Jasmine Bina is a brand strategist. 

Lifestyle branding is starting to outgrow its roots.

Until recently, most premium players in beauty and fashion had taken a page out of the luxury playbook and centered their lifestyle brands around an aspiration: the idea that the consumer should want a certain life that you’ve yet to attain.  

But aspiration creates a tangible separation between the user and the product, and as more and more consumers become willing to pay for the promise of a premium experience, they’ve also come to reject the distancing nature of aspiration in exchange for something more intimate.

Brands need to be paying attention to this evolution of the lifestyle consumer, and a small crop of companies is showing what it means to create a brand for the future of the space.

The conversation comes first
If you do away with fonts, colors, filters and aesthetics, most brands will fall into one of two camps: those with nothing left to differentiate themselves and those that have gone much deeper to start a unique conversation.

Most of athleisure falls into the first camp. Once you remove the highly stylized imagery with saturated colors and strong female figures, there is very little brand or lifestyle remaining. But a brand like Outdoor Voices has decided to instead engage in a larger dialogue, one that founder Tyler Haney describes as being “human, not superhuman.”

That guiding belief has shaped their conversations with the user at every touchpoint, from viral posts showing cellulite on women and a #DoingThings campaign celebrating the joy of everyday activities to the very fabrics deliberately chosen to act technical but not feel or look like they are.  

These aren’t marketing gimmicks. They’re part of a conversation that is always exploring what the “human” side of the user is, at the very life moments when those users are exploring the concept for themselves, between work and play, gym time and downtime.

The next wave of lifestyle brands won’t be defined by the ideal they are projecting. They will be the ones who insert themselves into the important life moments of their users — specifically, those life moments that echo the brand’s guiding beliefs.

Self-discovery is the new benefit
Lifestyle brands have decidedly moved on from features to benefits, touting the improved health, vitality or overall life experience that their products offer. Drunk Elephant explores this with its “Drunk Life” collection, an assortment of colorful products designed to bring about happiness as a complement to the more feature-focused skin-care line.

But benefits like this stop short of an even deeper consumer experience: self-discovery. The Ordinary (which charges a premium not in price, but in time and effort) does this in an unsuspecting way, compelling users to become skin-care experts when decoding cryptic product labels and creating their own regimens. In the arduous process, users discover that they themselves can be the expert and take control of their skin health in a way that traditional skin care has never allowed for.

Similarly, Patagonia isn’t selling a cause, but it’s instead selling a way to mean something in this world.

Allbirds isn’t really selling comfort; it’s selling the Silicon Valley dream of realizing one’s potential — a particularly alluring form of self-discovery that creatives, lawyer-types and gig-economy workers all care about.

Self-discovery moves us away from the notion of emulation (which is so core to aspirational brands) and toward empowerment. Brands that empower the self-discovery journey are already pushing the frontier of lifestyle.

Tension moves people deeper into the brand
Tension has long been a topic of discussion in brand strategy, but as lifestyle has gained ubiquity over the past few years, the value of tension has changed, as well.

Hims (and its newly launched female companion brand, Hers) creates tension around the idea of gender and shame. Troublesome masculine archetypes are deflated with a good sense of humor and real talk, but what’s really happening here is a brand that’s forcing people to really look at their own harmful biases.

Everything Hims talks about on the homepage of its website is about the user, not the product. Rather than saying, “Look at who we are,” it says, “We see who you are.” Users will either strongly identify or feel a strong disconnect. The tension will move people in one direction or another, but the one thing tension will not allow is for people to stand still.

Tension creates movement. If the future of lifestyle brands is about creating a conversation that supports self-discovery for the user, then tension is the critical ingredient for making that conversation come to life.

We’re moving deeper into the heart of the user, and for brands, that means rethinking what is actually being sold. It is the intimacy, not the distance, that matters.