The Art of the Aesthetic Business
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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All value is. That’s why some of the most cutting-edge businesses are the ones slavishly devoting themselves to the customer’s aesthetic experience. A lot of companies ignore beauty. But this utilitarian -- and rather boring -- take on business is going out of favor in many sectors. That’s because we’re not just moving into the knowledge economy, but into the experience economy.
John Mackey of Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM) decided long ago he would make aesthetic considerations top priority in his business. In the health food space, Mackey was already a revolutionary due to his commitment to creating a unique ecosystem – a natural foods supply network that could be brought to scale. One might think that beauty’s just fluff that can cut into your margins. John Mackey rejected that notion and built a multi-billion-dollar enterprise on beauty, taste and smell.
When you walk into a Whole Foods, your aesthetic sense is heightened – and so is your shopping experience. Instead of battling it out in the dreary big box space, Mackey created his own niche – complete with inviting smells, tasting stations and a cornucopia of color. And a lot of copy cats have followed. Yes it can be pricy, but the customer leaves with the feeling he has somehow been improved by shopping. How did Whole Foods pull this off? Mackey built aesthetic considerations into every aspect of the enterprise – training every employee to think about how to help both themselves and the customer experience beauty at every turn.
“A company that expresses beauty enriches our lives in numerous ways,” writes Mackey in his essay “Creating a New Paradigm for Business. “While we more commonly experience The Beautiful through the work of individual creative artists in music, painting, film, and artisanal crafts, we can also see it expressed through certain special companies…”
No wonder people love to work there.
I know a lot of snobs who would never be caught dead in a Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) (I’m not one, for the record.) But those self-same snobs will shop at Target (NYSE: TGT). That’s because Target has done a tremendous job of making big box shopping seem cool. How’d they do that? Aesthetics of course. The Target brand – from the red-imbued, hip commercials, to the lock on low-cost Italian brands like Mossimo – proves you can pay attention to beauty while keeping prices reasonable.
Target has also mastered designer collections. If you can pull famous designers (Michael Graves, Jason Wu) from the high-end and get them to mass produce their designs, you get economies of scale + cool stuff. Of course, we wouldn’t want any zealous pursuer of beautiful forms to abandon their commitment to function. And companies like Target are just as concerned about quality control as they are about look and feel.
It does make me wonder: Is Walmart’s brand forever stuck in the utility and low prices space? It would be risky, but it would be interesting to see Walmart venture into Target’s aesthetic territory (as long as those prices are still low – always.)
Aesthetics makes intuitive sense in grocery and retail. After all, customers spend a lot of time in these areas, so the experience makes a difference. So what about product design? Apple is, of course, the king of gorgeous design in computing products. IKEA (has defined the cool, low-cost designs for home furnishings. And Pinterest – the online bulletin board for connoisseurs of the aesthetic – is hastening a veritable beauty arms race among companies who want images of their products to go viral.
In his book Be The Solution, social entrepreneur Michael Strong writes: "Many of the great entrepreneurs of the twenty-first century will be entrepreneurs who create exceptional enterprises that are preeminent producers of beauty and grace, culture and experience, happiness and well-being."
Thanks to the coming experience economy, the future looks bright for artsy kids. Math and science inclined folks will have to share offices with people with an eye for composition, chroma and form. Companies that grab the best designers will enjoy competitive advantages in myriad new industries that are coming to rely on a holistic understand of the customer experience. And investors who know beauty when they see it may just make a buck. Ain’t capitalism beautiful?
Max Borders is the author of the forthcoming Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor (Fall 2012).
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