Status refers to a person’s position within a social structure. Status typically involves a ranking (on the basis of relative power and prestige) and is determined by either ascribed or achievement-oriented factors. Ascribed status is automatically transmitted to a person—usually at birth (e.g., gender, ethnicity, and family heritage). Achieved status is attained as a result of individual abilities and performance (e.g., level of education, income, and type of occupation). The dominant form of status—thus how status is determined—differs from country to country and can have important strategic implications for marketers.
When ascribed status is the primary determinant of social standing, individuals can do very little to enhance their status. In countries where achieved status is dominant, individuals have at least the opportunity to improve their relative social standing. Attempts to improve status in achievement-oriented societies include engagement in conspicuous consumption—the acquisition and, most importantly, public consumption/display of products that are defined by members of society as symbolizing “the good life.”
When searching for opportunities in the global marketplace, marketers often view achievement oriented societies where conspicuous consumption transpires as prime markets for their products (which are essentially used as props to enhance status). Marketers can take advantage of the desire to enhance status via conspicuous consumption in a variety of ways. For example, products are sometimes advertised on the basis of providing the benefit of status enhancement by suggesting that public usage of the product serves as a means of communication—that one “can afford the fine things in life” or “has good taste.” Marketers can also facilitate status enhancement via conspicuous consumption by pricing products high and distributing products in exclusive fashion (e.g., in upscale retail stores). Attempts at status enhancement via conspicuous consumption have changed in recent years due to the globalization of the economy.
Conspicuous Consumption And Status
Over 100 years ago, Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe the highly visible, lavish, often wasteful consumption activities of newly rich elites in the United States—a nation where achievement-oriented factors weigh heavily in social status determination. The primary purpose of this behavior, practiced by members of what Veblen called “the leisure class,” was to enhance social status and prestige. While this type of consumption activity was not confined to the United States and had existed for centuries, Veblen’s conceptualization formally documented the realization that consumption was engaged in not only to meet one’s basic needs. Consumption had become a means of identity creation.
Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption remains viable today. This is particularly true in affluent nations where achievement-oriented factors are the primary determinants of social standing, and materialism and individualism are strongly held cultural values (e.g., the United States). In nations such as these, people often define who and what they—and others—are by what they possess and publicly consume. Products infused with symbolic meaning by members of society serve as vehicles for communication to others. Proper product use and display can signal wealth, power, and taste to others, thus improving one’s social standing/status.
Although Veblen’s original conceptualization of conspicuous consumption remains relevant today, refinement is called for due to changes in consumer behavior resulting from the recent and ongoing incorporation of nations—and their peoples—into the global economic system. Exemplary is the case of how conspicuous consumption has recently come to be increasingly used to enhance status in India.
Conspicuous Consumption And Status In Present-Day India
Traditionally, India is a nation characterized by the Gandhian philosophy of simple living and the socialist ideology of community/collectivistic living and self-reliance. India is also historically characterized as a nation where ascribed factors have dominated social status determination (e.g., via the caste system). As a result, consuming in conspicuous fashion has not been traditionally viewed as an appropriate—if even possible—means of enhancing status in India.
This began to change in the 1970s with the growth of a more individualistic middle class. The partial liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1980s and, most notably, more extensive liberalization via integration in the global economic system in the 1990s has paved the way for pursuit of a global culture characterized first and foremost by the ideals of Western consumerism—and for status enhancement via increasingly high levels of conspicuous consumption. This recent shift away from austerity—and from ascribed dominance of status determination—has been fueled by the glorification of consumption as a means of defining oneself in Indian media and cinema.
It is important to note, in closing, that seeking status enhancement through conspicuous consumption in present-day India differs somewhat from Veblen’s original vision. It is not, for example, only very wealthy social elite—Veblen’s “leisure class”—who signal status in this way. In India today, conspicuous consumption is used as a means of enhancing status by a fast-growing middle class (composed largely of knowledge workers and entrepreneurs).
In addition, status enhancement through conspicuous consumption in India does not involve only the public consumption of very expensive goods. Instead, social standing is often enhanced more subtly through consumption of less expensive products that symbolize “good taste” and “cultural refinement.” These nonelite consumers do seek status through public consumption, but their status is based not so much on the display of extraordinary wealth as it is on the creation of exclusivity on the basis of intellectual and cultural distance from others. Marketers looking to take advantage of the escalating desires—and abilities—of consumers in India (and other transitional countries) to enhance status via conspicuous consumption are well advised to take factors such as these into account when formulating and implementing strategy.
- John Beck, Meritocracy, Citizenship and Education: New Labour’s Legacy (Continuum, 2008);
- Reinhard Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset, Class, Status, and Power; Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective (Free Press, 1966);
- Himadri Chaudhuri and Sitanath Majumdar, “Of Diamonds and Desires: Understanding Conspicuous Consumption From a Contemporary Marketing Perspective,” Academy of Marketing Science Review (v.11, 2006);
- Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety (Pantheon Books, 2004);
- James Leigh and Terrance Gabel, “Symbolic Interactionism: Its Effects on Consumer Behavior and Implications for Marketing Strategy,” Journal of Consumer Marketing (v.9/winter, 1992);
- Roger Mason, The Economics of Conspicuous Consumption: Theory and Thought Since 1700 (Edward Elgar, 1998);
- Vance Packard, The Status Seekers: An Exploration of Class Behavior in America and the Hidden Barriers That Affect You, Your Community, Your Future (McKay Co., 1959);
- Joel Marc Podolny, Status Signals: A Sociological Study of Market Competition (Princeton University Press, 2008);
- Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (Macmillan, 1899).
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