Shop for Success: Why You Need to Indulge Yourself


Branded Products

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.

  1. Roderick Dunne says

    Very interesting findings Roger! Incredible to think that material objects could project such a perception/impression upon a person… especially when so seemingly disconnected (battery salary).

    The interview process itself is a wonderland for neuro-marketing. As an example, when I’ve interviewed people before I overlook the cut of their cloth (i.e. their suit) and focus on the caliber & state of their shoes.

    Interview suits can be borrowed for the day so aren’t a good indicator (your post would recommend borrowing a top notch suit by all accounts). However, a person is less likely to borrow shoes.

    IMO Good shoes indicate a person’s attention to detail. Moreover, their condition clearly shows how they market themselves – unpolished seems sloppy. The item furthest from their head/mind gets the littlest attention.

    This works at black-tie events too were you’ll see many a rented tux is let down by shoddy footwear.

    Lastly, at the end of the interview, as the candidate leaves, check the ‘back’ of their shoes is polished. You’d be surprised to find its often just the toe (what’s visible to the owner) which they paid attention to.

    Maybe this is excessive in perceiving candidates – but by comparison, Henry Ford used to hire candidates only after taking them to lunch and seeing if they seasoned food *after* tasting.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      All good advice, Roderick. My only caution would be that meticulous dress is important for some occupations, but not others. A job interview is a great simulation of how a salesperson will interact with customers, but is a bad way to choose a Linux administrator. Hiring for some kinds of positions can be improved by focusing on the resume experience skill set (with suitable verification) and avoiding an interview likely to be biased by a candidate’s appearance, how articulate they are, etc.


  2. Mandy Lehto says

    Fascinating post Roger. Interestingly a very modern, urban look is also often anchored with an authentic product from a label we trust – say a Prada bag. But an entire outfit might grow around that key item, consisting of a mish-mash of high street, maybe some vintage.

    Mark Tungate’s book, ‘Fashion Brands’ suggests that this phenomenon conveys the message: ‘I’m an intelligent consumer, not dazzled by marketing, and in charge of my own image.’

    It’s as if the key piece allows the wearer freedom & creative carte blanche to mix and match (and to save some money too). The might signal, ‘I’m quality’, but ‘I can personalize it too.’

  3. Arielle says

    After I was laid off a few jobs ago, I used all my saved up “employee of the month” gift cards to buy a personalized Mont Blanc pen. I have taken it on every job interview since and it’s provided a little confidence boost. I have often received compliments on it from interviewers. I have no doubt that a less expensive pen would not have hindered my chances in any of the interviews, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have received compliments on a Bic.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great example, Arielle. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a difference!


  4. cono_sur says

    Catching up on your posts, Roger. This is a good one!

  5. Joy says

    That’s fascinating. When I went through a rough spell a few years back, I ignored people’s advice to really deprive myself of some of the small treats in life, saying I didn’t want to fall into the “poverty mentality” trap. Happily things soon turned round!

  6. Angie says

    These concepts are very interesting and I’m not discounting the credibility of the research that was done, but I do believe that your “conclusion” isn’t the best one to end at. You seem to be suggesting that we should derive our confidence subconsciously from material goods (that other people don’t even see) whose only added value is an image arbitrarily determined by society (which is not always the most sensible) rather than actual utility.

    I do think that this article is very useful in that it tells us what makes us act and feel different without us knowing. Knowing this, we should instead ask ourselves whether our confidence comes from our performance and abilities or our possessions and work on projecting it from inside rather than outside where resources (such as money) are very limited. It’s still a great treat to indulge ourselves, as long as we know the true meaning behind our indulgence.

    By the way, I am a new reader of your blog and so far find it very interesting and enlightening.

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