It was just a shopping bag from Neiman Marcus! A big sack that was tattered at its corners and sprawled inconveniently across the kitchen counter. One of my old college roommates lugged everything in that heavy-duty catchall: books, groceries, mail or whatever else she had happened to pick up between school, work and home.
The now filthy, ragged sack had seen much brighter days—and it definitely didn’t belong in a clean kitchen. Pragmatic as I am, I threw it away, thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal to toss something so worn out. In retrospect, I should have known that would spark such ferocity.
Twenty years later, I understand her ire. Well … sorta.
We’ve long understood that wearing a chic brand of clothing, driving a luxury car or carrying a designer anything can sway a person’s self-image. Maybe they feel sexier, artier, smarter, or hipper than they would if they used or wore a lesser-known label. But only recently have studies (at the University of Minnesota) shown that a designer brand—or even a brand perceived to be superior by the consumer—can actually change people’s behavior as they work to “keep up” the image they associate with the product. My old roomie, for example, might have felt and acted flirtier as she lugged books inside Neiman Marcus’s logo than she would’ve with, say, Dress Barn’s or JCPenney’s. She probably walked a little taller and flirted more coyly while wearing the Ralph Lauren sweater that originally came in the bag.
So, strange as it might seem to some, when I took her bag, she might have felt that I was taking a piece of her personality.
It’s not just her, though. Many people feel this way, and maybe even us if we really stop to think about it. If you feel sportier and more manly driving a Range Rover than a minivan, or more superior wearing a T-shirt from REI instead of Kmart, then you might’ve subconsciously bought into a product’s image—and how it improves your own. Researchers say this is part of “entity theory,” in which people believe they cannot fully develop their personalities through their own efforts: Their worth must come from, among other things, “worthy” products.
Lead researcher Deborah Roedder John told MSNBC:
For consumers, our study could help them understand how brands really affect them—just carrying a shopping bag with the Victoria's Secret name makes you feel more glamorous, feminine, and good-looking. So, you don't really need to buy and use the brand—just have some association with it. Maybe this is a money-saving tip for anyone strapped for money during these recessionary times?
Probably so, since apparently just carrying around a worn sack works for some people. But chucking the bags and preoccupation with appearance might be a better plan for all. I’ll just never toss another person’s bag again, having learned that lesson the hard way.