New study finds that counterfeits may not affect the brands they imitate, but loses sight of the larger problem

December 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

While it seemed as clear as a Van Cleef gemstone that the motivation for buying luxury items was their artistry and quality, a professor at MIT has written a recent paper which uses counterfeit goods to reconsider these impulses.

In “Rethinking Brand Contamination,” Renee Gosline weighs the basic desire to own a high-quality item against a sociological theory known as “conspicuous consumption,” a 19th century concept developed by Thorstein Veblen that suggests buyers are motivated to mark their social status with certain goods.

Pay for play. Keeping up with the ever-fashionable Joneses. Call it what you will, but the skinny of Veblen’s theory is we buy things to associate with certain groups and distinguish ourselves from others.

By considering both forces, Gosline’s goal was to determine how consumers assess luxury brands. In her study, she showed subjects two sets of pictures that depicted either authentic luxury or fake luxury. The first collection showed stationary handbags, sitting alone on a shelf, while the second collection captured the bags held by a person in public. Her study measured both the confidence of the subjects in determining whether the item they saw was bona fide and how much they were willing to pay for it.

When consumers observed the first group they were less confident about their ability to judge the authenticity of an item and weren’t willing to pay top dollar for it. With the second group of photos, where the items were shown in a social setting, the same group felt more secure and was willing to pay more.

Gosline, who teaches at the Sloan School of Management, concluded the subjects were more confident because they were matching the objects with their preconceived notions of who would own it.

“Basically these consumers look at the person, the setting, and determine the authenticity by seeing if the person’s image corresponds with the image they have of the brand,” Gosline said.

The research suggests a dual motivation for buying luxury products and may indicate, as the press release states, that for luxury firms looking to expand brand cachet, quality alone may not be enough.

But let us not forget that concern for brand durability, quite frankly, is, at best, in issue secondary to the abuse of human rights that occurs in the production of sham products.

Additionally, in the midst of all the research and hypothesizing, it’s easy to lose sight of the origins of luxury. It all began in early 19th century ateliers with a profound desire to make high-quality goods. Sure, the industry has evolved, but it seems that the basic motivation to own a piece of finery remains the same. Though, others might say that lacking the staggeringly complex human psyche, of which Veblen’s theory may be a part, we wouldn’t have this art or this desire to begin with. Gosline manages a fine study of this.
It’s become a question of what came first: the Lalique chicken or the Faberge egg.

So, while we appreciate Ms. Gosline’s rigorous research and commend her for further illustrating the nuanced nature of human motive, we suggest that her next consideration never loses sight of the larger concern: humanity.

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