In difficult economic times, it’s tempting, even logical, to watch your purchases carefully. Most people recognize the need to keep up external appearances for, say, a job interview or an important sales call, they may cut back in areas less visible to others by buying generic products instead of brand names. While that seems like a sensible strategy – for example, the hiring executive may notice the Hickey Freeman suit, but won’t know about the no-name socks – skimping on accessories could cost you far more than you saved. Research shows that our self-image is affected by the products that we use, even when they are seemingly inconsequential.
Want a lower salary? Go generic.
Researchers Wen-Bin Chiou and Ying-Hsien Cha ran an experiment in which job applicants completed resumes on Mac computers. Half of the subjects used computers featuring genuine Apple keyboards and printers, while half used generic peripherals and were told that the generic products had been purchased to save money. Amazingly, when the subjects recorded their salary expectations, those using the branded products came in 10% higher than the generic users.
Brands make you hotter!
A second experiment showed even more clearly the impact of using generic products on self esteem. The researchers set up an online dating simulation in which the subject carried on a 5 minute phone conversation with a potential match. In each case, the cell phone battery needed to be replaced before the conversation. Half of the subjects were provided a brand-name battery, and half a generic. When they were asked to estimate how attractive their match would find them (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being most attractive), the branded group averaged 4.6 vs. a mere 3.7 for the generic group. Even though their “date” had no way of knowing that their cell phone had a generic battery, that group considered themselves 20% less attractive than the branded group.
If an hidden cell phone battery can have that kind of effect, what about something more visible, like a suit, watch, or purse?
Fakes make you phony
We know from other research that subjects wearing fake designer sunglasses cheated at a much higher rate than subjects who wore authentic glasses. (See Wear a Fake Rolex, Turn Into O.J.) All of the sunglasses were actually identical and authentic; the change in behavior was caused purely by the subjects’ beliefs about the product’s brand authenticity. So, it seems unlikely that a fake branded product would have fared better than the generics in the experiments.
Visible vs. Invisible
One thing we don’t know is how long-lasting the effect of “invisible generics” is. Perhaps if I buy a cheap, no-name replacement battery for my cell phone I DO think of myself as an unworthy cheapskate for a while. But a week later, do I remember what kind of battery is in the phone, even unconsciously? We don’t know the answer to that. Logically, one would expect the effects to be stronger for products frequently in view; picking up a Coach purse or slipping a Breitling watch on one’s wrist might well reinforce the brand effect each time. We also don’t know if there’s a “self-esteem scale” – if I trade a cheap “Rolux” watch I bought on a street corner for a nice $200 Citizen Eco-Drive, my self-image would likely get a little boost. Though hardly a luxury brand, the Citizen would easily be as authentic as a branded cell-phone battery. But would I get an even bigger boost if I traded up to a Cartier timepiece costing thousands? I suspect there’s a diminishing returns effect, and that spending an order of magnitude more would lift self-image by a far smaller percentage.
It’s Good Business to Indulge Yourself
The conclusion one draws from these studies is that using authentic products from brands we respect has a significant impact on our self-image, even when those products aren’t visible to others. If we want to be at our best on a daily basis, or for an important interview, presentation, sales call, or even a big date, we should avoid generic or fake products.
If we feel authentic ourselves, we’ll convey that feeling to those around us.