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.