Pride and purchases: Do these designer pants make my head look fat?

Apr 01, 2014

Beedie study finds dark side to rewarding ourselves with luxury goods.

The following article was published by on March 31, 2014.

By Misty Harris, Postmedia News.

Beedie School of Business assistant professor Brent McFerran's research examines consumer emotion before and after high-end goods are acquired.

Beedie School of Business assistant professor Brent McFerran.

Though it’s no surprise pride is linked to luxury purchases, a new Canadian study finds the emotion takes on very different forms before and after high-end goods are acquired.

While feelings of authentic pride — the type linked with accomplishment — were found to drive desire for such products, it was hubristic pride — the type linked with snobbery — that consumers actually experienced post-purchase. Furthermore, outsiders interpreted the display of designer brands as arrogant, even though they’d seek out similarly luxe goodies to reward themselves for a job well done.

The study has multimillion-dollar implications for marketers, not to mention any future decisions you may make between a Rolex and a Swatch.

“People report feeling more egotistical, more arrogant, more snobby as a result of wearing and displaying these brands, even though that’s not what motivated the purchase in the first place,” said lead author Brent McFerran, assistant professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

The study draws on seven experiments with more than 900 people, and is believed to be the first research of its kind to demonstrate two facets of pride in consumption.

For example, when people were primed to feel a sense of achievement, they were much likelier to want luxury-branded items than people who had their egos pumped up. And in another experiment, higher levels of accomplishment-related pride were likewise associated with increased desire for designer products.

By contrast, when people pondered luxury possessions they already owned, they felt more hubris but not more accomplished. Moreover, they assessed other people who bought luxury brands as more snobbish than deserving.

“We’ll often judge others more harshly for the same behaviours that, given the same situation, we might find ourselves doing,” said McFerran.

The implication for marketers is that they could hit pay dirt by positioning luxury products as signposts of accomplishment (for example, Rolex’s “A crown for every achievement” campaign) versus signposts of status (Versace ads juxtaposing the owners of designer goods with manservants).

“If we make people feel arrogant, conceited, snobby, they don’t want luxury brands — or at least less so,” said McFerran. “When DO they want luxury brands? When they feel the other side of pride: a sense of achievement, and of being fulfilled. It’s a much more motivating state.”

For consumers, the picture is more complex.

On the one hand, the study identifies a dark side of accomplishment-related pride when it comes to purchasing behaviour. That is, that it can result in the kind of vanity that wreaks havoc on relationships, mental health and social behaviour.

On the other, McFerran said consumers may consciously recognize that luxury items imply that they’re big-headed and unapproachable, but in fact want to convey this impression because it signals power — even at the cost of people liking them.

The study, co-authored by The University of British Columbia’s Karl Aquino and Jessica Tracy, will appear in a future issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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