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

Fancy table setting with velvet chairs, white tablecloth, and gilded leaf wall hangings

“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,” says Berger.

“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?” he asks. “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?

“If you want to be a high-status person, or 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.”

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