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Friday, January 7, 2011

You Are What You Wear

"Perception is Reality" is just one of the bromides quoted regularly whenever the subject of first impressions comes up. Others include, "What You See is What You Get," and "Clothes Make the King" to mention a couple.

But the Swiss bank UBS has taken the notion of the "business appearance" of its employees to a new level. In December the bank instituted a far-reaching trial dress code at selected offices that goes beyond what you wear (http://on.wsj.com/gtEAb2). The code includes hygiene and grooming requirements, and behavior, fashion, and style tips straight from men's and women's lifestyles magazines and books of etiquette.

At a time when banks are relatively low on everyone's reputation index, UBS believes upgraded and uniform formal appearance, especially for retail staff, is essential to "symbolize competence, formation and sobriety." Marketers are we all, they seem to be saying, and you better fit the brand image.

Now, one can argue that over the long haul this is not news. Military, boarding school, and industry-specific dress codes have existed for centuries.

But we are only a bit more than a decade removed from the high point of the dot-com era when less was more, "Casual Friday" became an institution across almost all business sectors, and shabby fashion was not only chic, but a symbol of executive-level creativity, independence, entrepreneurship and success.

Most clients won’t go as far as the UBS dictum. Certainly most attendees at this week's annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas will likely show up in khakis and a sport coat rather than a full metal jacket business suit. But perhaps those khakis will be pressed this year, and the sport coat more tailored.

The issue does highlight the advice we often provide to CommCore clients:

• If audiences notice Nancy Pelosi’s fashions and John Boehner’s ties, they probably will note your sartorial splendor.

• Regardless of the dress code – business, business casual, casual – the presenter should always be the best dressed person in the room.

• Using good judgment, dressing and comporting yourself in a manner consistent with your audience and their expectations sends a signal that you are listening, and are sensitive to their concerns.

• Dressing up tends to raise your own awareness of the importance of the meeting and presentation.

• It’s easier to roll up your sleeves and take off your jacket, tie or ensemble top if the occasion turns out to be less formal than you expected, than it is to “dress up” a polo shirt, casual top, and jeans.

Does your company have a dress code tied to its brand message and communications policy? Have you noticed a change in dress codes and messaging since the financial meltdown in 2008?

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