reported in Wear a Fake Rolex, Turn Into O.J., a fascinating experiment showed that people were more than twice as likely to engage in cheating behavior when they thought they were wearing fake designer sunglasses. The glasses were, of course, all genuine.

Wearing a fake designer product is different than wearing a store-brand or no-name product. But it’s not unreasonable to think that differences in self-perception and even behavior could occur. Even without a designer logo, might one be more confident and assertive wearing a Turnbull and Asser shirt than a J.C. Penney store brand? (Could the experimenter in the shopping mall have been more successful while displaying the brand logo because she expected to be, or because she exhibited more confidence?)

And, of course, in the real world similar apparel products aren’t identical – at least occasionally, a premium brand may have unique styling, better fabrics, and superior quality. For some observers, these subtle details may be as potent signals of status as a visible logo – even if they aren’t processing them consciously.

Just Do It!

To sum up, whether or not substantive product differences exist, premium branded apparel can have an effect on how others perceive us as well as how we behave. So, in the spirit of the holidays, you have my permission to spend a few extra dollars (or euros, etc.) on a gift for someone special to you. And, when they say, “You shouldn’t have!” you can explain that sound science supports your choice!

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