A while back, I saw Taylor Swift's commercial for Diet Coke. I'm not ashamed to say that I am a fan of her work, so I was very excited for a few different reasons when I saw this commercial. One of the reasons- as a designer, I thought that this was a great example of aspirational branding.
In this video, Taylor is shown throughout her typical day. During her typical day, she is songwriting everywhere. She's writing her song, 22, on the floor in her bedroom. She's writing in the wardrobe room perhaps right before a PR shoot. She's writing at a local cafe. They show clips of regular people humming along to her song throughout their typical days as well. Everybody's doing their typical daily routines. But Taylor's achieved something extraordinary by touching all of those other people with her song. She's sort of this common link between everybody, and she is Diet Coke's aspirational user.
Taylor's Diet Coke is present throughout her typical day, and it's one of the few constants shown throughout her songwriting process. Of course, we don't really believe that Taylor's secret to her success is her Diet Coke. We like Taylor Swift and her success. If Taylor Swift likes Diet Coke, well, we at least know that Diet Coke won't ruin your life (unless Aspartame really does cause cancer). And say part of me does wish I could write songs for a living. Imagine how it would be, living a day in Taylor's life. All of a sudden, part of me does want to be sitting on my bedroom floor, feeling those creative sparks, and sipping on a Diet Coke.
Branding for Coca Cola isn't necessarily a direct promise of fame and success. With aspirational branding, we see the lifestyles of people we admire and aspire to be like. If our taste preferences between Coke and Pepsi don't lean strongly either way, branding can make all the difference. Our consumer choices often defer to the lifestyles we ideally hope to achieve. The details of these lifestyles do matter.
For the record, I used to buy Mexican Coca Cola because they came in those glass bottles. I actually don't really prefer the flavor more than regular Coke, and I don't even drink much soda in general, but I loved the feeling of drinking from cool vintage-style Coke bottles.
DESIGNING FOR THE ASPIRATIONAL USER VS. THE REAL USER
There are a million different ways to design a product. One common question we designers often have to ask ourselves while creating a product is, "who is the user?" We often look at the people who will actually be using our product, and then design with them in mind. What are the pain points of their user experience? How can we make that product easier to use? These types of questions are typical for user-centric design.
But maybe there are times we don't want to design for the actual user. Maybe sometimes we are aiming far too modestly.
Take, for example, the Aston Martin DB5. It was featured as the James Bond car in Skyfall. It is one of my dream cars, which I literally fell in love with at first sight, during the scene in Skyfall it was unveiled.
007 is a fictional character. One who has set the benchmark for class and style for decades. He is what we designers would call an aspirational user. I know that I cannot walk away from an explosion unfettered, or escape a deathtrap set by an evil genius villain. But I do know that I want his car. And his outfit. And his coolheaded demeanor. Normally I wouldn't order myself a cocktail at a bar, but I've actually ordered a martini, just to find out what James Bond's favorite drink tastes like.
Designing for an aspirational user versus an actual user, is like designing a desirable product versus a practical product. Keep in mind, desirable and practical are not mutually exclusive. Designing for James Bond doesn't translate to all flash and no substance. Aston Martins perform quite well under the hood, otherwise James Bond wouldn't fare too well during a car chase. In terms of functionality, we are often actually aiming for greater performance than is necessary for the actual user.
A classic example of aspirational branding is Nike Air Jordans. They were basketball shoes specifically designed for Michael Jordan, and became extremely popular and iconic among people who weren't Michael Jordan. No, maybe none of us will be doing slam dunks at championship games, but we love to know that our shoes were made for much more.
The concept of aspirational branding is also illustrated in my NASA rebranding study.
SURVIVE VS. THRIVE
Designing for actual users, we sometimes begin to limit our own thinking processes. One example I like to think about of is the healthcare industry. The word that comes to mind when I visit a hospital, is "Survive." Doctors and staff are trying to save lives. They can make miracles happen on a daily basis. Even so, hospitals are not pleasant places. Why can't we design these places to feel more like home? Or, to feel like an environment of healing and comfort, like a day spa during your weekend vacation? Would placing some more attention to these elements necessarily take away from our ability to survive? I believe there is potential to design better solutions once we break out of this survival mentality.
Perhaps this is why Kaiser Permanente's latest marketing slogan is "Thrive." Yes, survival is the first primordial priority of living creatures. But as humans, we also have other needs. We need things like interpersonal relationships, self-esteem, and self efficacy. We have aspirations. We don't wish to survive in a cold dark place. We wish to thrive.
As a consumer, I don't necessarily wish for the product tailored to the "me right now" that might perpetuate the same old behaviors and habits I might not necessarily want or like. I might reach for a product a couple sizes bigger- one that I can grow into. People are adaptable, and people likely want to change for the better.
Let's not design products just for how people are. Let's design products for how people hope to be.