There is another A.I. that’s key to business today — and Pauline Brown said it’s not just for the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuittons of the world.
Aesthetic Intelligence is an innate, if sometimes underdeveloped, virtue that can open up new worlds for executives and companies of all stripes, said Brown, former chairman of LVMH North America and veteran of private equity giant Carlyle and The Estée Lauder Cos.
Brown now wants to teach everyone how to have good taste — or how to develop better taste — and apply it their businesses.
The concept of Aesthetic Intelligence is a vein Brown has been mining for some time. She started teaching a course examining the business of aesthetics at the Harvard Business School in 2016.
The idea was to break down the “aesthetic experiences” that have helped make Lauder or LVMH so long-lasting and translate the approach for everyone else. “How would a manager of a dentist’s office take these principles and apply them?” Brown asked.
Turns out, it was a good question.
The course led to the HarperCollins book “Aesthetic Intelligence: How to Boost It and Use It in Business and Beyond.” And Brown is now teaching the concepts in a course at Columbia Business School. (She also has a lifestyle radio show, Tastemakers, that airs weekly on Sirius XM).
But Brown now wants to go bigger and faster.
The book was published in 2019 and is now missing out on case studies from the past two, very busy years. And the classes each reach 100 students at best.
“How do I keep that conversation going?” she wondered. “How do I reach a much broader audience and get them to learn it in the way I want these rich classroom experiences to feel?”
The answer is an online course that quietly started over the summer with more than 60 paying students and is now ready for a broader launch.
The Aesthetic Intelligence Labs let students log on and do the work at their own pace with video master classes, readings and newsletters as well as live events and workshops.
“We have a community that’s starting to develop,” said Brown, who also helps a few big companies in the area of Aesthetic Intelligence and is starting to work on custom training programs with health and automotive companies.
“The premise at the end of the day is that great aesthetics, whatever business you’re in, starts with having a sense of one’s personal taste,” Brown said. “This is not about teaching people a singular form of taste, but it’s: ‘What is your taste?’ and ‘How is it shaped?’ and ‘How do you get better at your particular sensibility?’ and ‘How do you apply that to your brand, your taste, design, to your culture, to your communications?’”
She described Apple’s Steve Jobs as “the godfather of this concept even though he never used this term.”
“Steve Jobs was a smart guy, but he was not smart like [Microsoft’s] Bill Gates was,” Brown said. “His aesthetic intelligence was off the course. Steve Jobs’ genius was how to articulate a vision of what looked and felt good to him. It can not be relegated to the art department.
“Aesthetic matters in business and it matters now more than ever,” she said. “In a world where we don’t need more stuff and stuff is becoming ever cheaper, we do need a way to experience ourselves.”
Brown said that 85 percent of the reason people buy from a particular brand is because of the way they feel about it. Brands that don’t illicit feelings will be quickly overtaken by competitors on price or speed.
“It’s such a powerful advantage,” she said. “I call it the aesthetic advantage.”
It’s an advantage that requires some introspection and, perhaps, letting little more of the world back in.
“You cannot deliver your best taste if you’re not sensitive to the stimulus that’s hitting us all the time,” she said, noting that people have become used to blocking themselves from the noisy world, especially in cities. “You cannot take it all in.”
And feeling it all again will help people at brands communicate a bit more of that feeling.
“When I define aesthetics, it’s not about visual elegance,” she said. “It’s about a sensual delight.”
That’s made all the harder by fashion’s migration to the web, but not impossible.
“The best online experiences, the best they can do is appeal to the imagination,” Brown said. “They have to use visual to take people into a space, not dissimilar to what happens with a great Hollywood film.”
That requires people think a little “less logically and more empathetically” to hook into the right memories to tell the right kind of stories to connect.
While Brown comes from a luxury background, everyone has an aesthetic.
“If you think of the people you know who have the best taste, they’re never the richest people,” she said. “When people have unlimited means, they don’t need to have the discipline to trade off what they don’t like. Great taste is as much about what you don’t do as what you do.”
More from WWD: