Spending Power: What Does This Brand Say About Me As A Person?

Tyler Sack
December 21, 2018

The tweet read: “A woman wearing MK boots was rude to me. It was so crazy like you’re tacky as hell and you think you can disrespect me.”

I found the tweet interesting not because of what is clearly communicated, but because of what is implied. I am sure that the two people involved in this encounter remember their interaction differently, and we can’t know for sure what happened with only one perspective. But without knowing the context there is a lot to infer with limited information and we don’t know if there is another factor here that explains the relationship or dynamic between the two. So we have to assume that the woman in the boots was being rude and that the boots she was wearing is indicative of her motive.

What is implied about the encounter was that the woman in boots somehow felt she had a right to disrespect the other for whatever reason. The person who felt disrespected, who tweeted about the encounter, made it a point to comment on the other’s fashion, implying that because of the boots she was wearing, had a sense of entitlement to be rude. This raises a lot of questions about our attitudes on brands and class, and is observed here in the power dynamic between the two people and is determined or challenged by fashion, socio-economic status, and the entitlements and privileges associated with class.

Immediately after reading the tweet I had to question whether the person tweeting believed whether there is a ‘right’ pair of boots the woman could have been wearing to justify her behaviour? Does the fashion we wear determine how much we can get away with in terms of how we treat others? Or, does wearing the right clothes or accessories give a person the right to be rude? Initially I thought of course not, but after some consideration this matter comes down to class and the characteristics of the people in each group, and the beliefs about their identity and how they relate to others.

Social class is the division of society by social and economic status, its definition isn’t entirely dependent on net income, but is largely based on recognizing whether a person is accepted by others in that group. It is about identity, culture, background, education, access, and knowledge as much as it is about wealth. Though there is not official hierarchy of class in North America, there are unofficial rules about belonging that are observed in clubs, associations, schools, employment and neighbourhood. Marx defined class by a person’s relation to the means of production, while Weber argued that it had as much to do with prestige.

According to this study upward social mobility is not likely within a generation, Americans are statistically likely to remain in the socio-economic category they are born into, and that geography is a significant factor in their ability to ascend class.

So, while unlikely to leave the class one is born into, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people won’t try to earn as much as possible in order to afford the luxuries they desire. That is the American Dream, that people who work hard enough are able to achieve their goals.

But that does not mean that people cannot project that same image, or fake it until you make it. Thorstein Veblen theorized conspicuous consumption in his 1899 work “Theory of the Leisure Class”. Conspicuous consumption is defined as the spending of money on luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power as a means to either attain or maintain social status. The key to recognizing this type of purchasing in the motivation, where it is meant to provoke envy in order to enhance the customer’s confidence with expressions of superior status or prestige. The logic is, only those belonging to a certain class will have the disposable income to spend on luxury items. The assumption is that people will recognize the value of the purchase regardless of economic status.

Reflecting on the above tweet, is it possible that the rude woman overestimated her perceived prestige and felt entitled to a behaviour that others did not recognize? Or did the person who tweeted feel that the behaviour was not acceptable coming from someone who wasn’t displaying the appropriate amount of prestige? In either case there is an associated set of privileges that come with brands, and we can assume that there is relative power of each brand to the lower, middle, and upper classes.

I was prompted to look into what determines a brand’s ‘coolness’, if that’s the right term. Relative to each class, there are brands that grant the wearer acceptance and communicate to others that they belong. With the rise of social media influence, we can see what types of people are associated with different brands.

The notion of a luxury brand changes over time. In any given moment, a brand’s exclusivity is driven by a lot of factors, but mainly price. Generally, a luxury item is defined as costing at least 20% more than the average. The premium is supposed to reflect an exclusive experience as well as quality and craftsmanship in the purchase or experience.

More interesting, in my opinion, is what causes a luxury brand to lose its ‘cool’ factor. In attempting to gain a greater market share, often brands will compromise on quality for more efficient manufacturing, in the cases where there is surplus inventory they will often be moved to department stores or sold at sale prices to make room for a new line, and when that happens suddenly those items are no longer perceived as exclusive. Overexposure will kill a brand’s exclusivity, and attempts to recover from that loss often look like an attempt to be ‘cool’ or ‘in-demand’ which is often perceived as selling-out, further perpetuating the sales pattern of liquidation at lower prices and producing a less exclusive brand.

My final consideration, going back to the tweet, is the idea that someone has earned a right to their privilege based on their class. That we often associate income with earned income and that a person’s accumulation of wealth reflects their individual effort, so they are entitled to the privilege that comes with their consumption. There are more studies that account for inheritance, access, and socialization that provide opportunity for people. No one has earned the right to be rude to anyone, and I think brands have to evaluate whether or not they are being associated with entitlements or privilege, and how people treat one another as a result of identifying with a particular brand.