We eat with our eyes. We purchase with our eyes. We also date with our eyes. Arguably, our eyes are our brain’s most critical front-line reporters when it comes to decision-making, judgement and perception.
Take a world-class dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant like Le Bernadin, throw it on a paper plate on your crowded coffee table, and suddenly it tastes much less expensive and considerably less appetizing. Or take a $600 bottle of Tom Ford perfume and funnel it into a plastic spritzer from Dollar General and suddenly the same product feels cheap and unworthy of a price tag anywhere above the $10 mark. Or what would happen if you introduced a dating app with no pictures? I can assure you, you’d have no users either.
Our eyes collect and process thousands of data points in less time than it takes for the person across from you to stick out his or her hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” We may not want to admit it, but regardless of our pedigree or performance at work, we are still constantly being judged by our appearance.
Although some may consider this fact frustrating—I mean, shouldn’t our work speak for itself??—I find it motivating and exciting because it means we have the power to manipulate our own branding and rebranding to our financial advantage. Here’s how:
Boldness Reveals Confidence
It’s no secret that confidence—or lack of it—is a contributor to the barely-budging pay gap between men and women. We know that men project more confidence in business than women, leading to better projects, clients, opportunities and pay. However, what if you could have more control over how people perceived your level of confidence? How would it affect your earning power?
Boldness in your outward aesthetic is a surefire way to command attention and project confidence in your personal branding. The immediate perception of a woman who projects aesthetic confidence is that she is a risk-taker, she has big ideas and she deserves your attention.
If nothing else, choose one statement every day that pushes limits and breaks the mold. Trendy glasses. Red lips. A popped collar. Bright pumps. A chunky brass ring. A bold-colored blazer. Uniquely-tailored pants. A strong hairstyle. These are all examples of bold aesthetic statements that command attention and convey a sense of confidence that can increase earning power. Conforming to a uniform of black and gray suits to blend in with the guys is out. Shining with your own signature style and aesthetic is in.
Polish Gains Trust
Picture yourself interviewing financial advisers. They both have equally excellent referrals and credentials. However, one has fingernails chewed down to the nubs and a shirt that’s missing one button. The other has neat and clean nails and a polished, tailored appearance. Even if the former had better credentials, you may decide to go with the adviser with the more polished appearance. Why? Because subconsciously you trust the polished adviser more than the unpolished one.
Neat hands and nails, styled hair, matte skin, tailored clothes and polished makeup all add up to an overall appearance that gains others’ trust. Having your colleagues’ and clients’ trust will ultimately open doors to bigger and better opportunities.
More Bling Yields Less Money
Recently, I was discussing money and work with a friend on our train commute into New York City. She shared a story that I’ve heard all too often. She was up for her end-of-year bonus and didn’t receive the amount of money she felt entitled to. Her boss’s response? “There’s only so much money in the bonus pool and some of your other colleagues need the money more than you do.”
Yes, this is an actual true story, and one that I’ve heard too many times. And although “need” should not determine bonus distribution in the first place (again, shouldn’t our work speak for itself??), the fact of the matter is, her boss determined—based on his perception—that she was well taken care of and therefore didn’t need to make as much money as her other breadwinning colleagues.
I’m not suggesting women dress like they are poor to create the perception of need. However, flashing luxury fashion labels and diamond jewelry can, indeed, hurt your earning power, as it did for my friend.
In fact, I’m seeing more and more married women leave their beautiful diamond engagement rings at home in favor of simple bands and fashion jewelry as to avoid unintentionally conveying the message that they have a high-income earner at home. I’m also seeing women carry simple, timeless handbags, with no logo or label, to avoid the perception that they spend their earnings on frivolous luxuries.
The same standard does not apply to men, and that can feel unfair. However, use this differential as power to avoid running into the same brick pay wall as my frustrated friend.
Quality Trumps Quantity
In 1999 I spent a year studying art and design in Paris, France. Besides adapting a joie de vivre mentality and love for fresh baguettes, I also took away a fashion mantra that I still strive to achieve today: quality over quantity.
French women would rather have two pairs of beautifully-crafted shoes for the sake of quality than six pairs of so-so shoes just for the sake of variety. A quality garment gives a woman confidence, and no culture embraces this more than the French.
When it comes to your personal aesthetic, opting for a handful of beautiful, well-tailored pieces made of high quality materials will boost your confidence and self-perception which, in turn, is proven to boost earning power. In addition, opting to be perceived as someone who values quality over someone who values variety can spill over into clients’ and colleagues’ perceptions of your value and, ultimately, your worth.
Tactical Supersedes Practical
In the dead of a hot New York City summer when the trapped heat and humidity seem to bounce relentlessly between the concrete and steel buildings, you’ll still see men sporting full suits, jackets and all. I’m always amazed at how they manage to stay comfortable in what seems like very impractical clothing for such a sweltering day. On the same type of day, you’ll see women colleagues sporting flip flops on their commutes to work. Because, after all, it’s HOT and walking in heels is completely impractical during a hot summer commute, right?
I remember dating a Wall Street guy back in my twenties, and he casually mentioned how “grossed out” he was at women who would come into the office in flip flops and then change into their nice work shoes. At the time I didn’t think much of it. But as I write this article, I can’t help but agree that although we needn’t suffer unnecessarily, we also need to walk into the office “brand ready.” If the guys can wear suits in 90 degree heat, we can certainly find ourselves capable of commuting in work-ready shoes and clothing.
Whether you’re an intern or an entrepreneur, what you wear and your outward aesthetic are very much correlated to perception and value. We’ve all heard the advice: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In the spirit of that advice, I’ll add: “Project your personal brand with the intention of building value, and, ultimately, big opportunities.”