Have you ever wondered why track houses look the way they do? Or why consumer packages, retail spaces, and automobiles all adhere to a consistent color and design? It is because of the distribution of aesthetic in America. The mass aesthetic is how and why things are the way that they are.
“The term ‘aesthetic’ has come to be used to designate, among other things, a kind of object, a kind of judgment, a kind of attitude, a kind of experience, and a kind of value.”
– Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Raising the mass cultural aesthetic is my life’s work. I agree, in part, with the Stanford Encyclopedia definition, but have built a career taking aesthetic a step further, defining it as a feeling and visual communication that has, and gives, a real experience and meaning.
Aesthetic isn’t just a creative word, it has a very practical definition with real world and monetary ramifications. In America, perceived value dominates the cultural aesthetic. Design is used to overwhelmingly convey more for less. Our culture, compared to others around the world, is dominated by this purpose. But “more for less” isn’t a reason to exist – it is empty and purposeless.
Why – when aesthetic has the power to not just affect mood and behavior, but drive sales and define meaning – do brands so often choose homogenization? Aesthetic is not just important, it is the most important. It singularly has the ability to affect mood, quality of life, and (most relevant to brands) purchasing. Why can’t design inspire and raise the cultural aesthetic, while driving sales and transforming million-dollar companies into billion-dollar brands?
“Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.”
― Alfred North Whitehead
According to the Journal of Business Strategies, over 70% of purchase decisions are made at the shelf. Most brands understand the implication of package design and its importance at retail, but a brand’s aesthetic at the shelf is only a small manifestation of the brand’s meaning. The package design at the shelf is merely the tip of the arrow. The aesthetic is what propels the design; it reaches far back into the DNA of the brand and extends through every touch point.
Recently, I read The Places In Between by Rory Stewart while on vacation. From the first page, I was immediately transported and enveloped in the smell, the sound, the experience, and the feeling of his journey through North-Central Afghanistan. That is the power of writing with an aesthetic. Brilliant writing, like powerful design, is a manifestation of the aesthetic that informs it. Books, films, TV shows, commercials, websites, social media, and package design all have the power to communicate meaning and experience with the same ferocity.
Over 40% of consumers say branded packaging makes them more likely to share a product image or video on social media. That means the power of aesthetic not only affects the experience of your consumer, but it also affects the likelihood of that consumer sharing the experience and perpetuating your product.
The importance of aesthetic is not debatable. What is debatable is how to best capture the elusive contrast between an aesthetic attitude and a practical one. How can you best understand the relationship between aesthetic value and aesthetic experience?
“If you come at movies with your own sense of morality and not your own sense of aesthetics, I think you’re screwed. I think that’s not a way to look at movies.”
– Bret Easton Ellis
Movies are being treated like commercials with focus groups sucking the vision and aesthetic out of them. Movie studios are re-shooting movies based on focus group testing, beating them to death before letting them see the light of day. In many instances, studios are rewriting and re-filming entire movies just to appease the test group. All this does is remove any chance of creating a captivating and unique aesthetic by settling for a pre-approved aesthetic that the public is already comfortable with.
“Some people say, ‘Give customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
– Steve Jobs
Companies are letting consumers dictate their aesthetic and meaning. The job of a brand is to create a higher aesthetic, a meaning that consumers have not yet thought of and don’t know that they want. It encapsulates everything that consumers want to experience, beyond what they realize that they desire. At its best, it is within grasp, but just out of reach.
Our cultural aesthetic is failing because many brands are being designed by people who are not interested in elevating the mass aesthetic. It is a detrimental combination of company’s prioritizing cost cutting and consumers trying to inflate their perceived value. This is why testing and homogenization are destroying brands and bankrupting million-dollar companies.
“Design must be functional, and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained.”
– Ferdinand Porsche
After losing over $400 million in sales 2011-2016, Lean Cuisine redesigned their aesthetic and turned the company around. “The new design was the No. 1 reason that Lean Cuisine brand was able to turn itself around. This complete turnaround demonstrates the power of investing in effective package design and designing it with consumers in mind,” stated Daniel Jhung, vice president of marketing at Nestlé.
The issue is larger than just branding. Unlike Japan or Europe, America has a lack of background in design and that is leading the problem. We have been (and continue to be) divested of the arts from an extremely early age. The appreciation of everything you touch, your surroundings, is all a way of raising the cultural aesthetic, but we aren’t teaching our children to be concerned about it. Our corporations aren’t reinforcing the value of it, either. Art, fashion, and aesthetic are words – concepts – that you can’t find in many big campaigns.
So, how do you know if your aesthetic is working or if it’s time to elevate it?
I use the “no logo” test. It is one of the ways that I evaluate whether an aesthetic is consistent, on strategy, and as effective as possible. The “no logo” test asks that all brand assets (across every connection point) be viewed without a logo to ensure that the brand is still communicated with radical clarity. This is how I define true branding – the aesthetic has to permeate and transcend every touch point to communicate a real experience and meaning. It is more than a logo, or a package design – it is everything. By using a sensible definition of aesthetic that creates actual brand meaning (not just a picture or way of speaking), we can empower the aesthetic to not only define the brand, but drive sales and elevate culture.
The general state of culture and the growth of your brand are connected. That connection isn’t some elusive X factor or even marketing jargon. It is aesthetic. Understanding that aesthetic is the key to understanding how to grow a billion-dollar business. Whether you understand your brand’s aesthetic or not, your brand is perpetuating one at all times, but you will only grow if you learn how to make it work for you rather than against you. With a deeper understanding and a commitment to radical clarity in communication, brand meaning, and purpose, you can elevate and grow your brand. Putting the aesthetic first is the key to creating iconic brands that transcend category and elevating your product with a defined cultural meaning.