You Are What You Wear: How Boring Dress Codes Are Busting Your Brand

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In the previous post, “Drab Dress Codes: Getting to the Bottom of Beleaguered Corporate Wear”, we ventured into the origin of the corporate uniform – the suit. What’s now seen as a power piece in executive boardrooms was once a tool of a corporate caste system between men and women. No less harming to the idea of individualism and creativity, the suit has also crippled men into a state of suspended animation. They’re no better or worse for wear than they were over half a century ago.

Dressing for Your Brand

The idea of formal business attire does nothing to cultivate identity for both personal and corporate brands. Of course, if your goal is to have no identity, as is the case for established politicians, attorneys, investment bankers and venture capitalists, then by all means carry on. However, even politicians are realizing the need for banking on a personal brand and some of the most reputable attorneys I know are wisely choosing to incorporate an element of personal flair into their wardrobe.

In short, you don’t have to hide or wash away your identity in order to thrive in the workplace. In fact, I’d argue that doing so not only damages brand value, but it’s actually damaging your work environment.

Dress Code + Productivity

Strict dress codes aren’t only a harbinger for turn-over; they’re a Petri dish for lost productivity. Lydia Dishman wrote a surprising article for Fast Company, titled “The Surprising Productivity Secrets Hidden in Your Clothes.” In it she noted how studies show wearing a white lab code instantly makes people feel more productivity, saying “wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat.” However, formality isn’t without it’s drawbacks since “respondents felt most authoritative, trustworthy, and competent when wearing formal business attire but friendliest when wearing casual or business casual attire.”

In another article called “Do Dress Codes at the Office Work,” Lydia shared the perspectives of various employees across a spectrum of industries. The underlying message dictated how draconian dress codes not only brewed resentment but that dress codes should also factor the audience we’re trying to reach.

Millennials understand this.

The Millennial Dress Code

The best place to look to a counter culture for office wear starts with Millennials, where the idea of a dress code is as versatile as their approach to work. In an earlier Benchmark article titled “The HR Guide to Millennials,” I wrote: “how you dress (or require your employees to dress) is a reflection of where you’re at. If you’re still holding onto primitive dress codes, you haven’t looked up long enough to realize that today’s youngest start-up successes wear sneakers and a hoodie. Millennials get this.”

For Millennial thinkers, and per Lydia, the “suit and tie are symbols of a non-progressive institute that probably also isn’t on board with their values.” These are likely companies that see people on their payroll as employees rather than team member. They tend to be rigid in their rules and are usually seen as a pit-stop on the way to bigger and better things by forward thinking futurists. In fact, a Wall Street Journal article titled “Success Outside the Dress Code”, relies on a key Harvard research suggesting “that nonconformists are perceived to be higher-standing individuals.”

Yet you may not need to dress differently to stand out. You may already be standing out.

Dress Code Profiling

Annie of Insideology also asks key question that I’ve yet to see anyone really ask: “if your work wardrobe is utterly at odds with your personal style, could it simply be that you’re in the wrong job?”

Possibly.

A generation ago, we still dressed for our job. We put aside our own identity and (as duty dictated), donned the dress that our employers expected of us – right down to itchy nude-toned nylon pantyhose. Those days are pretty much gone. So unless you’re working in costume, the workplace of today doesn’t expect you to give up who you are. While the rule of thumb is good taste and moderation, an often unstated understanding between you and your employer is that you shouldn’t have to transform into a different character to ‘fit in’ at your workplace. Based on this reasoning, creative types will drift into creative industries and executive-loving types will embrace suits, while innovators learn to fill out their own hybrid form of dress that is comfortable pairing vintage tees with sport coats. The bottom line here is that not only are we utilizing dress as a branding tool, we’re also using clothes as a means to help identify natural team players that will seamlessly find a place in your corporate culture.

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