Taste: The secret ingredient

A client and I were recently analysing the surprising success of the canned water brand Liquid Death, now valued at over $700 million.  In case you’re not familiar with it, Liquid Death is notable because the entire brand is essentially one big joke – it’s water (obviously a pure and healthy substance), presented in a “dangerous” heavy metal kind of way (the very opposite).  And that’s it really, that’s the gag.  A gag that is worth almost a billion dollars.

Naturally the brand has been the source of much theorising and analysis, a lot of it very instructive.  For one thing, not many brands are built wholly on irony in this way – however perhaps they should be, given how meta and self-referential popular culture has become.  For another, the brand is resolutely narrow and non-inclusive – blasting a hole in the obviously fallacious argument that big brands need to have explicitly broad appeal.

But what I think is particularly interesting about Liquid Death is one thing I haven’t heard people comment on: its impeccable taste.

I don’t mean taste in the food sense here, I mean taste like “taste in music” or “tastefulness”.  The kind of taste some people supposedly just have, and others just don’t.  That slippery quality that is almost impossible to define, and yet which we clearly know exists.  Taste – or lack of it – is the silent metric that permeates absolutely everything we create, and which has a far bigger bearing on success or failure than we’d care to admit.

Liquid Death gets away with being one big facile joke simply because it is executed with exquisite taste.  There’s no need to analyse it, you can feel it.  Everything is simply right, elegant, and even beautiful – even if it’s not the sort of thing that you personally are into.  The tastefulness of the execution means that you take it seriously, even though you know the whole thing on a conceptual level is kind of dumb.  It makes the joke land, rather than winding up as a mere novelty product.

Pretty much every great brand is tasteful like this, regardless of its strategic positioning or creative concept.  It is this tastefulness that makes them magnetic.  It is a quality which, yes, is largely aesthetic – but not exclusively.  It also governs a sensitivity to messaging, knowing just how far to push things and in what context.  And even a sensitivity to concepts – product concepts, advertising concepts etc.

So what exactly is it?

Official definitions are pretty vague: “a person’s ability to judge and recognise what is good or suitable”.  This clearly illustrates why taste is so powerful and important, but it still begs the question of what defines goodness or suitability in the first place.  My punt would be something like:

The ability to intuitively discern the intrinsic harmony within something.

All man made things – a business, a piece of clothing, a painting, a film, a house – are collections of parts, and these parts can be gathered in a way that is fundamentally harmonious or not.  When something is harmonious it is appealing; it is “right”.  That which is tasteful therefore is that which would be pleasing to a broad swathe of people – regardless of their personal taste.

A person with bad taste is capable of identifying things they like personally, for some reason particular to them, but they aren’t capable of identifying things which are attractive generally, in an objective sense.

That then is the power of good taste: the effortless ability to know what people will find attractive.  A pretty useful skill, I think you’d agree!

Of course, some people would say that such objective attractiveness and harmony doesn’t exist, and that everything is subjective – but this is obviously false.  Paris is considered the most beautiful and tasteful city in the world, and is also the most visited.  Canonical works of art, literature, and music are generally liked and admired regardless of personal taste.  And of course pretty much everybody is attracted by the beauty in nature, since nature is intrinsically harmonious by its very definition (a tree is a more tasteful artefact than humanity’s finest creation, I’d suggest).

No, objective standards definitely exist, and thus so does taste; and the tasteful definitely outperforms the tasteless when all else is accounted for.

Sometimes we can be guilty of equating taste with premiumness or luxury, but that would be an error.  Although on average luxury items are more likely to be tasteful than non-luxury ones, simply because we can charge more for the tasteful than the tasteless, there is nothing to say that the cheap can’t be more tasteful than the expensive.  You can easily have a tasteful hostel and a tasteless 5 star hotel.  Their intrinsic harmony (or lack thereof) is unrelated to the job that they are trying to do.

If we accept the importance of taste then, the next question is how can we cultivate it?

I would suggest that just as a wine expert can train their palate by drinking lots of fine wine, and a musician can train their ear by listening to lots of music, so too can anyone “train their taste” by observing lots of things that are tasteful.  How do you know what is tasteful if you yourself don’t yet have the ability to discern?  Well that’s easy: the world has helpfully categorised the finest examples of every artform.  The finest paintings, the finest buildings, the finest books, the finest films – they’re all there at your fingertips, pre-selected by those with taste in those fields.

By elevating your cultural diet like this so too can you elevate your general taste – which, up to a point, is a genre-crossing ability.  Of course there is some domain specificity here.  I wouldn’t necessarily expect a classical music expert to be a master in selecting, say, a brand logo.  But even so we should view appreciation as a general skill, at which we can suck or excel, not merely a neutral action.

Understand this:

By learning to appreciate we learn to discern.  And by learning to discern we learn to decide.  And by learning to decide, we learn to strategise.

A so-called “classical education” – now much out of favour – was built on this forgotten idea.  By teaching students to appreciate the finest creations of the species, you also indirectly improved their real world effectiveness.  But in our overly literal and mechanised world today, we don’t quite get this anymore.

In short, I think the implications of this idea are quite profound.

By cultivating good taste you will find yourself making better decisions in unrelated fields with zero additional effort or intelligence.

That’s crazy when you think about it.  An entire metric of thought which is both impactful but also ignored.  So if you want to uncover a bit of leverage, it might be worth a look.

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