Why do people spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on luxury goods that are not very functionally different than products that cost a fraction of the price? If you ask people, they will often point to craftsmanship and quality. They may mention a confidence boost, a reward for their success in life. But what people don’t say—and researchers do find—is that luxury goods appeal to people on a deeply instinctual level. Luxury brands are how people signal their ability to attract and keep a mate.
In the video we talked about last week, Scott Galloway of NYU Stern School of Business also discusses Apple, the most successful luxury brand of all time. Apple is currently valued at over $700 million and is poised to hit $1 trillion within the next year. Why? Sure, there’s the artisanship and the reverence for design. But Galloway believes the most important factor is that “luxury brands give you self-expressive benefit. They signal something about you.” What do they signal? In the case of the iPhone, “it means you’re wealthier and better-educated and more likely to have more options in terms of who you mate with.”
Studies back up this idea. A 2011 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology compares men’s use of luxury products to the male peacock’s tail displays. From an evolutionary perspective, they are using conspicuous consumption to signal their success, and therefore their suitability as a mate.
“Men may be similar in some ways to peacocks—whereby inefficient, costly, and ostentatious expenditures may act as analogues to peacocks’ inefficient, costly, and ostentatious tails,” hypothesize the researchers. “By spending money wastefully and conspicuously, men demonstrate that they can successfully absorb significant resource costs with little off-setting survival benefits. This may provide a wealth of information about a man’s underlying qualities, including intelligence, aggression, and the ability to defend expensive resources from conspecifics [competitors].”
Men can successfully use these signals to engage women in short-term partnerships. “Frivolous and extravagant spending by men may signal a willingness to provide substantial economic benefits to women (e.g., extravagant gifts during courtship) in exchange for sexual access.”
Interestingly, women also use luxury brands as signifiers, but not in the same way: their use of luxury items is aimed not at attracting men, but at fending off other women.
In a 2013 article published by the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers hypothesize that “women’s flaunting of designer products functions as a signaling system directed at same-sex rivals who pose a threat to a woman’s relationship. … Some women use pricey possessions to signal to other women that their romantic partner is especially devoted to them. In turn, flaunting designer handbags and shoes helps women deter romantic rivals from poaching their relationship partner.”
The researchers performed several experiments with women and found that they:
- Perceived a woman who wears designer clothes as having a more devoted partner
- Preferred a larger luxury-brand logo when their relationship felt threatened
- Sought to spend more on conspicuous products, but not on inconspicuous products, when guarding a mate
- Spent more on a raffle for a $200 gift card to a luxury store when primed to think that other women would see the products
- Were less likely to want to pursue a taken man if his partner wore luxury goods purchased by him
The researchers conclude that a woman’s luxury products “can effectively dissuade other women from poaching her romantic partner. Other women who would consider pursuing a taken man (women following a short-term mating strategy) were less willing to pursue him if his partner had a luxurious designer handbag and expensive jewelry. This effect was driven (mediated) by other women’s perceptions of the man as more devoted to his partner when she had luxury products. Importantly, the woman’s luxury products were not effective at guarding her mate when other women were explicitly told that the man had not contributed resources to her products. Consistent with the earlier finding that in ambiguous situations women spontaneously assume that the man paid for more than half (58%) of a woman’s luxury products, luxury products are effective at mate guarding for women because other women generally assume that a romantic partner has devoted at least some resources to his partner’s products.”
This research has important implications for the marketing of luxury brands. Rather than focusing on how much care is put into a creating a luxury product or how it will last longer than a cheaper equivalent, luxury brands may have greater success with appealing to the primal human desire to use these products to signal their desirability to the opposite sex.
In one Lexus commercial, a handsome man valet parks his GS F Sport and then walks into a hotel with not one but two women. A Tiffany’s commercial of a happy couple getting married is set to “My First, My Last, My Everything,” implying that the secret to their lasting relationship is the Tiffany’s wedding band.
Apple, interestingly, doesn’t appeal to this instinct, skipping past courtship to parenthood, as if to say that of course two Apple users came together and stayed together, and now they’re using Apple products to keep the family together. Maybe that long-term thinking is the secret to breaking $1 trillion.
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