Former LVMH North America Chair Pauline Brown Discusses Aesthetic Intelligence

Pauline Brown

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Georgetown McDonough welcomed Pauline Brown, former chairman of LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) North America and author of Aesthetic Intelligence, to discuss how she has applied her own aesthetic intelligence during her time at companies such as Estée Lauder and LVMH. The virtual event was presented by the Stanton Distinguished Leaders Series, Georgetown Retail & Luxury Association, and MBA Alumni Advisory Council’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.

Aesthetic intelligence, according to Brown, is the ability of the individual to ascertain what is pleasurable and why. She said beauty is lacking in the business world, and she wants to bring it back. 

“The argument I make in Aesthetic Intelligence is the power of taste/aesthetic intelligence to not only lead businesses in effective ways, but also create and transform companies to be relevant,” she said. 

Brown has found that many companies focus too much on price and functionality and not enough on the aesthetic appeal to the consumer. She calls this failure of taste aesthetic empathy. 

To describe aesthetic empathy, she gave the example of Google Glass, a product she felt failed due to its physical appearance. 

“Google Glass didn’t fail because it was too expensive, or because of its functionality. It failed because it looked stupid,” she said. “That is a real example of a failure of aesthetic empathy.” 

Brown said she divides businesses into three categories: rule-makers, rule-takers, and rule-breakers. For example, Walmart would be a rule-maker, Target would be a rule-taker, and Tesla would be a rule-breaker. While some rule-takers can perform well, like Target, it is never best to be a rule-taker, as “rule-takers can never beat rule-makers,” Brown said. 

Brown emphasized that a product that looks appealing but lacks innovation also is not the best approach for a company. 

“When I’m working with product designers, I say they should stop seeking this sort of idyllic perfection, and the symmetry, and the supermarket approach to the clean and methodical aisles. They should start thinking more about discovery and surprise,” she said. 

Companies like McDonald’s have mastered this method through what Brown calls brand codes. For McDonald’s, these brand codes would include the sight of the golden arches or even the smell of their french fries. While brand codes can take years to develop, they are instantly recognizable, and lead to great businesses. 

At the end of the discussion, Brown shared her advice on what she looks for in hiring business school students. 

“Most skills can be taught, but it is very hard to give people fire. It is very hard to find people who have the energy and the motivation and the will to work through tough issues,” she said. “Generally, it isn’t the acumen that gets to the solution, but the determination.”