Senior living executives who are striving to differentiate their companies from the competition, meet rising consumer expectations and increase industry penetration rates could make progress toward those goals by increasing their aesthetic intelligence.
That’s the message from Pauline Brown, former chairman of the North American division of LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton — an enterprise that includes more than 70 iconic brands, including fashion houses Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Christian Dior, as well as Dom Perignon champagne and cosmetics giant Sephora.
Brown also taught a popular Harvard Business School course called “The Business of Aesthetics,” which formed the basis of her recently published book, “Aesthetic Intelligence.”
In formulating her Harvard course, Brown specifically wanted to pass on insights and ideas that could apply to enterprises across a broad range of industries. She hit on the notion of “aesthetics.” She believes a better approach to aesthetics could benefit any business — including senior living — but aesthetic intelligence is often lacking and misunderstood, she told Senior Housing News.
The meaning of aesthetics
Executives in senior living — and other industries — may bristle at the notion of “aesthetics,” if they associate the term more with art than business, Brown acknowledged. For example, the phrase “aesthetically pleasing” is commonly used to describe something that is beautiful to look at, such as a work of art.
But as she defines it, aesthetics is not just about creating a beautifully designed product or a building that is stunning to the eye. Rather, aesthetics encompasses all five senses.
“An aesthetic experience can be visually beautiful, but it’s also about how things feel on your fingers, it’s how they smell; it’s how, if you go into a restaurant, it’s the lighting, it’s the acoustics, it’s really a full-body experience,” she told SHN. “Good aesthetic experiences typically will delight at least two and preferably three of the five senses.”
The word “delight” is a key one in that definition. The term delight has gained a reputation as a business buzzword with Silicon Valley origins. However, Brown believes that the concept of delight has not received its proper due.
“I don’t think it’s been buzzy enough, for the value of it,” she said.
That value lies in reaching consumers in a profound way, which Brown believes separates the most successful businesses from the pack — even though it’s difficult to calculate an exact financial return-on-investment for this type of connection with the consumer.
“It’s about exercising, on the part of the business person, the entrepreneur, the manager, whoever that person is, a great deal of empathy about how will various touch points that I’m able to control feel to the user?” she said. “When you get it right, it puts you in such a different league of business or service provider than just those who are merely satisfying basic expectations.”
The language she uses to describe this shift from “satisfaction” to “delight” should resonate with senior living providers that are aiming to create more person-centered communities that focus on residents’ overall wellness and sense of purpose:
“I’d love to see business people get away from thinking about needs, which are usually defined by function and features and very commodity-like experiences, and get toward making people, on whatever level you’re aiming for, feel more alive,” she said.
Aesthetic intelligence in action
Creating rich aesthetic experiences for consumers requires business leaders to carefully consider how end-users will receive and interact with a product or service, but this does not mean that senior living leaders should simply make decisions based on the feedback of residents or potential residents, Brown clarified.
“What you find — for example, in the luxury industry or the hospitality industry — is that if you leave it to the consumer to tell you what would excite them, what would be the next level of experience or emotional resonance, they will probably tell you 10% of what you actually could do,” she said. “In a lot of these industries, it’s moving well beyond what people even know to expect.”
To achieve this level of innovation and exceed what customers “even know to expect” is difficult, but one potential starting point for business leaders is to cultivate their personal aesthetics and then extend those into their company.
Brown cited the example of private equity giant The Carlyle Group, where she was a managing director prior to joining LVMH. Carlyle Group’s New York office has a stripped-down, almost makeshift aesthetic that reflects the personality and backstory of co-founder and co-executive chairman David Rubinstein — self-made, simple, unadorned. Compare this to the office of Henry Kravis’ KKR, which features dark wood paneling and valuable art, and exudes power and prestige.
KKR and Carlyle are similar firms that both have proven track records of delivering financial returns, and so the reason why an investor or seller chooses to work with one versus the other often comes down to which aesthetic speaks to them more strongly, Brown argued. Some people are reassured that Carlyle is focused on the work and not on the trappings of wealth, while others are reassured by the visual evidence of KKR’s success.
“You must be willing to bring all of your personality — the personal and the professional — to your effort. This is what makes experiences — and aesthetic choices — feel authentic,” Brown wrote in her book. “Its necessity is most apparent in businesses focused on personal care, fashion, and one-on-one interactions, but it’s also become imperative for businesses not typically associated with aesthetics, such as industrial goods, technology, commodities, health care and financial services.”
About half of Brown’s book focuses on practical steps that business leaders can take to enhance their personal and professional aesthetic intelligence. For instance, her chapter “Tuning In To Taste” uses food as the starting point for better understanding aesthetic intelligence, and includes case studies on how businesses such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream leveraged their founders’ personal aesthetics into massive success. A practical tip that may be particularly relevant for senior housing: perform a “sensorial audit” of environments in a community, focusing on how they appeal to — or negatively impact — all five senses.
Another chapter focuses on how business leaders can enhance their personal aesthetic intelligence and translate that into their professional lives. One exercise is considering what Brown calls the “four Cs” — clarity, consistency, creativity and confidence. Clarity, for instance, might be manifested in how well a person’s outer appearance signals their inner values. This has clear applications to business, given that a company’s aesthetics should similarly signal its values.
Aesthetic intelligence in senior living
In the current senior housing environment, where new competition has flooded certain markets, providers that exercise aesthetic intelligence should gain valuable competitive differentiation, Brown believes.
This differentiation will stem from the fact that if executives harness aesthetic intelligence to reflect their own values as well as enhance their consumers’ experiences, they can’t help but offer a unique product. This is particularly true for businesses like senior living, where consumers currently are basing their purchase decisions on criteria that pass a “very low bar” — for example, a building’s location and price point.
“I live in a very dense part of the country in Long Island, New York … so there should be plenty of capacity for senior living,” Brown said. “And let’s just take one price point … There’s no reason that within that price point there can’t be three or five or ten distinctly different experiences speaking to the different interests and desires of older men and women within that geography.”
This is an observation that some senior living leaders themselves have expressed, including industry veterans such as Eclipse Senior Living CEO Kai Hsiao and newcomers like Niki Leondakis, the former Kimpton Hotels president who is now leading The Wolff Company’s senior living operations. Both Hsiao and Leondakis have noted that this type of product differentiation is well-established in the hotel industry, and Brown agrees with their assessment. She believes that senior housing providers that are taking cues from the hospitality industry are on the right track, particularly those inspired by boutique hotels.
“By boutique, I don’t mean smaller — niche — I mean, specific,” Brown said. “The idea of what the personality is of any one facility cannot come from a boardroom and cannot come from consumer market research. It really has to come from somebody — [whether] sitting in a Steve Jobs-like position or maybe it’s a general manager at the facility itself — who really knows the community, who knows who he or she is trying to attract, and who can tend to all the details that go into making that experience exactly what he or she wants it to be.”
A focus on specificity does not preclude scalability, she noted. Apple’s aesthetic is highly specific and yet so strongly articulated that it engenders widespread admiration, even from people with very different personal aesthetics, she noted. However, she also believes that the trend is for even very large brands to create more distinct, personalized experiences. For instance, today’s shoppers don’t want the same experience at a Louis Vuitton store in Paris that they get at a Vuitton store in Manhattan.
If the application of aesthetic intelligence can increase the density of successful senior housing buildings, it follows that industry penetration rates — notoriously stuck around the 10% range — will rise. While Brown did not know this exact penetration rate number for the industry, she diagnosed that senior living’s consumer appeal is limited because it is often a needs-based decision or one borne out of practicality.
“What I would love to see — going back to this idea of how you could apply aesthetic intelligence to the sector — is actually, could this [product] be re-created so that, maybe not 10 out of 10, but 5 out of 10 [seniors] would say, wow, I am lucky to be able to enjoy a couple of years in this environment?”
Increasing the penetration rate of senior living may also be contingent on being able to offer more affordable options, and Brown emphasized that aesthetic intelligence can and should be applied across the board, not simply in luxury products or services.
She used public schools as an example, noting that “99%” of schools she’s been through have chosen their paint based on utilitarian considerations such as resistance to graffiti. School leaders have spared little thought for how the choice of color, sheen, and other factors will be experienced by students and faculty, and enhance or compromise their sensorial experience and their ability to learn and teach.
A more aesthetically intelligent paint does not have to be a more expensive paint, she said. A school is going to spend a certain amount of money on paint regardless, and that paint is likely to be a better investment if decisionmakers are more mindful about their choice from an aesthetic viewpoint.
If these potential benefits aren’t compelling in their own right, the fact remains that consumers may force senior living providers to become more aesthetically intelligent in the coming years. Other companies, from behemoths like Apple to scrappy startups like Warby Parker eyewear, are raising the bar on what consumers expect in terms of their aesthetic experiences.
So, as senior living strives to meet the rising boomer demographic, aesthetic intelligence could prove a necessity. But Brown emphasized that the goal should be more ambitious than simply meeting the market.
“I think that every business has a higher bar today than even 10 years ago,” Brown said. “What I would press here, though, is that it’s not just about keeping up — it’s about leaping ahead and getting in front of the market.”