Great Products are Aspirational


What makes a product like Instagram so much more such successful than other, similar photography apps? What makes Apple computers so much more popular in the public eye? What makes Moleskine the de facto notebook for creative types?

These questions have been discussed ad nauseum and many convincing answers have already been suggested: these products had superior branding, were well designed, launched at the right times with the right set of features, and were technologically better (okay, maybe not the Moleskine). They executed relentlessly, found the right initial set of users, and then expanded quickly to capture the rest of the general public. All of these answers are satisfactory, but I think there’s another deeper explanation for why these products are so successful.

Good products must be useful. But to be great, they must also be aspirational. 1 Fundamentally, good products need to solve a problem; for the people that need them, they are utilities. If they’re better designed, better marketed, easier to use, and better timed than other products on the market, then the gears will be more greased for the product to succeed. But without achieving utility, even the best designed, best marketed products may not become massively successful.

To go from good to great, products have to connect with people who don’t necessarily need them. This means that they are aspirational products to those who don’t have the problem (yet!), but want to be a part of the group that does. Let’s look at some examples.


  • Utility product: a mobile editor for photos (with a social network built on top)
  • Aspirational product: attracts everyday people with phones who want to have more interesting lives and cooler photos to share

Apple MacBook

  • Utility product: a laptop
  • Aspirational product: attracts creative types who want to use what their heroes use — for example, many musicians use Logic Pro, many directors and filmmakers use Final Cut Pro, and many programmers use Macs for its Unix-based OS


  • Utility product: a notebook to write in
  • Aspirational product: attracts people who want to write more, become more thoughtful, and seem more intelligent


  • Utility product: a payment gateway that scales upwards
  • Aspirational product: attracts entrepreneurs who are currently building or are planning on building a SaaS startup or other online business


  • Utility product: lightweight, mountable camera
  • Aspirational product: attracts people who want to live an extreme lifestyle

Product Hunt

  • Utility product: a place to launch your product and receive community feedback
  • Aspirational product: attracts a community of people who want to become creators and makers

So the product is 1) instantly useful to the people who need it and is 2) able to attract people who want to need it. Over time, many of these aspirational users may become utility users, allowing the product to continue to grow and expand its active user base. Aspirational Stripe users will build businesses that process so many transactions that they need the API to operate. By using their Moleskines more, non-writers will become writers (or at the very least, will consume more Moleskines as they attempt to write).

One could perhaps argue that superb branding creates this utilitarian-aspiration split, but I disagree. Building a product that has this sort of behavior will naturally lead to better branding, not the other way around, although I’m sure there are exceptions where better branding leads to aspirational desires.

  1. Note that by “aspirational,” I don’t necessarily mean that they are so expensive that they are out of the reach of the general public. I mean products that people yearn to use and desire to become part of the ingroup of.