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How Status Symbols Lose Meaning In The Wrong Context

Superstar researcher Jan Chipchase affirms that extravagance still is an effective way of wielding social power—but it’s all relative.

The following is an excerpt from Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers by Jan Chipchase with Simon Steinhardt (Harper Business).

In the early days of ancient Rome, the toga was the national garment, worn by men, women, and children alike, across social classes. Its universality made it difficult to make any statements like "I’m hip, young, and fashionable" or "I’m a deal-making, power-brokering machine," although magistrates and high priests liked to embellish theirs with a purple stripe around the border to make their eminence evident. But by the second century BC, the toga had become strictly a status symbol for men conducting official business. Sumptuary laws were established, explicitly stating who could or could not wear certain togas or use certain dyes. Women were banned from wearing togas entirely, except for prostitutes, who were forced to wear them as manifest stigma. And no one—aside from kings and, later, emperors—was allowed to wear a completely purple toga, the ultimate symbol of power.

It may seem arbitrary to take a simple everyday item and suddenly imbue it with powerful symbolism, but in our modern culture of branding and conspicuous consumption, just about every product on our shelves can be construed as some metaphor for personal identity. We use the word superficial pejoratively to describe people who are overly concerned with such symbols, yet we’re all concerned with them to some degree, because we all use objects—from overt ones like jewelry and cars to subtle ones like the reading material we stock in our bathrooms—as tools to communicate aspects of our selves. And while we may not be subject to fines and imprisonment for wearing the wrong clothes, like the Romans were, we live by unwritten social rules that govern how we dress, how we decorate our homes, and even how we check the time.

We know the rules when we’re in our usual contexts, but once we step into an unfamiliar social situation the rules can completely flip on us. The same Gucci suit that helps you land a cushy job in a corporate firm could attract derision as hoity-toity when worn in a dive bar. Is it any surprise that the word taboo, in its Tongan roots, is used to mean both "forbidden" and "sacred"?

The code of cool versus uncool, classy versus gauche, trash versus treasure is at times flimsy, at other times indecipherable. Clueless consumer brands expect trendspotters to figure out what the hippest kids are doing, thinking, and wearing, and whether it will spread to the masses. Some people think this is what I do, but there’s a difference between what I do and what trend-spotters do. Trends can be valuable indicators of the zeitgeist, but the people who set them and follow them will invariably bounce from one trend to the next because, on a fundamental level, they’re driven by a desire to stay current.

While trendspotters look at the more immediate patterns, my clients are more interested in understanding underlying and usually more permanent desires and other factors that affect how people present themselves. When people put their personal objects on display, it’s as if they’re inviting you through a doorway into their selves—who they are, who they think they are, and who they want you to think they are. But before you walk into that edifice, you have to get a sense of the neighborhood in which it sits.

Looking the Part

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman’s seminal analysis of social dynamics, Goffman describes interactions in terms of dramatic performance, in which every individual involved plays dual roles of performer and audience. Like a stage drama, every performance is carried out within a setting and revolves around a scene—the situation.

Any performer can attempt to define a situation, but things can get awkward if there’s not a consensus. Imagine sitting in the car with a friend and a popular song comes on the radio: do you rock out to it, or change the channel? Maybe you don’t like the song but your friend absolutely loves it and defines the situation right away, so for the sake of camaraderie you swallow your pride and break out your air guitar. Some situations have preestablished definitions and codes of behavior, and it is assumed that everyone involved knows how to perform appropriately. In this sense, rudeness is simply a matter of staging the wrong performance in the wrong scene. Goffman cites a report on seamen in the 1940s returning home and forgetting to shed their maritime manners, such as one who told of accidentally asking his mother to "pass the fucking butter."

In 2005, while at Nokia, I decided to test out this idea: that an object dripping with status symbolism, when brought into an undefined situation without being brandished in a performance of posh extravagance, would fail to define the situation or my status by itself. I was in New York on business, looking for a temporary workspace, and a colleague set me up with a desk at the offices of Vertu, the high-end mobile phone brand and independent subsidiary of Nokia. When Vertu launched in 2002, Wired reported that "the first devices, costing a staggering 24,000 euros ($21,240), will be cased in platinum, display a sapphire crystal glass screen and offer a sound as clear as a Mozart symphony, Vertu said in connection with the company’s launch in Paris during the fashion show week." As Hutch Hutchison, Vertu’s head of design, told the Financial Times about the brand’s origin, "The idea was that the individual who would put this telephone on the table during a meeting would be regarded as the most powerful person in the room." This I had to see.

As I was leaving the Vertu office, I jokingly asked if I could borrow one of their phones for a test run. Shockingly (not least because I go through tech gear like other people go through underwear), they agreed and fetched one from a locked drawer. What I didn’t tell them was that I’d be taking it to Japan, where they had yet to launch, and where their GSM-configured phone would be rendered incommunicado by the country’s 3G network infrastructure. All I could do with the thing, aside from using it as a doorstop, was to manually trigger the ringtones—or try to figure out whether it could live up to Hutchison’s billing in a place where only very early adopters of international status objects would have any awareness or appreciation of it.

I took the Vertu phone to several cafés in the upscale Daikanyama neighborhood of Tokyo and placed it strategically on my table to see what kind of reaction it would draw. There’s a tribe of early-adopting Japanese with noses for high fashion, design, and art that would make a truffle hound whimper, and yet even in these places where social norms allowed people to safely leave luxury items out to show off, and for strangers to approach one another to chitchat about whatever caught their eye, none of them sniffed out its workmanship or sticker value even if it was "worth" about nine months’ wages for the average Japanese worker. Who knows whether they were regarding me as the most powerful person in the room, but they certainly weren’t lining up to kiss my ring(tone).

One of the things about the Vertu that both fascinated and disgusted me in equal measure was that beneath the titanium, sapphire, and glass exterior, here was a $20,000 phone with an almost identical circuit board and user interface to what you’d find on a device that cost a hundredth of the price. Part of Vertu’s value proposition is its exclusivity, one-to-one boutique service, and the idea that their phones are crafted by phone ateliers for the most discerning clientele. But is it all worth the price tag? That is to say, in the classical economic world of supply and demand, would any rational consumer fork over $20,000 for a phone when the next-cheapest option on the market costs about $19,000 less?

The answer is of course not—but then, we don’t live in a classical economic fantasyland. We live in a world of Veblen goods, such as Vertu phones, for which demand paradoxically increases as their prices increase. The "Veblen effect" was coined in 1950 by economist Harvey Leibenstein, who pointed out that consumer demand depended not only on the functional utility of goods but also on certain social factors: a desire to be "in style" (the "bandwagon effect"); a desire to stand out from the herd (the "snob effect"); and a desire for "conspicuous consumption," a term introduced a half-century earlier by sociologist Thorstein Veblen.

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen outlined the social equation used by ruling classes to differentiate themselves from their subjects, and by wealthy individuals to assert their superiority to one another. "In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power," Veblen wrote. "The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence. And not only does the evidence of wealth serve to impress one’s importance on others and to keep their sense of his importance alive and alert, but it is of scarcely less use in building up and preserving one’s self-complacency." Consumam, ergo sum.

The accoutrements of status are about establishing an identity, but they are also about relative identity, and extravagance is one way for the rich to show they have the means to do what the poor cannot. As Veblen so acerbically remarked, "Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable it must be wasteful. No merit would accrue from the consumption of the bare necessities of life, except by comparison with the abjectly poor who fall short even of the subsistence minimum; and no standard of expenditure could result from such a comparison, except the most prosaic and unattractive level of decency."

Cynical as he may have been, Veblen was very much on point about two things: the pursuit of status requires evidence to support one’s cause; and ostentation, vulgar as it may seem, is rather strong evidence that someone isn’t poor. However, as researchers in the Netherlands have found, extravagance can actually confer much more than an aura of wealth.

In a series of experiments on the social effects of designer clothing, Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University found that conspicuous designer labels could elicit significantly more job recommendations, greater amounts of money collected for charity, and higher levels of cooperation in money-sharing games. When they sent a research assistant to a shopping mall to solicit participants for a mock survey, 52 percent of people she stopped agreed to take the survey when she was wearing a Tommy Hilfiger–logoed sweater, but only 13 percent did so when she wore an unbranded sweater. The labels, however, didn’t always yield positive results. When Nelissen and Meijers told participants in the money-sharing game that they had given the designer shirt to its wearer, thus implying that she didn’t necessarily possess the wealth and taste to purchase it for herself, the shirt no longer had any effect. It was no longer a genuine representation of status. But as I’ve found in my work, authenticity isn’t necessarily what counts—just the appearance of it.

Buy Hidden in Plain Sight for $17 here. Visit the author’s site here.

From the book HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: How To Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers by Jan Chipchase with Simon Steinhardt. Copyright (c) 2013 by Jan Chipchase. To be published on April 16, 2013 by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

[IMAGE: Rolex via Shutterstock]