For decades, the green movement has been chasing the wrong ball. If only we could cultivate so-called "advocates" (pejoratively dubbed "treehuggers") then we could scale the market for sustainable goods and tip the business paradigm toward more conscious capitalism.
Wishful thinking. The data couldn’t be clearer: Advocates will never be more than 20% of the consuming public. But that’s okay. There’s a new kid in town, one who cares about style and shopping and status and . . . wait for it . . . doing right by the planet.
The discovery in 2013 of a high-velocity segment that BBMG and Globescan have named Aspirational consumers is significant for many reasons, but mainly because they are the largest consumer segment globally (39% of the population representing nearly 2 billion people) and the first to unite materialism, sustainability, and cultural influence. In short, they are the most critical audience to reach and engage if we want to drive sustainable behavior change at scale: Aspirationals love to shop, want to consume less, and have a more holistic view of happiness beyond material possessions.
But this article isn’t about the research, which you can find here. It’s about what it means for brand marketers looking to drive greater loyalty and market share through more disruptive business strategies and delightful brand experiences.
How might we make cool stuff better, and better stuff cool (to paraphrase our client Ekocycle’s founder will.i.am)? We believe winning brands in the 21st century will align sustainable innovation, product development, and marketing to have a profound impact on the next generation of shoppers.
So here are five ways to reach, engage and unleash the Aspirationals to drive business growth and positive social impact.
Aspirationals want something to believe in and they want brands to stand for something bigger than a product or service. Give them an inspiring ethos. Bring a strong point of view. Build partnerships that enrich your brand experience and advance the positive impact you want to cultivate.
This goes beyond traditional brand visioning, if you will. What’s new here is that Aspirationals don’t want flat, empty statements conveyed in slick ad campaigns. They want brands to embody a deeper purpose. They want the cool campaign and the meaningful experience. Witness the longevity of Product (RED) or the "Humanifesto" from MethodHome, which rallies "people against dirty," or the fast rise of SoulCycle, whose brand unites body and spirit, using the bike as a metaphor for living a life full of passion. "Take your journey," says the company’s credo. "Find your soul."
Aspirationals see brands as badges for their own identity and the tribes they want to belong to, often co-opting the vision, beliefs and values of their favorite brands to define themselves, their behaviors and actions. Indeed, 53% say they would purchase more products that are socially and environmentally responsible if it connected them to a community of peers who share their values and priorities, compared to 42% of the general population.
The Toms flag not only stands for a one-for-one business model, it connects a community that shares a sense of style and a commitment to making the world a better place. Lyft, the San Francisco ride-sharing startup that just raised $83 million and expanded to 24 new markets, asks riders to pay a suggested donation based on distance traveled. All Lyft cars sport bright pink mustaches and riders are encouraged to give drivers fist-bumps when they first get in the car.
Aspirationals want a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. They are co-creators, eager to share their ideas, opinions and experiences to help brands design better products and invent solutions to social challenges. Invite them in.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt spearheads hitRECord, an "open collaborative" production company where thousands of filmmakers, illustrators, writers, photographers and editors share their content and distribute some of the works through television, film fests, music tours and publishing deals. Any revenue generated is split 50-50 by the production company and final content creators.
GE’s Garages invites design thinkers in local communities to participate in open innovation. At events across the United States, participants work in labs outfitted with 3-D printers, injection molders, laser cutters, and more to bring their wildest ideas to life.
More than any other segment, Aspirationals are cultural influencers who thrive on social currency and social validation. More than half say "people often turn to me for recommendations about trends, brands and causes," compared to 41% of the general population. They crave insider-y recognition, wanting to feel not just smart but "in the know."
Platforms like Yelp, Foursquare and Upworthy leverage the "cool" factor of their users to boost overall brand power. And they bestow social currency in return. Points. Badges. Leaderboards. First-to-know access. Special invites to VIP events. Winning brands empower Aspirationals to trade in their own cultural knowledge for exclusive perks and privileges; then they use that cultural currency to enhance the status of the members they seek to engage.
Finally, Aspirationals want to partner with brands that help them make a difference with their actions. The Body Shop recently mobilized one million customers to sign a petition that helped push the European Union to ban animal testing in cosmetics. Chipotle’s platform, "Food with Integrity," comes to life through its annual Cultivate Festival, which inspires consumers to discover family farmers, local products, fresh ingredients and more. Under the banner "Your Right to Know," Whole Foods Market informs consumers how to shop to avoid foods containing genetically modified organisms.
These kinds of initiatives are expected by the Gen Xers and Millennials that make up the biggest segments of Aspirational consumers. They want brands to disrupt the status quo, delight their senses and embody their values (see #1 above).
Aspiration is a universal human experience. It transcends age, geography, education, income, and social status. That’s why so many marketers hew closely to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and why so many lifestyle brands struggle with differentiation. Who doesn’t want to help us live our dreams?
The opportunity here is to stop thinking narrowly about prompting a one-off transaction and start a much deeper, more creative collaboration by honoring these consumers’ universal aspirations—purpose, belonging, voice, status, participation and impact. If we do that—if we align brand purpose with the Aspirationals’ worldview and need state—then we can drive significant behavior change, business growth and positive social impact.