Fashion Meets Psychology
Gargi Bhaduri Gets Into The Hearts Of Clothing Consumers To Understand Why They Buy...And Why They Don't
Clothing is an essential part of living. If nothing else, it keeps us warm and modest. But these days, it’s not just about keeping yourself covered up — it’s what kind of covering you’re sporting; the material, the style, and perhaps above all, the name.
A brand’s reputation is hard won and often all too easily lost. For individual artists, finding a niche in a market already overloaded with brand name monoliths can be challenging or even impossible. Every product on the market, for better or worse, lives and dies by the fickle whims of consumers.
So how can clothing brands and artists make their mark for even a moment, let alone survive and thrive?
Gargi Bhaduri, an Assistant Professor in the Kent State Fashion School, has spent her early career studying consumers’ perceptions about clothing labels, and she may just have some of the answers clothiers are seeking.
“I study supply chain issues, and how brands can do better based on how they use consumer input and demand data,” Bhaduri said. “It doesn’t matter so much what brands actually do, but more what consumers perceive they do.”
In recent years, there’s been an increase in both supply of and demand for artisan and hand-crafted apparel in the luxury clothing market, but Bhaduri said those labels alone aren’t enough to win consumers over.
Along with now-retired Associate Professor of Fashion Nancy Stanforth, Bhaduri has published two articles on the trend in Emerald Insight’s Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management and Journal of Product and Brand Management.
For these studies, adult American women participated in online surveys that asked their opinions about the need for uniqueness in apparel, the value of different types of labeling and branding, their level of involvement in the fashion and clothing industries and their perceived knowledge about fashion and clothing.
“The more knowledgeable people are, the more they think artisan products are of higher value and worth a higher price point,” Bhaduri said. “Those who are more involved in the clothing industry and know the process of making clothes also appreciated artisan products more.”
Those who said they were more involved in fashion, however, only saw artisan items as being of higher value if they also carried a brand name label. Otherwise, they perceived the artisan tag to imply that the product was made by a local artist and therefore not a luxury item.
“These artisans are experts in their own fields, but they don’t have the backing of a well-known, well-established brand,” Bhaduri said. “I would think they’re of equal or higher quality, but they just haven’t earned the reputation and the credibility that a big name provides.”
Brand name items, she said, carry the promise of certain guarantees that merit trust and value, while artisan items are perceived as just being more expensive. She said the sweet spot is in the middle where brand names produce artisan products which are seen as high-quality, reasonably priced, and trustworthy.
Carrying a brand name tag isn’t necessarily a guarantee of consumer support or trust, though. The other side of Bhaduri’s research focuses on supply-chain transparency.
“In this area, I’m looking at how parties interact based on transparent communication of supply chain information,” she said. “That is, how suppliers communicate and how consumers perceive it.”
Bhaduri’s studies focus on consumers’ trust in the claims clothing companies make, in particular their claims of fair labor practices and “Made in USA.”
The worldwide clothing industry employs more than 60 million people. For some developing countries, Bhaduri said, between 75 and 95 percent of their gross domestic product is based on clothing production because it’s so easy to get into. “All you basically need are people and sewing machines,” she said.
While the social and economic impact can be enormous, though, there are well known down sides.
“There are not enough protections and rights for workers, wages are low, and it’s difficult to monitor conditions in factories,” Bhaduri said. “Poorer countries export garments, but wealthier countries export the raw materials and textile products with less human labor involved.”
For these reasons, as well as their sense of patriotism, many Americans want to see the “Made in USA” label on their clothes. Companies can’t just claim fair labor or “Made in USA,” though; consumers are paying attention.
In studies published in Clothing & Textiles Research Journal (2017), the Journal of Marketing Communications (2017), and Emerald Insight Journal of Consumer Marketing (2017), Bhaduri found that consumers have preconceived notions about brands, and even efforts at supply chain transparency may not be enough to earn a brand the level of trust they might seek or even rightly deserve.
“American consumers expect the brands they buy to make clothing in the USA or at least use fair labor practices,” she said. “If consumers don’t expect fair labor practices from a brand, though, when they see ads that claim it, they won’t have a good opinion of that brand, because the ad is incongruent with an existing opinion.”
Bhaduri’s studies in this area collected physiological measurements that can tell far more about a person’s reaction than their own self-reported statements. She asked participants to watch ads by garment companies while Bhaduri and her fellow researchers — including Dr. Jung Ha-Brookshire of the Department of Textile and Apparel Management at the University of Missouri, and Dr. Glenn Leshner of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma — monitored their heart rate, facial responses, and perspiration.
When participants saw ads making claims incongruent with their existing opinion about a company, their heart rates dropped.
“Your heart rate drops when you’re paying attention and scrutinizing the claims,” Bhaduri said. “If you believe the claims, though, you’re paying less attention and your heart rate does not decelerate since the information you are reading is already familiar, demanding less attention.”
The data showed companies that establish a track record for transparency can begin to shift consumers’ perceptions, and these tendencies to change perceptions fall along gender lines.
In a study published in 2015 in Emerald Insight’s Journal of Product and Brand Management, Bhaduri found that women are more likely to accept transparent advertising and change their opinions about a brand, while men are more likely to hold on to their preconceived notions. This wasn’t uniform for the two separate claims, though. Women were more receptive to the “Made in USA” claims, while men held their positions. Both men and women, however, were more likely to change their opinions when a brand began advertising fair labor practices.
“That’s because one is a riskier situation,” Bhaduri said. “With the issue of fair labor, people see the human aspect, the potential harm to a person.”
Bhaduri said it is important for companies to understand how consumers perceive them, because critical business decisions may hang in the balance.
“Transparency can be a method to influence the way consumers form an opinion about a brand,” she said. “You need to make ads that are informative and insightful, and know that consumers are scrutinizing you.”