Imagine this: You’re interviewing two people for a job. They’re equally competent, capable, and qualified—but you can see that one is wearing an outfit from H&M and the other’s clothes are clearly from Louis Vuitton. Which candidate will you hire?
A new study in the Journal of Business Research suggests you’re more likely to choose the latter. Surveying students at a large urban university in Seoul, South Korea, researchers from Yonsei University and Coastal Carolina University examined how we react to others depending on the brands they’re wearing. To do so, they tested several scenarios of someone wearing a luxury brand logo, a logo from a non-luxury brand, or no logo. They found that in nearly every situation, people gave preferential treatment to the person wearing the luxury logo.
The researchers call this effect an example of costly signaling theory, which says that people show off to “signal” to others that they can afford
do so. In the case of luxury brands, the theory predicts that people wear expensive clothing to flaunt that they can afford it, thereby increasing their status in the eyes of others.
In the study’s first scenario, 180 observers were shown a picture of a woman wearing a white polo shirt and asked to rate her wealth, status, attractiveness, trustworthiness, and other characteristics. Three versions of the picture were used, identical except for the shirt’s visible brand logo (luxury, non-luxury, or none). The observers of the luxury logo rated the woman significantly higher on wealth and status than did the observers of the non-luxury logo or no logo.
In the second scenario, 150 observers watched a video of a woman being interviewed for an internship. Three versions of the video were used, again identical except for the logo on the woman’s shirt. The observers rated the woman on a number of characteristics, but this time they also judged her suitability for the job and the pay she should receive. Observers of the luxury logo rated the woman most suitable for the job, again with significantly higher status and wealth ratings. The luxury observers also thought she deserved the highest compensation. Asked to choose her hourly pay from five ranges, over half of luxury observers chose one of the top two ranges—far greater than the 12% of non-luxury observers and 10% of no-logo observers who did the same.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean you should rush out and splurge on Gucci shoes before your next job interview. The researchers caution that several additional factors are at work.
For one, the observer must recognize the brand logo without assistance. If the wearer has to point out what she’s wearing, the effect is destroyed. And, of course, the observer must know the brand to recognize it in the first place.
For another, how someone wears the brand matters. The researchers say that a gaudy outfit will probably backfire with wealthy observers. Wealthy people tend to value subtlety in showing one’s social standing, viewing “loud” displays of clothing as being in bad taste. Cheaper designer items cater to the opposite impulse, often featuring large logos that allow their purchasers to conspicuously show off the brand.