Thoughts & Notions

Aspiration vs. Exaggeration

  Consumers are skeptics. They see advertising and marketing as a sea of lies, and for good reason. They’ve been deceived too many times. Building a strong brand means managing consumers' expectations, honestly and consistently. However, all too many try to be something they’re not, only to disappoint consumers with outlandish claims they couldn’t possibly live up to. There is a difference between a brand having aspirations (setting a goal it aims to pursue and someday achieve) and over promising (making a claim it isn't capable of backing up). Too many are guilty of the latter. Consider the photographic representation of fast food vs. reality or the underpowered car that slides across your TV screen at 100 miles per hour, “Professional Driver. Closed course.” Few brands are able to balance expressing their ambition and promising more than they can deliver. In their effort not to underwhelm people, some brands tend to exaggerate… and let’s face it, some brands are more honest than others. The most effective live by a simple, singular idea, an ideology expressed from communications to the product itself. They not only gain people’s trust and admiration they gain their business as well. Apple is an aspirational brand in that they praise the solutions, not themselves. However, their rise to becoming the world’s largest company may disqualify them from being “aspirational.” So, let’s consider some challenger brands. Avis’ tagline “We Try Harder” is a brilliant example of stating an obvious and compelling reason to believe: Of course the number two brand is going to try harder. Then there’s New Balance’s “Endorsed by No One,” which achieves a similar goal by shifting the focus from endorsements to a product known by runners to be beyond reproach. Domino’s Pizza went as far as to admit that their product was sub-par and promised to “…reinvent our pizza from the crust up.” Everywhere you look companies are claiming to be more than what they are and provide more value than they do. Consumers have had enough. In years past, they weren’t able to verify the claims companies made, so advertisers spun the truth. Today, we live in the information age where, within a few clicks, anyone has access to everything. Building a brand means building a relationship. This requires a commitment to live by a predefined set of rules and principles. Those who see the relationship as transactional quickly find themselves chasing the market. Those who aim to deliver the most distinctive value find the market chasing them. In the end, brand strategy is nothing more than a plan to provide the greatest value to the customer, because your brand is not what you claim, it is what consumers experience.

21 Responses to “Aspiration vs. Exaggeration”

  1. The world is full of 'exaggerators' – brands, people, corporations. I'd suggest that the fundamental difference between aspiration & exaggeration is perception.

    One person might perceive Apple's 'Think Different' tag line to to be an exaggeration considering its market share, ubiquity, and similarity to competition (i.e. samsung); others might consider apple to be a true innovator, and forgive recent events.

    That said, I believe we live in the age of the dummy; where rational, reasonable people are out-numbered by the ignorant, jaded, uninformed ones. Although I believe that people are starting to question what brands stand for; I'm pretty sure the majority just buy what's being broadcast.

    I think what we're really talking about is responsibility. What responsibility does a brand have to it's audience to be honest or transparent? I've gotten the feeling that the onus has to lie with the audience.

    The recent US election has illuminated parallels between the political branding and consumer branding:
    1. In many cases the most virulent exaggerations are made when market share lies with a small number. (i.e. rep./dem. or coke/ pepsi)
    2. In many cases the audience will develop an emotional affinity toward a brand that will endure regardless of how the brand changes; those susceptible to influence (i.e. the undecided) wind up being the focus of branding.
    3. The cost of being honest is too high. In the age of dummies, dirty tricks and lies convince many people. Brand advocacy is often based on inaccurate or no information.

    I think someone like Google should create an brand index that users could use to find out the real truth about the brands they support.

    • blackcoffee says:

      In many ways "the information age" is responsible for "the age of the dummy." People are drawn towards and seek out the information that suits their own bias (see our last post: Confirmation Bias… ).

      As we see it, too many marketers are more focused on the promise than their ability to deliver on that promise. Many feel that they need to exaggerate because everyone exaggerates (think resumes). So it's not so much a question of individual honesty, but rather a culture (marketing as a discipline) of exaggerating to a point of dishonesty.

      I love your concept of someone like Google creating an index of brand honesty. While it would likely be gamed like product reviews, Yelp or another rating system, it would provide a Universal Brand Bullshit Index (UBBI).

      Always appreciate your thinking! Thanks for sharing.


      Mark Gallagher
      Bard Expressionist®

  2. ken peters says:

    This is a timely post. Just the other day I read that your Massachusetts neighbors, Dunkin Donuts, were declined a trademark for the phrase, ""best coffee in America". The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said that the slogan was not "distinctive enough to qualify for protection" and is "merely laudatory and descriptive."

    Years ago, Papa John's pizza wanted to tout themselves as "the freshest" pizza. Pizza Hut sued them and won on essentially the same grounds as quashed Dunkin's coffee claim. Papa now goes with, "Better ingredients, better pizza…"

    I've never had Dunkin's coffee, so I can't offer an opinion, but I can say without equivocation that Papa John's is the worst pizza I've ever had. I had one slice, 12 years ago. Never again.

    Somehow, though, BMW can call themselves "the ultimate driving machine". Great, to be sure, but "ultimate"? I bet you have an opinion on that. :-)

    At least Lexus only claims to be pursuing perfection. I'll buy that claim. It smacks of ongoing improvement. The BMW slogan sounds obnoxious, and doesn't give the impression that they think they need to continue innovating because they've already achieved "ultimate" status.

    Hmmm, donuts, coffee, pizza and cars. I think I'm going to drive to Starbucks now.

    • blackcoffee says:

      I think BMW sees aspiration as "someday you too can own a BMW," the onus is on you, the customer. Where as, Lexus sees it as "someday we (Lexus) will achieve perfection," the onus being on Lexus. Personally, I see BMW's tagline as descriptive and Lexus' as aspirational.

      Papa John's claim of "the freshest Pizza," and Dunkin's of "best coffee in America" are measurable, where as BMW's "The Ultimate Driving Machine" is centered around breadth (the versatility of the vehicle) and depth (how they excel at each of those functions). It doesn't say "we're the fastest, the most luxurious, the most technological, the most reliable." It doesn't quantify any competitive aspect of the vehicle. It says, "we are a driver's car."

      But they didn't use the word car, nor automobile. Instead, BMW claims to be the ultimate "DRIVING MACHINE." I bet if their claim was measurable and they couldn't back it up the USPTO would have said "no way!"

      Samuel Adams claims “Best Beer in America” because it was voted so at the Great American Beer Festival. A claim they can substantiate.

      As always, you make some excellent points! Thanks for adding to the conversation.


      Mark Gallagher
      Bard Expressionist®

      P.S. With the exception of the Lexus LFA, you won't likely find a Lexus at the racetrack.

  3. Drew Allison says:

    Aspiration exasperation.

    Great post!

    I believe that the problem starts very early on in the process.

    Executives sell so hard, so early, that they begin to believe what they are selling.

    In the early stages of product and services development there is a lot of spin.

    R&D spins, competing for internal funding. Boards, investors, and even employees all need to be convinced first, that what is to be sold is worth the effort that it will take.

    Spin is baked right into the process.

    Cant tell you how many meetings that I have been in where the execs all say that this product is second to none. And that it has no real competitors because there is nothing like it that ever existed in the history of mankind.

    20 min later, (If you are good at asking the right questions) you find that it really is not so different from product XYZ, except a few more bells and whistles. But don't tell anyone. "You are under NDA, yes?"

    This is right where brand strategy must play a solid role.

    Aligning the promise and expectation (thanks BLACKCOFFEE) at this point is a must.

    Research can reveal that perhaps customers or prospects DO see this product as meeting some of the claims and more.

    But solid messages need to be crafted that express real benefits and as you say, reason(s) to believe.

    Identifying and crafting believable, and yes, aspirational messages at this point will ensure that the spin doesn't infect the marketing depts and agencies who are responsible for amplifying those messages.

    Tag lines and headlines are confused too often. They usually signal different things at different points of engagement.

    When they are done well, they can be one in the same and really powerful.

    "Just Do It" was so great because the aspiration was ported to the customer and their life.

    Pretty sure Nike was recommending that the "Do It" message here was suggesting that you get out and exercise vs. it meaning that you go out and buy our product. But man did it ever lead to that!

  4. blackcoffee says:


    You couldn't be more right! We've been in that "our product is the greatest in the world" meeting too many times. Too many are focused on how to out-claim the competitor. Too few are focused on how they'll address the needs of the market in a way that no other brand can.

    Some brands are aspirational, which requires a bit of humility. Others make big claims, and as Muhammad Ali said "It ain't bragging if you can back it up!" But if you can't back it up. Well… history shows consumers have short attention spans, but they have long memories and big mouths!

    Thanks for your sharing your thoughts, insights and experience.


    Laura Savard
    Brand Expressionist®

  5. brandconsultantasia says:

    Good piece

    Consumers not companies define brands.

    Companies need to stop thinking advertising is a silver bullet that will solve all their problems. Aligning the promise and expectation cannot be achieved through corporate driven communications.

    Firms need to start investing in branding – delivering value across the whole corporate driven, customer facing ecosystem and not just through corporate driven communications.

    It means an investment in different people and redefing the corporate structure away from the traditional business model to a more community based model.

    I'm reminded of the first TV commercials that consisted of a guy sitting in front of a microphone and reading from a scirpt. Why was it done that way? Because that was how it was done on radio. It took a while for firms to realise how powerful TV could be.

    We're at that stage now although there is no single platform that will be as significant as TV, companies need to completely change how they do business.

    • blackcoffee says:

      We absolutely agree that it's about delivering value not a marketing message! Part of the problem is that too many companies confuse branding and advertising. Why wouldn't they? Ad agencies are increasingly shifting their marketing message (not their function) from advertising to branding.

      The key for brands is to do a bit more goal setting and a bit less bragging. They'll find they have a stronger following. By setting lofty goals they manage expectations and they build a like mind following.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  6. @jml_bryant says:

    This is a topic that I've been thinking about for some time. Generally I'm a big proponent of balance and I feel that balance applies to this topic as well.

    Do brands want to portray themselves as positively as possibly — absolutely. But the best brands find an appropriate mix of positive promotion and authentic honesty. Think of a brand whose positive promotion didn't match reality (BP anyone?). When the truth surfaced, the backlash was swift, strong and hit BP where it hurts–in the pocketbook.

    I also believe exaggeration is one of the primary differences between Advertising and Brand Development. Advertising leverages lust and exaggeration while solid Brand Development builds upon realistic honesty.

  7. blackcoffee says:

    LOVE THIS: "I also believe exaggeration is one of the primary differences between Advertising and Brand Development. Advertising leverages lust and exaggeration while solid Brand Development builds upon realistic honesty."

    I'd replace "…builds upon realistic honesty" with "…manages expectations," but, you're dead on!

    Thanks for sharing!


    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®


    The Federal Trade Commission Act states:

    • Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive;
    • Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims; and
    • Advertisements cannot be unfair.

    I wonder how many Advertisers (agencies or brand owners) have head this law.

  8. @jml_bryant says:

    Thanks for your feedback Mark.

    Hmmm…I wonder how many brands follow those three rules.

    • blackcoffee says:

      I think part of the problem is that, like any system, people game the system. As was stated an earlier comment "Executives sell so hard, so early, that they begin to believe what they are selling."

      Many don't even know their exaggerating (or, well… lying).


      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  9. @apowerpoint says:

    As always, a good topic to reflect on.

    If we define marketing as 'satisfying needs profitably' and branding as creating an emotional shortcut to a decision, or 'proxy for information' then it is easy to slip from aspiration to exaggeration.

    Two potential ways for companies to slip from one to the other.
    1. As the focus of the planning cycle shortens, the emphasis on short term results rises. Thus the paid placement of promotional messages (advertising) becomes addictive.
    2. The more messages we send, the more interest we need to have to cut thru the clutter. Thus, we have to up the ante in each cycle as the human brain habituates and ignores our messaging.

    In this context, exaggeration can result without an aspiration to guide it.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Your comment "…exaggeration can result without an aspiration to guide it" has me thinking that all too many marketers forgo strategy and jump directly to execution. Without a brand strategy to guide the process designers, copywriters, advertisers, etc… start promoting the product they wish they had, rather than the one they do.

      Be it ego (I want to be working on a better brand or product than the one I am) or laziness (let's face it, it's easier to promote the worlds best widget than it is the adverse widget) the incentive to exaggerate seems to outweigh the risk.

      Thanks for sharing your thinking!


      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  10. Uyty says:

    Many brands exaggerate their ambitions and they fail to keep the promise. But some brands express their aspirations as simple as possible and also keep the range of quality they want to deliver to the customers. Nice article. Thanks. Keep posting.

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