One of my first assignments as the former head of LVMH North America was to immerse myself in the inner workings of the company’s individual brands, including the world’s oldest champagne house Ruinart and the Italian jewelry line Bulgari. The experience of visiting the underground chalk quarries and vineyards of Ruinart and marveling at the skilled stone setters, gem cutters, and engravers at Bulgari’s atelier opened my eyes to a new and different world of brand building—by arousal of the senses or aesthetics.
The quality, originality, and care taken to create those products resonated right through with their customers, thanks to their elevated aesthetics. Moreover, their aesthetic value has unlocked long-term financial value.
As Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, noted, “I have myself an iPhone. But can you say that in 20 years, people will still use an iPhone? Maybe not. Maybe we’ll have a new product or something [more] innovative. But what I can say today is that 20 years from now, I’m quite convinced that people will still drink Dom Pérignon.”
The term aesthetics is typically used to describe how things look. In business, that means product and packaging design, brand image, and corporate identity.
However, the word is far more useful if we embrace its full meaning, which extends well beyond visual elegance. Here is how I have taught executives and entrepreneurs at my online program Aesthetic Intelligence Labs, as well as graduate students at Harvard University and Columbia University.
“Aesthetics is the pleasure we — that is, all humans — derive from perceiving an object or experience through our senses. It is, in a word, taste. It’s our ability to understand, interpret, and articulate feelings that are elicited by a particular object or experience.”
Aesthetic businesses tend to draw on all five senses and provide products or services that are a pleasure to buy and consume. In turn, consumers gladly pay a premium not for the utility of these products or services but for the sensorial delight that they arouse, including visual, gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell), auditory (sound), and somatosensory (touch). Aesthetic propositions shift consumers’ motivations from functional and transactional to experiential, aspirational, and memorable. For businesses, that means more demand for their products, stronger loyalty among their customers, and higher value for their shareholders.
In a world where people want fewer things, crave richer and more meaningful experiences, and have the unprecedented market power to get precisely what they want precisely when they want it, the aesthetic value of a company’s products or services is critical to its long-term success. Executives, entrepreneurs, and other professionals can capitalize on the power of aesthetics by learning how to identify and apply it to their own business interests. I call this critical skill set Aesthetic Intelligence, or “the other A.I.”
When businesses engage a consumer on an aesthetic level, they win. In 1995, when I earned my MBA from the Wharton School, I didn’t appreciate this. Few did. As I traveled through the ranks of the luxury sector, working for brands that would not have survived the years (in some cases, centuries) without an intense commitment to aesthetics, I realized that non-luxury sectors—which historically have focused on scale, efficiency, and innovation—were undermining their own financial and consumer value by dismissing, misunderstanding, or underinvesting in aesthetics.
The value of aesthetics in business is about delight—the opportunity to lift the human spirit and rouse the imagination through sensorial experiences. Done right, it pays big dividends to both businesses and their patrons. These days, and for the foreseeable future, that’s where the money is. Computers can and will solve more and more functional problems; they cannot and will not be able to deliver new and meaningful ways to reconnect us with our humanity.
The automation of society means that many tasks are now and will increasingly be done by computers: analytics, data collection and interpretation, and even routine physical tasks and jobs. However, people must still apply their talents and skills to activities that cannot be so easily and economically overtaken by technology, including our ability to make art, create beauty, and forge deep human connections. Those are places where we can and will continue to outperform computers.
As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt puts it, those of us who want to succeed in the future must learn to observe this “separation of powers” and collaborate with computers, where relevant, while specializing in what we do best. As we work to mitigate the ill effects of overproduction and industrial development, we must put more value on the quality, meaning, beauty, and durability of goods rather than on their price, accessibility, and disposability. Developing aesthetic standards and strategies is crucial to the economic and social sustainability of all people and businesses.
The Good News: Aesthetic Intelligence Can Be Learned
To lead aesthetic businesses, executives need to be attuned not only to their own aesthetic sensibilities and values but also to those of their customers. Studies show that 85 percent of people today buy a particular product (goods or services) because of how it makes them feel. However, marketers typically focus their efforts on the remaining 15 percent of a buying decision: a rational evaluation of features and functionality.
The value of aesthetics in business starts at the top—with the leader’s own AI—but it also depends on the leader’s ability to build, support, and sustain the right organization and culture around that aesthetic position. Everyone is born with more aesthetic capacity than he or she uses. Of course, some people are naturally advantaged or gifted, such as the musician Bob Dylan with his extraordinary ear for sound and rhythm or the chef Wolfgang Puck with his legendary ability to balance flavors, textures, and tastes. However, even people such as Dylan and Puck, and other artists, must continue to hone their skills and evolve their styles in order to remain active and relevant in their fields, lest their aesthetic advantage atrophy. They also have to keep up with changing tastes in the broader marketplace and, over time, modify or tweak their individual forms of expression.
The 4 Building Blocks for Developing A.I.
There are many activities that can help facilitate the development and nurturing of Aesthetic Intelligence, but the first step is to be committed and patient. Taste develops over time and is influenced by a wide variety of factors, only some of which we can control.
I founded my online learning course, Aesthetic Intelligence Labs, with the goal of providing others with a roadmap for building their brands through the aesthetic lens. My mission is to put human delight at the heart of business strategy. My teammates and I collaborate with scientists, psychologists, business leaders, designers, and other specialists to translate the latest body of aesthetic research into practical strategies that brands and individuals can apply to their businesses, their careers, and their lives. We also build on the insights I have gleaned throughout my own experience leading some of the world’s leading brands.
We start the learning process by guiding our students (or, as we prefer to call them, “tastemakers”) through the four fundamental steps to developing their aesthetic tastes:
- Attunement. Most of us nowadays have lost our sensitivity to sensory stimuli. We’ve become numb not only to the effect of our environments on our senses but also to the interactions between our five senses. To develop your taste, the first course of action is to unblock your senses and become more mindful of the sensations you experience.
- Interpretation. The second step is to interpret or translate the sensations that you experience into the effects they have on your emotions. It is about developing a deeper understanding of your likes and dislikes and exploring why you are drawn to certain sensations and why you reject others.
- Curation. Curation is one of those words we often use without knowing exactly what it means. The term actually relates to the word “cure.” To cure (or curate) something is to restore it to health by eliminating the parts that damage or devalue it and assembling what remains in a harmonious and coherent way. In the context of business, I believe the ability to curate objects, spaces, stories, and experiences for optimum effect represents an enormous untapped opportunity. But this skill requires care, judgment, and, above all, a human touch.
- Articulation. Individual tastemakers may be able to execute their vision on their own. But, in order to lead a team or scale a company, they need to be able to articulate their ideals in such a way that enables others to understand, replicate, reinforce, and execute their vision with precision.
Why is it that so few business leaders are as skilled in linguistics as in numerics? While most businesspeople know how to use language for imparting information or directing people, very few are good at using language to inspire others, tap into their dreams, or express their heartfelt beliefs and ideals.
Applying Aesthetic Intelligence to your Brand
Whereas Aesthetic Intelligence begins with the development of one’s own aesthetic sensibility, it also requires a deep understanding of and respect for other people’s sensibilities insofar as they may differ from our own yet better reflect the marketplace. That there are different kinds of good taste doesn’t mean that bad taste doesn’t exist—it certainly does.
Knowing the difference between good taste and bad while also being sensitive to the good taste of others (a concept I call Aesthetic Empathy) is a valuable means of envisioning and predicting who will (and will not) respond to your own products’ or services’ aesthetic expressions, and how.
When you understand how aesthetics can benefit your business—and how it can be effectively and credibly applied— your prospects for survival and prosperity dramatically increase. I have seen my students develop aesthetic strategies that have transformed their businesses by striking the right balance between their brands’ deep heritage and relevance. Leading companies—such as Apple, Walt Disney, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton—all honor their rich heritages and “brand codes” while continuing to refine and modernize their distinct aesthetic qualities and maintain their desirability.
It’s all about forging human connections – a complex effort that has far-reaching implications and can be done through aesthetics. When done well, it leads to richer brand experiences. The onus is on creators to align their ideas with motives worthy of being experienced personally and profoundly. Today’s customers no longer need or want to accumulate more material possessions. Rather, they are seeking richer and more meaningful experiences. As such, brands that endure provide purpose, arouse feelings, and stimulate the imagination. Their goals extend well beyond commercial motives; they are driven to unite and delight generations of people who are touched by their products and services.
Aesthetically rich businesses are built on a clear and strong raison d’être. In the end, that is what truly challenges, compels, and charms their customers. They must view and treat their customers not as people who merely seek to consume but as humans who ultimately seek to feel alive.