How Aristotle Built a Luxury Brand

Of the many words used to describe Brunello Cucinelli - business person, entrepreneur, philanthropist, designer - the term philosopher is probably most appropriate. His eponymous fashion company, founded in 1978, grew from selling its first 53 cashmere sweaters to a publicly traded global powerhouse, with annual revenue in excess of $450 million and a market capitalization of more than $1.5 billion. I spoke with him recently about his ability to create a hugely successful yet stable enterprise that continues to grow in the brutally dynamic world of luxury retail; something he says is a testament to his philosophical approach to business. 

Cucinelli’s is very much a rags-to-riches story: he grew up poor, first living in the countryside as a farmer and ultimately moved to the city where his father found work in a factory. It was his father’s negative experiences in the factory that led Cucinelli to imagine the way things could be. Self-taught, he began reading books, exposing himself to thinkers of the past while conjuring up a plan to build an organization that was altogether different from those his father worked for; one that valued the mind, body, and secular soul of its employees.

Works of philosophy, literature, and poetry informed the composition and growth of his company to such an extent that passages from the likes of Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky adorn the village walls of Solomeo, the tiny Italian hamlet in which his company is headquartered. The company philosophy is built from philosophy itself, which Cucinelli considers to be a primary reason for their tremendous success. 

“They all speak to our humanity,” he told me. “Every poetic, philosophical, or literary work - provided it is of the highest quality - speaks to people today about women and men who once experienced the very same emotions, the same problems, the same hopes, the same ideas. The direct contact with these experiences triggers the spark that improves the individual’s soul and thus supports the growth of the company where those very same people are employed.” 

Now, 40 years after the company’s founding, cognitive science and research into the effectiveness of organizations shows that Brunello Cucinelli’s reliance upon great works from the past was more than just a clever way to create an intellectual and humanistic company culture. It turns out Cucinelli was well ahead of his time (like many of the thinkers that adorn his walls) implementing a recipe for professional success that until recently was unknown to the business world. 

In 2012 Google launched an initiative, aptly named Project Aristotle, to study why some teams work and others fail. Their hypothesis was that high-performing teams were the result of central casting; that personality types should be paired accordingly so a marketing team wasn’t full of introverts. After analyzing over 50 years of academic studies on organizational performance and conducting experiments on their own teams, Google was finally able to prove what worked, and their initial hypothesis was, in their words, “dead wrong.”

According to Google’s data, high-performing teams share one common trait: they possess exceedingly high levels of emotional intelligence. “High-performing teams aren’t the result of happy accident…They achieve superior levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration because their members trust one another, share a strong sense of group identity, and have confidence in their effectiveness as a team.” 

Cucinelli’s success was undoubtedly due, in part, to the impressive performance of his many teams. According to the Harvard Business Review, “teams that enjoy high levels of [emotional intelligence] have established norms that strengthen trust, group identity, and group efficacy. As a result, their members cooperate more fully with one another and collaborate more creatively.” But how did he manage to instill such high levels of emotional intelligence, and consequently such high levels of performance? Well, the writing, literally, was on the wall.

Those passages engraved on the medieval walls of Solomeo, and upon which the company is both literally and figuratively built, provide more than just a nice design aesthetic. Research shows they are remarkably good at developing the skills associated with emotional intelligence. According to a recent groundbreaking piece published in Science Magazine: “the currently predominant view is that literary fiction - often described as narratives that focus on in-depth portrayals of subjects' inner feelings and thoughts - can be linked to [emotional intelligence] processes.” Exposure to literary fiction is so effective at developing these skills that researchers have even been able to develop human values withinartificial agents

By exposing a person - or robot - to humanistic texts, you are, not surprisingly, making them more human and subsequently better teammates. For Cucinelli, the logic is simple: “the time of man and the time of culture are both very slow-moving, so in most cases the thoughts of people who lived, say, in the 6th century B.C. are still valid today; the only fundamental difference is that the ancient masters relied upon philosophy rather than technology to inform their thinking.” 

Fortunately, businesses are starting to recognize the value of Cucinelli’s methods, and he offers a simple proposition to the naysayers: “I suggest they believe in human dignity and I always tell them to come to Solomeo, I would be very delighted to welcome them.” For those unable to travel to Solomeo, structured programs now exist for professionals that are partially grounded in Cucinelli’s philosophy. These programs, which are led by accomplished professionals like Dr. David Brendel, leverage the mind, body, soul approach to enhance strategic thinking, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. 

By addressing these foundational cornerstones, organizations experience increased levels of performance, happiness, and innovation. It not only prepares your company for growth over the next 3 years, but, as Cucinelli says, positions it for exponential growth over the next 300 years. As companies plan for the future, Aristotle may be their most valuable employee, because empirical evidence suggests engaging with the timeless, practical wisdom presented by history’sgreatest thinkers is one of the most powerful engines for professional and economic growth in the 21st century.

(This article originally appeared on LinkedIn)