The economy may be down, but expectations are rising—fueled by a populace that wants not only service, function and reliability, but also sensory experience. “Businesses today face an aesthetic imperative. Style can no longer be an afterthought. It has become a critical source of product identity and economic value. The desire for interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful sensory experiences is everywhere,” writes Virginia Postrel, author of “The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness.” Postrel cites Starbucks as the “touchstone” of the movement: “Every Starbucks store is carefully designed to enhance the quality of everything the customers see, touch, hear, smell or taste. All the sensory signals have to appeal to the same high standards. The artwork, the aromas, the surfaces all have to send the same subliminal message as the flavor of the coffee: Everything here is best-of-class,” writes Starbucks Chairman Howard Schulz in “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time.” Postrel notes that the competitive advantage achieved through aesthetics may be short-lived. “But in a competitive market, investing in aesthetics isn’t a sure route to profits. It’s a cost of staying in the game.”

Strategy+Business Fall 2003