What you signal matters
My mum-in-law is a fantastic cook but she doesn’t understand 𝐜𝐨𝐬𝐭𝐥𝐲 𝐬𝐢𝐠𝐧𝐚𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐨𝐫𝐲. Her dishes are yummy but presented like a peasant’s.
To bees, a plant that can produce bright petals and fragrant scent has enough nectar. To a peahen, a peacock that can bear the extravagance of a dazzling tail has good genes. To a gourmand, a chef that puts detail in the presentation is worth going out of her way for.
Plants, peacocks, and chefs understand that 𝐢𝐭 𝐢𝐬 𝐡𝐚𝐫𝐝 𝐭𝐨 𝐩𝐮𝐭 𝐢𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐢𝐦𝐞 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐞𝐟𝐟𝐨𝐫𝐭 𝐭𝐨 𝐣𝐮𝐝𝐠𝐞 𝐞𝐯𝐞𝐫𝐲 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐢𝐭 𝐭𝐫𝐮𝐥𝐲 𝐢𝐬. It is impossible.
Rory Sutherland in his wonderful book 𝘈𝘭𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘮𝘺 says that 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐪𝐮𝐚𝐥𝐢𝐭𝐲 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐦𝐞𝐬𝐬𝐚𝐠𝐞 𝐢𝐬 𝐚 𝐟𝐮𝐧𝐜𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐨𝐟 𝐡𝐨𝐰 𝐝𝐢𝐟𝐟𝐢𝐜𝐮𝐥𝐭 𝐢𝐭 𝐢𝐬 𝐭𝐨 𝐜𝐫𝐞𝐚𝐭𝐞 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐭𝐫𝐚𝐧𝐬𝐦𝐢𝐭 𝐢𝐭. That’s costly signaling theory. Be it extravagant biological displays or top-of-the-line advertising, the perception of high value comes from high cost.
Think of what celebrity endorsements signal. On the surface, they signal aspirational appeal. Amitabh Bachchan is unlikely to be caught riding a scooter but the brand he endorses benefits from a positive association with his superstar status. But there’s another thing at play. A brand that can afford Amitabh Bachchan has deep pockets. It is in good health. It is that peacock that can bear the weight of its heavy plumage.
My mum-in-law is not alone. Most ‘rational’ thinkers would agree with her. Proof is in the pudding, not in its packaging.
If you’ve ever wondered who responds to public service ads that look like relics from the past, or why brand marketing and thought leadership can be such hard sells internally, or how a safe graveyard for good ideas is poorly structured PPTs, you understand the value of signaling.