We buy a huge range of products because of a drive to enhance the extended self. Athletic wear merchandisers get this, but companies in other verticals may not. Brands that link the consumer to key elements of the self, whether these are schools, favorite musical artists, old neighborhoods, or coveted identities like “successful executive” or “glam girl” have a competitive advantage over others that don’t connect to the extended self-concept.
“You complete me”
Our use of consumption information to define the self is especially important when we have yet to completely form a social identity, such as when we have to play a new role in life. Adolescent boys, for example, may use “macho” products such as cars and cigarettes to bolster developing masculinity; these items act as a “social crutch” during a period of uncertainty about their new identity as adult males.
Or, think of the insecurity many people feel when they start college or reenter the dating market after they’ve exited a long-term relationship. Symbolic self-completion theory suggests that people who have an incomplete self-definition tend to complete this identity when they acquire and display symbols they associate with that role.
A study of MBA students carefully chronicled the markers of “executive success” that these managers-in-training displayed, such as luxury watches, fancy briefcases, and the like. Sure enough, the researchers found that those students who scored lower on measures of actual achievement (GPA, number of interviews, etc.) were more likely to sport these products. In another study that hits a bit closer to home, less-accomplished professors (in terms of number of publications, etc.) were more likely to hang a large number of diplomas, certifications, and other badges of scholarly achievement on their office walls.
Some years ago – back when it was still something of a news story that sizeable numbers of young women were flooding into management roles — I conducted several studies when I was on the faculty at New York University to explore how role insecurity related to choices of “appropriate professional apparel.” I was motivated by the anxiety my female MBA students expressed to me about whether the clothing they wore to work (largely on Wall Street) would send the appropriate signals.
At that time, most of them chose the safe route. They dressed as male clones in very severe, dark suits – but they weren’t happy about it because they felt they had to sacrifice their femininity in order to succeed in a man’s world. This tension perseveres today, especially in the wake of the sexual harassment scandals we encounter in fields from politics and business to entertainment and the arts.
My research revealed an interesting anomaly: Although in most contexts we expect younger people to be the fashion trendsetters, in a business context the opposite was true. Using a sample of over 50,000 readers of a female executive magazine, we found instead that older, more experienced women were more likely to endorse a wide range of styles they felt were appropriate to wear to work. Younger, less-experienced women are more likely to rely upon external cues such as professional clothing to guide self-definition. Like the anxious women I saw in my Manhattan classroom, the newbies were much more likely to believe that only a very constricted set of styles (essentially female versions of the male banker’s suit) were OK.
This compensatory process is important, because it implies that it’s novices rather than experts who are more likely to acquire products that are stereotypically linked to a role. That’s a bit counterintuitive, perhaps – but this relationship can hold important marketing ramifications. If you provide products and services to people who need them to master some kind of skill, whether soccer or navigating the dating market or decorating a home (or body), your most attractive prospects may well be customers who are less adept rather than more experienced. Or at the least these buyers are the ones who will value the value-added of the expertise you can offer.
In research I conducted with professional wardrobe consultants, I identified this two-pronged structure. One set of women who paid these experts to organize their closets and shop for them had a clear idea of the image they wanted to project; they just didn’t have the time to procure the props and costumes themselves. The other set used these consultants in an entirely different way; they wanted them to dictate what they should buy because they lacked the self-confidence to choose for themselves. So, mea culpa – I created a dichotomy to describe the function these experts performed. Legs versus Head.
“Clothes (and Other Stuff) Make the (Wo)Man”
So, it seems that my female students and their sisters rely upon the signals they glean from their clothing to define their professional role. More generally, to what extent do the products we buy influence how we define ourselves?
Social scientists who study relationships between thoughts and behaviors increasingly turn to the theory of embodied cognition for answers. A simple way to explain this perspective is that “states of the body modify states of the mind.” In other words, our behaviors and observations of what we do and buy shape our thoughts, rather than vice versa. Yes, we buy what we are. But we also are what we buy, and that’s a whole other topic.
One of the most powerful illustrations of embodied cognition is the notion that our body language actually changes how we see ourselves. In one of the most widely viewed TED talks ever, a social psychologist discusses how power posing (standing in a confident way even if you don’t feel confident) affects brain activity. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to encourage women to “lean in” conveys the same idea. This research is highly controversial, but it at least hints at the idea that what we do influences what we feel, rather than vice versa.
The embodied cognition approach is consistent with consumer behavior research that demonstrates how changes in self-concept can arise from usage of brands that convey different meanings. Indeed, a pair of researchers used the term enclothed cognition in their work that showed how the symbolic meaning of clothing changes how people behave. In one study they asked respondents to wear a lab coat, which people associate with attentiveness and precise work. They found that subjects who wore the lab coat displayed enhanced performance on tasks that required them to pay close attention. But they also introduced a twist: When respondents were told the garment was in fact a painter’s coat rather than a doctor’s lab coat, the effects went away. In other words, the respondents interpreted the symbolic meaning of the clothing and then altered their behavior accordingly.
It’s tempting to point out that a study your humble author conducted more than 30 years ago on the “dress for success” phenomenon found similar results for students in job interview settings. In perhaps the best Ph.D. dissertation ever written (at least in your author’s opinion), male job candidates who wore professional attire acted more assertively and confidently during the interviews, and on average even asked for higher starting salaries! Again, lots of implications here for thoughtful marketers.
The power of embodied cognition means that your products and services actually have the potential to change how your customers feel. So, one obvious takeaway is to do whatever you can to get them to try and use what you sell.
In the old days of marketing, it was common for companies to loan their customers samples to take home and experience. Even Apple did this when the company first introduced the Macintosh; it needed to take radical steps to wean consumers from the IBM mindset. That might not be financially feasible today, but really anything you can do to immerse your customer with your product is helpful. Encouraging buyers to take a “test drive” breaks down barriers to acceptance as their self-concepts meld with the items.
I saw this transformation play out literally hundreds or even thousands of times when I worked as a formalwear salesman starting in junior high and through college. If I had a nickel for every time a woman dragged her reluctant fiancé into the store… and then after much cajoling he emerged from the dressing room dressed in a tuxedo and a smile as he was able to visualize the role much more clearly. You would have sworn that some magic machine replaced this guy with James Bond! Today of course we have immersive technology like augmented reality and virtual reality that can accomplish the same thing.
We buy what we are, and we are what we buy.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon, author of The New Chameleons: Connecting with Consumers Who Defy Categorization
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