Aspirational doesn’t mean dishonest

Entrepreneurs are amazingly brave people. No matter how they may publicly shy away from comments like that, they’re well aware of how much courage it takes to walk away from someone’s payroll and create or grow a business.

But despite their courage, many entrepreneurs become downright timid when it comes to marketing. Specifically, these bold folks become reticent when describing their companies.

It always surprises me. Every entrepreneur I’ve known moved in that direction because he or she was convinced that his or her company would be better than others in the marketplace. They may have had a better idea, higher quality, a streamlined delivery method, or more responsive service, but whatever it may have been, their decision was driven by that desire to create a new standard.

Yet, when it’s time to tell the world about their companies, many of them appear to be embarrassed. Maybe they’re afraid their small workspaces don’t match the grandeur of the Class A towers across town. Or maybe they think their big-firm counterparts are chuckling at their efforts. I’m sure there’s a different explanation every time, but the result is the same: they downplay what they’re doing at the very time that they need to project confidence.

Marketing professionals use the term “aspirational marketing” to describe a strategy in which all consumers desire certain products or quality levels, but only a few can actually afford to acquire them. I suggest there’s another marketing application for “aspirational,” and that’s how up-and-coming companies should present themselves in the marketplace.

“When we aspire to something, we’re setting a target for what or where we hope to be.”

When we aspire to something, we’re setting a target for what or where we hope to be. We want to look thinner, so we tell ourselves we’ll eat less and exercise more. We want to sound smarter at work, so we take classes or read publications about business. As we move toward our aspirations, we gradually become the people we hope to be.

The same holds true for a business. As you develop your marketing materials, you don’t have to present yourself exactly as you are today. Without being dishonest (more on that later), you need to present yourself as you want your customers to see you.

That’s where the timidity or embarrassment typically appears. Entrepreneurs become afraid of presenting their businesses aspirationally, because they worry that it isn’t authentic. If they make a reference to how hard their staff works, they’re afraid a prospect will discover that the staff is really their 12-year-old daughter, who helps to assemble presentations in return for iTunes money. If they talk about “our offices,” they worry that someone will conduct a surprise inspection and realize that your executive suite is really a converted walk-in closet.

Yet the big companies you’ll want to work with (or one day compete with) don’t hesitate to take an aspirational approach. They don’t hesitate to position themselves as industry leaders or the company offering the highest-quality products. Would you eat at a restaurant that admitted, “Yeah, our food is okay, but it’s not really as good as that place down the street?” Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but it’s how far too many startups and small companies present themselves.

A simple example of this kind of thinking is when one-person startups agonize over whether to refer to themselves as “I” or “we” when writing about the business in websites and other marketing materials. The presumption is that using “we” is somehow dishonest if your business currently has but one employee. I’ve observed heated discussions on the subject over online forums and listened to impassioned arguments at networking gatherings. Based on the energy devoted to this topic, you’d think it was the toughest dilemma an entrepreneur might face.

But it really isn’t as big a deal as most of those arguing seem to think. Just choose whatever sounds comfortable and go with it, as long as you’re not violating your field’s ethical standards. When I write about my company, I use “we” — and not because the dogs and cat often share my office. That use of the royal “we” separates me, the writer, from the larger umbrella that’s my business. If your goal is to have more than one employee, using “we” will put you in the right mindset.

Of course, you have to be reasonable. You may dream that your startup may one day dominate the Fortune 500, but you probably don’t want your current website to suggest that you’re already there. So as you choose your aspirational messages, think in terms of steps. Today, your message may be that you’re a local leader in repairing veeblefetzers. A year from now, you may be comfortable calling yourself a regional leader. And five years from now, your aspiration may be a national reputation.

One last thought: marketing your business aspirationally doesn’t mean you should lie. Beyond the personal ethics involved, the simple fact is that the ready availability of information in today’s marketplace means you’ll be found out. Tell a prospect that you also have offices in Schenectady and Moosejaw, and two minutes on Google will prove that you’re lying. Claim that you’re doing work for Giganticor, and a quick email to the company could reveal otherwise. Remember how quickly the media manages to pinpoint the truth about political contenders, and choose your aspirational messages carefully.