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Redefining Aspiration

In a New York Times article entitled “Goodbye Seduction, Hello Coupons,” the writers forecast “an end to aspirational advertising.” Noting that clients are asking for their ads to be shot in “middle-class or even blue collar” homes to ensure that consumers don’t think their products are only affordable for the rich, it begs the question: Is this a temporary change? Or a new world order? Will these tough times mark a major shift in consumer psychology? Or are desperate times simply calling for desperate measures? Many in our industry are undoubtedly debating this, but I believe we are missing a more important question.

As brands have traded just-beyond-reach bait items for discount strategies, calling this “the end of aspiration” assumes that aspiration is defined solely as unaffordable products. Yes, for years now, people have aspired to designer vacuum cleaners and luxury vehicles. A recent Audi ad uses animation to show the “evolution” of an owner’s life, as they perpetually upgrade their house, their décor, their appliances, and yes, ultimately their car. The ad calls this “progress.” And no one can argue that as consumers, our sites have been set on moving up the economic ladder from the Hoover to the Dyson, from the Honda to the BMW. But have we become so cynical that we’ve forgotten that aspiration has to do with more than just ever-more-expensive goods?

While “aspirational” is certainly an industry manufactured word, at its root, it means to aspire. An aspiration is defined as “a strong desire, longing, aim or goal. To strive toward an end: to soar.” If you were to ask American families what they aspire to, you are likely to hear responses about health and happiness, giving their kids a better life, making sure college is paid for, vocational fulfillment, contentedness even. You see, while American consumers have bought into the cultural narrative that “progress” is constituted by attaining the most feature-laden cell phone, the things people fundamentally care about are unchanging.

Our hopes and fears are certainly shaped by the changing economic landscape. Right now, many consumers aspire in the short term to maintain their homes or their hopes of retirement. Few would pin their life goals on Pottery Barn shelves. People’s spending is changing, and many are regaining focus on what truly matters. It turns out it’s not a $3,000 washer/dryer, but rather their families. For every stark story about job loss, there is a story about a family spending more time together around the dinner table, or a couple making smarter choices with their disposable income, so there’s more left over at the end of the month. Not only will we see a rejection of excess and a focus on the fundamentals in the days ahead, we’ll see a celebration of sounder choices as people return to what matters most. Perhaps smart will be the new expensive as aspiration is redefined in terms of virtue rather than vice.

As marketers, one strategy in response to this shift is to shoot our ads in “blue collar appropriate” homes and talk more about pricing. And while those are both worthy tactics, alone they lack creativity. We have an opportunity to weave a new cultural narrative—one that shifts the emphasis towards the ever-nicer collection of stuff—and rather taps into the lives and realities of our customers in new and interesting ways. I assure you, they will always want stuff. But the bar has been raised in terms of how we make that stuff meaningful to them.

Walmart’s advertising reflects this new paradigm. Walmart will succeed as Americans tighten their belts because they offer low prices across categories and products. But they will also succeed because they have long understood that saving money is just a means to an end—a way to help people afford a better life for their family. Their advertising celebrates smart spending and focuses on products that bring the family together. For this reason, as glittering objects lose their luster, Walmart will maintain a meaningful relationship with their customers.

The challenge in the days ahead is to push ourselves to expand our understanding of what our customers aspire to—and to create work that taps into that which they hold dear. It’s time to abandon our tightly held belief that success is defined by our products, and find meaningful connections between the brands we work on and the people we hope to sell them to. It’s not the end of aspiration. It’s time for reinvention.

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