Aesthetic Theory - The Study of Beauty & How it Applies to Branding

Academic Sources: Aesthetic Theory by Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Style as a Poststructural Business Ethic by John Dobson


In this post we take a look at the study of aesthetic theory and investigate how companies like Nike have understood beauty and art to apply it to their corporate strategy. Please note that aesthetic theory is incredibly complex, so the following is only an overview - consider picking up the books linked to below this post for more on aesthetic theory. 

Aesthetic theory, pioneered by German philosopher Theodor Adorno, is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of art that applies sociology, political philosophy, and metaphysics in order to understand art and beauty. In his seminal publication Aesthetic Theory, Adorno recounts the sociohistorical origins of art in order to understand the function of beauty and the relationship between art and society. Aside from attempting to understand the nature of art and beauty, Adorno also attempts to answer the Hegelian question of whether art can truly survive in a neoliberal capitalist world and the Marxist question of whether art can contribute to the transformation of the world.

In tracing art’s historical origin and significance, Adorno posits that all art has functionally pursued the shared objective of freedom and autonomy. However, he argues that art has never truly been free because it has never been able to escape restrictions like the cultism of popularity and trends or the restrictions imposed by state, bureaucracy, or economic/financing systems. Meanwhile, he observes that art has always been permanently embedded in society because of its necessity in performing certain functions like social commentary and abetting in political agendas. Adorno declares art to be,” the social antithesis of society,” because of the contradictory nature of its simultaneous embeddedness/necessity in capitalist society and its futile pursuit of autonomy/freedom (Adorno). The tension inherent in art is that it paradoxically presents itself as a manifestation of freedom and autonomy while at the same time existing as a function of the capitalist society which harnesses and restricts the artist. Adorno argues that the immediate, perceptual, and emotional effects that create pleasure in beauty comes from the tension generated by this paradox.

In short, art works against capitalist society and capitalist society works against art. However, art and society ironically need each other. This is the tension Adorno refers to that makes art so appealing and makes beauty beautiful.

In Aesthetic Style as a Poststructural Business Ethic, John Dobson analyzes the firm’s place in the aesthetic world, arguing that style is the essence of the firm. Dobson observes that,” ongoing experimental research in psychology indicates that aesthetic impact in general has a powerful influence on both our perception of the world, and how we act in the world,” – citing a study that demonstrated how humans are aesthetically impacted by an object even if it is shown to us for just a fraction of a second, proving that aesthetic impressions can often be subconscious. The same study cited by Dobson also demonstrates that aesthetic judgements have a significant impact on our non-aesthetic evaluation of things – “Improving the aesthetics of a system can have many benefits which extend beyond affective issues… Users of an ATM perceived the system to be easier to use based solely on its aesthetic appearance; attractive things work better,” (Dobson).

In essence, Dobson argues that the firm is an aesthetic production just like the ATM because firms project a range of aesthetic stimuli that flood our senses including logos, products, advertising, architecture, and even the phonetic impact of the firm’s name. In experiencing the firm as an aesthetic object, we objectify it and enter a unique psychological relationship with it. Dobson uses the example of Nike – “Nike Inc. in its physical presence of employees, corporate offices, financial statements, etc. is a style-less nexus of contracts… However, when I sensually experience Nike’s logo, advertising, products – I aesthetically distance myself from ‘Nike-as-a-nexus-of-contracts.’ I do not see this latter physical and intellectual presence. What I see is myself reflected in Nike’s stylicstic prism of athletic-grace-and-prowess…Thus, at the most basic sensory level Nike Inc. is this stylized projection of myself.” Here, Dobson illustrates exactly how the style-less physical composition of a firm (composed of contracts and offices) can leverage sensory stimuli to transform into an aesthetic object, a stylized entity that can be consumed and channeled by others. It’s important to note that style and design are not the same – design refers to physical characteristics (like the lacing and materials of a Nike shoe) whereas style refers to the aesthetic relationship between an individual and the shoe (a relationship wherein an individual assigns human qualities to it like athletic grace and prowess).


Branding Nike

Following this logic, any firm’s fundamental being resides in its many unique aesthetic relationships with a myriad of individuals. Dobson observes that firms who benefit from positive aesthetic relationships are the firms who manage to project a style that is consistently interpreted among individuals. In order for style to be successfully commodified, there must be a shared consensus among many individuals as to what qualities are being assigned to the firm’s products or services. For management, this means that the sensory stimuli being projected by the firm (like product designs, marketing, press releases, logos) must be consistent and must encourage the association of socially desirable and grandiose qualities – the firm must be unanimously perceived as an aesthetic whole. According to Friedrich Nietzche,” the point of wearing masks is not so much to deceive as to grow into them,” – accordingly, a firm must be able to offer their customers a mask to wear that can project their desired qualities (Dobson). Dobson concludes that the firms who can offer their individuals the ‘masks’  that can fulfill their desire for beauty and desirability will be the most successful. In transcending it’s physical form and forming relationships with individuals that portray the firm as an aesthetic object, the firm becomes a work of art.

This was only a brief overview of aesthetic theory and how it can be applied - it only scratched the surface. If you're interested and you'd like to learn more, order the following reads and add them to your collection: