A question of brand sense and sensibility

23rd May, 2014 by Anna Simpson

There’s a difference between appreciating the material world, and appropriating it, says Anna Simpson.

Critics of ‘affluenza’ – the desire to amass ever more wealth and goods to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ – have sometimes swept aside the material world altogether. But there’s a difference between appreciating the material world, and appropriating it. We all interact with the world around us every day, and each of us experiences it in a different way. Our senses make that experience possible, and determine the quality of it (how sensitive are our ears to sound or our eyes to light). Our aesthetics govern our response: whether we get frissons from low tones or soaring ones, whether spicy food is appealing or off-putting, and so on.

These tastes are very personal: there’s no right or wrong to them, whatever the trends of the season might dictate. Rather than tell us what our tastes should be, brands could get to know us better by asking those child-like questions: ‘What’s your favourite colour?’

This is what Wrap Art & Design, a high-end interior design firm catering to India’s upper class, specialises in. I asked Gunjan Gupta, the brand’s founder, to explain their approach to me: “It’s very customized, and this means taking the client’s own tastes, history, background, experiences into account. So, we start afresh. Very honestly, it’s a blank slate most of the time, and it’s very challenging! The concept phase is broken up into several meetings where we get to know the client. In India we have old traditional families with a very strong past that brings them from the villages into the urban centres of the country. As a result, they’re carrying with them huge heirlooms of craft and textiles. As a company, we believe in incorporating and integrating these into a contemporary story, rather than imposing a contemporary or a modern, international perspective onto the client. It really is bringing their story to the forefront of the design process.”

I ask for an example, and she explains that one client has a collection of jade and onyx figurines of traditional gods and goddesses, which has been in their family for the past hundred years or so. Wrap looked at the collection and decided that, instead of putting them into a traditional vitrine or showcasing them in ways that they would have been in the past, they’d create a sculptural chandelier out of them. “We feel there is a lot of value in them; my client’s family has collected them over a number of years.”

This sensibility to what her client values – from an emotional and aesthetic viewpoint (they’re related of course) – is why Gupta was named Designer of the Year at ELLE Deco International Design Awards in 2012.

For Adam Lowry, co-founder of the US home cleaning company Method, human aesthetics are a combination of our sensory experience and the desire to celebrate our communities and natural surroundings. As he sees it, our long-standing cultural appreciation of landscape and food plays out in our tastes: ‘“The human desire for beautiful things began with our appreciation of nature combined with the impulse to create things for ornamentation or ceremony. Those things became the totems of culture.’” This understanding shapes Method’s approach, which offers consumers sweet-smelling soaps in attractive bottles – all designed with respect for the natural world.

But the material world is no longer the only field for our senses. With the rise of the Internet of Things, we could soon see smart environments that anticipate our desire for a softer light, a cooler room, a brighter wallpaper. The opportunities to adapt our day-to-day contexts to suit our tastes may proliferate. Rather than argue over the colour of a wall, why not digitally change it from one meeting to the next? Or do we need to change it all? Can Google Glass simply offer us each our personal colour palette?  

This opens up a new playground for brands to explore our tastes and talk to us about the world we want to live in. Are they thinking how to use the Internet of Things to enrich our sensory experiences? Or how our aesthetics might change in a hyper-connected world? They should – or risk falling behind.     

This blog originally appeared on CSRwire. Anna Simpson is the Editor of Green Futures magazine, and author of ‘The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Photo credit: inxti/iStock/Thinkstock

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