Give ‘beauty’ a makeover

Published: 28-Jun-2012

We are all told not to judge a book by its cover and that looks aren’t everything but beauty does matter, says Vicky Bullen

We are all told not to judge a book by its cover and that looks aren’t everything but beauty does matter, says Vicky Bullen

Our culture is pretty clear about where it stands on the topics of beauty and appearance: they are superficial distractions that blind us to the truth or essence of the thing we are looking at. The word ‘beauty’ has become almost a synonym for shallow. By extension, the beauty industry is also seen in some circles as shallow. In her hugely influential book The Beauty Myth, radical writer Naomi Wolf argued that the very idea of ‘beauty’ has become a tool used by men to oppress women.

So God help you if you tried to seriously use the idea of beauty in a broader business context – say, marketing and branding. If you told your boss that you wanted your marketing to be ‘more beautiful’, chances are you would be dismissed as a dangerous airhead interested in pretty pictures at the expense of the bottom line.

Yes, all in all ‘beauty’ gets a bad press. But recent developments in evolutionary theory and neuroscience suggest that we might be doing beauty a disservice. Far from being an irrelevant and sometimes mendacious distraction, beauty is in fact a hugely important shortcut to profound inner truths, truths that might otherwise take years to reveal themselves.

Evolutionary theory tells us that beauty is essentially mental shorthand. It uses three key elements – proportion, symmetry and colour – to assess a prospective mate’s health, fertility and resistance to disease. It turns out that this shorthand is universal, regardless of race, class or age. Women with a waist to hip ratio of about 0.7 tend to be most fertile. Guess what? Men can spot that proportion at a glance, from a distance, in bad light – it’s exactly the hourglass shape that they find most attractive. And a 1994 study found that people whose bodies were most symmetrical had most sexual partners.

It’s hardly a great insight to say that the role of the beauty industry is to provide products that make us more ‘mateable’ but it’s fascinating to see how that is translated into products. Eye make-up invariably makes eyes look better defined and bigger. Large eyes are a characteristic of youth, which in turn is a marker of fertility. Foundation creates the appearance of an even skin tone, which is an indication of both youth and health. And lipstick is said to create the impression of sexual arousal: always a winner when it comes to attracting a mate.

Ok, it’s unlikely that mascara on its own will get anyone a husband. But according to US science journalist Jonah Lehrer, it does send out signals to possible suitors that you might be worth investigating further. And that, he argues, is precisely the role of beauty in other areas: painting, music, design and even business strategy. “Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity,” he says.

It derives much of its power from the most basic of all urges. But it’s also a learning signal, telling us that we should keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth investigating further. According to Lehrer, curiosity is fickle. We’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). The result is what he calls a mental itch, a desire for more information. We seek out the new information because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

If this is true, the implications for brands and branding are enormous. We now know from neuroscience that the human brain has two decision making systems: one instinctive and immediate, the other more analytical and considered. Between 90% and 95% of our decisions are made instinctively.

It’s clear that beauty is part of that instinctive decision making system. It influences all of our choices, not only of partners but also of the brands that we buy and love and how much we are prepared to pay for them. It sways our choice of foods, cars, technology, holidays the arts and, of course, cosmetics. In other words beauty has commercial impact.

In a very literal way this means that you should strive to make all your packaging, advertising and communications as beautiful as possible. But this doesn’t simply mean making them look good. Philosophers say beauty is truth. It’s also about skill, character and charisma. A beautiful brand is beautifully thought through. It takes the best of its qualities and histories, elevates them and enhances their value.

Beautiful brands demonstrate care, thought, attention to detail and crucially respect for the end user. Beauty creates a sense of pride and makes a brand desirable and ultimately successful.

So rather than dismissing beauty as a lightweight and deceptive notion, it would make much more sense to put it at the heart of everything we do. Do judge books by their cover. Looks tell you an awful lot about an object. And beauty may be only skin deep but it’s a pretty good indicator of what’s going on underneath.

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