Delphine and Stéphane Borraz (2017) Journal of Marketing, 81(5), 67–85.
Whereas past research on status management focuses on how to maintain the brand as a status marker that consumers can manipulate to signal their position in the social game, we show that firms also manage status by making consumers enact a position in the social hierarchy. A brand is not only a means to express one’s status but also an active player in the class struggle that produces enactment of status. In addition to managing branded goods that signal status, firms should also craft customer experiences that make consumers enact status positions. Retail spaces shape status by providing a locus for the learning-by-doing of social position. The material and social cues of the store signify the types of consumers that are welcome; provide a model that consumers must perform to feel socially accepted; and configure social hierarchies.
Few academic studies have examined how firms manage status. They have underlined the importance of finding the right balance between expanding to new and less affluent segments while preserving the image of a luxury brand in the eyes of their core clientele. Whereas this body of research focuses on how to maintain the brand as a status marker that consumers can manipulate to signal their position in the social game, we argue that firms also manage status by making consumers enact a position in the social hierarchy. Analyzing social games dynamics enables us to go further than the traditional approach to possessions and the display of status symbols. The brand is not only a status marker, but it also makes consumers enact a position in the social hierarchy. We suggest that brands shape the social game in the service encounter and make consumers enact a specific status.
We collected four data sets to establish a comprehensive overview of interactions in the service encounters. We interviewed 30 consumers of luxury products. To gain a marketer’s perspective on service interactions, we interviewed 39 experts, i.e. general managers, marketing managers, consultants, store managers and sales staff. We conducted 28 participant observations in luxury stores in Paris. We monitored e-stores, websites, forums, and blogs where customers and brand representatives recounted their experiences in luxury stores.
We contribute with insights on both branding and the customer experience. First, we show that brands manage status by shaping class subjectivities, that is, they make consumers behave as class subjects who have a specific understanding of their position in the social hierarchy. Managing status requires the active creation and management of consumers as class subjects. Thus, there is a shift from managing branded goods that signal status to managing customer experiences that make consumers enact status positions.
Second, retail spaces play a critical role in shaping class subjectivities as they provide a locus for class learning-by-doing. The physical and social cues of the store form a socio-material assemblage that enables the brand to shape class subjectivities. The brand acts as a gatekeeper, model and broker of class. It signifies the types of consumers that are welcome, provides a class-model that consumers must perform to feel socially accepted, and configures social hierarchies. Through that process, the brand forces consumers to enact class positions and shape class subjectivities, performing an enactment of status.
The general public is fascinated by luxury brands. People are interested in knowing more about luxury brands and understanding sustained success of the luxury industry. These theoretical contributions on the role of the brand in the social game and the luxury customer experience enable the identification of new ways to manage luxury brands, and more broadly status brands. The insights can be applied to other retail and service contexts. Status games are present in every type of service encounter—from airport lounges and supermarkets to car dealerships and restaurants.