Good bye conspicuous consumption?


Conspicuous consumption, i.e. purchasing of expensive goods to wastefully display wealth, rather than fulfil any actual needs, has been somewhat of a truism in luxury marketing for a long term (in fact, the literature can be traced back to the start of the 20th century). And the link is still apparently overtly visible in many parts of the world and across different populations – just think “the Village” in Westfield shopping centres, for example.  However, in a conceptual paper published in the current issue of the Journal of Marketing Management Eckhardt, Belk & Wilson point towards subtle shifts that are shaking the foundations of the conspicuous consumption truism that many marketers hold so dearly. The article fundamentally questions the assumed link between the “loud” branding, e.g. in the case of most “luxury” brands we think of in todays consumer society – and actual luxury for today’s sophisticated consumers. The authors show that this move away from conspicuous consumption has happened in three phases: Firstly, the traditional conspicuous consumption, where “luxury” goods with the appropriate, often highly visible branding, served to affirm status. In the second phase, what was assumed to be luxurious in the first phase started to become less so in the consumers’ minds… in other words, “luxury was loosing its lustre” (p.809).  In the third phase, as previously luxury brands were no longer the reserve of the economic or social elite, but had become widely available, innovation and differentiation was needed to affirm social and economic status: The answer to this is to move from the loud, brash “luxury” branding, to very subtle branding. In other words, brand signals become almost invisible, have low prominence and are generally discreet – to demonstrate wealth, sophistication and class.

The article discusses how this shift has occurred in economically privileged nations, but also show that the shift is starting to appear in countries which so far have been known for more prominent conspicuous consumption. For example, the article discusses the case of the rise of inconspicuous brands in China and –  consumer behaviour in the Middle East, suggesting that as these areas (and consumers in them) become wealthier, consumers shift towards inconspicuous consumption. Thus, conspicuous consumption becomes the domain of the “mid-range”, mid-price consumers, while high end consumers increasingly turn towards subtle brand signals.

While the article is a largely conceptual paper, drawing on the literature and some isolated examples rather than empirical data, it highlights an important challenge for the study of luxury branding – or in fact consumer behaviours at all levels of social class. The paper actually points out how both conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption can rise at the same time – and what the implications are for brand managers.

Having spend a lot of time in Asia, I can relate a lot to the paper… and I think the contribution the paper makes to the debate on branding in contemporary society is long overdue. It’s also a very well written and accessible paper – so for anyone who wants to debate brands (and I know a lot of my students do!), I recommend reading the paper first… because the questions it raises are certainly something to watch out for in the consumer behaviour literature in future (and yes, they very much point towards the linking nature of brands, as discussed by Cova and Cova… although sadly that link was not made in the paper!)

Full reference: Eckhardt, G., Belk,  R.W. and Wilson, J. 2015. “The Rise of Inconspicuous Consumption,” Journal of Marketing Management, May 2015: 37–41. 

What do you think… Is luxury becoming a symbol of the “middle classes”? Is luxury loosing its luxury meaning? Do you have any examples that show the rise of the “no brand”? Share your thoughts via the comments below!

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