What we signal when we wear brands ironically

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Buying or wearing brands ironically is a way to secretly signal our identity or beliefs to people who know us, according to new research.

Caleb Warren, assistant professor of marketing in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, and his coauthor, Gina Mohr, associate professor of marketing at Colorado State University, define ironic consumption as using a brand or adopting a behavior in an attempt to signal an identity, trait, or belief that is the opposite from the widely understood meaning of the product.

Through four experiments and an exploratory survey, researchers found that consumers sometimes use products ironically to signal one thing to an “in group” while signaling something different to an “out group.”

“Throughout history, consumers have re-appropriated products to make a statement,” Warren says. “For example, trucker hats were at one time low-status products and originally came into fashion through rural workers. They’ve since been revalued by young urban consumers.”

Of course, in order to recognize the product is ironic, those around the consumer need to be aware of his or her tastes, beliefs, and identity. We are more likely to perceive ironic consumption when the use of the product is incongruent with the known identity or beliefs of the consumer.

Ironic consumption can also be a way of signaling status, for example, superstar Bruno Mars dancing outside and then eating at a Waffle House. Warren says this exemplifies high-status consumers adopting a low-status product as a way to distinguish themselves from middle-status consumers.

Warren and Mohr also found that ironically using a product can actually be a turn-off, but only with some audiences. Justin Bieber fans might be miffed at a hard rocker wearing a Bieber T-shirt, but non-fans will likely think your hard rock friend is cool.

In other words, using a product ironically can alter—for better or worse—the impression that a consumer makes on others.

“Consuming something ironically is also a security measure,” Warren says. “No one wants to be mocked for watching, say, Jersey Shore. But if you do so with a behavior that suggests you’re watching ironically, you won’t suffer any stigma related to the product.”

The good news for passé brands is that ironic consumption can often lead to a new, desirable brand identity. Pabst Blue Ribbon is an example of a product with an uncool legacy that, through ironic adoption, has experienced a cultural rebirth.

The article appears in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Source: Amy Schmitz for University of Arizona