Identity signaling

When the going gets tough, companies would be well advised to consider outifitting their workers in uniforms. That's the wisdom that UniFirst Corp., a Wilmington supplier of business uniforms and work-wear, said it has gleaned from research by the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University.

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Conventional wisdom says “clothes make the man or woman.” But a published study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University suggests it’s more about how today’s competitive-minded companies use colors and emblems to personalize their employee apparel that truly gets them noticed — a fact that takes on added significance during tough economic times.

“It’s what researchers refer to as ‘identity signaling,'” says Adam Soreff, senior communications manager at UniFirst Corporation, a leading supplier of business uniforms and work wear. “Personalized employee uniforms provide a more professional business image, along with visual clues about a company’s overall business mission. As a result, such apparel helps provide front-of-mind consciousness and confidence. And that’s where every company wants to be when spending gets tight.”

The identity signaling study, which appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research, notes people generally possess “a drive to differentiate themselves from others when situational pressures make individuals feel overly similar.” In business, such differentiation often focuses on products and services, but Soreff notes, “It’s astute managers who realize the complementary role that worker apparel can play in allowing companies to stand apart from their competition.”

As an example of identity signaling at work, UniFirst’s Soreff points to the easily recognizable Pullman brown uniforms worn by UPS personnel. “If you see someone carrying a box or envelope wearing that particular uniform, you quickly surmise it’s a UPS employee and associate him or her with timely and efficient package deliveries.

That’s identity signaling at work.” And when companies add logos and other custom emblems into their work wear, Soreff says identity signaling becomes markedly stronger by further visually promoting individual brands and worker responsibilities.

A recent national survey by Harris Interactive underscored the competitive advantage companies gain via identity signaling. The survey revealed two of three men and three of four women viewed companies with personalized uniforms as being “more professional.” In turn, Soreff says, such recognition instills a greater sense of consumer confidence in the marketplace and increased sense of pride in uniform wearers contributing to overall company success. “And that,” he says, “is ultimately one of the truest definitions of being ‘dressed for success.'”