If You Want Your Brand To Succeed, Make It Aspirational, Not Inspirational

Companies that ditch tired celebrity personas and transform themselves into vehicles for realizing their customers’ aspirations will transcend single transactions.

If You Want Your Brand To Succeed, Make It Aspirational, Not Inspirational
[Illustrations: ILeysen via Shutterstock]

Years ago, you probably expressed your identity by tearing pages from magazines and gluing them onto poster board. You spent hours on that poster to make it reflect who you thought you were, who you wanted to become. Later, you perhaps toiled over your oh-so-clever Hotmail moniker. And, just last week, you changed your Facebook background to show where you’re headed next.


Our sense of ourselves is constantly evolving, but the path we’re pursuing rarely changes. This consistent direction is our aspirational identity. Career ladders, job titles or hobbies may have influence, but our aspirations are so profoundly connected to our identities that they show up no matter the context.

These aspirational identities are more important than ever as the millennial generation claims its place in the economy. There is plenty of press about millennials being selfish in their hipster-minimalist consumer values, but I’d say they are instead asking for validation of their aspirations. This means organizations must push past inspiring slogans and key into customers’ aspirational identities.

Let me pause to be clear about the difference between inspiration and aspiration and why it matters so much. People who are inspired are temporarily stimulated to do or feel something (Pinterest activates audience via inspiration.) Aspiration, on the other hand, involves striving in a long-lasting and meaningful way to achieve or become something in particular.

In a recent piece on Co.Exist, I suggested that Tesla Motors should adopt a movement-making strategy in place of traditional marketing campaigns. Step one in a movement strategy is to establish the goal that a company and its community share. The goal Tesla shares with its community is the emergence of a post-Detroit American car industry.

Step two in a movement strategy is to create clear, specifically aspirational roles for the community. The ability to influence car design enables Tesla’s customers to fulfill their aspirational identities of “co-innovator” or “co-curator” again and again. Activating aspirational identity is critical to movement making because single actions, “likes” or “pins” aren’t enough to create lasting change.

Brand leaders in the ʼ90s inspired customers to purchase, transact, or to act through inspirational celebrities. Consider Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss in their Calvin Klein Jeans, or Michael Jordan and Mary Lou Retton inviting you to become a champion just like them. That message sold a lot of Wheaties. But after decades of marketers using this tactic, inspiration fatigue has set in. You’re never really going to “Be Like Mike.”


Today, Wheaties has recognized the shift and is inviting customers to “Awaken the Champion Within.” It’s a message of aspiration, not inspiration. Instead of big-name celebrity endorsements, Wheaties has given form to aspiration in its online community of lesser-known athletes in niche sports, whose stories come closer to what the average milk-slurping kid can actually achieve.

Martha Stewart Living’s brand extension, “American Made”, is another example of an inspiration-dependent brand finding a way to build relationships and create new roles for customers through aspirational branding. Devoted readers have been inspired (or maddened) by the perfection found within the pages of Martha Stewart Living. But now “American Made” is encouraging brand loyalists to act on their aspirations of becoming trendsetting homemakers, through home-product design challenges, maker summits and the chance of being featured on the pages of the magazine.

My own aspirational identity is that of an innovator. This affects how I am motivated, as well as how I problem-solve and collaborate. Companies like 23andMe and Strava enable me to innovate in my day-to-day life. My DNA profile from 23andMe helped me collaborate with my naturopath to design a wellness plan that reflects my genetic predispositions. I integrate Strava, a GPS-based workout tracker, as my fitness-benchmarking tool, tweaking my routes and measuring my performance as I go.

These companies aren’t just offering product features; they are giving me the tools I seek to move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to my own healthcare. As a result, they are earning my deep loyalty and sustained engagement.

Like Wheaties and Martha Stewart, companies that ditch tired personas and transform themselves into platforms for realizing their customers’ aspirations will transcend single transactions. While aspirational identity by itself doesn’t spark a movement, companies that understand how to facilitate aspirations will have an edge.

Mapping the roles within your network, understanding where customers aspire to go next, and figuring out how your company can get them there is no small feat. But it will set you apart from competitors who are armed with nothing but the next shiny object.

About the author

Charlie Brown is the founder and CEO of Context Partners, a new type of design firm that helps organizations build networked business models. Previously, Charlie was executive director of Ashoka Change Makers, where he built an online community of 100,000 social innovators from 125 countries.