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Why we love retail brands that hate us

Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman)

Like those of us who never quite made it to the cool kids’ table in a high school, customers who feel rejected by luxury retailers actually wind up wanting them more, new research shows.

In “Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for Brands,” a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers studied how interactions with rude salespeople affected the way consumers desired their brand.

It seems counterintuitive. How could rudeness actually attract people, especially when all it takes is one disgruntled patron with a Yelp account to sink a business. 

But luxury brands manage to get away with marginalizing some customers, the study found — especially those customers who feel they don’t quite belong among the brand’s typical clientele (e.g., the ultra-rich).

“We found that when you’re rejected in a mass-market brand environment, you like the brand less, immediately,” says Morgan K. Ward, assistant professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University and co-author of the study. “But with luxury brands, they are more aspirational for people. People are more likely to feel that they have to [be accepted] by them.”

In one experiment, researchers asked 360 women (ages 18-70) to read about an encounter with either a rude or polite salesperson at both a luxury retailer (like Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Burberry) and a mass market retailer (like the Gap, American Eagle or H&M).  In the scenarios, rude salespeople would speak to customers condescendingly, questioning their knowledge of the brand. Afterward, they were given a survey to fill out on their perceptions of the brands. Ward says she focused on women because they are more likely to shop at luxury brands and are more likely to associate brands with social status.  

While the rude encounters at the mass market retailers lowered the participant’s opinion of them, researchers found that the women who read about a rude encounter at a luxury brand were more likely to say they valued those brands more. They were also more eager to wear the brand’s clothing in public and pay more for their goods

In another experiment, Ward found that rude salespeople only made brands feel more exclusive and desirable to consumers who didn’t identify themselves as the brand’s typical customer.

Ward hired actors to pose as representatives for high-end labels like Louis Vuitton, Prada and Fendi. Each actor was given a script with either rude dialogue or polite dialogue to guide their interactions with consumers. For example, the rude actors were directed to look skeptical when customers spoke about their knowledge of the brand and to use a condescending tone. Then, about 200 female college students were brought in under the guise that they would get to chat with the representatives about a new line of handbags at each brand. In pre-interviews, some of the women self-identified as already belonging to the brand’s target customer base, while others did not.

Among the women who met with rude representatives, those who had felt they weren’t “in” with the brands were more likely to review them more positively afterward.

“Initially, we just thought everyone would feel this way because there’s a lot of past research on how people respond to rejection by trying to [win favor with the rejecting party],” Ward says. “But we were surprised to see the people who were most positive about the rude [salespeople] were those who didn’t feel like they quite belonged to the brand.”

Too exclusive?

Trying to please mass America while still maintaining an air of exclusivity is a fine line many high-end retailers have to walk. Ward’s research comes at an interesting time for luxury retailers, as some have tried to soften their edges to appeal to a wider customer base. In the wake of the recession, high-end department store Lord & Taylor tried to woo more customers by training their salespeople to be friendlier. The same year, at Manhattan luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman, higher-ups fired their usual doormen in favor of ones who seemed friendlier in order to appeal to Christmas shoppers. And a slew of celebrity fashion designers, including Vera Wang, Stella McCartney and Isaac Mizrahi, have rolled out discounted lines at mass retailers like Target, H&M and Kohl’s.

There’s a danger associated with having a high-end brand go too low-end in order to be more all-inclusive, however. Start pleasing everyone, and the customer base that was initially attracted to a brand for its exclusivity will start shopping elsewhere.

“I seriously doubt you’ll see a moderately priced Louis Vuitton bag or a moderately priced Chanel line because they value exclusivity over increasing revenue,” Ward says. “It’s just a trade-off.”

But she stops short of promoting the idea that making customers feel intimidated as a good sales plan. It may make the brand more appealing to customers for a moment, but further research shows it can be damaging in the long term.

In the final part of the study, Ward and her team decided to see how rude encounters with representatives of aspirational brands affected customers’ opinions in the long term. They moved away from high fashion this time, choosing instead to use a brand that would tap into people’s desire to be more eco-friendly — the Toyota Prius. About 85 college students (both men and women this time) were asked to chat with a Toyota representative about the car’s environmentally-conscious features. Like the previous study, some participants were greeted by a rude representative and others dealt with a neutral representative. Once again, people who were treated rudely said they would be willing to pay more for the eco-friendly car.

But when Ward re-interviewed the students two weeks later, she found their perceptions of the Prius suffered long-term damage from their unpleasant encounters. They were now more likely to view the brand negatively.

“We find in those first few moments after being rejected, people felt compelled to purchase from that brand,” she says. For some, that’s just human nature. Our impulse is to try to win favor with whatever or whoever we are feeling excluded by. But after a two-week delay, we tend to forget the urge to “people please” and just remember that someone made us feel like crap.

“That’s why this is really not a long-term strategy if you value customer loyalty and retention,” she says.