Twenty-five years in the luxury sector clued Pauline Brown into all sorts of sensibilities, and her new book “Aesthetic Intelligence: How to Boost It and Use It in Business and Beyond” spells out some of them.
For her first book, the former chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton North America has culled from the interdisciplinary course “The Business of Aesthetics” that she taught at the Harvard Business School in 2016 and 2017. The 219-page book, which is due out Nov. 26, draws from case studies and real-life experiences. Jo Malone, Iris Apfel, Chobani, Dyson, MAC Cosmetics and Harley-Davidson are among the myriad brands referenced. While the subject matter is prime for the fashion and retail crowd, Brown is hopeful that readers from other industries will be inclined to leaf through.
“There are thousands of examples that I could give you. It could be the manager of a doctor’s office, who [asks] why a patient or a family couldn’t have more of a lifting or human experience in a waiting room,” said Brown, adding that could be further incentive to go there beyond medical treatment.
The book is also meant to highlight the value of design and the potential for return on investment even for those in creative industries. “If you think about the Fortune 1000, and the profiles of the ceo’s, the majority of them will have studied finance, economics — some of them engineering and maybe operations — but very few would have studied fine arts or art history. I’m not saying the ceo doesn’t need to be facile in finance or engineering. Shouldn’t he or she also be facile in departments that might in the long term make a bigger difference than those that can be outsourced to AI or computers?” asked Brown, who is now an executive in residence at Columbia University’s Business School.
Some early readers of the book have surprised Brown with their a-ha reactions to what she considers pretty basic. As a businessperson, “who lived between the worlds of commerce and design for much of her career,” Brown’s favorite lines included, “You don’t have to teach a baby or a child how to enjoy ice cream. There are so many aspects of aesthetic delight that are so fundamental and universal.”
Sensory overload seems status quo, given that the average U.S. consumer reportedly sees upward of 4,000 images a day. “We live in an age where we talk so much about big data, microprocessing and efficiency. We’ve been almost brainwashed to think that the world functions in this industrial economy,” Brown said. “We have kind of come out of this era where we’re consumed with what is different today than 10 to 20 years ago. We’re consumed with social media. We’re consumed with automation, and yet 99 percent of the elements that make us human haven’t changed in a hundred years.”
While teaching at Harvard, Brown said she had a few epiphanies and recognized “the power of the business of aesthetics.” What she hadn’t known was how broad the student interest would be. Although marketing, branding and luxury management students’ interest was expected, the enrollment of technology-minded, aspiring hedge fund-ers and nonbusiness school students was a surprise, she said. While her two-year run at HBS allowed her to work with 100 students each year, Brown knew that writing a book would reach far more people. “The interest from the student body said to me that there is something here that is more powerful than I even thought. And the business world and the business schools that are generating the next generation of leaders are looking for new ways of understanding and framing the marketplace,” she said.
While no one needs reminding that consumer behavior, retail, and even the definition of what constitutes a brand have changed drastically in the past few decades, Brown said the language that businesses and business schools are using hasn’t changed that dramatically since she graduated from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Mindful of not confusing aesthetics with beauty, design or artistry, Brown said aesthetics comes from the Greek word “aisthetikos,” which has to do with other senses. “Everyone is born with five senses and we used to use them for survival. Now we use them largely for pleasure and human sensibilities. I would argue that in a world where we are spending so many hours in a digital mind-set, that our human senses are thirsting to be activated.” she said. “We are fairly visual as a society, although digital is not a rich visual experience because it’s two-dimensional. But most of our senses are pretty numbed by the lifestyle that we lead — the fact that we are overcome with data and technological input and we live in cities where we are overcome by noise and smells and things. In the process, because we haven’t used them, we’ve actually neglected them.”
First and foremost, aesthetic intelligence is about tapping into our individual senses, and then understanding what the emotions are in association with them, Brown said. “People with really good taste don’t just know the difference between what tastes good or what tastes bad, or what looks good or what looks bad, but they know how it makes them feel. There is a whole spectrum of things that can be associated with different sensorial stimuli.”
Steve Jobs’ ability to articulate what felt good to him and how thousands of people should execute around that aesthetic vision was “part of his genius,” the author said. But curation is another element that is needed to execute aesthetic intelligence, she said. “Above all, it’s about tapping into our own taste levels and applying it to business — whatever business we’re in. We’re not only providing an experience for the receiver but we’re also communicating a sensibility that is probably our only differentiation. Otherwise, we’re all selling commodities if we’re not tapping into what makes us different. That, as we all know, is a race to the bottom.”
Early indicators show that “Aesthetic Intelligence” has international appeal, considering that publishing houses in Japan, India and Korea have signed deals.