Fashion companies could be missing out on the bottom line when they use only one kind of model.
Recent anecdotal evidence has demonstrated that it can. When Dove launched its ads with “real women” in the United States, sales increased by 600 percent in two months. You’d think that such success would stir industry-wide change en masse; it didn’t. The campaign’s success was written off as an anomaly, and it was suggested that it was effective only because its novelty generated media attention. From the fashion perspective, Robert Kolker, a media-studies professor at the University of Maryland, argues that Dove’s strategy is unlikely to translate to fashion brands because selling fashion is about illusion: “The ideal is too lovely a fantasy to give up.... Fairy tales are more potent than reality.”
Nevertheless, some fashion brands have courageously, yet cautiously, used curvy and mature models. In September 2010, Tom Ford launched his eponymous womenswear collection during New York Fashion Week by showcasing his creations on a diverse group of women, including Rita Wilson and Lauren Hutton. Jean Paul Gaultier cast several models in the size 10 to 14 range to walk in his Spring/Summer 2011 show at Paris Fashion Week. He even hired plus-size singer Beth Ditto to open and close the show. But with only a few of these models in one show, and never in ad campaigns, their ability to help or hinder sales is unclear.
With my research, I hoped to explore that business potential. My study entailed two phases. In the first phase, I conducted experiments to test women’s purchase intentions when they viewed models who had similar and dissimilar sizes, ages and races to themselves. Each woman was randomly shown two of eight possible ads where the models might have reflected some of their traits, all of their traits or none of their traits. To avoid biasing their opinions, I didn’t reveal the true aims of my study to them. In the second phase, I facilitated focus groups with different women to help identify reasons for particular purchase intentions. I found that Canadian and American women increased purchase intentions for fashion products advertised by models who reflected their own demographics: age, size and—for non-Caucasians—race. While one side of the debate over model diversity argues that curvy models should replace thin ones— assuming that one model is universally more effective than another—I find that every model type can be effective. Their effectiveness depends on whether the model shares the consumers’ traits.
My study found that women increased their purchase intentions by more than 200 percent when the models in the mock ads were their size. In the subgroup over size 6, women increased their purchase intentions by a dramatic 300 percent when they saw curvier models. Conversely, when women saw models who didn’t reflect their size, they decreased their purchase intentions by 60 percent, and women over size 6 dropped their purchase intentions by 76 percent.
My results weren’t limited to the issue of size. Consumers increased their purchase intentions by over 175 percent when they saw models who reflected their age; in particular, women over the age of 35 increased their purchase intentions by 200 percent when they saw older models. When models didn’t reflect their age, consumers decreased their purchase intentions by 64 percent. Furthermore, black consumers were 1.5 times more likely to purchase a product advertised by a black model.
The numbers paint an interesting picture, but they don’t tell the women’s stories: Why did women increase purchase intentions when models looked like them? In the focus groups, women explained that they could better picture themselves in the dress advertised by similar models. They could imagine how the dress would flatter their shape, how the aesthetic would suit their age and how the colours would complement their complexion. One woman, on viewing a similar-looking model, put it this way: “I’d buy the dress in an instant because [the model] looks like me. I can see how this dress will hug my curves in all the right spots.”
Find out how old marketing beliefs are no longer the reality (it may be surprising), on the next page...