Want to gain more respect at the office? Consider wearing red sneakers to work.
OK, so maybe it's not quite that cut-and-dried.
But recent research does find that people who wear offbeat clothes in a professional setting are often perceived as having a higher status and possessing more competence than those who dress conventionally.
“You're saying, 'I'm so autonomous and successful that I can afford to dress in a nonconforming way'”
Think Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his hoodie, or the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs in black turtleneck and jeans. To many observers, these chief executives exuded confidence in their dressed-down rejection of the traditional pricey business suit and tie.
It happens in academia, too. Anat Keinan, assistant professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, and Silvia Bellezza, a doctoral candidate at HBS, noticed that at academic conferences, it was often the accomplished professors who dressed on the casual side more than students and other less-published attendees. They also noticed over the years that people tended to dress less formally at academic gatherings as they gained more status.
"We wanted to know, when do we (observers) infer that a casually dressed person is a big shot and why do we do it? What's going on psychologically?" Bellezza says.
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Keinan and Bellezza, teaming with HBS Associate Professor Francesca Gino, conducted a series of studies to gauge how people react to a variety of "nonconforming behaviors," such as wearing gym clothes rather than an elegant outfit to a luxury boutique, or wearing sneakers to a professional event.
In The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity—an article appearing in the June 2014 Journal of Consumer Research—the researchers found that observers viewed a nonconforming person to have a heightened status and more competence, particularly when they believed the person was aware of the established norm but deliberately chose to make a fashion statement by wearing a standout style. This person was often viewed as autonomous; confident enough to act independently and create his or her own rules.
People exert great effort to follow expected dress codes and etiquette in both professional and nonprofessional settings, with the belief that conforming to these written and unwritten rules helps them gain acceptance in the eyes of others. So results favoring those who break the rules seem counterintuitive.
"We invest so much time, energy, and money in trying to fit in, be like everyone else and dress the way we're expected to dress, both in our professional and social lives," Keinan says. "It turns out that if you wear whatever you're comfortable with, rather than going through all of this effort and expense, you may actually be perceived highly."
However, when observers noticed that a nonconforming outfit was unintentional—perhaps because the person wasn't aware of the proper dress code or didn't have the means to follow it—that person was more likely to be viewed as committing a fashion faux pas and did not experience a boost in perceived status.
"red Sneakers Effect"
Many people are prone to conspicuous consumption—accumulating luxury items and flashing them for all to see in an effort to gain status points among peers. Similarly, this research finds that nonconformity can send its own signal of high status by visibly expressing the fact that people can afford to follow their own path—a perception that the researchers called the "red sneakers effect."
"Instead of showing you can afford to spend money, you're showing you can afford to spend your social capital," Keinan says. "You're saying, 'I'm so autonomous and successful that I can afford to dress in a nonconforming way.'"
In one study, the researchers asked two groups of participants—luxury shop assistants in Milan, Italy, and women recruited from Milan's central train station—to answer survey questions about potential clients entering a luxury boutique, some dressed down in gym clothes and a Swatch watch and others wearing elegant dresses, fur coats, and Rolex watches.
Shop assistants well aware that wealthy people sometimes visit luxury boutiques dressed in casual clothes said a shopper was more likely to make a purchase and to be a celebrity when she was wearing gym clothes or a Swatch than when she was wearing an elegant dress or a Rolex. Meanwhile, pedestrians from the train station who were less familiar with luxury boutique clients tended to perceive the shopper with the elegant outfit as having a higher or similar status than the poorly dressed shopper.
The shop assistants in the study seemed to believe that the dressed-down client was purposely deviating from what is considered appropriate dress for a luxury shop. One noted that "wealthy people sometimes dress very badly to demonstrate superiority" and that "if you dare enter these boutiques underdressed, you are definitely going to buy something." However, it didn't occur to pedestrians that a shopper might intentionally enter a boutique dressed poorly.
The study reinforced the idea that observers who are familiar with the environment and the way people usually dress, the shop assistants in this case, are more likely to give higher status points to someone who dresses differently.
The researchers found similar results with their other studies:
- Harvard University students were asked about their perceptions of professors based on how they looked. They found that Harvard students viewed an unshaven male professor who wore a T-shirt to have higher professional status and competence than a shaven professor who wore a tie.
- People were asked in an online survey about a man who attended a formal black-tie party at his golf club wearing either a black bowtie—the norm that most of the other men were following—or a nonconforming red bowtie. Survey-takers perceived the man wearing a red bowtie as a higher-status member and a better golfer as compared to a member wearing a black bowtie, as long as the man wearing the red tie intentionally dressed differently. In cases where the man unknowingly wore the wrong-color bowtie, the higher status points started to evaporate.
- People participated in an online survey about a contestant who entered a prestigious MIT young entrepreneurs competition. Survey respondents perceived the contestant as having higher status when he used his own presentation layout versus the official MIT layout that other participants in the contest used. And in this study, the researchers also tested the observers' "need for uniqueness," finding that people with a higher affinity for uniqueness assigned greater status, competence, and autonomy to the nonconformer than the conformer.
- The researchers studied the reactions of executives attending a formal symposium at a prestigious business school in which a professor wore red Converse sneakers while teaching in the classroom. The executives who said they owned a pair of "distinctive shoes" gave the professor higher professional status than those who did not-confirming the idea that people with "high levels of need for uniqueness" grant more status points to nonconformity than people with "low levels of need for uniqueness."
"People who like to diverge from the norm themselves, the ones who like unique products, are more likely to see the signal and interpret it positively," Bellezza says.
What Brands Can Learn
The findings have a few implications for companies. For one thing, brands should take note that the way in which consumers signal status has changed in the last century, and many people these days applaud original products over mainstream choices.
"Consumers are becoming more sophisticated and people at the top of the pyramid have found other ways to distinguish themselves, going beyond buying things that are expensive," Bellezza says.
Luxury marketers should be aware of the different ways that people display status and they may find ways to capitalize on the consumer's quest for uniqueness.
"One way brands can leverage this is by launching line extensions that are seen as unique and nonconforming," Keinan says. The article notes that some products on the market already seem to be "engineered for nonconformity," such as the LittleMissMatched brand that intentionally sells a mishmash of different socks in packs of three with the tagline "nothing matches, but anything goes."
Deciding to be different can win points in other corporate ways, too.
"Just like people signal status by not conforming, brands can also signal status with a nonconforming advertising campaign or a CEO behaving in a nonconforming way," Keinan says. "It sends the signal that this CEO and company are confident enough that they can behave in a nonconforming way because they are a high-status brand."
The authors say a key message for firms and individuals is simple: "It's not only OK to be yourself, but it can actually be very beneficial. You're seen as confident, autonomous, and well regarded."