Recent research into luxury consumption has revealed what many have long suspected – the purchase of luxury goods is motivated by a desire to be seen as wealthy. Ironically, however, luxury consumption has also been found to obscure our perception of wealth and class; potentially leading to a classless society.
The findings were presented in the research paper, Veblen Dual Forces and the Making of a Luxurised Society, by Olubayo (Bayo) Adekanmbi at the The Mystique of Luxury Brands Conference in Shanghai, China this year.
The research found that the upper class purchase expensive luxury items in order to set themselves apart; a theory known as invidious distinction. However, in a move that directly undermines their efforts, the lower classes also purchase luxury items as a way of emulating and positioning themselves as upper class, a theory known as pecuniary emulation.
Adekanmbi’s paper was unanimously voted by the conference panel for an award by virtue of its expansion of the knowledge frontier for the luxury industry and 21st century synthesis of multiple theories and literature to explain the unexplored area of “luxury brand as a sociological construct”.
Reflecting on the findings, Adekanmbi said, “There’s an interesting and dynamic interplay between the behaviour of the high-income segment and the commensurate reaction of the medium to low-income segment.
“Luxury products have transitioned from being a high-income social marker to a source of social pressure for the lower class.
“The inherent tension is that luxury products are seen by the upper classes as a way of maintaining exclusivity, and yet the lower classes are using the purchase of luxury items as a ticket to gain access to this club.
“As a result while luxury products may be seen as a marker of class, their consumption no longer provides an accurate picture of class. In fact the very notion of class seems to be breaking down.”
Adekanmbi is a combined PhD scholar at City University, London and TIAS Business School, the Netherlands. He is on a one-year sabbatical from his role as the Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at MTN Telecommunication Nigeria.