Aspiration is the pinnacle that all experience-driven commerce strategies should strive for. Truly revolutionary content marketing speaks to who customers want to become, not just what they need. Solving consumers’ problems will get you off to a strong start—until the next brand comes along and does it better. Align your brand with individuals’ goals and dreams, and you will forge a deep loyalty that can’t be easily replaced.

If you’ve been following my series on experience-driven commerce, you know that great customer experiences are built on interactivity, data-based insight, and customer preference, with aspiration forming the final pillar. You can’t become an aspirational brand without first engaging your audience, understanding their needs and behaviors, and listening to their preferences. Once you’ve built a solid marketing structure, you can begin addressing their deepest aspirations throughout communications and content.

When you achieve aspiration, your brand earns its own distinct cachet. Even if you’re not a luxury brand, you can rise above competing on price point and convenience, and trade on your value, quality, benefits, and prestige. As Epic Content Marketing guru, Joe Pulizzi, puts it

Instead of basic features like “saving the company money” and “being a low-cost solution,” let’s raise the bar to things like “giving our customers more free time to live the lives they want to” or “being a person that can make a difference in the world.”

It Starts with Your Own Aspiration

Before GoldieBlox was tapping into the aspirations of parents, teachers, young girls, and feminists, the startup had its own aspiration: to give girls an opportunity to take an interest in building things, and lay the foundation for future female engineers. The entire concept of the toy construction sets and their accompanying storybooks is built on the Debbie Sterling’s personal goal to “get girls building.” Because her product and messaging—including a viral video—were so tightly integrated with this clear aspiration, she was able to attract a passionate fan base of people who shared her vision. Her audience became committed to supporting her product (raising nearly $300k on KickStarter) because they were committed to her aspiration.

Not every company starts out with such a clear or lofty goal in mind, but at some point, you must give customers a reason to continue choosing your products over your competitor’s. And the most compelling reason can be your own goal: the change you wish to see in customers’ lives. 

Align with Your Customers’ Unique Aspirations

Once you know yourself, your work is to make your aspirations match your customers’. In some cases, this means knowing your customers better than they know themselves. As Martin Smith puts it, “your customers are not always fully in touch with their aspirations, but you and your marketing must be in sync.” This is where “your unique greatness” meets their unique values and hopes.

Jim Stengel argues that brands that align themselves with “ideals” go farther. His book, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profits at the World’s Greatest Companies, outlines several categories of active brand ideals:

  • Eliciting joy
  • Enabling connection
  • Inspiring exploration
  • Evoking pride
  • Impacting society

These ideals often overlap: inspiring exploration can evoke pride and elicit joy, and enabling connection can impact society. But identifying the foremost aspiration will allow you to position the others as bonuses of your brand’s offerings. Look at how several major companies with incredible loyalty have aligned themselves with aspiration:

  • Nike: “Just do it.“ “Victory is paid for in sweat, courage, and preparation.”  “Yesterday you said tomorrow.”  “Someone who is busier than you is running right now.”
  • Audi: “Truth in Engineering.” “Innovation through Technology.”
  • Apple: “Think Different.” “For the Colorful.” “The Power to Be Your Best.” “This is the cloud the way it should be: automatic and effortless.” “Switch.”
  • The Body Shop: “Inspired by Nature.” “Beauty with Heart.” “For us, beauty is much more than a pretty face. It’s about feeling good and doing good, too.”

Aligning with customers’ aspirations requires that you empathize with their feelings and longings, and then educate and empower them to attain their dreams through your products, services, and content. It also requires something many brands overlook in an eagerness to please a wide audience: specialization.

You Can’t Be Special until You Specialize

To become an aspirational brand means becoming a symbol for deeply held values. It means weaving a story of attaining these values throughout every campaign and touch point, creating your own cultural currency. To become a symbol, it’s important to focus on doing “a few specific things . . . extraordinarily well,” or risk leaving a broad and forgettable impression. Joe Pulizzi explains:

You want to position yourself as the leading expert in a given field. “News” or “sports” or even “content marketing” is probably too broad these days, as more and more people have jumped into the fray. . . . You have to be a specialist, even if you’re a large company.

Focusing on a few specific things lends your brand authority. Leading high fashion brands provide a good example, creating a cultural currency and authority that keeps consumers coming back for the latest season’s offerings. “Style icons“ like Prada continually design boundary-pushing looks—staying ahead of the trends—to define themselves as leaders. Meanwhile, Prada also creates clothing that is more accessible. The company mostly sells the familiar styles, but people choose the brand because they aspire to be fashion-forward and desire the cachet that comes with a Prada label—even if it’s on a cotton t-shirt.

Aspiration Takes Guts

When marketers truly begin to pursue aspirational strategies, some inspiring innovation and creativity often results. Remember Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign? If you weren’t thinking aspirationally, you would never issue this instruction. The rest of the ad reads, “This season, share some values. Learn more about our Common Threads Initiative and take the pledge to reduce consumption.” Patagonia was wisely tapping into shared activism and sustainability, ideas that have tremendous cultural currency today. Audiences who are conscious of their consumption and concerned for the environment will now remember Patagonia when they do need to buy a jacket.

Weaving memorable stories that connect with individuals’ emotions and ideals takes serious creativity, and a little risk taking. Your reward is the marketer’s gold medal: customer loyalty.

We’ve come a long way from the advent of e-commerce, when businesses simply added a shopping cart to their sites and waited for customers to line up. To succeed long term, create immersive digital experiences built on customer insight, preferences, and aspiration.