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Giving People Something to Aspire to—for the Holidays and for Always

It’s the time of year again when we’re all starting to think hard about gifts to get our loved ones. The task can sometimes be simple; often it’s not simple at all. The funny thing about gift-giving is that the process not only clarifies just who the people in your life really are—someone who enjoys a Montblanc pen, say, is very different from someone who wants bow hunting equipment—but it clarifies who they are to you. Why do we get people the things we get them? What ultimately is the point of gifts at all?

There’s a lesson in this idea. Above I gave two examples of gifts—a pen and hunting equipment. But what is the fundamental difference between the two (besides the obvious, I mean)? To me, the question is about function. That hunting equipment has a material function, it speaks directly to what transformational marketers call a pain point. There is a need—in this case a need for hunting—and the bow and the arrows, albeit of different types or quality of materials, meet that need. It solves a problem. You wanted to go hunting, now you can. Problem solved.

The Montblanc pen, however, is quite different. No one today is feeling pain because of a dire need for a writing utensil. The modern world probably produces more cheap, effective pens and pencils in a single day than we can get through in a year. But if you’re reading this you’re probably thinking “Well, that’s not the point of a Montblanc, obviously!”

And you’re right, of course. But that leaves us with a question: if it’s not to help you write things down, what’s the point of a pen from Montblanc?

 

Needs v. Wants

When you offer someone a Montblanc, you’re not giving that person an object, per se—you’re giving them a feeling. And that feeling has to do with aspiration.

“For me, luxury products are a promise.”

Lutz Bethge, CEO of Montblanc

Using or even merely owning a luxury item from Montblanc—or Patek Philipe or BMW—doesn’t meet a pain point, it doesn’t meet a need—it creates a point of pride. It sets your sites on the future, a goal or ideal to which you aspire. To be a better writer. To be a more reliable person. To bring elegance and refinement into your life. To live in a world of high-performance and precision engineering. To live a life of aspiration. All of these things matter and are embodied in high-quality luxury products and what it is they’re really selling: a yearning for something different, something more.

This is the power of why the brand stories of luxury goods become part of your own story, and why you pass on that feeling to others in your life. This is the proverbial “gift that keeps on giving.” When you buy this kind of product, what you’re really buying is an idea, a way of making your personal story into something different, better. It’s a particular kind of story, but when you’ve mastered it, it produces marketing magic.

The Power and Simplicity of Story

For Montblanc the ad slogan was once “A Story to Tell.” For Apple computers: “Think Differently.” The brand story for BMW has over the years included simple phrases like “The Ultimate Driving Machine” or “Sheer Driving Pleasure.” None of these are complicated ideas. They’re not even complete sentences. But this is what gives them their power and lasting impact.

Simple, powerful, brief, aspirational, uncomplicated—this is what you want when you’re telling the story of aspiration and hope. The tag lines and campaigns for the best luxury brands share, primarily, a simple power that emerges from their ability to elevate you, to change how you see things, to change your perspective on what you can actually do. This is the primary goal. Of course, they also impart the high quality, exquisite design, etc., of a product. But this is, actually, secondary to the feeling.

But simple and brief can never mean “empty.” For BMW customers and aspiring customers, BMW really is the “ultimate driving machine,” and they show that in their design and engineering, in addition to their marketing. The magic of their marketing story is that it says only what it needs to say. Just a handful of words. But people aren’t fools, they need content, reasons. They see through longwinded, slapdash copy that wants to trick them. In order for us to aspire to something higher, we need a good reason, and the story told needs be grounded in authenticity. BMW gives you that motivation from a story built on aspiration and authenticity that gives you a kind of implied argument, and opportunity, for why and how you can be better.

Transformational marketers know good stories like these can be a struggle to find as they’re not simply the function of creativity or wordsmithing. They’re in fact the story of the brand at its core. Why this brand exists, why it matters, and what impact it can make on you. And those who succeed in mastering this art of the story know how powerful, how transformative, it really is. To have the gift of communicating simple, powerful ideas in just a handful of syllables is a priceless one. Because let’s be honest: when you’re pitching products, especially today, you may have less than eight seconds before you lose someone’s interest. Transmitting the right mood or idea in that short amount of time is crucial.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Albert Einstein

Transformation

The more I do this work, the more I think that marketing, at its best, has always been about engagement. And engagement is what drives sales. We inspire people to act. Not just to buy—but to be different. To think, to feel, to behave in a new way. To create an outcome, an impact that they would not otherwise have been able to do or be part of, in order to engage with meaning in the world.

In all marketing—as in all life—there is an aspirational story to tell. Think of that when you’re shopping for gifts this year, and even when talking with family around the holiday table. When we tell honest, meaningful stories we can change people’s lives. And that’s my point. At the heart of it all, a brand or branding isn’t about more creative advertising or better copy—it’s about engaging people in aspiring to be the best they can be.

This holiday season I hope that we can do that. Because it matters. Aspiring to better things is what drives meaning and change in the world.

Here’s to everyone this Thanksgiving, a happy one to all.

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