Maslow & Branding: Aesthetics

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by: Jennifer Rice

OK, back to the series on Maslow and Branding. So far I've written about Security & Connection, Esteem and Control; these four have the most relevance to the widest audience. I believe every company must make an effort to address each of these needs in the way they do business. Some  may choose to focus their entire brand around one of these: Nordstrom's with Esteem, or IBM with Security. 

Aesthetic is the next core need on the pyramid (actually, Cognitive is next but I think Aesthetic is more important). A couple years ago, Virginia Postrel wrote a book called The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness in which she argues that increasingly wealthy and sophisticated customers demand "an enticing, stimulating, diverse, and beautiful world." The income range that aligns with this need continues to go down along with prices; yet perhaps this need is not based on income but pure psychographics. It's the difference between customers of WalMart and Target, or 7-11 and Starbucks.

Aesthetic used to be a nice-to-have, but it's increasingly becoming foundational. Witness the explosive success of Apple and the iPod, or the gotta-have Razr phone. Target is bringing designer style (Isaac, Oldham) to the masses, along with InStyle magazine and "The Look for Less" show. Starbucks combined coffee with an aesthetic environment. Barnes & Noble did the same for books. There are now 250 bathroom faucets from which to choose.

Style is important because it's an external representation of our own self-image. What we wear, drive, carry… they're all badges to demonstrate who we are. It makes me wonder if Aesthetic really is the core need; perhaps it' something much more basic, like 'validation of self-existence.' Perhaps style is our subconscious way of defining who we are, or attracting a mate (like peacocks and bird plumage).

This is an interesting challenge for brands. It means you must have either a distinctive style that a subgroup is attracted to (meaning you can't be all things to all people)… OR you offer ways that your product or service can be customized to suit their diverse aesthetic preferences.  And don't think this is just for 'consumer' goods. Business people are consumers too; they don't leave their aesthetic desires at home. For example, a good friend of mine who's a programmer and serial entrepreneur is obsessed with writing "elegant code."

Has your company considered the importance of aesthetics to your customers?

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