Why It Pays to be a Jerk

A gentleman named Jerry Useem wrote an article with this title for the June 2015 issue of The Atlantic. You can read the whole article here. It reviews research on how behavior in the work place impacts your success or failure.

I would urge you to read the whole thing, but I particularly want to highlight his short discussion of high end brands getting sold at retail. Here’s his whole quote on the subject. I’ve highlighted the paragraph I found most interesting.

 Darren Dahl had never set foot in the Hermès store in downtown Vancouver when, one afternoon, he sauntered in. Clad in jeans and a T-shirt—looking “kind of ratty,” he confesses—he had not planned on a shopping excursion. The saleswoman behind the counter looked up from some paperwork and, as Dahl remembers it, “literally shook her head in disapproval.”

 What a jerk, Dahl thought. He reacted by leaving the store—after buying $220 worth of grapefruit cologne. Two bottles of it.

 “I couldn’t believe I had spent so much money,” says Dahl, who should have known better: he is a professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia. Before long, he had devised a study that asked, was it just him? Or could rudeness cause other people to open their wallets too?

 The answer was a qualified yes. When it came to “aspirational” brands like Gucci, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton, participants were willing to pay more in a scenario in which they felt rejected. But the qualifications were major. A customer had to feel a longing for the brand, and if the salesperson did not look the image the brand was trying to project, condescension backfired. For mass-market retailers like the Gap, American Eagle, and H&M, rejection backfired regardless.

 Finally, the effect seemed to be limited to a single encounter. When Dahl and his colleagues followed up with the buyers, he found evidence of a boomerang effect much like the one he had felt a few minutes after his purchase: the buyers were less favorably disposed toward the brand than they had been at the outset. (And come to think of it, Dahl says, he hasn’t been back to Hermès since.)

 An awful lot of our customers are aspirational, or at least we characterize them that way. Most brands depend on them. In the history of snow, skate and surf, there have been times when we exuded an exclusive image and suggested to potential customers that if they were lucky, we might let them join the tribe. Apparently, playing on that kind of insecurity, if it’s right to characterize it that way, doesn’t work for long. And, if you relieve this research, it doesn’t work at all once a product is in broader distribution.

Put another way, can you have an aspirational brand in broad distribution? Do successful aspirational brands have to be higher priced? Is how closely a brand is associated with a particular activity correlated with where and to whom it can be sold?

I haven’t seen the whole research study, but there’s clearly some food for thought here.

2 replies
  1. Don
    Don says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I’m a big fan of your site and I read it religiously. This article is fascinating. However, my perspective is that aspirational does not inherently mean exclusive. I do believe that brands can be quality oriented, unique and have limited distribution without emphasizing an us vs. them mentality. In other words, nurturing a community via inclusivity, shared values and mutual respect is valid and can create even stronger brands.
    My $0.02,
    Don

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Don,

      I agree with you in broad brush, but am pretty sure that for a given brand, the devil’s in the details. It should be the holy grail for any brand to be “quality oriented, unique and have limited distribution” and not emphasize us vs them. I never said it should happen- but I do think that being too exclusive is what did happen with surf, skate and snow at one point or another. It was even kind of part of their marketing. When does a community become so inclusive that it loses its identify as a community?

      Thanks for the comment and for disagreeing with me a little. I love it when that happens.

      J.

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