NEW YORK, NY – Throughout history, clothing, jewelry, and other opulent items – from Rolex watches to Porsche cars – have functioned as status symbols, indicating an individual’s societal standing and achievements. However, with contemporary shifts in society, heightened environmental awareness, and evolving values, 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 landscape of status symbols is undergoing a notable transformation as it veers away from conventional material possessions as indicators of affluence and influence. In newly-published research, Columbia Business School Professor Silvia Bellezza delves into the emerging trend of adopting alternative symbols that convey a detachment from traditional luxury goods – finding a unifying trend that shows society’s embrace of distance from tradition. This work provides invaluable insights to marketers and brand managers, enabling them to gain a deeper comprehension of consumer preferences.

The article, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, titled “Distance and Alternative Signals of Status: A Unifying Framework,” introduces the concept and examines the emerging pattern of consumers gravitating towards alternative symbols of status while distancing themselves from traditional luxury goods. Investigating domains such as sustainable luxury and vintage items, the research outlines six central dimensions encapsulating the notion of divergence from conventional luxury possessions:

  • Time: The age disparity between vintage and newly acquired luxury items.
  • Quantity: The number of possessions, contrasting consumer minimalism with material opulence.
  • Conspicuousness: The visibility and recognizability of luxury goods, comparing subtly branded articles to prominently branded ones.
  • Aesthetics: Contrasting aesthetically pleasing luxuries with unconventional “ugly luxury” goods.
  • Culture: The cultural associations juxtaposing highbrow and lowbrow signals.
  • Pace of Life: The rhythm of activities, contrasting active engagement and busyness against traditional leisurely pursuits.

“While the traditional luxury market continues to thrive, our findings indicate a growing preference for signals that deviate from the mainstream,” said Professor Silvia Bellezza, Associate Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. “Brands that strategically embrace these trends and align their offerings with values that resonate with modern elites have the potential to resonate with a broader audience and establish stronger brand loyalty.”

To conduct this study, Professor Bellezza meticulously analyzed a large body of material encompassing marketing and related disciplines like sociology, psychology, and economics. Using the grounded theory approach to research and data collection, which involves formulating fresh theories through analysis of real-world data, the research sought patterns and insights emerging directly from the data, eschewing preconceived notions. Specifically, Professor Bellezza reviewed 261 articles as well as 72 monographs and book chapters encompassing marketing and related themes, along with 43 presentations at academic and industry conferences. This theoretical material was complemented with newspaper and magazine articles, exhibitions, documentaries and video material, and visits to flagship stores (e.g., Tiffany & Co., Prada). Through analysis of the material, Bellezza identified fundamental conceptual categories such as the age and appeal of status symbols, their prominence, and cultural connotations. These insights were subsequently interlinked, forming a comprehensive framework showcasing the interplay of diverse status portrayal methods across the six dimensions of time, quantity, conspicuousness, aesthetics, culture, and pace of life.

The dimensions introduced in the framework encompass an array of status-related trends and products that have, until now, manifested as disjointed and unrelated phenomena in the market. This framework could prove instrumental for high-end brands that have yet to explore multiple dimensions of divergence, pinpointing opportunities for expansion. Additionally, it can delineate the attributes of alternative signals likely to surface, thus better guiding and channeling creative endeavors geared towards innovation and new product launches.

Additional Key Findings:

  • Novel Modes of Status Expression: Status representation is no longer limited to conventional avenues like purchasing a new Balenciaga bag or acquiring the latest pair of Louboutins. Emerging trends include signaling ethics through sustainable fashion or expressing gender identity. Though nascent, these trends might evolve into pivotal status indicators in the future.
  • Leisure and Status Nexus: Leisure preferences, whether directed towards active pursuits or leisurely activities, can explain status preferences. This connection unveils how individuals’ time management choices correspond to their desired social perception, showing a relatively unexplored facet of status expression.
  • Cultural Implications in Status Projection: The dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow elements, previously tied primarily to taste, intricately influences status communication. This underscores the significant impact of cultural relevance and resonance on individuals’ projection of their status identity.

“From vintage finds to conscientious sustainable choices, the dimensions of Time, Quantity, Conspicuousness, Aesthetics, Culture, and Pace of Life reshape how we convey and perceive status. It involves prioritizing meaning over materiality and forging distinctive pathways to differentiation,” said Professor Bellezza.

To learn more about cutting-edge research being conducted, please visit Columbia Business School.


About the Researcher

Silvia Bellezza

Silvia Bellezza

Associate Professor of Business
Marketing Division