Should I wear a neck-tie for selling diapers?

by Peter Watts

What you’re wearing when presenting  impacts the credibility that your audience invests in your pitch.

For your consideration:

Ethos clothing proposition 1: Recognised uniforms boost the pitch

When selling diapers, try a lab coat and a stethoscope?

Imprisoned on a treadmill at the gym this morning, I was watching the adverts that were running between the morning news shows. One of them turned out to be for adult diapers.

A smart looking lady in her 40’s was speaking to camera about the display of adult diapers beside her. Let’s call this spokesperson Dee-Dee Diaper. I couldn’t tell what she was saying because the TV monitor’s sound was off, and the ads, unlike the news shows, weren’t subtitled. Dee-Dee however, was wearing a medical  lab coat and had a stethoscope around her neck so I assumed that she must be a medical practitioner of some variety.

For unpleasant conditions such as adult incontinence, we might well turn to the family doctor for advice, and if a doctor is recommending this brand-X adult diaper, then there must be a certain credibility to the product.

This is ethos in action; credibility. Because the person speaking is wearing the recognised uniform of their trade, we become more inclined to accept the logos, or logic, of their pitch. Speakers call this the ethos-logos loop.

By boosting the power of our ethos (and some form of uniform is a great way to do it), then we boost the perceived power of our logos.

Approximately one mile later, a second thought hit me. At no point during the advert had a caption appeared that said “Dr Dee-Dee Diaper, M.D.” In terms of having any medical qualifications, Dr. Dee-Dee had most probably been a fake. Had she been a real family doctor, then I’m sure that would have been emblazoned all over the screen.

So, even the mere presence of the uniform can incline us to believe a message. Uniform is powerful indeed, and one might therefore conclude that if your profession has any type of recognised dress code, it becomes a tremendous asset when pitching.

However, if as a Doctor you were to walk out onto stage to make a conference pitch and were dressed in your lab-coat and stethoscope, and the audience were all in business suits, how would you look? Probably out of place. The audience would assume you either hadn’t bothered to change on your way from the office or that you were trying to ram your credentials down their collective throat.

This leads to a second idea about ethos and clothing:

Ethos Clothing Proposition 2: Dress to match your audience

When convincing IT hackers, dress like an IT hacker?

An alternative view says that you should try to look as similar as possible to your audience, and that uniforms harm ethos by screaming  out “I’m different to you!”

If your audience dresses in one particular way, then by matching them, you give the message that you see, hear, and feel the world as they do. This message then boosts the ethos-logos loop because if the audience sees you as being similar, they will be inclined to believe that you understand their world.

To explore this, we need the help of the Head of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander.

In 2012 General Alexander addressed the annual BlackHat Conference of IT hackers in Las Vegas. This gentleman is head of a significant government agency and a decorated US General. That’s a uniform with some serious power, but in deference to the idea that you should dress in a style similar to your audience, somebody sent the General on stage wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

The result was that the speaker didn’t look as if he was mirroring his audience so much as mimicking his audience. Sincerity is a crucial part of ethos and an insincerely worn costume reflects back on the speaker.

The mistake is not limited to US Generals. British leaders are equally good at it. In the past, politicians such as Foreign Secretary Hague and Prime Minister Cameron, have both attempted to mirror their audience with excursions into backwards worn baseball caps and rolled-up shirt sleeves that have made them look not simpatico, but insincerely silly.

We have a clothing conundrum:

  • Uniforms enhance credibility and boost ethos-logos? Or……
  • Uniforms emphasise difference and collapse ethos-logos
  • Dressing for similarity emphasizes shared perspective and boosts ethos-logos? Or….
  • Dressing for similarity looks insincere and collapses ethos-logos

Question: Punk graphic designer meets conservative bank. 

What to wear?

Here’s one final thinking point: Uniforms and dress-codes come in multiple guises. Imagine you run a design business and amongst your staff you have a brilliant young designer who you want to have with with you at a client meeting. That designer however is of a multi-pierced, multi-colored haired, ripped jeans and diaper-pins in odd places type appearance. The customer meanwhile, is a highly conservative bank.

How would you ask your designer to dress?

What would be your ethos-logos clothing solution to maintain their credibility in front of the customer?


  1. Dear me. What to wear!?! My ethos-logos clothing solution is to dress in a way that I feel shows respect for the audience, but is something I would wear normally. I haven’t had to speak in front of a group of punks before, but if I did, I might wear some “punkish” accessory, and not dress extremely formally, but I’m not going to go in pink hair, for example. We could always follow the Queen’s example and just wear our uniform all the time. Thanks for such an interesting post!

    • Hi Laura. Thanks for your comment, and I now have a visual of the Queen with pink hair 🙂 It’s an interesting question isn’t it, and becoming ever more so as dress codes relax.

  2. Hi Peter – What an interesting idea Ethos clothing proposition – but so important. We know that first impressions and all that count, as you walk onto the stage people are asking, does this person know my life, can they help with my questions – these may not be the actual questions, but they are asking those questions for sure and clothing comes into those thoughts. Your final question, now that’s a tough one. A few years ago I would have said don’t take him, but now I’m not so sure … maybe these days, the banker, although conservative, would have a Harley and ride it each weekend! 🙂 So I would take him!

    • A fine observation…. we don’t know how that outwardly conservative banker spends their weekends and maybe they have a greater degree of similarity to our young designer than we initially realise. Thanks for your Harley riding thoughts Peter

  3. Peter
    If it was me and I wanted the designer at the meeting because of his design skills and the value he’s add to the client, I’d phone the client first to explain who I was bringing with me and why (courtesy) then I’d say not to be surprised by his appearance and explain why. If he’s read “The girl with the dragon tattoo” (and countless other books) he’ll realise that highly skilled people don’t always follow traditional business dress codes.
    I certainly wouldn’t compromise a member of my team by asking them to dress differently from their role-norms.

    • Agree wholeheartedly Sarah. What a great approach; phone the client first and tip them off! That approach delivers so many levels of goodness. First it helps to build-up the relationship between you and the client because it acknowledges the importance of their opinions. Second it build the ethos credibility of your team member because you’re giving their skills a personal mini-introduction, and (best of all) it powerfully recognises the importance of the relationship between you and the individual. Love it!

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