Nicer Apparel, Instant Competence
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Nicer Apparel, Instant Competence

By Matt Oechsli | @mattoechsli

When face-to-face in social settings, impressions of your competence are made within milliseconds, long before you’ve spoken your first word. According to a study published in Nature Human Behavior by Princeton University, authored by Donald Oh and Alexander Todorov, clothing perceived as “richer” by an observer – whether it was a t-shirt, sweater, or another top – led to higher competence ratings of the person pictured than clothes judged as “poorer.” 

A variety of studies were conducted to further investigate this theory. In some of these studies, participants wore suits and ties, while others wore casual clothing. In subsequent studies, participants were told that there was no relationship between clothes and perceived competence. In yet another study, participants were told the person’s profession and income. In a different study of close to 200 participants, they were instructed to ignore clothing entirely.

However, none of these variations had an impact. The results remained the same: participants were thought to be more capable when their clothing was perceived to be “richer.”

As relationship marketing has become the foundation for financial advisors targeting today’s affluent investor, attention to clothing should be a top priority. These researchers found that, in less than a second, the clothes that you are wearing can frame a person’s perception of your economic status and competency level. 

Our research at the Oechsli Institute continues to tell us that the affluent want a competent and successful financial advisor overseeing their family’s financial affairs. Competency is obvious – they want an advisor who knows what he or she is doing. Success is more nuanced, but it signals that they want a financial advisor who is both professional and dependable.

What’s truly amazing is how all of these significant impressions are being imprinted in the mind of an affluent prospect before they even meet you, much less have a conversation. With all of the attention financial advisors have placed on value propositions, more focus needs to be placed on presentation and quality of clothing.

In other words, dress for success is alive and well, but it’s developed a much larger impact. Have you ever run into a wealthy prospect at your local grocery store? How about at Starbucks on an early Saturday morning? The gym, spin class, pilates, etc.? It might be hard to wrap your brain around the fact that the clothing you wear to the gym could have a major influence on how competent and successful you are perceived, but it does. 

Essentially, this is superficial profiling at its core. It doesn’t matter whether or not you like it, I certainly don’t, but it’s important that you understand it and use it to your advantage. Yes, it involves spending more money on every piece of clothing you wear to the gym, shopping for groceries – everywhere. 

On a personal note, my daughter Amy gave me a coupon for a pair of Allbird sneakers. I’d never heard of them so she told me their story; all over Silicon Valley, environmentally friendly, and very comfortable. I went online, ordered a pair, and the first time I wore them I received multiple comments, with one person (an affluent friend) even asking to try them on and ultimately purchasing his own pair. 

I’ve seen too many financial advisors get sloppy in their leisure apparel. With social prospecting being a key element of affluent marketing, this is potentially disastrous. Elite advisors understand this advantage and pay attention to their appearance. 

The good news is this is all about clothes making the first impression regarding your competency and level of success; not expensive jewelry or fancy watches. Every financial advisor should be able to afford “rich” clothes, so why not enjoy yourself? Splurge with a purpose, and you’ll be glad you did. By the way, you’ll feel more empowered wearing your new clothes – and of course, feel more competent.

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