Self-beliefs shape what luxury means to us

11 October 2017

Is your luxury brand a market newcomer? Then prime consumers to think about luxury differently, advises Yuri Seo.

New research suggests our unconscious self-beliefs influence what we value in luxury items, and that rather than targeting particular kinds of consumers, marketers might be better to focus on aligning our self-beliefs with their brands.

There was a time when only the wealthy could afford luxury items. But in this age of diffusion lines, fast fashion, and social media influencers, luxury brands paradoxically can appear to be as ubiquitous as blue jeans, says luxury marketing expert Dr Yuri Seo.

His research reveals a range of reasons why people buy luxury items, including to signal social status, as escapism, for self-transformation, and as an investment.

“Individual consumers view luxury differently, and even the same consumer can view it differently in different situations,” says Seo, a Senior Lecturer in the Business School's Department of Marketing.

“Consumers no longer have a strong, clear understanding of what luxury is, and because the concept is fuzzy, marketers can shape consumers’ thinking about it.”

Seo and his co-researchers, JaeHwan Kwon from Baylor University in Texas, and Dongwoo Ko from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, investigated whether the key to this mercurial nature lay in the way consumers’ views of themselves interacted with luxury brand values.

A growing body of evidence from psychology shows that the way we think about ourselves affects our choices as consumers. People hold unconscious beliefs about the malleability of their personality, morals, intelligence and other personal traits. These self-theories are not easily put into words, but they nevertheless show through in our attitudes and behaviour.

Two distinct self-theories have been identified. People who hold the 'entity theory' believe their personal traits are relatively fixed, and that therefore they cannot improve or change themselves through their own efforts. 'Incremental theorists' believe their characteristics are relatively malleable, and that they can change if they try hard enough. It seems the same person can hold both self-theories simultaneously, with one or the other dominant depending on the context.

“For entity theorists, one way of gaining self-esteem is to consume products or brands with positive personalities. You are borrowing those things from the brand because you cannot improve yourself, so luxury is about image,” says Seo.

“Incremental theorists are less likely to signal their own value through luxury items, because they believe they should improve themselves. Traditional luxury marketing, which emphasises symbolic values like tradition and history, primes you to think like an entity theorist. But if you want to appeal to incremental theorists, you need to focus on the more functional values – design, innovation, durability.”

Seo and his collaborators ran a series of experiments to tease out the effects, and potential use to marketers, of self-theories.

Participants in the first experiment were asked to rate a mock print ad for a new Chanel watch, and then to complete a measure of self-theory. As predicted, the more a person believed that personal traits were fixed, the more positive attitudes towards the luxury watch they reported.

In another experiment, participants were shown one of two mock scientific articles supporting either kind of self-theory to bring it to the fore. They then completed the self-theory measure, and were shown one of two mock print ads with identical images of Prada sunglasses. One highlighted the sunglasses' symbolic value, while the other emphasised their functional value.

As expected, participants primed to have an entity mindset formed more favourable attitudes towards the sunglasses when their symbolic value was emphasised, and the reverse held for those primed for an incremental mindset.

Finally, the researchers investigated whether the ad itself could prime participants, and found the most appealing ads were the ones where the text and slogan worked together.

“One may argue that large fashion brands from New Zealand aren’t necessarily luxury because they don’t have 100 years’ history, or they are small, or they don’t dress celebrities,” says Seo.

“But all of that is important mostly to entity theorists. So, if you prime consumers to think incrementally, you can emphasise things that advantage your brand such as personal connection, innovation, and sustainability.”

Yuri Seo

Dr Yuri Seo is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Auckland Business School's Department of Marketing.

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