Social Status, Fashion Drive Consumer Food Choices

As food has become a symbol of social status, it has allowed marketers to attract customers as what was merely functional is now also fashionable.

Aug. 15, 2016
By Kelly Daly

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It is argued that indi­vid­u­als define their util­ity by show­cas­ing their wealth to oth­ers, and one way is by the con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion of fash­ion­able food.”

The two main moti­va­tions for con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion are invid­i­ous com­par­i­son’ and pecu­niary emu­la­tion.’ Invidious com­par­i­son refers to higher-class indi­vid­u­als seek­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from lower-class indi­vid­u­als; and pecu­niary emu­la­tion refers to lower-class indi­vid­u­als seek­ing to be thought as mem­bers of a higher class.

Palma et al. con­ducted an exper­i­ment, pub­lished in the jour­nal Applied Economics, to inves­ti­gate how pres­tige-seek­ing behav­ior influ­ences food choices. 201 con­sumers par­tic­i­pated in the exper­i­ment to inves­ti­gate how their pref­er­ence for pres­tige and social sta­tus are related to their will­ing­ness to pay for fash­ion­able food and food prod­ucts.

The results indi­cated that 31 per­cent of indi­vid­u­als were moti­vated by the social sta­tus derived from either invid­i­ous com­par­i­son or pecu­niary emu­la­tion. The sub­jects in the exper­i­ment were grouped into one of four cat­e­gories depend­ing on their income in com­par­i­son to their expen­di­ture based on social sta­tus seek­ing behav­ior; Ambitious Shoppers (12 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants), Utilitarian Buyers (69 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants), Affluent Elitists (9 per­cent) and Prestige Lovers (9 per­cent).


The Affluent Elitists and Prestige Lovers (18 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants) were both moti­vated by social sta­tus sim­ply derived from a desire to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from indi­vid­u­als in a lower social sta­tus. Almost 1 in 2 indi­vid­u­als in these groups felt classy’ when buy­ing the most expen­sive brand, and 69 per­cent felt good about them­selves for doing so.

While Ambitious Shoppers had the low­est income of all the groups, they had the high­est regard for pres­tige and social sta­tus:

  • 91 per­cent think peo­ple notice when they buy the most expen­sive brand,
  • 96 per­cent think it says some­thing to peo­ple when they pur­chase the high-priced ver­sion of a prod­uct, and
  • 78 per­cent think oth­ers judge them based on the prod­ucts and brands they buy.

With this type of think­ing dri­ving the food choices of con­sumers, it won’t be long before olive oil is con­sid­ered fash­ion­able as opposed to a sim­ple neces­sity for opti­mal health. While nutri­tional poli­cies pro­mote con­sump­tion of high-qual­ity healthy food prod­ucts, the real­ity is that because food has become a sym­bol of social sta­tus, it has unequiv­o­cally allowed mar­keters to attract cus­tomers as what was merely func­tional is now also fash­ion­able.


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