Poolside at Paresa

When building products for consumers, there are a number of factors that create “resonation”. Today, we’ll be focusing on one – a person’s aspirational identity along with some methods for capturing it, and more importantly, how to design for it.


A person’s identity is simply a person’s characterization of their “self” – it’s how they see themselves. Depending on their self-awareness, their claimed identity could be considerably different than an observer’s characterization. but this is only scratching the surface – there’s another identity lurking beneath the surface.


While you can ask a person to describe themselves – revealing their conscious identity, there’s a deeper identity lurking beneath the surface – one that possesses underlying desires and wants.


Bob is an accountant who likes to ride a Harley, drink top-shelf bourbons, and volunteers at his church. Externally, he seems like the average 48-year old, middle-class, married man. Do you have a picture of him? That’s a “persona”. But Bob’s “identity” is more complicated – it’s an internal picture of himself. In this case, he sees himself as an man-of-integrity, achiever with the edginess and sex-appeal of a rock-star.

If you are familiar with “affinity boards” or exercises where you create a collage of similar brands to inform a new product’s “feel”, Bob’s purchases are the types of images you’d affix to the board. But what’s the “internal language” he’s using to describe the things they like? What is the relationship of these words to their identity? How does an innovator design for this?

In 2013, I did some cursory experiments with this. I interviewed ten people using an experimental model.

  1. I asked the Subject to list their “Top 5 Products/Objects” they love, want, or would buy if money were no object. I then ask them to list their “Top 5 People” they admire the most. NOTE: The answers don’t inform anything – be careful not to draw conclusions based on your own relationship to these. 
  2. I asked them to rank these in order of “resonation”
  3. I then asked Subject to assign five, single-word adjective to these objects and people.
  4. I then asked the subject to rank each word as it applies to their respective object or person
  5. Completed, I circled and scored the quantity of repeating words. This allowed me to create an “aspirational identity narrative” for both “things” and “people”.  Ex: Lisa desires beauty, elegance, and comfort in the products she loves. Lisa wants to be more ambitious, and accomplished.


Identity Insights Worksheet for interviewing consumers.
Identity Insights Worksheet for interviewing consumers. PDF available on request.



Repeating Words

We all have key “words” we use to describe the things we like.  For “Lamborghini” I might say “Sexy, Powerful, Awesome, Badass, and Ridiculous”.

The pattern of words that repeat themselves, oddly have a high correlation with a person’s “wants” and “aspirations” for themselves. They want/buy “powerful” because they secretly want to be “powerful”. During my interviews, a few subjects said “this is scary!” because it provided insights into themselves for which they weren’t fully aware.


Aspirational Identity

If you ask the subject to provide 5 words to describe themselves, you’ll see a stark difference between their high-resonation words and how they describe themselves. This is the difference between their “normal identity” and their “aspirational identity”.  This “aspirational identity” is what informs “resonation”…not a person’s reality.  This is not the same “aspiration” as in “aspirer persona” defined by Young & Rubicam  – this is simply an identity a person wants for themselves at some level.


We’ve created a narrative describing a person’s “aspirational identity”…so what now?  If your subjects are members of your target audience/consumer group, you can…

1. Correlate these words across a broader population to inform the “design language” of a product.

2. Present your prototypes and mockups to subjects and ask them to assign 5 words to it. Are they the same words? If so, then you’re likely on a path to launching a “high resonating” product.

3. Cluster personas into insight-territories that inform marketing messages and channels.

Identity Boost

I was invited to a wedding in Thailand where the couple significantly subsidized the hotel so that a majority of their friends could attend. It was a 5-star resort on the cliffs of Phuket’s “Millionaires Mile” south of Kamala Beach . My Facebook and Twitter feed exploded with photos of the resort, selfies, and comments. It’s unlikely this would have happened to this degree at the 4-star hotel in a U.S. city.

When a product or experience satisfies a part of someone’s “aspirational identity”, there’s a desire to “preserve” the shift towards this new identity. Essentially, I’m describing neurological mechanics of a “Kodak moment”, but it’s worth noting that repeated forays into aspirational identity-boosting experiences will have progressively lower resonation. Thus, your acquired product actually changes people – it reinforces their sense of self through the words they assign to it.

Author:  Dave Black