Conspicuous Consumption And How It Applies To Our Jobs

Sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen came up with the term “conspicuous consumption” to explain how people will spend exorbitant amounts of money on goods and services that signal their status (think: luxury goods). In economics, people have traditionally wanted to measure things priced against their usefulness, but Veblen observed that sometimes we do stuff just to show off how awesome we are.

The word conspicuous is defined as, “standing out so as to be clearly visible; attracting notice or attention.” For modern real world proof, just count the iPhones vs. Androids in any affluent setting, or talk to anyone who owns a Tesla. Certain items send signals. Based on Veblen’s work, as well as the evolutionary biology and psychology literature, we find that just about everything is signaling something. While we don’t want to make ourselves crazy interpreting the doorknobs on our offices, we’d be crazy not to consider how these observations affect our jobs. 

Professional services often hide behind the guise of being “experts,” arguing for the relative usefulness of their value-adds, and ignoring the conspicuous aspects of their consumption. In most cases, there’s little actual difference between the best doctor in the world and number 27 on the list. There is, however, a measurable difference between saying, “we got the best doctor/lawyer/accountant money could buy,” “we got one that seemed pretty good,” “and we saved a ton of money by sending mom to a cut-rate hack – she barely even noticed!”  

Instead of focusing on professional “expert” differentiators like “the best in the world,” we should focus on the signals we can help people to send like “my guy/gal will know just what to do.” Relationships have deep social value and should be placed front and center as often as possible. Most of us, myself included, don’t think often enough of how clients will use our professional relationship to express themselves socially. Our relationship reflects on them and how they see themselves in other interactions. We can’t take their confidence and comfort lightly. 

We can further drive the conspicuous side of our value by increasing our visibility, perceived availability, and quality to name just a few. We should aim to be present in their world (with regular check-ins, and marketing/publicity), available in their lives (let them know that we’re an email/text/cellphone call away – personal comfort and compliance permitting), and lastly, confident in our quality (compare us, we’ll hold up). The old saying goes “they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We should deepen that by adding, “and continuously demonstrate the ability to make them feel positive about their decision to work with you.”  To simply be an expert is not enough. Focus on the signals too.