The demand for individualized personal products, like clothes and accessories, has long been the expression of consumers’ desires for greater comfort and ease of use. Tailor-made garments, shoes or hats are not only more comfortable to wear than mass-produced goods, but they are also crafted to accentuate the clients’ best features and attenuate their unwanted imperfections. Possibly even more importantly, though, individualized products are unspoken expressions of consumers’ social status. As individualization has traditionally been reserved for luxury products, the ownership of a custom-made item is a very visual symbol of the owner’s wealth.
Brands satisfy two desires
It is almost certainly the same twin desires that drive the demand for branded goods. Although such products might not be customized to any individual consumer, many manufacturers target specific customer groups. For those groups, the products are usually more comfortable and easier to use than their non-branded counterparts. And clients of branded goods usually benefit from the assurance that a certain level of product quality will be associated with the manufacturer who lends it name to the product. ‘Branding’, therefore, preserves its original significance from the days when the term referred to the marking of livestock as a guarantee of their provenance.
The desire for social status is also certainly an important driver of the demand for branded products. Although many consumers might not be conscious of it (and those who are might not be ready to admit it), the presence of a branded product tends to confer status to its owner. In one very revelatory study of consumer behaviour, scientists showed that random mall shoppers, when approached by a person holding a clipboard, responded very differently depending on whether the person wore a non-branded sweater or one bearing the logo of a luxury brand. When simply asked whether they had time to answer a few questions, shoppers were almost four times more likely to comply with the request when the clipboard holder wore a branded garment.
Identical product - different brand
Even if the brand is not associated with luxury, it still has the ability to confer status if it symbolizes membership in a particular social group. Hence, ‘Harley Davidson’, ‘Apple’ and ‘Lego’ regularly adorn products that are not motorbikes, smartphones, or coloured bricks. Celebrities, like Drake or the Kardashians, lend their names and faces to shirts and shorts. Even PokerStars has its own branded line of products. The branded article might not be functionally different from the non-branded alternative. Yet its ownership nonetheless signals to other group members the depth and intensity of the wearer’s engagement.
Most recently, retail trends have moved even further in the direction of customization. Not only do consumers want the ability to determine the shapes and sizes of the products they buy, but they also want a direct hand in the design process. Technologies such as online design and 3D printing are making all manner of individualized goods available to consumers. However, in the rush to propose functionally superior products using new technology, retailers should not forget consumers’ oft-unspoken desire to buy a little social status when they shop.