I'll Have What She's Having

The effects of social influences

Why Do We Buy Luxury Brands—and How Do They Make Us Feel?

A tale of two types of pride

Global demand for luxury goods is strong and rapidly growing, with over $200 billion in annual sales each year. Consumers purchase these goods for a variety of reasons, among them because they convey a sense of status, wealth, and exclusivity. These purchases lead others to make rapid inferences about the character of the purchaser (e.g., successful, arrogant, among many others). Further, using and displaying luxury products can elicit various feelings on the part of the user. 

Drawing on recent research in social psychology on pride, in a recent paper with Karl Aquino and Jessica Tracy (both at the University of British Columbia), we show that there are two types (i.e., “facets”) of pride in consumption.

Interestingly, we demonstrate that the feeling which motivates a desire for luxury purchases (accomplishment, or what is termed “authentic pride”) is very different from the feeling that one derives from displaying those same products (snobbery, or what is called “hubristic pride”). In other words, the same emotion (pride) operates in two different ways. These findings shed new light on why consumers purchase luxury brands, highlighting a paradox: these purchases are sought out of heightened feelings of accomplishment (and not arrogance), but they instead signal arrogance to others (rather than accomplishment). Further, we show that these effects are generally more pronounced for those low in narcissism. 

These conclusions were based on the results of seven experiments. In some, participants were asked to recall a luxury brand or a non-luxury brand they own, and we assessed how much of each facet of pride they felt. Those who recalled luxury goods felt snobbier (hubristic pride), but not more accomplished (authentic pride), showing the former facet of pride stems from luxury consumption. Another version of the study had other people rate a luxury brand user (or a non-luxury one). People judged the luxury brand consumer as more snobbish, but not more accomplished.

However, in other studies, we gave participants a task designed to make them feel authentic or hubristic pride, or a control task. We then assessed their desire to purchase luxury and non-luxury branded items. This time, those who felt accomplished had a higher desire to purchase luxury goods than those who felt hubristic pride, suggesting that feelings of accomplishment are a stronger motivator of luxury consumption than feeling snobbish. In another variant, we measured how accomplished and snobbish participants chronically felt; higher levels of accomplishment were associated with a higher desire for luxury goods. 

This research has implications for companies selling luxury goods, or wish to market products as such. Luxury brands are sometimes positioned in a manner associating them with snobbery, for instance contrasting their wearers with laborers of lower status professions. Others, such as Rolex’s “A crown for every achievement”, suggests its product is a marker of accomplishment. Our research shows that although consumers indeed associate luxury goods with both accomplishment and snobbery, the former is more motivating in creating consumer desire. 

Beyond purveyors of luxury goods, the growing obsession among some consumers to acquire luxury brands, particularly when they cannot reasonably afford them, is also a concern. For those interested in helping consumers better regulate their expenditures and avoid additional debt, our results speak to the psychological factors that motivate consumers to buy products that may make their lives economically precarious.

 

Full paper:

McFerran, Brent, Karl Aquino, and Jessica L. Tracy (in press, 2014), “Evidence For Two Facets of Pride In Consumption: Findings From Luxury Brands”, Journal of Consumer Psychology.

 

Brent McFerran, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of marketing at the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University.

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