To Develop Your Taste, You Must First Become Attuned to Your Senses
In my previous article, I introduced the power of aesthetic intelligence to transform your businesses. 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.
At A.I.Labs, my online learning platform dedicated to boosting the Aesthetic Intelligence in both creative and business minds, 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, interpretation, curation and articulation.
Today, let’s dive deeper into 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.
When a product connects with us on multiple sensorial levels, the seduction sets in
Not long ago, I was searching for bath soap in my local Whole Foods. The bars lined the shelves neatly, some in boxes of multiples, others wrapped individually in decoratively patterned paper or corrugated boxes. One row of soaps caught my eye—they were neatly stacked and came in natural, food-inspired colors, such as lemon, oatmeal, and vanilla, and plant-inspired colors, including lavender and rose. The packaging was simple: an individual “belt” of natural brown cardboard tied with jute string around the middle of each bar. I loved the look; it was apparent that thought had gone into both the design of the soap and the packaging. Handwork had gone into the production and assembly. The product and the packaging both looked custom and artisanal—and natural, not synthetic. The minimal wrapping left the soap exposed on either end, which allowed me to feel the product’s smoothness (it felt as though it would produce a really creamy lather) and to take in its natural aroma (the lemon scent reminded me of a trip to Tuscany; the lavender, of a trip to Provence—and I assumed I’d be comparably fragrant if I used it).
I must have engaged with the soap for at least fifteen seconds, running my fingers over the ends of the exposed soap, playing with the twine between my fingers, and bringing the bar to my nose to take in the scent. No surprise, I also popped two bars into my basket despite the fact that the soap was more expensive than the other, fully wrapped soaps—in some cases, a couple of dollars more per bar, not insubstantial for an everyday, utilitarian product.
Why did I choose that particular soap over all others? Because in appealing to multiple senses (smell, touch, sight), the product gave me a sensation that went well beyond its function, something conventionally packaged soaps can’t or don’t do as effectively as one unrestrained by a barrier of paper or plastic. When a product connects with us on multiple sensorial levels, the seduction sets in. A big brand or even a no-name soap would, I’m sure, get me just as clean—maybe even cleaner, who knows? But the intimacy with which I was able to evaluate the soap and the memories the smell and feel of it offered such a sense of delight, the performance of the soap became a secondary concern (but in order for me to become a loyalist to the brand, it would also have to perform as I anticipated it would when I used it at home—the scent would have to embrace me as I bathed, the lather would have to be creamy and luxurious, my skin would have to feel soft).
Similar seductions take place on a larger scale at places such as the interactive Lego, Bose, and Apple stores. At Lego stores, customers, young and old, play with and learn about blocks and toy kits in real-time and via augmented reality, appealing to sight, sound and touch. At Bose retail shops, wide-open entrances invite you into voluminous public spaces where you can engage with the equipment, listen privately at stations equipped with headphones and select from accessories at accessible kiosks around the space. Salespeople are happy to help with your Bose equipment whether you bought it in the store or not. Though there is debate among audiophiles about whether Bose provides a listening experience superior to other makers’ equipment, one thing is certain: it offers an extraordinary aesthetic experience. Apple stores operate in a similar fashion: customers can touch products, feel their smooth, glassy surfaces, listen to the sound quality, and experience firsthand the pleasure of using the products before making a purchase.
I would argue that the functions of Lego blocks, Bose speakers, and Apple products are not necessarily superior to those of other building block toys, speakers, tablets, or smartphones—but like the simple bar of soap, the way these products tell a story that stimulates our senses makes them so much more appealing and delightful.
Understanding how the senses work together
What drives feelings of delight in consumers? It can be as basic as making the connection between soap and relaxation, cashmere and comfort, classical music and serenity, or ice cream and exuberance. The most successful retail experience relies on the most basic language of aesthetics: the five senses. Understanding how taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound function individually; how they interact with one another; and how marketers can activate (and reactivate) them in consumers is key to using this language effectively and ultimately creating and sustaining a company’s competitive advantage.
About 85 percent of consumers’ purchase decisions are driven by how a product or service makes that consumer feel (aesthetic delight); only 15 percent are based on a conscious and rational assessment of a product’s features and function. Ironically, marketers spend as much as 100 percent of their focus on developing, building, and promoting their products’ features and functions. Clearly, as long as a product or service works, there is long-term value for companies that figure out how to stimulate the senses and arouse associative or emotional connections.
The senses are accessed through a series of biological and neurological activities that are perceived and identified by the brain, which then, in reaction, accesses associated memories to remind us about people, places, or events. Our aesthetic sense is largely informed by how we interpret sensorial experiences, something we can’t take for granted, especially when creating experiences, moments, and creative products meant to engage.
To find out more about the power of the senses to shape perceptions and behavior, read the highlights of one of our workshops here.
Understanding attunement through style
When we are fully engaged in a yoga class, jogging in a park, or browsing in a bookstore, we are concentrating heavily on what we are doing at that moment; we are attuned to those experiences. In food, attunement is the ability to discern the layers of flavor in a dish, appreciating how the wine we are drinking affects the flavor of the food and how the ambiance of our surroundings—for example, the lighting, table setting, and music—impact our overall dining experience. With personal style and fashion, attunement comes from paying attention to how different styles—colors, fabrics, and fits—make you feel.
Applying attunement to personal style and “fashion” often begins with a keen understanding of your own body. How do you want your clothing to look on your body? That may dictate the shapes and silhouettes of your choices. It may also suggest specific colors and patterns (or lack thereof). How do you want your clothing to feel on your body? That may guide your choice of materials, textures, and fit.
Aesthetics is an appreciation of all the senses, and aesthetic intelligence is an understanding of how and why the senses trigger certain emotions—especially pleasurable ones— through all forms of stimuli. Cultivating and expressing your own aesthetic through your appearance and style—more specifically, what you wear and how you wear it –involves exhibiting what I call the “four C’s”: clarity, consistency, creativity, and confidence.
Many people look at fashion as frivolous. We believe, however, that your style of dress conveys a lot about who you are, how you live, and what social and cultural forces have influenced you. We also believe fashion can have a dramatic effect on how you feel about yourself. Does your current style capture who you are? Does your outer image reflect your inner beliefs and values? Do your clothes enhance your confidence? Or undermine it? Working toward those C’s will not only help you strengthen your personal image but also create a valuable skill set for building your business interests.
Pauline Brown. Founder of Aesthetic Intelligence Labs and pioneer in the business of aesthetics. She served as head of LVMH North America and executive at The Carlyle Group, Estée Lauder and Bain & Co. She is a current professor at Columbia Business School.