Colorful peacock with a blue head and vibrant feathers proudly displays its plumage
Photo by Andre Mouton

If you’re trying to show off for people at the top, forget it. They will look down at you anyhow. And if you’re trying to show off for people at the bottom, forget it. They will envy you. Status will get you nowhere. — Morrie Schwartz, Tuesdays With Morrie

It’s no secret that we all draw conclusions about others from their possessions. The clothes someone wears, the car they drive, and their adornments (e.g. watch, jewelry, handbag, etc.) all serve as signals of their place in the social hierarchy.

A study titled Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence analyzes the preference of four different types of consumers “for conspicuously or inconspicuously branded luxury goods” based on their desire to either “associate or dissociate with members of their own and other groups.”

The four group of consumers, divided based on their wealth and their desire for status, are patricians, parvenus, poseurs, and proletarians.

Patricians, named after the ruling class in early Rome, are wealthy, but feel little need to ostentatiously display their wealth. They want to associate themselves with fellow patricians and do so through subtle signals that only other Patricians would pick up. Patricians are associated with Old money.

Parvenus, borrowed from the French parvenir meaning to arrive, to reach, or to succeed, are wealthy as well, but are considered “uncouth” by the Patricians. Parvenus crave status and want to associate themselves with the Patricians. They favor products which project their wealth. For example, a Louis Vuitton bag with the visible and showy “LV” logo as “these markings make it transparent that the handbag is beyond the reach of those below them”.

Gatsby from The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of the parvenu. He throws lavish parties to gain acceptance from the patricians, but the patricians have no desire to associate with him or allow him to join their inner circle.

Poseurs, borrowed from French poseur and describing someone who acts in a particular way to impress others, lack the wealth of parvenus, but share the desire to rub shoulders with the “high class”. Poseurs are likely to buy counterfeit goods as they lack the means to afford authentic luxury goods.

The final group is formed by the proletarians, coming from the Latin proletarius meaning “a man whose only wealth is his offspring”. In the study, this group refers to those “less affluent consumers who are also less status conscious”.

Patricians, parvenus, poseurs, and proletarians divided based on their wealth and need for status.

As the figure shows, patricians want to associate with other patricians, parvenus want to associate with patricians and fellow parvenus while disassociating from poseurs and proletarians, poseurs want to associate with patricians and parvenus, and proletarians are just chilling in that bottom corner.

The study presents 3 interesting findings:

  • There’s an inverse relationship between how “loud” the brand identification is on a product and the product’s price. For example, the bigger the Mercedes-Benz emblem on the grill of the car, the cheaper the car is. A luxury good like a Mercedes-Benz is meant to signal one’s success (as shown by their slogan “the best or nothing”). Consumers with less money get more “bang for their buck” with a bigger, more identifiable logo, and those with more money get a more subdued logo to stand out and show their “class”.
  • Counterfeit products tend to be showy and easily identifiable with luxury brands as the group of consumers who buys these products, i.e. poseurs, is looking to associate with those of higher means.
  • Patricians easily recognize the price of luxury goods. Unlike poseurs, they’re not fooled by the “loudness” of a product. For example, they know that a “quiet” (not showy) Chanel bag is more expensive than a “loud” Louis Vitton bag. Poseurs associate brand “loudness” with higher price.

Conclusion

All I could think about while I read through this study were peacocks, strutting around proudly showing off their plumage.

It’s funny all the things we do and buy just to show off for others, to be accepted into a group. It’s so ingrained in us that we even do it unconsciously, always silently judging and comparing ourselves to those around us.

Forget the Louis Vitton bag, the Mercedes-Benz.

Work out instead, read, learn, spend time with loved ones. And in this way create your own status symbols.