Advertising agencies have known for years that one of the best ways to sell a brand is to position it as a vital part of a lifestyle that customers aspire to. Every society can be broken down into segments, or so the theory goes, and the defining characteristics of each segment can be used to build an attractive picture of how customers could live if they bought the products being sold.

More recent thinking, however, suggests that segments are not always so clear-cut, and that there are so many segments that producers cannot possibly tailor a product to fit them all. In any case, customers nowadays feel free to reassign products to lifestyle categories not intended by their marketers. In the US, for example, New Era baseball caps became a hit with urban youths who were not baseball fans.

Cultural elements of an urban, youthful lifestyle were exploited by Sprite when the soft-drink brand began aggressively sponsoring urban music, with a focus on remixes by popular hip-hop DJs. The idea of remixing fitted in well with the new flavors Sprite was introducing. Numerous musical events and CD releases were emblazoned with the Sprite name and logo. The aim was to fix the Sprite brand in customers’ minds as the refreshment for anyone who aspires to an image of hip-hop chic.

An active lifestyle centered around individual sports and exercise is attractive not only to those who buy sporting gear and clothes, but also to those who dream of greater personal achievement. Lance Armstrong, seven-times Tour de France winner and cancer survivor, has applied his personal brand to a number of initiatives—from charities to investments—whose appeal lies as much in their invocation to lead an active, optimistic life as in Armstrong’s personal popularity.

Many advertisements for pharmaceuticals, real estate, and financial services paint a rosy picture of the retiree lifestyle, in which fit and smiling 60-somethings enjoy life to the fullest, usually outdoors. The implication is that the product being sold will contribute to this mythic sense of comfort and wellness at any age—the appeal to the over-50s may be persuasive, but it is so pervasive that one must wonder if its purpose is to differentiate or to reassure, without concern for the brand.

One of the things that make “cult” brands so successful is that they seem to define a lifestyle all their own: Apple defines the digital lifestyle, Harley-Davidson the “easy rider” lifestyle, Starbucks the “latte liberal” lifestyle, etc.

Magazine brands were once powerful definers of readers’ lifestyles. Esquire and Playboy defined the lifestyle of the young man with aspirations and disposable income from the 1930s to the 1970s. Cosmopolitan and Ms. defined the lifestyles of young women seeking to liberate themselves from old stereotypes from the 1960s to the 1980s.

However, the power of mainstream magazines has declined as the media/ industrial complex gives way to the new networked economy of the twenty-first century. In the 2000s, it is more often niche titles that seize the opportunity to present, in both editorial and advertising content, a specific lifestyle built around brands.