Growing up in Georgia, polo-style shirts were quite popular. It got pretty hot and muggy there in the summers, so polo shirts offered a way to stay cool and still look pretty sharp. At least when I was in college, they were the unofficial uniform of preppy frat guys (along with khaki shorts, boat shoes, sunglasses with croakies, and visors, but I digress).
While you could find polos in any shape and size, the most quintessential were of course the Polo by Ralph Lauren shirts, you know, the ones with the little horsey on them.
Now when I was young, I didn't think much of this because I cared very little about clothes. But when I got older and started actually buying clothes for myself, I noticed that these shirts were kind of expensive...like...much more expensive than, say, a regular solid-colored polo that looked the exact same from a place like Target.
So why the price discrepancy? Were the Ralph Lauren shirts much more expertly crafted than the less expensive shirts, or were you paying about $50 extra for that little horsey? Let's dive into the concept of branding and whether or not you should choose to utilize it in your clothing choices.
The Power of Branding
If you've ever shopped for clothes or cars or pretty much anything in your life, then you undoubtedly know how much a brand can affect the price and perceived value of a product. There are probably brands that you trust and brands that you don't, and the reasons for this can vary from perception to lessons learned "the hard way."
In theory, "nicer" brands should sell products that are better, since they are more expensive, but as you probably know this is not always the case.
Let's explore how branding can be so effective and why it does not always give an accurate depiction of quality.
Veblen Goods and Conspicuous Consumption
In some cases, brands may artificially increase price in order to take advantage of a phenomenon known as Veblen Goods, in which the desire for a product increases with its price. This contradicts the normal Law of Demand, in which the desire for a good is inversely proportional to its price.
Veblen Goods exist because of our ingrained sense of quality. We've often been told proverbs like "you get what you pay for." In pre-industrial days, this was pretty true, as most goods were hand-crafted, so the price of a good would be related to how much care the craftsman put into it, or how skilled the craftsman was.
With the industrial revolution, advances in manufacturing made it possible to crank out vastly higher quantities of goods at a much lower price than before. For many goods, the fact that they were made by machines even made the quality better, as it took out the effects of human error.
So what we were left with were better products sold at lower prices...but our brains couldn't really understand it, and they still don't. Now, many of us still go for the cheapest products we can find, but in many ways there is always a certain element of fear when it comes to buying the cheapest version of a product. Most of the time, we like to go up a level, and buy something that is a little more expensive, not necessarily the most expensive, but just a perceived "step up" from the cheap stuff.
Even with industrial mass-produced goods, cost can still be a factor in determining quality. Companies can cut corners in production, use cheaper materials, spend less on quality control, etc. in order to lower their costs.
But...companies can also take products that are more or less well produced, quality items, and price them higher than they need to. Doing so seems counter intuitive to the laws of capitalism, why would people pay more money for a product that is objectively no better than a less expensive version?
The answer is that these companies are taking advantage of our ingrained sense of higher price = higher quality. They are also taking advantage of our desire to showcase our wealth and status by slapping brand logos on the products.
We can see that the reason for high-priced branded items is two-fold: convince us that the items are higher quality, and convince us that if we buy them, others will be aware of how well we are doing.
So I Shouldn't Buy Branded Clothing?
Well, the answer isn't quite so simple.
Even if we assume that high-priced branded items are of equal quality to lower priced items (with or without notable branding), there are still some things we have to consider before choosing whether or not to buy branded clothing, or other products.
The first thing to consider is if our assumption of equal quality is actually valid. In some cases higher-priced brands may actually be of objectively better quality, although whether the increase in quality is proportional to the increase in price is open for debate.
The second thing to consider has to do with the second reason for high-priced branding, i.e. using it as a status symbol.
This may seem very shallow, but, as I have said before, people are shallow. Science actually backs this up, too. This study found that wearing a shirt with a luxury brand logo can help you get a job (and earn more in that job), and this study found that people who were surrounded by another person who was wearing high-status brands tended to be more submissive in their behavior.
Now, studies don't often tell the whole story, so you should take them with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, they do give intriguing results about how our behavior is unconsciously affected by brand logos.
So, I Should Buy Branded Clothing?
Most of the style experts on the interwebs will tell you that you shouldn't buy clothes with visible logos because you need to build your own brand. Now, I think this whole millennial idea of personal branding is a tad stupid, but it could be good advice nonetheless.
I also have a theory that certain shirts such as solid color polos actually do look better with a brand logo, simply because it breaks up the monotony of the shirt and gives a focal point (something I learned from painting). That being said, the logo should definitely be small and discrete, not one of those monstrous logos that screams "look! I bought this brand!"
If you are still building your core wardrobe, then I would say buying clothes with visible brand logos should be low on your priority list. For most long sleeve button down shirts I would stray away from logos, as it makes the shirt less memorable and thus more versatile (plus if you wear a jacket the logo will be covered up anyway).
If you've already got your wardrobe essentials covered and you want a collection of bright polos with little horseys on them, go for it (assuming you have the financial means to do so). Wear whatever makes you feel good.
Another benefit to buying high-priced brands (with or without visible logos) is that they are probably of higher quality. Now, could you get something of equal or even greater quality that costs less from a less notable brand? Absolutely. The trouble with this is that it often involves a lot of research to determine if the quality is actually good, but being able to determine if products are objectively good isn't a bad skill to have.
That being said, if you are short on time and have some excess cash, then blindly going with high-priced brands is probably a safe bet. Just be wary of certain historically good brands that steadily decrease their quality over time in order to increase their profits.
Branding is a powerful device that comes up in about every product on the market, and marketers put a lot of thought in to how their brand is perceived.
Whether or not you choose to wear clothing with visible logos, always consider the quality of the product first, and never buy things that you can't afford solely in an attempt to to impress others.
Also keep in mind that different social groups may be differently impressed by different brands. For example, a group of hipsters may not find your Lacoste polo very impressive, but they could be impressed by your [insert non-mainstream brand] items.
In any case, I wouldn't put too much stake in brand logos alone if you want to impress others. Do it with your charisma and overall sense of style, and if you choose to have a logo, let it be an accent and not a crutch.