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Aesthetic Intelligence Is the ‘Other AI’—Why Brands Need it Now

Everyone knows what visually delights them on an emotional level, but few people remember to use their innate sense of aesthetic intelligence when it comes to business.

Luxury brands apparently get it, while many American firms just aren’t in the practice of tapping into the senses to create emotional delight, Pauline Brown, former chairman of LVMH Möet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton North America, said. Brown refers to that kind of aesthetic intelligence thinking as the “other AI” and she urges brands to incorporate this into their business. When done right, it can help brands increase customer loyalty, build market share and create lasting value.

“People have different starting points. Some are born with better taste than others, but everyone has the ability to get better,” Brown said. “It’s about how to empathize with people and understanding what gives them comfort and delight and bringing that to the commercial space.”

Brown says luxury brands get it because if they don’t, they don’t have the right to exist. “There’s nothing that’s sold by a group like LVMH that people have a fundamental right to need. All that they sell is about aspiring to people’s aspirational values,” she said. “There’s no justification for the price and utility of an LVMH bag–no rationale if one just needs a tote bag. But people buy [an LVMH bag] with great satisfaction and delight.”

Of course, not every product requires that “other AI.”

For the most part, purchasing something like a vacuum cleaner doesn’t often lend itself to much aesthetic input when the basics–such as price, added features, suction power and ability to do the job–are the priorities. “But then an aesthetic genius like a James Dyson comes along and thinks ‘why can’t you have all that and also something that looks sculptural or in different color combinations so that its more than something you want to stash in the closet because it looks good to the eye?'” Brown said.

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“It’s about the thinking that gives an imagination of what something could be,” she added. “Steve Jobs is another genius in the way he thought about his devices, which have become symbols of people’s own style choice through an emotional affiliation with that object or device.”

A graduate of Wharton School of Business and now an executive in residence at Harvard Business School, where she taught for two years, Brown readily acknowledges the other AI way of thinking isn’t something that comes naturally in the business environment. That’s because America invented a new blueprint during the Industrial Era.

“The whole notion behind automation and economies of scale are principles talked about in business school. That all came out of America and requires a whole different way of thinking,” Brown said. Creative types in Hollywood or Silicon Valley are particularly good at this, “but it’s never become part of the ‘making mentality,’ she added.

“Making is not just about product, but also experiences,” Brown pointed out, noting Disney as an exception for “creating a super aesthetic experience, such as Walt Disney World.”

As for why Disney remains relevant even after Walt’s passing and amusement parks continue to attract the next generation? “They never forgot that at the end of the day, they have to appeal to people’s sense of wonder,” Brown said.

Given how some legacy brands endure and others fade into obscurity, and a brand’s need to differentiate from competitors in a crowded marketplace, the other AI should become a critical component of long-term thinking.

“We are victims of our past success,” Brown said, noting that drivers of success in the last century might not translate into our current time. “We have to think differently. We are at an inflection point. We haven’t had to think in this new way to be successful in the last 100 years the way we will have to in the next 100 years.”

As for why now, much of that has to do with shifting consumer values, and the emphasis on experiences.

“How we express ourselves, whether through logos or advertising campaigns, or even through dress, that all has real value. The one thing that many [companies] are focused on in selling is how can do we something faster and cheaper,” Brown said of the “race to the bottom.”

“We’ve taken a lot of value out in this way of industrial thinking,” she added. “The next era is about human experiences, and that means doubling down to a sense of delight and wonder. It’s something that we don’t think nearly enough about.”

Aesthetic intelligence is a skillset that can be learned, and it’s something many people are using every day–even if they don’t realize it.

“When you look at retail from a managerial standpoint, it’s about factory management, productivity per square foot when maximizing store layouts. All the facets of how we run retail for the last several decades are in defiance of how we run our own lives,” Brown said, “Retail executives building a store think differently from when they are renovating their own home. Why is that? Why can’t the thought process of how we do our homes and how we do the store environments be the same? Shouldn’t the space to sell things give the same sense of pleasure and delight and inspiration?”

She points out that we think of retail space in terms of what’s commercially conducive to selling, yet our own homes are focused on what feels good. Bedrooms are soothing, while living rooms are for entertaining. “We bring a lot of our emotional senses to our homes, but not in stores,” she said.

And it doesn’t need to cost a lot to make something more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. “It can be something as simple as being mindful about a coat of paint on the wall. There are a lot of things that you’re already doing anyway in the store. Why not think about doing a little something different to make people feel a certain way. If you use your own powers of aesthetics, you can rethink something for more impact. It doesn’t have to cost more,” Brown said.

In her course at Harvard–which served as the basis for her new book “Aesthetic Intelligence–How to Boost It and Use It in Business and Beyond–Brown informs on how to become more attuned to the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.

The second half of her book goes into greater detail on how to be more aware, such as being attuned to one’s own experiences. There’s a section on interpretation, which goes beyond hearing music in the background and focusing on minutiae like feeling the weight of a utensil and thinking whether that creates a positive or negative response. The third component centers on curation and how to put all the elements together to create an optimal picture or experience. The final section is about articulation, or knowing how one feels and then learning how to describe that to others so they too can experience the same feeling or imagery.

“The leader of any business can’t stop with one’s self. The person has to mobilize others and articulate what the experience should be,” Brown said.