A Luxury Industry Veteran Teaches the Importance of Aesthetics to Budding Business Leaders

 
 
Pauline Brown, a former top executive with French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, now teaches a Harvard Business School course called The Business of Aesthetics, which culminates in a competition called “Aesthetic Idol.”
 
 
by Carmen Nobel
Pauline Brown joined the HBS faculty following a tenure as Chairman of North America at the French luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. (Photo credit: Albert Cheung)

To future CEOs who want to succeed in the business of making and marketing beautiful products or experiences, Pauline Brown offers some words of wisdom: You first need to be able to discern what’s beautiful.

“Aesthetics cannot be outsourced to the creative department; it has to start with the leader,” says Brown, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. She joined the faculty in 2016, following a tenure as Chairman of North America at the French luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

According to Brown, it’s important for senior executives to possess a combination of what she calls “aesthetic intelligence” and “aesthetic empathy”—good personal taste combined with a good understanding of what pleases others. They need to understand how to engage the senses and elicit delight. “People do not need more stuff, but they do need pleasure, and aesthetics is a powerful way to deliver it,” Brown says.

For the past two years she has taught a popular elective course called The Business of Aesthetics to second-year MBA students and select applicants from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. The course looks at the role of aesthetics in strategy, organizational structure, succession planning, and investment allocations—and considers ways in which aesthetic value creates financial value.

As Brown often says, “Aesthetics matter.”

The business of aesthetics is built on storytelling, too. “You can have a well-developed sense of what is beautiful and pleasurable, but if you can’t communicate it, you probably can’t execute it, and you definitely can’t scale it,” Brown says.

Brown teaches a case about Disney in her MBA elective course, The Business of Aesthetics (Photo courtesy of Pauline Brown)

Brown has honed that ability to the point of poetic brevity. Asked recently what’s so great about Hermès silk scarves, which can run upward of $700 apiece, she offers a compelling answer in an unintentional haiku. “Their work is flawless,” she says. “Their quality control is tighter than NASA’s.”

The Aesthetic Idol competition

The final assignment in “The Business of Aesthetics” requires both an aesthetic business sense and the ability to communicate it—along with a healthy thirst for competition. Dubbed “Aesthetic Idol,” the project asks students to split into small groups and choose a true-life business challenge, and to come up with a solution that combines creative vision with a compelling business strategy.

Brown rates each submission on a variety of criteria, including the potential to transform a business sector. The top-rated teams have the chance to present their ideas in front of a panel of judges, each of whom has achieved aesthetic star power in their own professional domain.

This year’s judging panel comprised the amicable style journalist (and former MTV VJ) Sian-Pierre Regis, founder of the online publication Swagger and a frequent pop culture contributor to CNN Headline News and Men’s Journal; Michelle Goldman, a partner at the venture capital firm Ignition Partners, who sits on the board of several digital media startups and is also an angel investor in fashion tech; Vanessa Kay, senior vice president at Moët Hennessy USA, who heads up the Veuve Clicquot, Krug, and Ruinart champagne brands; Edda Gudmundsdottir, a fashion designer and style consultant whose clients include companies like Lincoln Motor and Maybelline, as well as the singers Björk, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga; and Gulla Jónsdóttir, principal of Gulla Jónsdóttir Architecture & Design, a Los Angeles-based design studio, whose projects have included Sushi Roku, the Getty Center, and Euro Disney.

Ten student teams had the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to the judges—five teams in each of the two class sessions that Brown taught this spring. Ideas included ways to revive existing luxury brands (marketing diamonds Shreve, Crump & Low to a younger audience, for example) as well as ways to make mundane experiences more luxurious (such as a laundromat called “Linens and Lattes” that would let customers drink coffee, socialize, and surf the web while waiting for their clothes to dry).

Well into the night, the judges discussed the presentations over dinner at Harvest Restaurant in Harvard Square, where they compared notes and eventually voted. Winners were announced in class the following afternoon.

The judges (clockwise from top left): Goldman, Brown, Regis, Kay, Gudmundsdottir, and Jónsdóttir (Photo courtesy of Pauline Brown)

With few exceptions, the presentations seemed to target a millennial customer base—the presenters were selling to their peers. Asked at dinner whether the students had been specifically assigned to market to their peers, Brown laughed and shook her head. “The flaw is that who these students are now is not who they will be at 50,” Brown said. “Yet, they’re making big market decisions based on who and where they are today.”

Among the presentations:

  • Team Lincoln pitched the idea that Ford could lead the driverless car market with the Lincoln brand, marketing the backseat of an automobile as a warm, luxurious comfort zone, and wooing millennials with edgy features like “suicide doors,” which hinge at the rear of the door rather than the front. THE VERDICT: The judges liked the transformative idea of selling the riding experience rather than the driving experience, but thought the team could have pushed further. (“It wasn’t fully transformational,” Regis said.) The designers in the group loved the suicide doors because they would enable a dramatic arrival, but the venture capitalist hated them: “They’re called suicide doors for a reason,” Goldman said, explaining that the rear hinges increase the likelihood of falling out of a car and getting sucked underneath the wheels. “It may be a cool marketing thing for your target audience, but nobody’s going to drive their kids around in a car with suicide doors.”

  • Team Pan Am sought to revive the brand of the beloved but defunct airline with Worldport, a line of hotels named after a mid-century airport terminal at New York’s JFK airport. The idea: to redefine the airport hotel experience with nostalgic architecture and modern luxury, catering to business travelers and casual tourists alike. THE VERDICT: Overall, the judges, all seasoned travelers, loved the idea of reviving the Pan Am brand, but they wished the team had used it to create a luxurious airline, rather than a luxurious airport hotel. “I struggle with the idea of an airport hotel as a destination,” Kay said.

  • Team Hilton also targeted hotels—specifically, the existing Tru by Hilton brand, which currently caters to millennials but focuses more on price than on customer experience. Seeing an experiential opportunity, the team pitched “truescape,” which would let guests rent a localized wardrobe—fleece for Denver, cowboy boots for Dallas; connect with locals via a dedicated phone app; and book rooms with shared communal spaces. Guests would receive rewards for posting experiential selfies on Instagram and Snapchat. THE VERDICT: While none of the fashionista judges could imagine themselves renting a wardrobe from Hilton, they all admired the idea of creating an immersive, personalized, almost fantastic community experience in a chain hotel; hotels are notoriously lonely places, especially for frequent business travelers. “You took a boring, mediocre brand and made it special,” said Jónsdóttir, whose firm has designed spaces for several major hotels. (Jónsdóttir was so impressed by this project that she followed up by introducing the team to her connections at Hilton.)

  • Another team focused on the French streetwear company Vetements (French for “clothing”), an all-the-rage fashion company that specializes in expensive ironic hoodies and carefully crafted casual wear. Like any trendy fashion house, Vetements runs the risk of burning hot and fizzling out. The team’s idea: Prevent burnout by creating a dialog around the seemingly arbitrary nature of fashion pricing—and the fact that many people judge a garment’s quality based on its price tag. The strategy: Price two identical items next to each other on the same shelf, but at dramatically different prices. Promote periodic price mark-up events. And, eventually, start a conversation about truly rationalized pricing, tied to the actual cost of input for the producers, including the labor of impoverished women in developing countries. THE VERDICT: Love it or hate it—and there were strong opinions on both sides—the judges debated this team’s idea for almost an hour, and nobody could deny that the team had succeeded in its goal to get people talking. “Fashion needs a dialogue, and that’s what this is,” said Gudmundsdottir.

In the end, top honors went to TruHotel and Vetements. (Each won a magnum bottle of Veuve Clicquot Rose Champagne, courtesy of Kay.)

The winning teams distinguished themselves, Brown explained, not only by considering the aesthetic tastes and aspirations of their customer base, but also by coming up with truly innovative ideas that showed imagination and sparked conversations.

“Be bold,” Brown told the students. “The downside of playing it safe is much steeper than the downside of making mistakes and failing.”

Related Reading:

How Restaurants in Lima and Copenhagen Became Best in the World
The ‘Luxury Prime’: How Luxury Changes People
Building a Powerful Prestige Brand

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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