The art of Inconspicuous Consumption and Marketing


I stumbled across an old article on The Atlantic via Mindhacks (all links below) on inconspicuous consumption and how it relates to social groups.

Coined by Thorstein Veblen in 1899, inconspicuous consumption is the act of spending lavishly on visible goods to prove prosperity.

Research has found that as a social group earns less money members tend to spend more money on public shows of wealth and prosperity. This is at the expense of unseen benefits, such as home improvements, experiences and items like insurance.

In a nut shell: The less money your social group has the more you visibly flaunt wealth to other members even at the expense of your overall well-being.

If you’ve got it, you don’t flaunt it

We see example of this in marketing and advertising all the time. Next time you walk down the high street or look at branding in adverts examine the size of the logos and their prominence on products and communications

There is a lot research into luxury brands and the size of logos. As the brand moves up the luxury and price scale the logos get larger and larger until the size reaches a peak and reduces  again. For very expensive items the branding is very subtle (for a quick overview visit  Neuroscience Marketer).

This research refers to logos but it could equally apply to styling or design if it is easily identifiable with a company or brand. Just think about Apple and it’s lawsuit with Samsung over the look of their smartphones.

Nuanced but Inconspicuous

While examples and comparisons are obvious between distant socio-economic groups there are likely to be more nuanced version out there as well. This got me thinking about a scene I observed while a student.

I was (very) lucky to attend one of the UK’s ‘posher’ universities. The Yah culture in St Andrews is the the envy of no other campus. If you haven’t come across a Yah before then this now famous video will help explain.

You get the picture…..

I was in one of the Yah drinking haunts one day when I heard a group making snide remarks about the quality of a friend’s shirts. I couldn’t tell the difference; pink is pink and the collars of all were all definitely pointing up. The group had clear but relatively discrete designer labels on their outerwear bought from expensive high street stores. The poor victim had a small simple symbol on his shirt and was looking perplexed by it all.

A friend of mine, who knew the victim before university, leaned over to me. It turned out he was one from a very well monied family and the small symbol was a their emblem and sown into all their clothes – and this £100+ bespoke shirt – by the family tailor on Saville Row since 1844.

While this group of gentlemen were definitely not from a poor background they still tried to demonstrate relative group status through branding. Even more so they were clueless about the real value and quality of the product their friend was wearing.

Subtle forms of inconspicuous consumptions may be out there and have more to do with an individuals relative position within a group than the group’s overall position within society.

It is just a hypothesis but newer members a group could be more likely to demonstrate the trapping of that group in order to feel and asset that they belonging. Whether or not something is thought of as inconspicuous is determined by that group. It British culture this usually manifests itself as snobbery.

Inconspicuous Consumption and Communication

When dealing with rich economic status groups, branding and communication should be more subtle. Very high wealth individuals have a group identity that is not flash, flamboyant or crass. Quality, bespoke workmanship and service are paramount.

Additionally, as branding becomes more conspicuous then only those truly in the know can recognise it (Beger and Ward, Journal of Consumer Research 2010), the real leaders and taste makers of a group.

This implies group leaders look for discretion. They don’t need or want to show their wealth and prosperity. The also means that they are less likely to link to, mention, post about or interact with a brand via their own online channels.

If you are thinking of targeting these people through an activity involving public display of affection for your product or activity then you are unlikely to reach the right people and will be seen as crass by your target audience.

If you are speaking to people who want to be seen by their group as upwardly mobile (even in relatively rich groups) then you can go big. Communicate how the product and brand demonstrate success within their social group and give them the option to declare their love in the open.

And if you want to fit into a group and look like you belong consider more subtle cues of membership. Covering yourself in Ferrari logos won’t help you communicate with millionaires.


Copyright Joe Walton 2015. Please use and reshare with attribution and links.