For journalist and author Tom Wolfe, the space program and Wall Street were just vehicles for exploring what interested him most: the pursuit of status. Whether it was pilots competing to become astronauts in The Right Stuff or the ambition and greed of 1980s New York in Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe used status to bring characters to life. He once commented, “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger, is controlled by a concern for status.”
As a student at Yale, Wolfe was compelled to take a course in sociology, for which he had a “typical English major’s disdain.” Yet it transformed him. “After I discovered Max Weber, I began to think sociology was the king of the subjects.” Weber, a German sociologist, was the first to explore the idea of social authority, which Wolfe evolved into the concept of “statuspheres” - social circles where status and social authority operate, even if only within a group of friends.
Wolfe may have taken an extreme position on status, yet it’s undeniable that products, services, and communications can play an essential role in enabling a customer to feel status. It’s how a product can create a customer desire that goes far beyond solving a simple problem, becoming an underpinning of the brand.
So what is status exactly? A strict definition is “position or rank in relation to others.” It feels like superiority, except that it’s not always hierarchical. This is where it gets interesting when connecting your products to status for liberal or conservative customers.
Conservative and liberal customers share a desire to “achieve position or rank in relation to others” but in different ways. Conservative customers seek more positional status, tied to perceived achievement within a hierarchy. The interesting twist is that conservative customers often seek to preserve status rather than acquire things to elevate status. Products and services are not used to signal a higher status than what the conservative customer already believes to be true. Like many other attributes, it’s about conservation (of status), not change (in status).
Liberal customers seek status more horizontally by pursuing uniqueness and distinction. This reflects their more egalitarian mindset, which rejects hierarchy and tradition. Instead, they prefer status that sets them apart, off to the side, often with self-expression. For liberal customers, achieving status can also involve striving to become part of a “group royalty” or what social anthropologist Mary Douglas refers to as having “professional eminence.”
The interesting twist for liberal customers is that while they seek to differentiate themselves horizontally, they see products and services as springboards to amplify status. Unlike conservative customers, they seek to change status to possibly achieve “group celebrity” or “professional eminence,” which are rarified spaces off to the side, in the distance, requiring pursuit.
Nailya Ordabayeva and Daniel Fernandes from Boston College and the Catholic University of Portugal conducted seven studies examining liberal and conservative motivations for status. They determined that conservative customers sought to signal superiority with products that would endorse status, not increase it. Liberal customers sought to signal uniqueness with products that opposed the status quo. In the case of liberal customers, it’s the push against what’s “typical” toward something more unique.
In a separate research effort, a team from Georgia State University, Hong Kong University, and INSEAD conducted six studies on motivations behind status. They focused on luxury goods, including cars, fashion, eyewear, and headphones. They found that the desire for luxury goods among conservative customers increases when the idea of status maintenance is communicated. They further demonstrated how the conservative desire for social stability could be tied to the desire to maintain status rather than change it.
Luxury goods are an obvious place where status plays a role, yet any product that reveals itself within a customer’s “statusphere” can invoke status. Like all other attributes, status operates to varying degrees.
The most public products within a customer statusphere include clothing, cars, and mobile phones. Beyond these are the more private environments that operate at work, home, or even within the customer’s mind. Communication can shape whether a product supports one form of status or both.
Some products evoke “bipartisanship,” enabling each group to express their particular desire for status. For example, Tesla first grew popular with more urban, wealthy liberal customers, yet soon gained favor among more affluent conservative customers - even before Elon Musk became so closely associated with conservative causes. In addition, Tesla doesn’t advertise their cars, enabling the two groups to develop their own interpretations of how the vehicle fits into their worldview.
Applying status to brands, products, design, and communications can be tricky because only some people want to admit that they buy anything for status reasons. I’ve learned this the hard way.
When I talk to friends about Apple and Tesla as evoking status - and these friends happen to own these products - I get vehement denial as if I’ve insulted them. The reply tends to be, “It’s just a great product - I don’t buy it for status.” It gets awkward. To remove tension from the conversation, I’ve learned to nod and say, “Well, of course, you and I are the exception - we are more rational.” In my mind, I agree that, yes, these are “great products,” but premium products with higher margins often go far beyond solving a problem well. There is always something else afoot.
Unless you work at The Ritz Carlton hotel chain, thinking about brand and product status can seem strange. It means confronting a personal relationship between a product and the market that has nothing to do with solving the customer’s problem. Yet exploring how your products or services can evoke status with one or both groups can be a powerful driver for growth. It’s why Tom Wolfe focused on status so much - and his books were bestsellers. If status is half of what he claims, it’s probably worth exploring, whether you’re selling insurance, eggs, or fitness equipment.
This article originally appeared in the Red and Blue Customers newsletter.