The business case for beauty

Enduringly profitable companies have a quality that goes beyond hard metrics, argues designer and author Alan Moore.

by Alan Moore
Last Updated: 04 Jul 2019

Is the world a work of art? Nobel Prize winning scientist Frank Wilczek asked that remarkable question because he saw beauty in the fundamental laws of nature, which allow the flourishing of life.

Isn’t that what we all want, for life to flourish? So when a CEO asked me the other day if beauty and design could help his company become more profitable, I said, ‘why would you want to do it any other way?’

Although rarely discussed in annual reports, beauty is a powerful quality for a business to have. People experience the world qualitatively, not quantitatively. For those that love a number however, a Temkin survey shows that customers with a positive emotional experience of a company are six times more likely to buy more, twelve times more likely to recommend and five times more likely to forgive a mistake.

Beauty as a frame, philosophy, language even, shows how to build businesses that are more relevant and needed in the world we all live in today - businesses that build legacy, that go beyond sustainability, that are places the best people want to work for, and that deliver outstanding customer experience, all of which translates into long-term growth and profitability.

People buy beautiful things

The most obvious place for beauty in business is the design of your products and services.

Design is not incidental to modern economies – it is integral. Why? Because everything man-made is designed: culture, products, services, code, farming, architecture, materials, the chair you are sitting on, the back lit screen you are reading this on, you name it. And good design always starts with a beautiful question.

Xero is a software accountancy platform that serves SMEs. It is well designed, answering the question why do I spend so much time on accounting? End-to-end, elegant, simple, intuitive, innovative, ethical – Xero also uses automation to deliver a consistently superior quality service to its customers, globally. Nothing like Xero existed before Xero, which today is valued at £4.7bn.

The design of outstanding products and services delivering customer satisfaction results in sustained financial performance. McKinsey found that companies with the strongest commitment to design and that are most adept in their design execution generated 32 per cent more revenue and 56 per cent higher total returns to shareholders. Good design has always been good business.

Beautiful purpose

Companies can be beautiful in what they are as well as what they make. Beauty flows from purpose and, increasingly, successful companies are defined by their worldview.

Firms like Veja, Falcon Coffees, Interface and Patagonia attract more talent, and become more effective in decision making and leadership, by inculcating purpose into everything they do. They also grow in the right way, for the right reasons.

In a Harvard Business School 10-year study, purpose driven companies outperform counterparts in stock price by a factor of 12.

Beautiful culture

From purpose emerge workplace cultures built on a foundation of generosity, creating positive experiences that generate deeper engagement, wellbeing, community and trust.

Brunello Cucinelli has been making clothes since 1978. He pays his staff more than the average wage for their jobs, insists they work no longer than eight-and-a-half hours a day, and yearly gives away 20 per cent of his profits on what he calls "the gift".  He also runs an oversubscribed craft school.

His beautiful, listed company grows at 10 per cent every year. Cucinelli has developed a humanist business philosophy, "I would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals. Of course, I believe in a form of capitalism. I would just like it to be more human."

He’s onto something. A survey published in 2019 showed that improved wellbeing in the workplace can improve productivity by up to 25 per cent.

Beauty is regenerative

Beautiful businesses are also by their very nature sustainable because they take less, make better with less and waste nothing. More than that, they are regenerative, existing as part of living systems rather than trying to disrupt or destroy them. 

There is growing evidence that such companies are more resilient and financially successful. In a Deloitte study, 73 per cent of CFOs agree that there is a strong link between sustainable business and financial performance.

Geanne van Arkel, Head of Sustainable Development EMEA at flooring manufacturer Interface, explains, "We have no choice if we want to be in business in the medium and long term. We have changed our goals to become a company that is regenerative".

For example, Interface has built a supply chain harvesting fishing nets abandoned in the world’s oceans and is prototyping a process that delivers 2kgs of carbon savings for every metre of carpet tile it manufactures.

Beauty isn’t incompatible with rigour. It won’t hurt your bottom line or your return on equity to have a beautiful business with a beautiful culture, making beautiful products. Indeed, in the long term it could be one of your greatest assets.

Image credit: Ramakant Sharda/Pexels

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