Aspirational Marketing Represents Whose Aspiration, Really?

I’ve been thinking a lot about “aspirational” marketing lately. 

The phrase was one I heard constantly during my decade in advertising, especially from the agency side, as teams tried to sell through a particularly slick concept. It seemed to function as a blanket term one could apply that translated roughly to… doing cool stuff in a flashy way, then hoping that people flocked to this bewitching lure like moths to a flame. 

Now that I’ve spent the last 7 years in research, speaking to consumers constantly about their lives (across a wide variety of products and services), I have some real reservations about the term. 

Before I go any further, I’ll admit that there are select categories in which showing aspirations for a glamorous lifestyle can be extremely effective— namely, luxury goods and services— as this desire for a chic life often lines up perfectly with the actual aims of a wealthy target audience. Or select times like February’s Superb Owl (aka “The Big Game,” in which companies are vying for engagement online, and to do that, you gotta be captivating in a glossy, high-production way, and you better bet that ‘cool’ is a big part of that equation.  

But, for the rest of us in the rest of times, while it’s true that nobody wants to do business with an embarrassingly backwards, UN-cool company, I am not sure that a “cool” or “glamorous” vibe motivates people nearly as much as we’d like to think. Speaking to people as much as I do, there’s plenty of other ambitions, desires, and dreams for their lives that they care more passionately about, and pursue harder, than being trendy or living a posh lifestyle.

I think my beef with the term “aspirational marketing” as it is commonly-used (a blanket way to be a cool brand) comes down to two main qualms: 

  1. Companies often use the term without knowing what their actual consumers aspire to, as they rarely (if ever) have spoken to them about this, and instead are just generalizing

Perhaps this is a semantic gripe, but if the phrase “aspirational marketing” is truly going to be apt, shouldn’t we know what our specific audience aspires to? Sure, there are basic human desires of belonging and social cache that exist somewhere within everyone, but are these actually the most interesting and pressing for the people we are trying to reach? Or just the supposedly innate ones that marketing thinks itself particularly adept at tapping into?

In all the research briefs I get from clients that outline their objectives, little heed is paid to what people want for their lives more widely, beyond the realm of categories, products, and services. If we’re trying to truly reach folks, why wouldn’t we asking ourselves what aims and dreams motivate our audiences more intensely?

  1. In the vacuum of knowing what consumer aspirations REALLY are, it’s often the aspirations  of marketers and advertisers that get transposed onto consumers (read: cool cache)

I’ve never met a marketer or advertiser who didn’t want to work for a brand other people considered cool or chic. Marketers and advertisers often enter the business partially to have some fun, some coolness, some cache afforded by being in a creative business, so I get the inclination. But we mustn’t let our desperation to work for a cool company transpose onto consumers— perhaps they don’t want to associate themselves with a “cool” or “glam” brand as much as WE do. 


I once got to do a project for a client that offered a product that many would consider a luxury. They were in a category chock-full of “aspirational marketing” featuring beautiful people in beautiful settings doing beautiful things— but their internal data showed most people who owned the product were on the lower end of the income scale. Was this because they were “aspiring” up in class? When we spoke to them, we found they were nurses and teachers and warehouse shift managers, who were using the product remedially— they weren’t yearning to be beautiful or cool, they were yearning to take care of themselves after a day of taking care of others. 

Different “aspiration,” to be sure, but one that marketing could speak to that was MUCH more attuned to the audience. If we’re going to keep using the term “aspirational marketing,” I do hope we can get more curious about what aims and dreams reallymotivate our audiences, specifically. 

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