The Apple Watch and the Implicit Sexual Appeal of Luxury Brands

By Sentient Decision Science, Inc.
March 17, 2015
Last week at their Spring Forward event, Apple announced their new $10,000 watch. It can keep time within 50 milliseconds of the GST, graphically display your heartbeat in real time, and personalize your daily activity goals.
But for some brand analysts, those features don’t really matter. Instead, they argue that the Apple watch is just the latest iteration in the company’s ongoing push to become a luxury brand. A push that NYU professor Scott Galloway argues is all about sex.

What Makes a Luxury Brand?

Dr. Galloway argues that the appeal of luxury brands all comes back to sex. First, he begins by defining six assets that, when combined, he believes are the hallmarks of a luxury brand:

  • Reverence for artisanship and craft
  • Iconic founder
  • Exceptional high price point
  • Globally scalable
  • Vertical control of distribution
  • Self expressive benefit

And it’s really the last point that Dr. Galloway is most concerned with: the self expressive benefit. The self expressive benefit describes the ways that individuals, consciously or not, use brands to signal something about themselves to the outside world.

The Implicit Sexual Appeal of Luxury Brands

In the case of luxury brands, that “something” implies success, power, and virility. As an indicator of wealth, luxury brands signal self-sufficiency and an ability to provide. Long story short, luxury brands indicate an evolutionarily ideal sexual partner. Referencing his own (non-Apple watch), Dr. Galloway elaborates.

“This is not a timepiece. I have not wound it in five years. It’s my vain attempt to express Italian masculinity and signal that if you mate with me I am more likely to take care of your offspring than someone wearing a SWATCH watch.”

The importance of self-expression through the selection of brands is easily seen within the fashion and beauty industries (see our Best of ESOMAR Paper here). At Sentient, we have shown that consumers who self-identify with a personal beauty brand are willing to pay more than a 50% price premium for that brand and are four times as likely to spread positive word-of-mouth about the brand. 
Furthermore, the non conscious social cues that are inherent in our self-expressive fashion and beauty choices aren’t the artifact of a newly materialistic society hyper-focused on keeping up with the Joneses. Rather, the origin of these powerful decision forces goes right to the root cause of marketing itself:  the first market, the market for genes. (Jump to Dr. Reid’s point on this at 2:50 into the video by clicking “Genes” below. 

At 6:25 in the video, (click “First Market” link above) Dr. Reid argues: 
“We want to make the argument that marketing began with the first market. Which was the market for genes. Not these kinds of jeans…Marketing, at it’s essence, is a gene propagation mechanism. So marketing really began with the advent of sexual selection. And if marketing began with the advent of sexual selection, it was necessarily non conscious.”
And yet even further, at Sentient we have demonstrated that the thesis Dr. Galloway professes is true not only for luxury brands, but across the broader spectrum of consumer brand decisions as well. Self-identification with brands is a key measure of brand equity and has been shown to to predict:

  • Willingness to pay 40% more for carbonated soft-drinks
  • Willingness to leave a store and drive across town to get a bag of chips
  • Willingness to travel 20 more miles to a hospital
  • Willingness to pay 30% more for a blood glucose meter
  • The brand of ice-cream that has the most momentum in the market year over year
  • Activation of the anterior insular cortex – an area of the brain related to processing stimuli related to the self (Reid and Zhang, 2013)

To Succeed Businesses Must Appeal to Biological Human Drivers

Dr. Galloway brings it all back to a point that those of us in the market research community have long recognized: despite our 21st century lifestyles, businesses must appeal to three basic survival instincts to truly drive consumer behavior:

  • The instinct to survive
  • The instinct to love
  • The instinct to propagate

“And as you move down the torso, the margins get better,” Dr. Galloway continues. “Tesla is not an environmental car, it’s an attempt to tell people you can afford a $120,000 car. The core axiom of evolution is men paying $150K for cars that can go 160mph in domains where you can only go 55 makes no sense. And women will continue to pay $600 for ergonomically impossible shoes to try and solicit inbound offers from those same men.”

Is Buying Behavior Really So Biological?

But is our buying behavior really so driven by biology that we’d fall into such a pattern without ever realizing it? Time and time again, implicit market research studies indicate that yes. Yes it is.
Our buying behavior (in fact, much of our behavior in general) is dictated not by our rational System 2 brain, but by our animal System 1 mind. “We like to think we’re more evolved than that,” says Dr. Galloway. “We’re not.”
What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or tweet to us @SentientInsight.

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