You show up for your interviews at Company X at the appointed hour. The first interview is with the person for whom you will be working, to whom you will be reporting. He is tanned; fit, with gelled hair, shined soft brogues on his feet, almost aggressively well dressed in an expensive-looking suit tailored to within an inch of his life. Strong nearly crippling handshake, well-modulated mellifluous voice, almost ferocious eye contact, and a constant smile. He takes up a lot of room in his chair. This guy exudes power. You may find yourself at a loss for words; maybe wishing you’d shined your own shoes a bit more this morning.
Interview number two walks in. He’s the big boss; his name is on the door. He is fit. His suit, too, is expensive and tailored, his shoes well shined. But he’s wearing a Timex watch. His smile is more connected to the content of your conversation. He asks you questions.
What is this about? What does it tell you about the power these men have versus the power they think they have or aspire to?
Low Power Vs. High Power
“Low-power people – people who feel a lack of control of their lives, for example – tend to turn to luxury goods to compensate,” says David Dubois, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the INSEAD Business School in Fontainebleau, France, in an interview for this blog. “They buy something to give them status. And while high power individuals are also interested in status, our research shows they exhibit a preference for experiences associated with status rather than material objects associated with status.”
These findings are the crux of Dubois’ research in progress, presented at the Luxury Symposium 2015, in Monaco, entitled “When Do Consumers Prefer to Look Like a King vs. Live Like a King? Power-Induced Preferences for Experiential vs. Material Luxury” conducted with Assistant Professor of Marketing Ayalla Ruvio of Michigan State University.
Throughout experiments involving a total of more than a thousand individuals (male and female) both off-line and online adults, the researchers conclude that “the powerless might tend to prefer luxury that can make then ‘look like a king,’ but the powerful preferring prefer luxury that make them ‘feel or live like a king’.” They also found that “among low-power individuals, study participants were willing to pay significantly more for a material luxury offering than for the experiential luxury offering.”
Who Is The Real Leader?
So while your direct manager might be going for a king-like image and has spent a lot on his clothing, he may be feeling powerless in his organization (e.g., in a highly competitive impact); however, a lower-key boss who feels in control of his team might spent a similar amount of money on a trip to Tibet. In other words, when you feel less powerful you want to appear more powerful to those around you. And indeed, Dubois concludes that as your power increases, your preference shifts more towards buying experiences associated with status rather than things associated with status. It is hard not to make a comparison to open-carry gun laws in many U.S. states, or with the proliferation of designer handbags among the newly-wealthy aspirational consumers of many emerging markets.
The above inferences were overwhelmingly true under stable conditions, wherein money or jobs or the economy in general were fairly consistent: across experiments, the researchers found that the powerful systematically preferred experience to material goods, while the reverse was true of the less powerful. However, in less stable conditions, low-power people’s preference for material luxury was significantly lower than in stable conditions. The high-powered, under less stable conditions, tended to shift preferences a bit towards the material, but still preferred experiences.
“How people project their power can significantly affect the way they show how they want to lead and how they aim to influence others,” Dubois continues. It also depends on the audience and whether looking lke a king or feeling like a king is the most effective way to communicate. “You can show up in full regalia with all the trappings of power and telegraph how you expect people to react to you or you can be more subtle. It depends on both your audience and on you.”
In the end, I am reminded of sayings such as “clothes make the man,” and the emphasis on presenting a strong appearance, and wonder if there isn’t some truth to it. An example comes to mind within the ending of the movie “La Nuit de Varenne,” the story of the ill-fated fight from Paris of King Louis XVI and his family from Revolutionary France, who were ultimately captured in an inn in the town of Varenne when a local peasant recognized the king from his image on the coin of the realm, literally. Louis was disguised as a working man and was arrested and bundled back to Paris to face trial and, ultimately, the guillotine. In the last scene, a handful of guests at the inn look at a mannequin dressed in Louis’ official royal regalia – a truly magnificent display of silk, gold and all the emblematic trappings of power. “I wonder,” says one of the onlookers, “if they would’ve taken him away had he been dressed like that.”
Editor’s Note: This Article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with permission from the Author.