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9 Aug

The Outside View: Status in Flux, the Power of Distance

The Outside View: Status in Flux, the Power of Distance

For generations, societies have embraced clothing, gold jewelry and other material possessions as symbols of wealth, power and standing. These coveted items — like most status symbols throughout history — are expensive, desired, and, importantly, highly visible. Wearing a Rolex or driving a Porsche convertible sends a transparent message of sophistication position.

But over the past decade, the symbols of status have began to evolve. As society responds to the pressures of a changing climate and difficult social problems, celebrities like Taylor Swift and Rihanna are modeling old clothing for magazine covers and calling for sustainability, while billionaires like Elon Musk are letting go of their expensive homes.

The changing trends in luxury and fashion are painting a recent picture of what matters in status. From the rise of minimalism to the rejection of logomania, there’s a recent movement uniquely characterised by distance.

Most status symbols penetrate society through a predictable cycle. Trends and fashion start among the many elites and with time are likely to trickle down. When exclusive status markers grow to be widespread and mainstream, the highest strata abandon these consumption habits and move on to recent and different signals, reestablishing distinction from others. Thus, the processes of status signaling and distinction in consumption are characterised by the adoption of recent and alternative signals that reinstate (no less than temporarily) symbolic boundaries between groups. 

Routinely, elites reestablish these boundaries by “upgrading” — moving on to higher-end signals, reminiscent of much more exclusive cars, jewelry or vacations. But without delay, the posh goods commonly hunted for status signifiers are more easily available. There’s an overload of supply of luxury goods, with many now reaching discount outlets — and selling for a fraction of the unique price. There are also online channels, like The RealReal, multiplying the variety of touch points that allow access to luxury. Moreover, the standard of counterfeits has increased dramatically. 

It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that consumption trends and fashion approaches are changing. Some affluent individuals are concealing their wealth, downsizing their possessions, and letting go of many belongings. In contrast to the often beautiful and refined aesthetic of traditional luxury goods, Balenciaga’s “ugly luxury” products, featuring unflattering shapes and unconventional color combos, have garnered great popularity lately. The rise of sustainable luxury is exemplified by Prada’s Re-Nylon, crafted from regenerated nylon sourced from previous goods. Moreover, “athleisure” apparel, reminiscent of Louis Vuitton’s technical sports leggings, has emerged as the last word status symbol for the dynamic elites who’re all the time on the move. These status symbols depart on no less than one dimension from conventional and traditional types of luxury consumption.

These trends construct an overarching theme of distance from traditional status symbols, which is the unifying element of a recent framework I outline within the Journal of Consumer Research. 

Silvia Bellezza


Signals which are distant not directly from products, brands, and preferences which have grow to be traditional and somewhat mainstream deliver on the target of distinguishing the signaler from others. 

Today’s newly embraced alternative symbols might be categorized when it comes to distance from traditional luxury goods on the next six focal dimensions: 

• Distance when it comes to time refers back to the difference between traditional status symbols and alternative signals when it comes to age along the brand new/old time continuum (vintage is distant from brand recent luxury goods when it comes to age).

• Distance when it comes to quantity refers back to the difference amongst signals when it comes to variety of possessions on the various/few continuum (consumer minimalism is distant from material abundance when it comes to variety of possessions). 

• Distance when it comes to conspicuousness refers back to the difference between traditional status signals and alternative signals when it comes to visibility and recognizability on the conspicuous/inconspicuous continuum (subtly branded luxury goods are distant from loudly branded luxury goods when it comes to brand visibility). 

• Distance when it comes to aesthetics refers back to the difference amongst signals when it comes to beauty along the gorgeous/ugly continuum (ugly luxury goods are distant from aesthetically pleasing luxuries when it comes to aesthetics). 

• Distance when it comes to culture refers back to the difference between traditional status symbols and alternative signals when it comes to cultural associations along the highbrow/lowbrow cultural continuum (mixing-and-matching high and low status is distant from traditionally highbrow signals when it comes to cultural associations). 

• Distance when it comes to pace of life refers back to the difference in rhythm of activities on the slow/fast continuum (energetic leisure and busyness at work are distant from traditional leisure time).

An integrated perspective on these alternative signals of status offers practical implications for marketers and brand managers of symbolic products. 

First, the size can encompass different status-related trends and products which have to this point appeared as scattered and unconnected phenomena within the marketplace. For instance, an organization could map all the posh products launched within the last months or years onto the categories described above and gain insight into the recognition of various dimensions at any given time. Performing the identical exercise on the brand level might also be illuminating, on condition that some high-end brands appear to pursue distance from mainstream signals on multiple dimensions directly. The status-distance framework may help these brands conceptualize their portfolios of existing and recent products in additional organized and synoptic ways. 

Second, the framework may help high-end brands that don’t appear to pursue distance on multiple dimensions discover additional expansion opportunities. 

The space framework can also discover the characteristics of the choice signals which are prone to emerge and subsequently may higher guide and channel the creative efforts geared to innovation and recent product launch. Identifying the kind of distance sought (cultural distance — subcultures, aesthetic distance — ugliness) after which brainstorming and innovating around such themes may prove more fruitful than giving free rein to creative impulses and designing recent products without input. 

In fact, these alternative signals will not be the one way elites signal their status through consumption. The standard luxury market is prospering, and it’s expected to proceed to achieve this. Other potential facets of status signaling and other dimensions emerged from the information, reminiscent of gender expression (distance on the binary/fluid continuum) and space (distance on the far/close continuum). 

Status symbols will proceed to evolve in a world where traditional luxury goods have gotten more mainstream. But without delay, brands, celebrities and fashionistas need to use distance to indicate their standing.

Silvia Bellezza is an associate professor of business in marketing at Columbia Business School.

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