Testosterone Is the Hormone that Drives Men Wild for Luxury

Consistently in my research with luxury consumers, I have found men more predisposed than women to luxury purchases. They typically spend more on luxury goods and services than women in Unity Marketing surveys and are more willing to own interest in luxury consumption in interviews and other qualitative research.

I’ve attributed these gender differences in luxury purchasing to the fact that women often manage the household finances and so are more aware of how far the budget must stretch across the monthly fixed and discretionary purchases. That makes women more practical when considering and making luxury purchases.

My research has found men, on the other hand, more indulgent and generally more willing to express interest in luxury purchases. That doesn’t mean women don’t desire luxuries too, but they may be less willing to admit it.

A new study led by Gideon Nave, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School with a specialty in neuroeconomics, suggests that these gender differences in luxury consumption is in the genes, or more precisely in how much testosterone is coursing through the blood stream. The study was published in the latest issue of Nature Communications

High-T men prefer high-status brands

In two controlled double-blind experiments, Nave and his team administered doses of testosterone to one group of men with another group given a placebo. Then each group was asked to rank a set of brands that had in pre-testing before testosterone was introduced been equally matched as to perceived quality but with one brand ranked higher in prestige or status value.

The results of this first test found that men with elevated testosterone levels preferred higher-status brands, for example high-prestige Calvin Klein Jeans versus low-status Levi’s. Both brands, however, were rated as being equal in quality. The other brands included in this first test were Armani, Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, and North Face. Old Navy was also included as a control, being perceived as both a low-quality and low-status brand.

The second test tried to tease apart men’s perception of brands’ status from their quality and power-enhancing values. Nave explained the importance of this, “We were trying to disentangle power from status. Typically in the animal kingdom they go together, but you can think of examples in human society were they don’t,” he said. “A border patrol agent has lots of power but not status. And a famous climate scientist may have a lot of status but little power.”

What do Millennial Affluents Want?

In this test testosterone-treated and placebo-administered men were asked to review mock ads for six different luxury products with three different positionings: quality, power and prestige. In this test too, men with the elevated levels of testosterone exhibited preference for high-status brands. Brands tested were Alpina watches, Audi cars, Mont Blanc pens, Keurig coffemakers, Urbanears ear phones and Ray Ban sunglasses.

For example, the Ray Ban quality-positioned ad highlighted the sun glasses “excellent quality, lightness, durability and comfort.” The power positioning called out Ray Ban Aviator Classics as “designed for US commando warriors in combat,” and stressed the glasses’ “superior visual clarity, high performance materials and comfort.” Ray Ban’s prestige ad focused on its “superior style and cachet,” and described the glasses as being “iconic, timeless frames.” All three ads ended with a statement that reinforced the brand’s quality, i.e. “the polarized lenses provide optimum visual clarity and 100% UV protection.”

The study authors concluded, “Our results demonstrate for the first time that T causally influences rank-related consumer preferences and that the effect is driven by status enhancement and not power motives or inclination of high quality.” In other words, when it comes to positioning luxury brands for men, status and prestige beat power and quality hands down .

From the lab to the shop floor

A caveat in the research is that the sample size was relatively small, less than 250, though the authors note that it is the largest sample in similar studies to date. It was conducted exclusively with men, and while women have small amounts of testosterone, the authors suggest that hormones related to women’s menstrual cycles may have an effect. And this study only measured brand preferences, not actual purchases where real money is exchanged to actually achieve higher-personal status.

That said, in marketing perception is reality and building aspiration for a specific brand is critical to the whole idea of luxury marketing. This study provides ample evidence that men with their higher levels of testosterone are more driven to aspire for luxury brands that offer the promise to gain greater social status and prestige. That at least is what high-T men aspire to, more so than achieving personal power or confidence from high-quality purchases.

What is status? That may depend

What exactly is status and how that is measured on an individual basis may not be as clear cut as a man choosing to buy a pair of expensive Calvin Klein or more affordable Levi’s jeans. My husband, for example, is a Levi’s loyalist. I suspect part of the brand’s appeal is that his 32” waist size is prominently displayed on the label. He takes great pride in the fact that having grown into this size in his teens, he has never outgrown them, some 40 years later. That he gains status from how he has controlled his weight and maintained his physique is without question and far more than from the amount of money in his wallet.

I’ve heard much the same thing from young men in research. Their status is derived from who they are and what they have achieved, not by the particular expensive brands they buy. One young man on a career path leading to affluence explained that his status came from the initials after his name, in his case PhD, not which brands he bought.

Another young associate lawyer talked about how the gray-haired senior partners in his law firm wear expensive Rolex or Patek Phillipe watches. But he said his “status” watch was his $100 Timex Ironman because it signaled “who I am – a triathlete. It says ‘I need this kind of watch.’” Perhaps his watch brand preferences will change as his salary grows or he gives up triathlons, but today he clearly derives status from what he does and who he is, not the brands he wears.

My research leads me to conclude that while status is important to everyone, how each individual measures and expresses their personal status may be different, most especially for the millennial generation . Thorstein Veblen in his seminal work, The Theory of the Luxury Class, published in 1899 described luxuries as “positional goods” which signal status through economic (e.g. high price) or physical (e.g. limited access) barriers. As a result, wealthy people are drawn to luxury “positional goods” that proclaim one’s higher status, thus distinguishing themselves from the lower-status masses who are limited to more affordable and accessible goods.

Luxury on the inside, not on the outside

The millennial generation may challenge Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption. While there are still economic limitations to some luxury goods, the rising tide of wealth is breaking down those barriers. And the status value of exclusivity is almost meaningless in today’s digital economy with access to luxuries at millennials’ fingertips.

Affluent millennials and those on the road to affluence generally reject the old assumptions of conspicuous consumption where purchasing luxury brands confers greater social status, in favor of more conscientious consumption where purchases are made based on values inherent in the brands and to the individual. As a result, they look inside themselves and the brands they consider buying for meaningful value, not to the outside and what others may think about them from the brands they wear, cars they drive or how they furnish their homes.

Of course, luxury brands self select their customers through marketing and positioning. Some people, and some men, may be attracted to brands that offer a higher-status value on the outside, as Nave’s research shows.

But I suspect among the next generation of luxury consumers, these external prestige and social-status markers will play less and less of a role in luxury purchasing, replaced by a more enlightened new-luxury style that is more subtle, less elitist and inherently values driven. For millennials it is more about luxury on the inside than on the outside.

Comments Off on Testosterone Is the Hormone that Drives Men Wild for Luxury