In Business Negotiations, Dress the Part

Negotiation topics in business and fashion sense at the bargaining table

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negotiation topics in business dress the part at the bargaining table

Dressing Down in Business Negotiations?

Negotiators involved in high-stakes mergers and acquisitions typically come to the table armored in meticulously tailored apparel and designer shoes. But as Dana Mattioli reports in a Wall Street Journal business article, those who are trying to woo business from an apparel company often end up dressing down during business negotiations, for strategic reasons.


Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Examples of Dressing the Part During Negotiation in Business

Take the IPO of yogawear company Lululemon Athletics in 2007. As Mattioli recounts, deal teams from several banks were so eager to win the company’s business that they showed up at meetings wearing “form-fitting yoga pants, track suit tops and sneakers.” One banker said of the experience, “It was pretty embarrassing, actually.” His team didn’t get a slice of the deal underwriting. Another bank, UBS AG, did, after staging a “flash mob” yoga session with 75 of its employees in Central Park, all of them decked out in Lululemon.

Dressing in a potential client’s brand is especially important because fashion CEOs “tend to have a discerning eye for detail and an obsession with who wears what,” writes Mattioli. The founder of True Religion jeans, Jeffrey Lubell, was impressed when banker Peter Comisar showed up at a meeting wearing his company’s latest corduroys. That deal didn’t go through, but Lubell sought out Comisar to represent the band years later when it was being sold.

Conversely, another banker found out she had lost a deal with a shoe retailer because she had shown up wearing a competitor’s shoes to a pitch meeting. She had realized her error on the way to the meeting, but it had been too early in the morning to shop for new shoes. Rarely do negotiation topics in business and the world of high fashion intersect, but the potential synergy for negotiation strategies and innovative bargaining techniques are too many to be passed up, as the above negotiation in business scenarios illustrate.

Wearing a negotiating counterpart’s apparel or footwear to a negotiation scenario may seem like a gimmick. But “dressing to impress” for a negotiation sends subtle yet important messages: that you value and respect the company’s products, recognize the importance of small gestures, and are flexible enough to conform to their norms. That’s why bankers tend to dress down for meetings with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors, writes Mattioli.

But “Dress to Impress” Doesn’t Always Mean the Same Thing in Business Negotiation

Interestingly, choosing not to conform to the prevailing dress code can be an effective choice in certain contexts, write Harvard Business School researchers Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan in an article in the June issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

In one experiment, Gino found that executives in a Harvard Business School seminar she was teaching assessed her differently based on what shoes she was wearing. When she wore red sneakers with her business suit (an unconventional choice) they tended to think she had more consulting clients and charged them higher fees as compared to when she was wearing more traditional shoes.

Similarly, the research team found that clerks at designer boutiques in Milan, Italy (such as Armani, Christian Dior, and Burberry) tended to think that a hypothetical shopper wearing gym clothes would spend more at their boutique than would a hypothetical shopper wearing a dress and fur.

The team theorized that dressing unconventionally in prestigious settings signals that a person’s status is so high that she doesn’t have to bother conforming to established norms (see also, Power in Negotiation and  Types of Power in Negotiation). A classic example would be Mark Zuckerberg’s signature hoodies, which he reportedly wore even to meetings on Wall Street before his company’s IPO.

The bottom line for your business negotiations? When you are a supplicant—trying to win over a prized client, for example—it pays to show your respect by dressing in formal business attire (or, if the client is a retailer, its products). But when the playing field is more level, you may actually gain status in your counterpart’s eyes by letting your personality, and perhaps a bit of whimsy (such as Gino’s red sneakers), shine through.

Related Business Negotiations Article: Team Building Negotiation Example – Chinese Women Face a “Sticky Floor”

How to Repair Relationships Using Negotiation Skills

Integrative Negotiations Strategies and Negotiation Ethics: Social Proof and Acceptable Behavior


Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Originally published in 2014.

Comments

4 Responses to “In Business Negotiations, Dress the Part”

  • Steven C.

    This is nice, thank you, this advice applies to all aspects of business, if not life. The lesson here is perhaps that we should certainly think profoundly about how we are going to achieve every target in life, and not stick to our ‘own traditions’ and standards!

    Reply
  • It comes down to dressing for the occasion, whether it is an interview or multi million Dollar negotiations you must adjust your approach to how you dress to fit in with those you are negotiating with.

    Reply
  • Attire provides more than protection from the elements and pockets to hold things. It’s a classic signaling device to indicate tribal affiliation, social status, and general fitness. It’s imporatant when in any negotiation to communicate that you are “like them” but “don’t need them” in subtle ways that neither offend nor patronize.

    Reply
  • Tony E.

    “The team theorized that dressing unconventionally in prestigious settings signals that a person’s status is so high that she doesn’t have to bother conforming to established norms….”

    Don’t try it if you are negotiating an oil deal in Saudi Arabia, or an energy deal in Japan, or a commodities deal in China, or mining exploration in Indonesia, or…. and so on.

    Reply

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