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The Other AI: How Aesthetic Intelligence Can Transform Your Brand

When you see or hear the term AI, I’m guessing you think it stands for artificial intelligence.

It does, of course.

But artificial intelligence isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think about AI.

For me, AI also refers to aesthetic intelligence.

I call aesthetic intelligence the other AI.

It’s a concept that I’ve taught at Harvard Business School in an interdisciplinary course called The Business of Aesthetics. It’s also the subject of my upcoming book.

But enough about me.

Let’s explore aesthetic intelligence — what it is, why it’s important for your business, how it can give you an edge over your competitors, and examples of companies with high aesthetic IQs.

What is Aesthetic Intelligence?

Let me start with what aesthetic intelligence is not, because the word aesthetics is loaded with connotations.

I’m not talking about design, although design is important. I’m also not talking about beauty, because sometimes aesthetics can be less than beautiful, at least in the conventional definition of beauty, but still utterly compelling, exciting, and pleasurable.

Aesthetics is the pleasure that we derive from perceiving an object or experience through our senses.

It may include visual beauty, but also appeal to our other senses—like the plush texture of cashmere, the sonorous timbre of an alto’s voice, a scrumptious meal, or an aromatic fragrance.

Aesthetic intelligence isn’t necessarily the ability to create beauty, because that would refer to artistry or creativity.

Aesthetic intelligence is our ability to understand, interpret, and articulate feelings that are elicited by a particular object or experience.

Essentially, aesthetic intelligence is the development of “taste”—the ability to discern what is desirable and why and how to attain it.

When you apply aesthetic intelligence to commerce, things start to get really interesting.

The Intersection of Aesthetic Intelligence and Commerce

Applying aesthetics to a product or service and eliciting the right emotional cues so that consumers are interested in buying it takes a great deal of empathy.

You need to consider not just what arguments you can make—or what words you can use to persuade shoppers to buy your product or service—but what you can do to connect with them on a human level.

We have to remember that people, not machines, buy the vast majority of products and services. People are emotional and make decisions largely based upon how that product or service makes them feel.

In many cases, it takes more than just a digital forum to connect with them on an emotional level.

The cosmetics industry knows this very well.

Many of the best cosmetic brands grew through giving shoppers free samples because they knew that their claims of offering great products were only validated once consumers had the opportunity to experience them—their feel, their smell, their effect on the skin—firsthand.

Whether it was offering a gift with purchases in a department store or even providing testers through magazine sense strips, people responded sensorially, rather than logically, to their products.

Many people became loyal customers during this process.

If you want to differentiate yourself from your ecommerce competitors, you need to start thinking about ways to integrate more of the senses into your own digital business proposition, because the digital environment essentially only touches one and a half of the five senses: strong visuals and modest sound.

Sound doesn’t even get a full vote of confidence in ecommerce because sound quality on a lot of devices is poor compared to listening to state-of-the-art Sonos speakers, for example, so the audible experience of engaging with a brand online is still diluted.

But imagine the difference it would make if you appealed to just one more sense in the course of your customers’ shopping experience—if your competitors were armed with only sights and sounds, but you were able to provide a tactile experience as well.

The playing field would be tipped in your favor.

Applying aesthetic intelligence to your brand can truly be a game-changer, but cultivating and elevating it requires a concerted and deliberate effort.

The first step in developing aesthetic intelligence is to reconnect with your senses and to unblock some of the things that we tend to block for the purpose of survival.

Once you start receiving and experiencing those inputs again, the second step is to begin to decipher and develop a point of view—much like you do in other parts of your life about how different elements can come together.

Then you have to edit and curate these aesthetic inputs, which is equally important, or else the experience will be muddled and overwhelming.

When you add ecommerce to the equation, the concept of aesthetic intelligence can become really challenging because the goal isn’t just to provide customers with a great experience in the moment.

The goal is to build anticipation for a great experience and to leave customers with great memories of the experience. We refer to this as “the halo effect” of great aesthetics.

Where Ecommerce Companies Go Wrong

Interactions with your brand have to not only be exceptional and aesthetically pleasing; they also have to be consistently exceptional throughout the customers’ journey.

This is where many ecommerce companies go wrong.

Many companies are so focused on the transaction itself that they only consider how to get a shopper from the homepage to the checkout.

The experience with the brand is over as soon as the customer checks out.

But the relationship obviously shouldn’t end there.

The reality is that the reason most people remember a brand—and why they come back—is that the experience resonated emotionally.

Brands who master aesthetic intelligence connect with consumers on a deeply emotional level to the point that they wouldn’t consider shopping anywhere else for that product or service.

Leadership and Aesthetic Intelligence

I’m a big believer in the fact that aesthetic intelligence starts at the top.

Aesthetics shouldn’t be outsourced to the creative team. CEOs need to be skilled in aesthetics as well.

Fewer and fewer companies can get away with treating their products or services like commodities, just like very few CEOs would get away with saying,

“Well, I’m just going to outsource all the financial and strategic processes to the CFO.”

A CEO has to own the performance and show real competency in all critical areas. A good CEO has to have taste as well, which doesn’t mean that he or she has to be able to execute on the aesthetic decisions.

Execution may fall in the hands of a creative department or another functional or artistic talent, but being able to know what quality is—in a way that Steve Jobs did and Howard Schultz still does—is a huge differentiator for a company and it has to start with the leader.

If the CEO and other business leaders don’t have the empathy to think about how a customer is going to feel by experiencing their product, they’re not going to have much of an advantage in the market.

In fact, they’ll eventually be overtaken by a robot.

Having good aesthetics is really a human advantage, and it’s innate.

But as we go through life, partly because we compartmentalize and partly because we’re overcome with so much sensory input in our daily lives, we often become numb to it.

One of the key responsibilities of a CEO is to clearly communicate how every employee, regardless of role, can contribute to making the brand more aesthetically exciting and valuable to customers.

Examples of Brands With High Aesthetic IQs

Let’s look at a few examples of aesthetically intelligent businesses.

1. Airbnb.

Airbnb is one of the best examples I’ve seen of a company differentiating itself online through really good aesthetic decision-making and application of aesthetic intelligence.

Airbnb didn’t invent the model of renting out homes and other spaces.

That really started 20 years earlier with Craigslist, but Craigslist’s problem was that it was a fairly low-cost option and not one that people would choose for a rich experience when they were traveling.

People went to Craigslist because it was a quick and easy way to reserve a bed for the night.

Airbnb was founded by two graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Rather than coming from the technology space, they came out of a design mentality and took the industry by storm.

They cracked the code on building engaging websites for short-term lodging rentals. In addition to generally being user-friendly, Airbnb masterfully creates a sense of delight and desire for exploration. From the images they select to their font choices to the way users navigate through the system, Airbnb stimulates people’s imaginations.

2. Disney.

Disney is a learning organization. Their R&D center, which they call Imagineering, is constantly coming up with new ways to delight customers.

Disney spends a lot of money to have a couple thousand people working in a lab-like environment because they know that if they didn’t continue to create new ways to delight customers, people wouldn’t go back to Disneyland or Disney World or even watch a Disney movie.

It’s the reason the company has been able to keep the magic going for more than 70 years after Walt Disney passed away.

Disney does an excellent job of consistently delivering on the actual experience but also, just as importantly, on the anticipation and memory of it.

Half of the fun of going to Disneyland or Disney World is what happens when you’re in the park and you’re waiting to get on the next rollercoaster. But the other half is what happens weeks before you even get on the plane—when you’re thinking about going on the trip and you see how excited the kids are.

There’s a huge build-up before you even get to Orlando or Anaheim, and the memories you make aren’t just relived the day after you’ve left the park. The memories remain for years—indeed, often for a lifetime.

Companies need to follow Disney’s lead and be much more mindful about keeping memories alive.

They need to think about ways to get people to not only be excited about the experience, but so excited that they want to come back.

3. Gucci.

Millennials are spending more on experiences than they are on just individual commodity products, and this shift has been especially evident in the luxury industry.

The fastest growing segments in the luxury market are not products, like handbags and shoes, but experiences like fine dining and travel.

Gucci, the famous luxury brand in the fashion world, is bucking this trend by actually selling an experience.

The reason consumers are currently compelled to shop at Gucci isn’t because their bags are capable of carrying a different number of items than a Louis Vuitton or Balenciaga bag.

It’s the emotional connection customers have with Gucci and the experience of shopping with the brand, which is just as essential as the bag they’re buying.

Sell an Experience, Not a Commodity

These three brands are just a few of the many examples of organizations leveraging extraordinary aesthetics to consistently delight customers and keep them coming back.

Through their focus on aesthetics, innovation, and connecting with people on an emotional level, they’ve transformed their business in ways that make them indispensable to their customers.

They know that people rarely buy products and services for logical reasons. There’s always an emotional impulse behind it, and good marketing and branding taps into that.

Regardless of the business you’re in, always bring as much of yourself into the equation as possible.

That’s your differentiator and what makes your business intriguing to shoppers.

It’s your voice, your belief system, your commitment, and your general reason for being, so never let anyone tell you it has to be reserved for the “personal” part of your life. Business should be personal as well.

And remember to focus on selling an experience—not just a product—that is informed by rich aesthetics. If you do it right, customers will reward you with their business and their loyalty.

Pauline Brown avatar

For more than 25 years, Pauline Brown has acquired, built and led global luxury brands. She currently is writing a book, based on a popular graduate school course, called The Business of Aesthetics, which she designed and taught at Harvard Business School from 2016 through 2017. Prior to 2016, Pauline was the Chairman of North America for the world’s leading luxury goods company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. At LVMH, Pauline provided regional leadership for 70 brands in 5 sectors, including fashion & leather goods, watches & jewelry, perfumes & cosmetics, wines & spirits, and selective retailing. She also served on the Board of Directors of L Capital, a private equity fund backed by LVMH, as well as the boards of LVMH’s U.S. subsidiaries, including Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, and Fresh Cosmetics.