Brands Count – Seen or Unseen


brand logos
We’re in the midst of the busiest shopping season of the year, and lots of us will be shopping for stylish gifts. One of the choices we’ll be confronted with is whether to buy an item from a well-known brand or opt for a less expensive item from a store or cheaper brand. If we opt for the expensive brand, we have another decision – do we select an item with visible branding, like a Polo shirt or Gucci purse emblazoned with the brand logo? Or, do we choose an item that lets the recipient see the brand but which doesn’t expose the brand to others?

Visible Brands

While some may view logo apparel as gauche or ostentatious, products from premium and luxury brands command higher prices and occupy plenty of retail floor space. Now, there’s evidence that such products deserve at least some of that treatment. A study by Dutch researchers showed that people wearing apparel with visible premium branding were viewed more positively and actually treated differently in person.

The least surprising experiment experiment had subjects evaluate photos of people wearing Lacoste or Tommy Hilfinger apparel. Some subjects saw photos with the logos digitally removed, but with identical models and styles. The people with the visible branding were judged to be of higher status and wealthier than those without. I’m not shocked – take a picture of me in a Ferrari, and people will likely think me wealthier than a similar photo in a Ford. But, one can at least conclude that the subjects in the experiment actually did observe the brand icon either consciously or non-consciously.

Another experiment showed subjects a video of a simulated job interview. The male “interviewee” was seen either with or without the visible brand. Not only was the candidate with branding judged more suitable for the job, on average, but his recommended salary was 9% higher.

The most surprising experiment in the series took place in a real-world setting: a shopping mall. An experimenter approached shoppers and asked them to participate in a short survey. While only 13% cooperated when she wore an unbranded sweater, fully 52% agreed when she wore an identical sweater with the designer logo. That difference, more than a fourfold increase, is stunning.

In short, visible branding on apparel does affect the attitudes and actions of people you encounter. These effects no doubt vary by region and socioeconomic status. An aspirational brand in Tuscaloosa may not be perceived in the same way in the Hamptons, and a CEO may not find the same brands attractive as a mailroom clerk. Still, if you think nobody notices the little alligator or pony on your shirt, you’d be wrong.

Invisible Branding

Some people eschew visible brand indicators. If you’ve got someone like that on your list, should you spend the extra money to buy him a designer product? Well, it depends. Often, gift giving is as much about the giver as the recipient. A premium or luxury apparel item says something about the taste of the giver, as well as how special the recipient is to them. (To a few hard-nosed recipients, of course, buying an “overpriced” designer item may signify waste and a lack of common sense.)

There’s evidence, though, that even our own behavior can be altered by what we are wearing. As I reported in Wear a Fake Rolex, Turn Into O.J., a fascinating experiment showed that people were more than twice as likely to engage in cheating behavior when they thought they were wearing fake designer sunglasses. The glasses were, of course, all genuine.

Wearing a fake designer product is different than wearing a store-brand or no-name product. But it’s not unreasonable to think that differences in self-perception and even behavior could occur. Even without a designer logo, might one be more confident and assertive wearing a Turnbull and Asser shirt than a J.C. Penney store brand? (Could the experimenter in the shopping mall have been more successful while displaying the brand logo because she expected to be, or because she exhibited more confidence?)

And, of course, in the real world similar apparel products aren’t identical – at least occasionally, a premium brand may have unique styling, better fabrics, and superior quality. For some observers, these subtle details may be as potent signals of status as a visible logo – even if they aren’t processing them consciously.

Just Do It!

To sum up, whether or not substantive product differences exist, premium branded apparel can have an effect on how others perceive us as well as how we behave. So, in the spirit of the holidays, you have my permission to spend a few extra dollars (or euros, etc.) on a gift for someone special to you. And, when they say, “You shouldn’t have!” you can explain that sound science supports your choice!

  1. Rayce Rollins says

    This is very interesting piece on brands and how they change human behavior. I always say that, “the most expensive products that we buy are invisible.” People actually buy “coolness,” “respect,” and “people might think I’m wealthier if I wear this visible brand” every day. These sentiments are the actually product. The brand is the product, and the physical item is just the package. When someone buys Ralph Lauren Polo they’re actually buying “sophisitication” wrapped up in an article of clothing. It’s kind of bizarre. But the interesting thing is, as you point out in this post, that Polo shirt definitely changes how that person gets treated by others, and how that person feels about himself. Good stuff!

  2. denise lee yohn says

    fascinating stuff as usual, roger — i wonder how these dynamic have changed over time — certainly wearing a visible brand must convey a different message in a recessionary economy than in a booming one? — denise lee yohn

  3. Roger Dooley says

    I think there are likely many modifying variables, Denise. Conspicuous consumption when many are suffering might well change the perception of the branded wearer. (Still wealthy and high status, but maybe a jerk, too!) Age bracket, geography, etc. might show variations too.


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  5. Jessica says

    Interesting study – as you point out though, a lot of these results may be based on the specific brand, design and reputation. Would be more convincing if it was done with a larger cross-section of brands or optimally, with fabricated logos/brands for companies that do not exist and therefore could not have prior bias in the minds of the surveyed customers.

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