Is That T-Shirt Hanes or Prada? Without Logos, It's Hard to Tell

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We all know that branding and logos influence our buying behavior, and can prejudice our judgment about a product's quality. But this video -- which was produced in the spring, but came to our attention earlier this week -- really drives that point home.

Branding agency Hitchcock Partners bought plain black T-shirts from seven brands, ranging from a $5 Hanes (HBI) shirt to a $280 shirt from Prada. Then it concealed the logos, put them on mannequins and asked a number of fashionable young professionals to try and determine each shirt's brand and price.

You can probably see where this is going: Without being able to see brands or price tags, the test subjects had a lot of difficulty determining which T-shirts were pricey and which were cheap. A few were unimpressed with the quality of what turned out to be a pricey Prada shirt, and likewise thought that a $100 Versace shirt was actually a $17 shirt from Zara. And while the volunteers were generally spot-on in their assessments of the mid-range shirts, some also raved about the quality and stitching of what turned out to be a $5 shirt from Hanes.

Before we jump to conclusions, it's worth noting that Hitchcock stacked the deck a bit by using black T-shirts, a basic item where differences between brands would be hardest to discern. If these were dress shirts or suits, we imagine that the perceived quality would align a lot more to the brand and price, as the more expensive products would presumably use better-quality materials and superior craftsmanship. With simple cotton T-shirts, that differences are more subtle.

"A black T-shirt doesn't have enough details to go wrong, most of the time," acknowledges Hitchcock partner Peter Bysshe. Still, he says the choice was also inspired by the increasing popularity of expensive black T-shirts among the creative class. "Kids these days are spending $100 to $150 on black T-shirts ... We found this [result] as ironic as the sommeliers being fooled by the two-buck-chuck," he says, alluding to blind taste-tests where alleged wine experts rave about what turns out to be bargain plonk.

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So perhaps the biggest lesson here is that a basic T-shirt isn't worth spending any significant amount of money on, and you should only overspend on staples like dress shoes and a nice suit. (Personally, some of my favorite plain white T-shirts are the ones I bought cheap for an article on buying "irregular" merchandise.)

But there's also a message here about brand perceptions in general, and it should be a wake-up call to anyone who's convinced that spending more necessarily means you're getting a more high-quality product. Sure, sometimes paying $100 instead of $50 means you're getting more durable fabrics and expert tailoring. And many brands have well-deserved reputations for quality because they've been putting out high-quality products for years.

But it's also true that just seeing a brand name like Versace or Prada can be enough to convince many customers that the product is worth the higher price -- and our perceptions are skewed by that, as much as we'd like to believe otherwise.

"People can deny that quality is subjective, but then we see them in person and they're wearing brand names," says Bysshe. "We had an intern who would say, 'I don't really care what I wear,' but she wore Rag and Bone jeans every day."

Hitchcock Partners, which specializes in cultivating this sort of brand perception, made the video to demonstrate to companies how they could benefit from getting people to think more highly of their brands. As a consumer, that's a lesson you should take to heart: Imagine how much money you could save if you learned to disregard your prejudices about brands?

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
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