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Why We Buy

Updated: Jan 20

An in-depth, psychologically informed guide written to teach you how to drive luxury goods sales through visual design.

People are not paying for your offering because it’s the logical thing to do. Research in the Harvard Business Review has shown that 95% percent of purchase decision-making occurs in the subconscious mind. More often than not, people are truly putting their money towards feelings and emotions, not products or services, and this is particularly relevant in the luxury space when the goal is not to deliver the best working offer for the lowest cost but to provide a less apparent form of value to buyers. This article will describe how you can appeal to the subconscious minds of a luxury shopper, fostering growth for your company through intentional branding, marketing, and creatives.

Understanding Human Behaviour

Humans seek experiences that enhance our self-concept and move us toward our ideal selves. In the context of shopping, this presents itself quite clearly. People buy products and pay for services not only for what they do but what they symbolize. Consumers use products to construct and express desired social identities.

Self-concept is an idea of oneself, constructed from the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the responses of others.

What we are doing here is not technically rational. Shopping in this way doesn’t maximize our financial resources or extend our life in itself, but it does signal specific attributes to ourselves and others which we value incredibly highly— often even more than we value money. As a luxury brand manager, the key is to communicate this value so that people are happy to trade their money for a product or service that will allow them to signal.

Signalling is a nonverbal action or gesture that encodes a message. We will discuss this regarding two parties: the sender, the person trying to communicate (or signal) information, and the receiver, the person interpreting the signal. The sender wants the receiver to choose them as platonic, romantic, or professional partners. To reach this goal, the sender must indicate they are a high-quality partner to receivers. We will define three types of signalling here, and each would be particularly relevant to a different kind of luxury brand.

Costly Signalling

The process by which senders use a costly signal, indicating a credible signal of quality. We see this happening when people buy obviously expensive but somewhat attainable items. Let’s use a $1500 monogram-printed Louis Vuitton handbag as an example. Much of the population could put together $1500 and spend it on a handbag, but that might mean missing their rent payment that month or draining their savings account. It is not worth it to buy the bag at that cost to their well-being. However, spending $1500 may be no problem for someone who is more wealthy and will not influence their life negatively like most people. Therefore, by owning a $1500 bag, which is clearly expensive, as indicated by the well-known visual identity, owners of a Louis Vuitton handbag signal to those around them that they are affluent and appreciate high-quality goods.

Suppose you have an audience that this signal would be valuable to. In that case, you can assist them with communicating their affluence to a broad audience by having clear, distinguishable, and consistent branding (like LV’s recognizable monogram and widespread use of browns and beiges) and making it clearly visible on products. In ad creatives and on social media, you must communicate a message that your product is exclusive and expensive. Your brand should be digitally and physically placed in locations that cue sophistication and class to align your visual elements with the desired cognitive associations.

Buried Signals

This is a phenomenon we see more of in the contemporary age, whereby signalers don’t care about average observers but instead only want to signal to others who are in the know and would recognize the signal. Buried signalling is the psychological principle that makes quiet luxury work. The Row is a brand that exemplifies this concept.

The Row operates on an “if you know, you know” incantation. Established in 2006 by celebrity founders and designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, it leans into the Olsens’ quiet mystery, capturing their personal brands and turning them into a tangible product-based business with a presence separate from themselves. The brand is at a price point akin to Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but without the loud logos, therefore removing the ability to costly signal to the untrained eye. However, through exceptional craftsmanship, high-quality material, and a timeless and minimalist aesthetic, The Row product feel worth it to their shoppers. The lack of loud branding on the pieces means that only those attuned to luxury fashion and in a socioeconomic position where they can identify the difference between a $100 and $1000 white button-down will identify your signal. There is a particular power move at play in being so well-established in the social identity that you stop caring about signalling to the masses and, instead, begin to signal to a niche sub-group. Suppose you know your audience are the types who would prefer to feel like they are in an exclusive, secret club. In that case, you may be better served to take a speakeasy-esque approach to your branding rather than the direct approach other luxury brands would benefit from.


The last and perhaps least intuitive human tendency we will discuss is counter-signalling. In this theory, there are three types we will call low, mid, and high. Mid-types must send a signal of quality to impress others, whereas high-types do not need to send a signal at all. High types know that there is no risk of confusion for them with low types, so there is no need to distinguish through signalling. This shows phenomena like billionaires wearing sweatshirts to work when everyone else wears business casual. They don’t need a suit or expensive watches to signal their status. Those who are genuinely counter-signalling don’t feel the need to signal as they believe the trait is evident to others; hence, the prominent company CEO shouldn’t need to signal power. Ironically, refusing to participate in costly or buried signals is signalling power.

An actual application of this is relevant for a customer segment of environmentalists. We can see instances of conspicuously green behaviour, like UK politician Boris Johnson bicycling to work and the early 2000s trend of celebrities driving Toyota Prius to the Oscars as status-seeking in disguise. These examples suggest that the green behaviours cherished by the elite are unconsciously beloved by them precisely because people just below them on the socioeconomic scale find them almost impossible to adopt. There is a big difference between cycling to work because you want to and doing so because you can’t afford a car. This nuance must be captured and communicated to capitalize on counter-signalling in your marketing. 1970s aftershave company Denim illustrates this in their tagline, “the aftershave for men who don’t have to try too hard.” Their ads highlighted the quality and the feeling the product would give the user, not what it would communicate to others. Even the brand name cued a laissez-faire attitude to life, with denim culturally being known as a sturdy and casual material used for blue-collar work wear.

Customer segmentation is the process of organizing people into specific groups based on shared characteristics, behaviours, or preferences. People can be organized through demographic, psychographic, or behavioural qualities. Segmentation helps to identify customer groups that your offering will resonate with and allows you to deliver more relevant experiences. Sometimes, your customer segment will be referred to as a target audience.

The Role of Visuals

Economists have long recognized that physical beauty in humans affects wages, even in occupations where appearance is irrelevant to job performance. This heuristic is called the Beauty Premium, a subset of the Halo Effect where people extend a positive observed evaluation of beauty to unknown attributes such as competence.

A heuristic or cognitive bias is a mental shortcut commonly used to simplify problems and avoid cognitive overload. Heuristics are part of how the human brain evolved and is wired, allowing individuals to quickly reach reasonable conclusions or solutions to complex problems.
The Halo Effect is the phenomenon in which humans tend to extend an evaluation of an observed attribute to the evaluation of an unknown attribute. This is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about their character.

While in hiring, these heuristics are something that we should work against falling into; this is something that could be leveraged in the visual appearance of an inanimate presence like a brand. If the visual appearance of a business is put together, professional, and attractive to the consumer segment, this will help build trust for your products and services based on looks alone. When reinforced with a beautiful experience, this will be a powerful duo. On the other hand, having an unsavoury or inconsistent visual brand identity will undercut all other sales efforts, especially in the luxury market.

When crafting your branding and marketing, appeal to people’s emotions rather than overemphasize the features, quality, and what people get. These facts are important, but they will seldom drive the sale. An old saying states you should “sell the sizzle and not the steak.” You want to sell the promise of a lifestyle or feeling rather than the product itself. The key is to highlight the emotional response a customer will receive when buying your product, which is most effective when it is multi-layered. Your colours, shapes, fonts, logo, photography, messaging, pricing, and even the platforms and mediums you speak to your audience should be intentionally crafted and chosen to evoke a desired feeling in a concentrated segment that your offering will serve well. Build a brand that brings your people joy and a promise of value when interacting with it. This will drive sales.


We are Atelier Oluwatosin, a studio of interdisciplinary creatives committed to creating bespoke and timeless designs for sophisticated brands. We invite you to peruse our site: enjoy the works in our portfolio and see if anything from our shop might interest you. If you have any thoughts, questions, or curiosities, contact us at We’d love to hear from you.

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