Beauty sells, but not when only skin deep

How important is beauty still in sales?

In times when authenticity, cred-inline-blockility and genuineness seem to have become more important, one may argue that things do not need to look good anymore in order to convince a potential customer. Is it still necessary to have a good-looking website, product or sales presentation? And if so, is that what really makes the difference for a brand?

Pleasing the human eye

Back in 1984, marketing guru Philip Kotler and Alexander Rath stated that “Design is a potent strategic tool that companies can use to gain a sustainable competitive advantage…It communicates value to the consumer, makes selection easier, informs, and entertains.”

Since then, brands like Apple and Nike have proven that these statements make sense. Nike doubled its worldwide revenues over the last 10 years. Apple sold 150x more iPhones in 2017 than in 2007, the year they were launched. Both focus heavily on beautiful design in their strategies.

Even though for some it seems all too logical, there’s actually a few reasons to actually believe that making something visually appealing still seems indispensable in marketing and sales. Recent studies corroborate that pleasing the human eye indeed makes companies sell more. Companies that invest in ‘good’ design see their financial and company performance go up 4 times more than companies that don’t. Premium design warrants a higher price, for one thing. Moreover, attractive ‘accessories’ offered alongside the ‘main’ product generally make us buy more.

Visual attractiveness helps in providing a consistent brand experience as well. Imagine a well-dressed and highly presentable sales rep showing up for an important sales presentation. All built-up expectations get torpedoed, however, when he or she starts the first slide of a dull and unattractive slide deck. It happens all too often.

And then there is the aspect of speed, which is particularly relevant in these digital times. Speed is of the essence to grab a customer’s attention. Today, a website has 50 milliseconds to catch the eye of the visitor and make a good impression.3 And this is where the beauty of beauty lies: nice looking images sell because they create emotional connections fast. They can do that because our brain was built to interpret the visual world rather than text.


And yet, in spite of all this evidence to support using beauty and design to attract and convince customers, there are also opposing arguments. One is that too much beauty scares people off. Even when beautiful things attract us, we all seem to have developed an internal radar that warns us about the fact that we’re being taken for a ride.

We all know the ‘Real Beauty’ advertising campaign, launched by Dove more than a decade ago, which – in spite of criticism – proved to be a tremendously successful strategy. The evolution towards more ‘authenticity’ in marketing, of which Dove campaign is an exponent, has been vitalised by the explosion of social media as well. Today, celebrities get more views and likes on their Instagram selfies using #IWokeUpLikeThis hashtags than on a polished music video.

Another problem when relying only on visual beauty, is the human attention span, which according to sources lasts no longer than 8 seconds (which is less that of a goldfish)4. So, in practice it is a huge challenge to keep people excited once they stopped and turned to look at your pleasing image or design.

And finally, let’s not forget that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is no universal truth to determine what’s beautiful. What’s adorable for one half of the world’s population, may be plain ugly to the other half. What was considered attractive last year (or even last month) may no longer be so charming today.

More than meets the eye

In order to cut through people’s distrust of beauty and keep their attention, you may need something more than just a nice visual. You need a good story. A narrative that does not tell people how great your product or company is. But one that taps into the emotion of your audience, links up to their world and challenges to your world as a brand. A well-crafted story solidifies the initial connection made (often through attractive visuals) and turns it into an emotional experience and a relationship of trust. And trust is the foundation of most of our buying decisions.

Again there is scientific evidence to support this. One study indicated that when we are captivated by a story, our brains behave in a way so that we actually start living the experiences of the protagonists of that story. Stories can also make us buy stuff. Recent experiments in the retail business showed that when people are shown stories next to products instead of standard descriptions, they are willing to spend more money on it. (6)

So going back to our initial questions. Is beauty still relevant in sales? Does anything need to look good anymore in order to convince a potential customer? The answer is yes…but NOT when it’s only skin deep.

The real beauty, the one that both captivates and convinces your audience, lies in the combination of visual appeal AND the story behind it. An attractive visual element (and don’t forget: it’s in the eye of the beholder…) can help you to make a good first impression, and to make people process information faster and connect to you. Yet, once you get someone’s attention, you need to captivate them and take them from a mere connection to an emotional experience. Here, visuals can help, but what you really need is a truthful and authentic story. One that ensures that your customers stay focused and make them trust and believe you.

(1) Statista 2017
(2) The value of design, UK Design Council, 2007
(3) Attention web designers: You have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression! Gitte Lindgaard, Gary Fernandes, Cathy Dudekx and J. Brown, Human-Oriented Technology Lab, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, 2006
(4) Microsoft, 2013
(5) Human Brain Activity TimeLocked to Narrative Event Boundaries, Washington University, 2007
(6) Origin/Hill Holliday, 2017