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.

This post was pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished on the Adobe Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing blog, April 9, 2014.