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The Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese Mystery: Why Brands Mix High with Low

From a $2,000 tote made to look like an Ikea shopping bag to lobster macaroni and cheese, a big trend in fashion and food mixes downscale elements with higher-end goods. By doing so, big brands and individual influencers go against the grain of the traditional “trickle-down” view of marketing, which suggests that goods move from high-end consumers to the middle market and the mainstream. Instead, Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger sees what he calls a “trickle round” effect, whereby status signals move directly from low-end to high-end before diffusing to the middle. Berger has co-authored a paper on the topic with Columbia University marketing professor Sylvia Bellezza titled, “Trickle-Round Signals: When Low Status Is Mixed with High,” which was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research. He spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about the trend and what it means for brands.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What inspired your study?

Jonah Berger: I’ve always been interested in why things catch on, why some products and ideas become popular. If we look around, we definitely see a certain trend as of late. We see things that seem unusual creeping up in the popular sphere. I think it’s very clear that when high-status people do things, the rest of us start doing those things as well. When celebrities wear ripped jeans, for example, or when celebrity chefs start using potato chips and mixing them with caviar, everyone else does the same thing. This is something we’ve known for a while.

But where do those things come from in the first place? Why do high-status people start wearing ripped jeans or eating potato chips with caviar? Is it random that some of these things catch on, or might we be able to predict where these things come from and then predict the next big hit?

Knowledge@Wharton: In the paper, you introduce the idea of “trickling round” in marketing rather than trickling down or up. Can you explain what that means?

Berger: I think we’re all familiar with the idea of trickle down. If any of you have seen the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, it says a little bit about this. Meryl Streep’s character is lambasting Anne Hathaway’s character, essentially saying, “Oh, you think you dress however you want to dress, but really it’s been chosen for you. A number of years ago, this was the color of the year, the high fashion on the runways. Then, the next set of people start wearing it, the next set of celebrities, and then the next group of people, and eventually it trickles down into a bargain bin at Target or some other place where you picked it out.”

The notion there is trickle down, right? High-status people start doing something, then eventually the middle status starts doing it and it goes mainstream. Everybody’s doing it. It trickles down from the top. The opposite notion that some have suggested is maybe in a few cases it’s bottom-up. Traditionally lower-status groups or traditionally marginalized groups might start doing something, then the middle-status people do it, and eventually the high-status people do it. That’s a theory. There’s never been much empirical proof for that theory, only suggestions here and there. But for the most part, we always see trickle-down. We see the high-status people do it, the people on the runways do it, then the sort of me-too brands — the Zaras and the H&Ms — pick it up. And eventually Gap starts doing it. No offense to Gap. But eventually it trickles down to more mainstream folks.

“Anyone who wants to be an influencer, anyone who wants to be an early adopter, anyone who wants to be part of the vanguard needs to differentiate themselves in some way.”

Trickle down makes a lot of sense. We see it happen often. But there’s another pattern that also seems to be happening. Take, for example, jeans. If you look at where jeans came from originally, it was coalminers and workers, traditionally lower-status groups that were wearing them before celebrities started doing it. Think back a decade or so about trucker hats. Ashton Kutcher and others were wearing trucker hats — those sort of mesh-backed caps that became popular. Sure, he’s a celebrity. Sure, it went mainstream. But who was wearing it before him? It was truckers. These were hats that companies would give truckers and farmers to wear.

Think about the idea of ripped jeans. Where did wearing ripped jeans come from? It came from folks who didn’t have the money to patch up their jeans. Think about baggy jeans, think about potato chips mixed with caviar. They start low, but they don’t necessarily move to the middle first. They’re adopted directly from low by the high. That’s what we talk about as trickle round. It doesn’t go through the middle, and it doesn’t go top down through the middle to the bottom, but the top actually seems to borrow from the low in some cases.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think is behind this trend? What motivates people to borrow a signal from a different status?

Berger: I’m by no means a high-fashion person, but I’ve talked to a lot of folks in high fashion, and my collaborator knows a lot about fashion. And I use fashion broadly here — not just clothes, but anyone who wants to be an influencer, anyone who wants to be an early adopter, anyone who wants to be part of the vanguard needs to differentiate themselves in some way, shape or form. If everyone’s doing something, doing it isn’t a signal of differentiation. If the mainstream and a lot of people are doing something, that’s really off limits.

If you want to be a high-status person, if you are a high-status person, you just need to figure out a way to do something new to differentiate yourself. The challenge is where those new things come from. You can’t do what the middle’s already doing because then you’ll end up looking like a middle. What we talk about is maybe highs adopt from the lows as a way to separate themselves from the middles. Things that are adopted by lows already have meaning, so [high-status individuals] can co-opt that meaning and in some sense shift that meaning a little bit, particularly because the middles are scared of doing it. There’s a bunch of older research on what’s called middle-status conformity and some more recent work as well showing that middles are worried about sticking out in the wrong direction, so they’re probably going to stick to what they’re doing. They know safe things. They want to avoid looking like lows. By doing things the middles wouldn’t do — what the lows are doing — the highs create a way of differentiating themselves and discouraging the middles from following them.

Knowledge@Wharton: You highlight several fashion examples in your paper, including Balenciaga’s $2,000 version of Ikea’s iconic blue shopping bag. Other examples come from food. What are you seeing there?

Berger: We’ve all seen the lobster mac and cheese, right? We have passed the point of peak lobster macaroni and cheese. Crab macaroni and cheese, lobster macaroni and cheese — there are a lot of these examples of traditionally high-end ingredients mixed with traditionally downscale ingredients. We’re sitting here in Philadelphia, where there used to be a great $100 cheesesteak at a restaurant called Barclay Prime. We think about $100 as expensive. We think about Kobe beef, the ingredient of that cheesesteak, as expensive. But we think about a cheesesteak as very cheap. What they’ve done is taken something that’s traditionally downscale and mixed it with something upscale. We see this in food, we see this in fashion, we see it in a variety of different domains — any place where the highs are trying to figure out a way to set themselves apart from the middles.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you walk us through one or two of the experiments you did in the study?

Berger: We did a number of different things. We did studies where we measured people’s actual status and asked, “Do you want to do something that’s already high status, do you want something middle status, low status, or something that mixes high and low status?” If you’re planning a party, for example, and you’re a wealthy or a high-status individual, are you more likely to pick a menu for that party that mixes high and low? If we’re picking clothing, are we more likely not just to pick the traditionally high-end things, but also things that mix the high and low?

We also did some studies where we assigned people to be either high status or not, and then they had to pick a watch, for example. That watch has a color and a shape. Do you want to pick the color and shape of highs, of lows, of middles? Or maybe you want to pick a color of highs and a shape of lows, or a shape of highs and a color of lows — this idea of mixing and matching those two aspects. Across all those studies, what we see is middles like the middle stuff, sometimes middles like the high stuff, but highs really like this idea of mixing and matching.

“Highs only borrow from traditionally marginalized groups when there’s that ability to mix and match.”

Knowledge@Wharton: So it’s not simply a matter of adopting a signal from another status, it’s the process of mixing and matching that is key?

Berger: Yes, and I think this is really one of the interesting ideas behind this paper. Maybe this is obvious already, but most research says things have a signal. We’ll focus on one thing, and we’ll think about what that thing communicates. What does it mean to drive a BMW? What does it mean to wear a certain style of clothes? What does it mean to work at a certain type of organization — a startup rather than a legacy business, let’s say?

We think about the meaning of these individual things and what they signal or communicate to us about others. What this research, as well as a small number of other papers, begins to talk about is that there are actually multiple domains of communication. For anything, whether it’s cars or clothes or anything we do, there’s not just one dimension. There are multiple dimensions, and we can mix and match across those multiple dimensions.

A famous Italian chef who we talk about in the paper uses potato chips on his menu. Now, if all you knew about that restaurant is that it serves potato chips, and I asked you, “Is it high or low end?” You’d probably say, “Well, they serve potato chips, so it must be low end.” If I told you a place serves macaroni and cheese by itself, you might assume it’s traditionally lower end. But by using multiple dimensions, by mixing and matching, by doing potato chips with foie gras or potato chips with caviar, it allows them to differentiate themselves. That’s what we find in the experiments as well. When there’s only one dimension of communication, highs don’t pick things from the lows because they know they’ll be misconstrued. There’s no way to separate them from lows. So, highs only borrow from traditionally marginalized groups when there’s that ability to mix and match. Pick something traditionally high and mix it with something more traditionally low.

Knowledge@Wharton: A lot of brands have been playing with this idea of borrowing signals from other strata. One example would be Target launching a clothing collection with high-end fashion house Missoni. Is there a danger for brands in that kind of mixing, especially when high-status brands are trying to differentiate themselves from the middle?

Berger: There are many strategies or many paths brands could take. And as long as you’re doing a good job of activating or implementing that path, you’re going to be successful. Take Missoni partnering with Target. If your goal is to go “class to mass,” if your goal is to say, “Hey, we had a high-end positioning, but we want to make more revenue, we want to sell to a larger set of people. We don’t care if brand equity gets a little bit diluted,” then that’s a great strategy.

“Moving down-market is a great way to boost revenue in the short term, but once brand equity has been eroded, it’s hard to go back.”

By the way, it’s clear why Target wants to partner with a high-end brand. It definitely benefits Target. It moves Target a little bit up in the status hierarchy. It can also be beneficial for those high-end brands because they sell more. Think about a Tiffany or a Coach. They’re still reasonably high-end brands but they’re not anywhere near as high [as they used to be]. Think about Donna Karan. When that brand originally came out, it was much higher than it is now. It’s moved down-market, in part by choice to sell more stuff.

Moving down-market is a great way to boost revenue in the short term, but once brand equity has been eroded, it’s hard to go back. I think the danger of doing some of what we’ve talked about is when you try to mix and match but it fails or doesn’t seem authentic. Or it comes off the wrong way. If you’re not working with members of the communities you’re borrowing from, then it fails. Look at when brands try to do streetwear collections, but they don’t really understand and misappropriate concepts. Whereas, if they say, “Hey, let’s do a collaboration where it’s a mixing and matching of both of our brands,” and they really involve the creative team from that brand, that’s much more likely to be successful than just poaching symbols from other groups.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the most bizarre example that you’ve seen of this kind of mixing?

Berger: Sylvia, my co-author who is a professor at Columbia University, celebrated the publishing of this paper by sending me cologne that’s actually [sold] in a spray-cleaner bottle. It’s a very high-end cologne — probably $100 or $200, or maybe even more expensive than that. But it’s in this bottle that looks like Windex. It looks like it’s nothing. It’s an interesting idea. If I’m somebody who is trying to separate myself from the traditional luxury crowd or the middle-status group, maybe I’m more willing to purchase this because [those other individuals might say], “What is this thing that looks like Windex? I’m not buying it.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the broader implications of the study?

Berger: I think it moves forward our understanding of status. I think we’ve all been to a restaurant that has lobster macaroni and cheese or crab macaroni and cheese. We might have wondered, where are these things coming from? I think now we get a better sense of where these things are coming from. It helps us understand status dynamics. Whether we’re brands or individuals, it helps us think about ways in which we might maintain higher status. If we want to be an influencer, novel, differentiated, if we want to be ahead of the crowd, we may want to think about mixing and matching. If we want to avoid being misperceived, we need to think about carrying it out the right way. It may be a direction for some brands or individuals to think about.

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