The Manager in Red Sneakers

Wearing the corporate uniform may not be the best way to dress for success. Research by Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan shows there may be prestige advantages when you stand out rather than fit in.
by Dina Gerdeman

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.

Do you wear red sneakers at work?

Follow a Working Knowledge conversation about dressing for success on Storify

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.

In the office, do the sneakers make the man?
Photo: iStockPhoto

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."

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
    • Andrew Ly
    • President/CEO, Ly Brothers Corp. / Sugar Bowl Bakery
    Dress comfortably is a must for me and not trying to be someone for anyone else. No need to build others brand. Build my own brand by being who I am and be comfortable!
    • C Middleton
    • Business Development
    I work in a field were business casual and casual are the norm. I however choose to wear a suit and tie to set myself apart from the competition both internal and external. This article helps to validate my belief in wear what makes you feel comfortable. You can always see when a person is comfortable in that suit or dress.
    • Mike Flanagan, C.P.M. - MS
    • Procurement Manager
    We used to have a dress code of white shirts and ties. I wore non-conservative ties (Donald Duck, Company emblems, and Looney Tune caricatures). It was done to show that I was different and stood out. Most people in the industry know who I am by my ties. In fact some want to see what my tie is before we get down to business.

    The company has gone to a casual dress code, while I still wear my ties. I have confidence in my profession and in my performance. I believe, the style of dress for work does imply how confident you are.
    • Kristen
    • Higher Education professional
    It would be interesting to hear the professors address any gender bias in their findings.
    • Allan Torng
    • Sr. Advisor, Health Risk Assessment, Alberta Health Services
    I dress casually (for comfort) at the office... but I wear the dress shirt, tie, suit, and leather shoes when I am attending a meeting with clients or the public.
    • Jessica
    • Director, Consulting
    I would be very interested to know if the 'red sneakers' effect holds for professional women. But all the professionals given as examples in the article are men. Women are represented as shoppers.

    Come on, Harvard. You can do better than that.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    When I was very young, i came across a statement " Wear what is acceptable to the world around you; at the same time, eat what you yourself like." This led me to believe in the propriety of being dressed " for the occasion". Thus, if there is a code, written or unwritten, there is no greatness in not observing it. Corporates develop dress codes duly approved by the top management and/or the Board. This includes all the staff, top to bottom. Now if the top guy- for whatever reason - does not observe it, can he expect others to do so ? Not at all. If so, then the entire purpose of creating the code is lost.
    Formals are appropriate when meeting clients and top officials. In fact a differently dressed person may be barred from even entering certain premises for the security man is guided by laid down norms and needs not to know or judge you by the credentials you hold.
    Even when you are attending conferences, etc., you need to be dressed in such a way that it rightly positions you there.
    Hence, my view is that taking dress non-seriously by whosoever you may be smacks absence of an important demeanour.
    • Agnes Gachau
    • Director, TUK
    "The red sneakers effect" may only apply in formal gathering where the individuals are known.The effect may have a negative impact in a general public gathering.
    • Jimmy Fasusi
    • President, X-Class Corporation
    Behaving in a nonconforming way may be partially associated with mental disorder but does not automatically indicate that a person has a mental disorder or low status brand. This behavior at times, openly displays a different kind of confident breed or brand that tends to be unique. My office geeks are good example and our clients are pleased with their know hows. Your attire at times may project your self esteem.
    • Miki Saxon
    • founder, RampUp Solutions
    I agree with Kristen. Other than the luxury shoppers, the examples were all men (or sounded like it) as are those who commented.

    The idea is most likely gender -neutral industries such as fashion, beauty and others where women leaders are the norm. But I think it's questionable in industries where they are already targeted, such as tech.

    Interesting that gender was ignored considering the researchers are women.
    • Skip MacKenna
    • Program Executive, Computer Sciences Corporation
    My boss, a woman, wears Bunny Slippers, and a bath robe to work. Me, I am barefoot with shorts and a light weight Golf shirt to work every day. We are virtual. I find it difficult to go to a bank and take the overdressed employees seriously.

    By the way, my boss is outstanding! I love the virtual world, so much less appearance, and so much more about results.
    • Adam Hurwich
    • Ulysses Management LLC
    A thought provoking piece. Here is alternative interpretation:

    In the Israeli military it is often said that if you have to wear your ranks, you probably don't deserve them.

    Similarly, the question of dress goes to the substance vs. the superficial in our interpersonal interactions.

    People who move beyond assumptions and snap judgements will judge others by measures that go beyond appearances. The fact that some are reliant on superficial cues to guide them through their social and professional interactions says more about them then the people they judge.

    So it's not that the "non-conformist" projects success as much as people who don't think about the issue in the first place (regardless of how dress), are more likely to be successful because they are more open to a broad array of cues and possibilities.
    • Aim
    Dear Francesca Gino & Silvia Belezza,

    Has it ever occurred to you that the wearer simply does not care? Put differently, have you designed your questionnaire to specifically point out that people are more concerned with who they are as opposed to what they wear?

    A human being has so many colors within 24 hours and here you are making a solid statement of somebody's clothing. Have you actually went ahead and asked those "unique" people why they dressed into whatever they dressed? Otherwise yours will be an assumption that has no strong foundation.
    • Wendy Zito
    • Consultant, My own
    I loved this article because it shows how times have changed! I think it is about outer authenticity matching the inner authenticity. I have not worn stocking and heels in years and I do not miss them.
    • Michael Massberry
    • Entrepreneur, Nitpik Consulting
    Zuckerberg dresses as he did in college and high school, and perhaps he continues to dress as he did as a juvenile because it is the only way he knows. Throughout the history of the computer/software industry, suits have been alien. Low-level coders dress exactly as Zuckerberg does--it's hard to say to point to social distinction in dress for these reasons.

    The authors of the study, pictured on the margin, seem to dress and groom themselves in very much the same way, perhaps a "conventional" way, as they might put it. Don't the most daring, high-status academic thinkers dress and groom in unconventional ways? Is this a mere contradiction of their claims or is there something more complicated going on?
    • Arthur Breaux
    • Nuclear Field Supervisor, Nextenergy
    Dressing to standout requires knowledge of the organic unit in which one functions. This includes the politics and who is the authority. If, however, one depends upon the visual alone for recognition, then perhaps that is telling of the content.
    • Eric Walt
    • CEO
    I totally disagree with building a brand via attire in business. Citing Zuckerberg and Jobs are bad examples. They are "outliers" and the rules for dress in the technology sector are virtually non-existent. Wearing a tie different than what is required or expected at a formal country club event is disrespectful. I could do it, but I do not out of respect for others. Maybe college students or younger individuals may think it shows heightened status, but peers believe it shows arrogance and disrespect. I have seen an individual's unique attire, or branding as you call it, prevent them from being considered for a tremendous career advancement. At a dinner meeting, a CEO opted not to consider a highly qualified individual for a great position because of a unique decision regarding his attire. Anyone can dress down or differently. Don't think this will help you. If you have aspirations to advance your career, don't stand out and let
    your attire potentially hurt you. Dress professionally, neatly and appropriately for all business related events. I am a senior executive, and I do not like to see fashion statements from our employees. In our company, making a fashion statement or branding by way of your attire may hinder your opportunity for advancement.
    • Prof. Khalid Omar
    • Head,Quality Assurance Department, National Educational Network Pvt Limited (NENPL), Lahore, Pakistan
    Being a faculty member on Marketing area,it's not clear what sample size was chosen and what co-relation was established by Ms. Bellezza,Keinan and Prof. Gino.Merely citing 2/3 examples as success factor is not sufficient to generalize.

    May be the aforesaid researchers find time to show the underlying details for benefit of the readers as part of on-going discussions/comments.

    Prof. Khalid Omar
    • Denise Rosenzweig
    • Lead designer, Distinctions Jewelry
    I have a profession that requires constant creativity. It's not only important that each accessory have its own distinct features, but that it also blends in with the line of accessories it is part of for the more reserved, conforming customer.
    A second reason differences need to be noticed with positive responses, such as the business an item brings to the company, is the ongoing competition for the same consumers, their same dollars, and their favoritism for your own company. Hence, when this occurs, as a business owner or executive in another business, you are then outstanding, not just standing out.
    • Chris Lyons, CPA
    • Project Lead
    This article is an excellent springboard for igniting additional thought and reflection on the outer appearances of people that are visual contrasted to the inner side of people that cannot be physically observed. The bow tie example is an excellent point. The man wearing the red bow tie probably exuded a sense of confidence while the man unknowingly wearing the wrong color bow tie probably was not as confident. The confidence levels of the two men might have factored into the reason for the evaporation of higher status points for the man wearing the wrong color. This would probably require additional research but it would be interesting to dissect.
    • David Roccosalva
    • Marketing Director, EverGreene Architectural Arts
    Couldn't agree more. But, ultimately, you have to be true to your style or else you look foolish. It is only clothing, but often I think that by wearing something out of the norm, others think that they bring more creative solutions to the table.
    • Dr Shadreck Saili
    • Management Consultant
    Intersting revelations from the research indeed. One prominent person told me that "The dress is just a coat and does not changed my inner being" . It now comfirms he was demonstrating his ability to afford extaordinality and set his own tag and respective tag for that matter.
    • John Tounis
    • National Account Manager
    My wide working experience among different industries will support the idea of being dressed between the company's norms. While i was working in one of the world leaders in fashion and leisure, everybody were wearing casual clothes. The company's intention was to support and promote it's products and values. Some of us were formal with khakis and others more relaxed with stonewashed jeans. Boundaries may vary in each industry, so we need to compromise personal preferences. Employees should follow management guidelines or preferences and adapt the dress code in their personal style.
    • Tim S
    • Manager, Telecommunications Operations
    Seems to be totally about a snapshot in time. Nonconformity in the 60's or 70's was more likely to earn you an unemployment check than it was to earn you additional respect. Nonconformity in the future will actually be conforming to the norm of the time period. How well will the "red sneaker effect" work when a large percentage of a group are wearing red sneakers? How many job applicants had exposed tattoos in 1975 as compared to 2005 or will have in 2015? A bright flash with a loud noise only raises vital signs the first couple times; not so much on occurrence 12 or 15, and becomes part of the environment at occurrence 40 - 50. Get your red sneakers while they are hot and before they become part of the business suit of the future....