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Why Michael Kors and Abercrombie Fitchs evolution led to the fall of some

By James Wan

What you need to know (in a nutshell)

  1. Status symbols evolve due to social influence and how people perceive them.
  2. When outsiders adopt a trend, action, or brand, it can change the meaning of its message.
  3. The evolution and potential downfall of status symbols is directly tied to the people who choose to wear or buy them

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Social influence changes status symbols’ popularity over time. Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has found that when enough outsiders embrace something like a trend or brand, they can alter the message it conveys.

Berger’s book, ”Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior”, explains how Honda’s Element and Abercrombie & Fitch were impacted negatively when unexpected demographics started using their products.

Berger also discussed how people use choices to reveal who they are and what their character is like. Individuals will cease to buy status symbols when they think it signifies something else. Status symbols can change in popularity depending on people’s views. Messages offer an easy way to streamline decision-making for many people.

Berger finds that messages can help us pick items based on who they’re associated with - if enough outsiders do something, even for practical reasons, it begins to alter the message’s meaning. Adopting a message by outsiders alters its meaning.

Berger studied two examples in his book: Honda’s Element and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Berger stated that Honda marketed the Element to 20-year-olds looking for adventure, with features like foldable seats and extreme sports ads. Surprisingly though, it also gained traction among parents and the elderly due to its ample space and convenience.

The Element soon no longer signalled hip, but rather conveyed something else, he wrote.

Berger stated that A&F’s black-and-white ads featuring young models and dimly lit stores with attractive salespeople had a specific feel. Nevertheless, when Mike Sorrentino from “Jersey Shore” wore their clothes, the company expressed in a 2011 release they would pay him to wear another brand because of his potential harm to its image.

Berger suggested that if many imitators of Jersey Shore began donning Abercrombie, the garments would no longer convey a preppy WASP image and indicate something else. Consequently, those desiring such an image could turn away from Abercrombie.

Honda and Abercrombie are telling consumers that to be like their models, they must buy from them. Consumers aren’t just buying a product, rather, it is an entrance into the lifestyle associated with it. The Element’s message is if you enjoy outdoor activities then this car should fit your needs while Abercrombie advertises its clothes as necessary for those wishing to have buff bodies or date someone who does so.

When those outside the group use these signs, their message is altered.

A message’s alteration can cause the failure of a symbol of prestige.

The fate of status symbols is intertwined with the people who use them. If a new demographic begins to adopt them, those previously associated will likely cease wearing or purchasing.

Michael Kors was once a highly sought-after brand, but over time it lost its appeal. Business Insider reported that the company’s various lines at varied prices made it widely available, diminishing its value to customers who wanted something rarer.

Tommy Hilfiger, Juicy Couture, Jordache and Coach experienced a similar decline according to Business Insider.

Berger states that people are not only concerned with the number of others engaging in an action, but also with their identity.