The Matter of Taste

The Matter of Taste


As seen in Fast Company

Whether apocryphal or not, the purported last words of bon vivant, tastemaker and wit Oscar Wilde were, “This wallpaper is dreadful, one of us will have to go.” But what is taste and how does one overcome the pernicious dynamic that when people lack taste they are unlikely to have the discernment to recognize it? This can be particularly problematic in corporate settings where leaders with bad taste – or no taste at all – make decisions that condemn the brands they run with execrable aesthetics or a blandness that consigns them to undistinguished oblivion in the middle of the pack.

We’ll talk about what we like, what we don’t and, at best, discuss what competitors are doing with their brands. But what is often left unarticulated is the logic that undergirds these choices — the shared taste that makes some branding decisions feel like a part of our community, while others leave us out in the cold.

Although we think of taste as something that exists outside the realm of business, more associated with personal style, fine dining and a night at the opera than anything as prosaic as the realities of work, the truth is that taste has a major impact on how brands are perceived, how they operate and whether or not they successfully differentiate from and rise above competitors.

Taste: I’ll Know It When I See It

So, what exactly do we mean by taste? It’s a value that’s difficult to find, yet absolutely critical to the level of achievement a brand is able to reach. We instantly know when a product, brand or message lacks taste, but may struggle to define exactly why this is. Many of us simply know bad taste when we see it — but we couldn’t define it if we tried.

This very intangibility that makes taste so critical is also the reason it can be such a difficult concept for brands to grasp. Unlike market research or comparison with competitors, figuring out how to convey the tastefulness of your brand can feel positively slippery.

Ultimately, it is its very intangibility that makes taste so critical to brand presentation and the way you’re perceived by the world. If your brand is perceived as tasteful, consumers will want to align themselves with it. If not, they’ll run screaming for the hills, no matter how valuable your offerings may be.

So, taste can be collaborative, but can it be taught?

Curiosity Broadens Horizons and Refines Taste

When the question of whether taste can be taught arises, it’s often framed as an issue of class and access. People who are raised in a tasteful atmosphere have it, and those who are not do not.

Photo of private school uniforms.

This definition has often led to the conclusion that the question of taste is a question of accessibility. To accuse someone or something of being in bad taste is to take a class position. And yet we all know, and instinctively shy away from, bad taste when we see it.

In truth, the reality of taste is more complex than this simple explanation allows for. Taste is indeed a function of exposure, but that exposure need not be limited to the insight your background creates. Instead, it is something that can be developed over a lifetime of empathetically connecting with the world around you.

We can acquire taste by interacting with the communities whose taste we aspire to, through travel and conversation, but also through media. Many of us develop taste by viewing films and television. Fans of shows like Succession or The White Lotus might scoff at the bad behavior of their wealthy characters, but the way they dress, act and speak references a current taste zeitgeist, for better or worse – often for worse, which is what makes such shows such a satisfying balm to the gluckschmerz we feel for these characters who have seemingly unlimited resources but the inability to find contentment despite their largess.

Viewed through this light, taste can be considered an expression of openness and curiosity, rather than a class issue. Anyone can develop taste if they have the will, patience and curiosity to pursue it — a conclusion that applies to both individuals and brands alike. The right brand consultancy partner can help guide you through this process, exploring the questions of taste through a commercial as well as aesthetic lens.

Taste As a Journey vs. a Destination 

So, how can a brand “learn” taste? An individual might travel the world, immerse themselves in unfamiliar environments and expose themselves to new communities, but how can this process be applied to developing the tastefulness of a brand?

World traveler map

You can think of tastemaking as a form of ethnographic research, interacting with “tasteful” environments, products and people, collecting what wisdom you discover and applying it to your own practice.

Many brands that publicly present themselves without the use of refined taste still succeed, such as value and discount brands that place their affordability front and center for the consumer. The lack of adornment and sophistication is an essential part of a value brand’s semiotics. No one would ever consider the Kirkland Signature logo an expression of refined, subtle artistry, but, these brands do exhibit tastefulness in foundational quality and community culture that they serve.

Because taste is a function of curiosity, delving more deeply into the subject with the expectation of learning something new allows brands to connect on a deeper level with their audience, building a relationship of real trust and understanding. By developing taste, brands create a distinctive and lasting presence that is all their own.

Now It’s Your Turn

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