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What is luxury? Can a fashion luxury brand influence consumer decision-making process in choosing a brand? Why a brand image congruency is vital for a brand successful longevity on a luxury fashion market? These questions I will attempt to research in this paper, or at least try to evoke some rational assumptions on these salient questions for marketers in the fashion brand management field.
To start with I would define a conceptual framework of a word “luxury.” What do we consider luxury? There have been numerous definitions of luxury, but the one that I find the most appropriate for the purpose of this paper is this one formed by Matthiese and Phau (2005), defining luxury as a means of “indulgence of the senses, regardless of cost, due to the rising demand for conspicuous and status goods.” Conspicuous and status consumption has been widely introduced in the literature, where they represent a symbolic nature of a consumer purchasing preference of a brand. Mason (1981) defines status consumption as “the process of gaining status or social prestige from the acquisition and consumption of goods that the individual and significant others perceive to be high in status.” Veblen (1899, 1953) formulated the idea of conspicuous consumption to refer to the practice of using products to signal social status aspirations to other consumers (Mason 1981; Braun and Wicklund 1989).
Scholars distinguish three different ways to acquire a status in a social setting and that is by (1) status by definition or assignment (e.g., royalty), (2) status by achievement (an individual has higher status if he/she does a better job compared to others in his/her line of work), and (3) status by consumption (Hayakawa 1963; Brown 1991). Our focus is on this final type of social status, that which is acquired through possession (Kwak and Sojka, 2010). Brands that represent status attributes give consumers a certain appeal to consume them. By consuming status-driven brands, consumers can fulfill their needs on two basic levels: (1) by a group level through shared social meanings, and (2) by individual level through self-concepts (Wong and Ahuvia, 1998).
There has been extend research done on group affiliation and self expression of consumer influences on decision-making process in choosing a brand and/or expressing a brand preferences. Group affiliation motivation inspires consumers to consume for status-based brands, whereas self expression consumers tend to be based their brand preferences on brands that could potentially extend self and perceived hedonism (seeking personal rewards and fulfillment) (Vigneron and Johnson, 2004). These two basic levels of brand consumption motivation correlate but different if attempting to understand the distinctive consumer motives toward a brand and its perceived consumer value in creating and maintaining a successful brand equity on a fashion luxury market.
A growing trend of aspirational consumer affluence mentioned by Prendergast and Wong in 2003 is sought to be a vital construct of a modern definition of a luxury brand, in that consumers aspire to belong to or associate with an elite class, and show in a society. According to Bloch et. al (2003), consumption of counterfeits branded products is based on the symbolic nature of brands. The desire to fit in, express yourself, and impress others are some of the social motives that drive consumers to purchase counterfeit brands. Consumers susceptible to societal feedback are inclined to purchasing status-driven brands. To nurture customers’ desire to conform to affluent societal groups, brands reinforce its customers desire to stay loyal to a brand and continue marinating long-term relationship (Vigneron and Johnson, 2004).
Brand image is an indicator of how strong and viable a brand is for its consumers. Brand image is considered to be an intangible construct that attempts to satisfy psychological and/or social demands of a consumer. This intangible brand aspect is directly linked with what consumers feel or think of a brand, which overpowers a functional value of a product of a luxury fashion market. For fashion luxury consumer a brand is associated with human characteristics. Keller (2009) describes five brand personality dimensions as in sincerity (for example down-to-earth, honest, wholesome and cheerful), excitement (for example daring, spirited, imaginative and up-to-date), competence (for example reliable, intelligent and successful), sophistication (for example upper class and charming) and ruggedness (for example outdoorsy and tough). Anthropomorphizing a brand is another term to describe feelings in consumers’ mind toward a brand in terms of human characteristics. Biel (2000) points out that by attaching distinctive personal qualities to a brand effect consumers’ perceived credibility toward a brand. The research shows that products that are presented as human are evaluated much higher than those that lack human characteristics (Aggarwal and McGill, 2007).
Having a distinctive personality, a brand has an ability to assist consumers to express themselves in different aspects of their lives (Aaker 1997; Belk 1988; Escalas and Bettman 2005; Johar, Sengupta, and Aaker 2005). Fletcher et. al. (1999) argues that brand that are exciting and sincere express warmth, validity and status to a consumer perception. Furthermore Bowlby (1969, 1980) suggests an “attachment theory” that is based on exciting and sincere brand personality characteristics and constructed of an “anxiety” and “avoidance” dimensions. The “attachment theory” refers to a person’s child upbringing environment that will have an effect on his/her adult relationships (Bowlby, 1969, 1980). Whereas the “anxiety’ dimension (self view) assesses the degree to which the self is perceived as being worthy or unworthy of love (or one’s lovability), and the “avoidance” dimension of attachment captures the individual’s view of others (Bowlby, 1969, 1980). Consumers with the “anxiety” attachment style emphases on a symbolic value of a brand, and hence choose a brand in accordance to what a brand represents in a social environment. This type of consumers is highly influenced by others, and consequently they prefer intangible value of a brand with a symbolic dominance to brand’s functionality (Dion and Arnould, 2011). Consumers with the “avoidance” attachment style are characterized characterized by a high degree of self-reliance and desire for autonomy (Mikulincer and Shaver 2003), which leads to purchasing brands that are reflect the exciting personality trait. The effect of building strong brand personally traits has practical implications in terms of influencing consumers’ purchasing decision process, allowing them to facilitate their social interactions and at the same time build strong brand connections and brand loyalty (Swaminathan et. al., 2008).
The mechanism, called behavioral mimicry, can influence consumers’ purchasing decision process. According to Chartand et. al (2006) individuals automatically mimic multiple aspects of their interaction partners, including their postures, gestures, mannerisms, speech patterns, syntax, accents, facial expressions, and even moods and emotions. There are two paths to mimic: (1) The mimicking consumer path (consumer mimics other) relies on a consumer’s automatic mimicry of observed consumption behaviors; and (2) The mimicked consumer path (other mimics consumer) relies on prosocial emotions being generated in a consumer when he or she is mimicked by an interaction partner. That partner mimics the behavior of the consumer (Chartand et. al., 2006). By staying consistent with the brand image, a company/brand builds strong consumer relationships. Consistently communicating the same brand message will yield high customer loyalty toward a brand (Matthiesen and Phau, 2005).
The literature makes its obvious that brand personality can influence consumers’ brand preferences and perceptions toward a brand. To marketers to know and fully understand its target consumers’ personal and societal motives is the base to build company’s advertising, and any promotional activities.
Psychological value (personal or society-driven) of a brand is undetachable from any other brand aspects such as a brand logo, promotional activities, or advertising, in that it conforms the success of a brand among its consumers. As soon as a psychological effect of a brand weakens in consumers’ mind, it is in a position to lose its aspirational qualities to be consumed and vanish into unknown brand territory.
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Yuliya Suleymanova is a Doctor of Education in Leadership Candidate and Researcher. She is an accomplished college professor with 18 years of instructional experience, teaching Psychology at the Kamchatka State Teachers’ University in Russia, at the School of Fashion Marketing & Design at the Art Institute of Seattle for 12 years, and now at the Year Up program at the Seattle Central College where she leads Business Technology Management Classes.