Veblen, conspicuous consumption, virtue signalling and your T shirt brand.


The unacceptable face of capitalism is in the news this week.

Philip Green is accused of enriching his own life at the expense of the many, this is capitalism personified. It is an ugly face.

This makes us think and occasionally, we feel we need to write something that stretches us and offers the reader an opportunity to think strategically about their brand in the context of the market they wish to operate in.

We see ourselves as your business partner, helping to shape your brand.

Each week we are involved with helping new clothing brands emerge and evolve from nothing; hopefully into something.

To help you on your journey, it is sometimes useful to think about marketing theory.

This is a ‘meander’ into adding value to your product and creating a brand personality which is congruous with the current social mood and the idea of a brand as a corporate citizen.

Not a Phillip Green.

Strap in…..this will make you think………

Thorstein Veblen in is 1899 publication The Theory of the Leisure Class, first proposed that there might be some commercial benefit to understanding the human condition that gives way to a compulsion for social signalling. He noted that there seemed to be a requirement in social interactions of conspicuous consumption.

Human beings are social animals organised in clusters with explicit and implicit hierarchies.

These hierarchies are complex and typified by competition for supremacy on many levels but the most primitive driver for competitiveness is for a strong sexual mate/s.

The umbrella principle for sexual competitiveness spawns a number of channels for competitive endeavour such as physical prowess and dominance, intellectual superiority, moral superiority and wealth superiority.

Success in each of these channels requires either natural ability, hard work and dedication, a strong moral compass or sheer fakery.

Conspicuous consumption is academically recognised as a signal to other members in your group that you possess wealth. This usually takes the form of a commodity fetishism in developed or developing economies.

A conspicuous consumer will often display their wealth and status through their possessions. Those possessions are expensive and they are designed to be mobile adverts that the owner is wealthy enough to select as a possible mate.

In different social structures, CC is displayed in other ways. Zulu’s of Kwa Zulu Natal- South Africa used to consider, until very recently, that a large belly or overweight physical condition shows that you are well fed and therefore wealthy enough to eat well. This creates competitive advantage in mate selection.

If the target of the conspicuous consumer picks up the signal and is able to recognise their dominance in this channel and if it is a culturally acceptable signal, then the outcome will infer a positive feeling in the signaller. This positive feeling is even possible without the social interaction required to make those feelings complete, with the commodity fetishist self-perpetuating a positive feeling from the expectation that others in his group will respond favourably to the signal.

By selectively purchasing commodities which signal Conspicuous Consumption, the purchaser is able to enhance their own self-esteem, attain some superficial and brief happiness and raise their social profile in cultures and social groups that accept this channel as legitimate.

Product manufacturers who know this will build signals into their products and develop marketing strategies to enhance their perceived value in order to justify a higher sale price.

It is a product development and marketing exercise that must first understand the segment of the market it is targeting and then understand whether this strategy is culturally acceptable in this market at that time.

It has been said that conspicuous consumption signalling is strongest in socially mobile economies and youth (teenage) demographics. Its use as a signal falls in and out of favour with the ebb and flow of economic performance and its most significant peaks in western cultures were as a result of the industrial revolution, the boom era of the 20’s, the 50’s in America and then the 80’s. You will note a 30 yr cycle in the 20th century.

When CC is out of favour, it has been as a result of an ‘overuse’ in society as the socially mobile widely adopt the strategy and render it ‘vulgar’ or ‘common’.

Marketers have often adapted to this shift by promoting the physical attributes of a product rather than by creating a ‘lifestyle’ around the product that is fiscally aspirational.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger proposes that there are periods of hedonism and self-interest which are interchangeable with periods of benevolence and activism. He theorises that the mood for CC will return in the second decade of the 21st century in western societies. This assumes that a study of social and economic history is a predictor of the cyclical nature of social attitude.

This may be naive and based on a ‘pre-internet’ understanding of the world where communication and interaction was limited to your immediate social group. Robert Bellah, a renowned Sociologist, believed that the current swell for altruism will endure as there is now a wider understanding and knowledge of social injustices on a global context.

The truth is that there are now more signals to choose from, wealth is no longer a virtue or a signal that guarantees social success/likeability. Other signals have emerged that offer the transmitter an opportunity to raise their social profile and attain the superficial happiness a product purchase can offer.

Volkswagen have been running a strategic campaign for years where they portray their customers as quiet intellectuals. Their television adverts offer is a vignette of the thoughtful man going about his business while the happy idiot struggles to make the right decision. They have attached a virtue to their product, created a feeling with the potential purchaser of their product that they can expect to feel ‘clever’ if they own a VW. Signalling your intellect is as much a basic driver for sexual competitiveness as signalling your wealth and resources.

It is possible to attach other virtues to your product, to shun the vulgar, to create an altruistic value that is genuine and not superficial, to impart upon the transmitter a happiness less shallow and based on a genuine ‘good’ done for the community. The Global Community.

The sociologist James Stockinger wrote:

It is not at first with our own hands that we pick the acorns and apples from the commonwealth of nature to nourish our own bodies. It is the hands of other people. The hands of other people lift us from the womb. The hands of other people grow the food we eat, weave the clothes we wear and build the shelters we inhabit. The hands of other people give pleasure to our bodies in moments of passion and aid and comfort in times of affliction and distress. It is in and through the hands of other people that the commonwealth of nature is appropriated and accommodated to the needs and the pleasures of our separate, individual lives, and, at the end, it is the hands of other people that lower us into the earth.

These ideas are growing. They are fragile and at risk of being snuffed out by fear, charity fatigue, the fracture of politics, ideological mistrust and geopolitical reshuffling. But while the tectonics of global social readjustment take place, companies still need to sell products.

Imagine a world where it becomes more important to signal your positive virtues rather than your wealth. Imagine a world where the primitive driver for mate selection was based on how good a person you were rather than how well resourced you were. The new way to sell products might be to attach some virtue and allow the transmitter to signal that virtue.

This would mean that your product purchases must signal your altruism. It must mean that your product purchase ‘gives back’.

If your brand is clothing, you must understand your supply chain from the cotton picker and the farmer to the processors and weavers, the factory workers and finishers and the logistical network.

You need to think FAIR TRADE, FAIR WEAR, GOTS, SOIL ASSOCIATION, ORGANIC, FAIR SHARE accreditations. All printed from a LIVING WAGE accredited company.

You must understand that communicating to the market that altruism is sexy is going to be an uphill battle requiring stamina and a strategic vision. You have a sea of cynicism to defeat.

Even if you are cynical, do it anyway, you will be doing some good.

Here is some further reading to help you get started.

What is the difference between Fair Trade and Fair wear?

Where are T shirts and cotton garments manufactured?

Shirtworks road test for 2016 Stanley Stella products

So you want to start a clothing company?

We have expanded our B&C range

The geographic and economic journey of a T shirts

Where do your clothes come from?

5 of the best ethical fashion websites

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