I’ve spent the last five years advocating for “the Business of Aesthetics.” In a world in which consumers are bombarded with ever cheaper and easier access to goods and services, aesthetic strategies not only have become critical to business success, but to survival.
Aesthetic strategies are powerful. They have the potential to transform brands and, in some cases, entire industries. But they also can be dangerous. Just as fascist governments have used propaganda to amass power, foster war, and manipulate people’s thoughts, feelings and actions, so too can companies exploit aesthetics for ill gain.
How can we ensure that aesthetic strategies are driven by good intentions?
In a nutshell, we can’t. Inevitably, all companies use their resources and ambitions to pursue opportunities for growth, profits and market share.
In the long run, however, aesthetic strategies are only as powerful, compelling and defensible as the intentions behind them. In other words, strategies built on ugly intentions eventually seem, well, ugly. And, in the long run, they do fail.
In my book, I point to the case of Juul, the leading e-cigarette maker, which, through its clever and innovative aesthetic strategies, achieved a whopping $38 billion valuation in 2018, when Altria (formerly called Philip Morris) acquired a 35% stake.
Juul’s designs, branding and experiential marketing were genius. Evil genius! When the brand launched in 2015, it quickly caught the attention of smokers and non-smokers alike, especially younger ones. Its products came in an array of candy-like colors and fruity flavors. Their packaging, clearly modeled after Apple products, operated like next-generation flash drives. Even the name (pronounced “jewel”) connoted something precious and desirable.
Then it all fell apart.
First, the FTC sued to undermine the Altria deal. Then, health reports started to cite the actual risks of vaping, from ‘popcorn lungs’ to seizures to heart attacks, not to mention, severe addiction.
Earlier this week, Juul once again made national headlines by agreeing to settle a lawsuit for $40 million brought by the State of North Carolina, which claimed that the company’s marketing practices were targeting minors. No doubt, many other states will follow suit, and eventually the Juul brand may join the list of once-high-flying corporate failures.
Juul’s earlier growth may have enriched a few individuals along the way, but its value wasn’t built to last, because its aesthetic craftsmanship was shoddy.
Consumers are not so easily fooled when it comes to quality aesthetics. They may be susceptible to being fooled once, but only foolish companies will try to fool them twice. For that reason, I’m dubious about the prospects of a new aesthetic strategy announced by another big company.
Specifically, a few days ago Victoria’s Secret announced plans to rebrand itself “VS Collective” and replace its supermodel angels with seven female ambassadors, representing a more modern and inclusive approach to beauty standards and female sexuality.
These women tick off the boxes. They include a trans model, a plus-sized activist and two professional athletes. Four of the seven are non-white, and two identify as non-straight.
Clearly, the strategy was carefully researched, planned, communicated, and executed. So why am I dubious?
As I point out in my book, about 85% of the reason a consumer selects a particular product over competing options is rooted in how that product makes her feel. And while I genuinely think VS took a reasonable approach to reinventing its brand, I feel it took a very dishonest one.
For nearly half a century, Victoria´s Secret maintained a very clear view of what made women sexy. Its view emanated from a Eurocentric male’s ideal of beauty. Of course, the ideal was typically white and blond. She also was impossibly thin and unquestionably heteronormative. While all of Victoria’s Secret’s products were designed for women to wear, they were meant for men to enjoy.
Had VS decided to become more inclusive before its sales began to plummet or before the societal tide had shifted toward a very different ideal, I might have respected the company’s decision to pivot. After all, brands – like people – may evolve over time, especially as their values and beliefs evolve. But the decision by VS to pivot was not based on a shift in values, but a shift in valuation.
If VS were the only brand that made bras and underwear, perhaps I’d forgive – or at least overlook – its disingenuity. But, there are plenty of good alternatives in the market. Competitors like Aerie, ThirdLove, Lively and TomboyX have embraced inclusivity from the get-go. Some of them even had the courage and foresight to express these values before the consumer marketplace demanded it.
The best aesthetic strategies are never calculated by an executive board. They aren’t predicated by trends, focus groups or investor demands. And they run deeper than a series of ads or a selection of spokesmodels. The best aesthetic expressions are the honest ones.
As the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said: “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”