Sales & Marketing

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Why making customers feel worse can increase sales

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A recent study found that consumers reacted positively to discriminatory staff – but only in luxury brand stores – revealing insight into the minds of customers and their need to affiliate with luxury brands.

The study, (‘Should the Devil Wear Prada?’) gave participants a hypothetical situation, in which a member of staff at a certain retailer – either luxury (Saint Laurent) or mass-market (H&M) – treated them either condescendingly or neutrally.

If the brand was a luxury one and the staff were condescending, the desire to buy actually increased, while it didn’t have an affect if staff behaved that way for less aspirational brands.

The study offers a reason for this: ‘self-discrepancy,’ or the way we think we are versus who we believe we should be. For instance, relating to fashion brands: we might imagine we deserve or are expected to wear Gucci or YSL, but buy from mass-market trends. The need to resolve the discrepancy and dress in luxury brands makes us want to buy from them.

This discrepancy is reinforced with staff who are ‘condescending’ or judgemental. They enact a judgement which reinforces the consumer’s sense that they are not their ideal self i.e.: a purchaser and wearer of luxury goods. In other words, the consumer is made to feel excluded, which compels them to buy luxury goods to feel included again. 

It’s the Caligula approach to marketing, “Let them hate me so long as they fear me.” It’s worth remembering that Caligula was assassinated by members of the Roman Senate, so too this type of marketing can make enemies and potentially damage sales. 

In the study, they point out that two things actually happen when a customer feels rejection: they feel that discrepancy gap widen, and they feel emotionally hurt. While the sense of discrepancy might fade in the long-term, emotions are less likely to and can lead to resentment of the brand.

A researcher for the paper, Morgan Ward, says: “After a time delay people feel less positive towards the brand. [They] may avoid these threatening situations by avoiding bricks and mortar retail environments and shop online instead” – or they may not shop at all.”

This may not be the whole story, however. While brands might disparage consumers and change their buyer behaviours, it encourages a perception of the brand as being shopped by only an elite group of consumers. 

In the long term, luxury brands which enhance our perception of an ideal self – which is further and further away from our ‘actual’ self – will benefit from consumer self-perception.

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