I am not a Label … but maybe I should be

This is interesting, and a little depressing.

The Economist carries this report on research by doctors Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands which is published in Evolution and Human Behavior (the original paper, “Social benefits of luxury brands as costly signals of wealth and status”, is here (registration required)).

In summary, the researchers found that volunteers who wore a polo shirt with a Tommy Hilfiger or Lacoste logo (i.e. recognised premium brands) were rated as wealthier and of higher status than those wearing no logo or a Slazenger logo (i.e. a recognised non-luxury brand).  Similarly, they were more likely to persuade passers-by to partake in surveys, more likely to be offered a job and raised more money when collecting for charity.

Nelissen and Meijers ascribe this success to a manifestation of the Handicap Principle which, in nature, explains the peacock’s tail (only the fittest, most evolutionarily desirable bird can afford the obvious handicap of a large and garish tail).  While this works in the natural world, the problem is that we humans are not good at seeing beyond the superficial.  Hence, a Tommy Hilfiger logo becomes a proxy for, well, everything good and desirable.  And, of course, that’s great news for marketers.

What does this mean for the sovereign professional?  They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression so, whilst your prospective customer may not notice that your shirt is of the finest, long-staple, Sea Island cotton, he or she is likely to appreciate the My Little Pony logo and the Mont Blanc pen and Rolex and the BMW.

That all sounds depressingly shallow and brashly homogenous but it resonates as true.  Was it always like this?  In an age when wearing a manufacturer’s badge on your chest was unheard of, were people more discerning of true quality?  Or were the relevant signals those of the correct tie and accent?

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