As a parent, I have enjoyed introducing my kids to some of the TV shows and movies from my childhood.

When my kids were preschool age, we laughed together at Mel Brooks’ confusion over whether he was a boy or a girl in Free to Be…You and Me.  As they entered school, I shared my 30th anniversary copy of Schoolhouse Rock with them so that they could learn about conjunctions and how a bill becomes a law the way I did.

I only wish I could have introduced one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman, to my children the way that I met him:  sounding out words with Rita Moreno.  Instead they know him as an actor so good he’s played God not once but twice.

As my kids have gotten older, we have moved on to more sophisticated fare.  Big.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

And Breaking Away.

Did you see Breaking Away?

The story centers on Dave Stoller, a nineteen-year-old stone cutter’s son who dreams of riding for the Italian cycling team and trains as if that might happen.  The college guys in town look down upon him and his working class buddies.  But Dave falls for one of the college girls, Katherine Bennett, and poses as an Italian exchange student to woo her.

Who wasn’t charmed by Dave?  As viewers we enjoyed his antics, but we couldn’t help but root for him to show his true self to Katherine. 

And we saw the crash from his deceit coming well before he did.

What I love about that movie is its authenticity.  It was easy to empathize with those boys’ feelings as outcasts struggling to figure out what to do with their lives.  The movie has a genuine feel as it was filmed in Bloomington, Indiana, the setting for the story.

It didn’t hurt that Dave’s mother’s name was Evelyn either.

But mostly the movie was about standing up for who you are and cherishing that.  And the perils of trying to be someone you are not.

This is a lesson many Brands in Adolescence have to learn as well.

Brands break away by owning their unique characteristics and leading with them.

Like Dave’s college persona, some brand attributes may be aspirational at first.  It may take some experimenting and outside feedback to identify those attributes and deem them worthy.  It is worth the effort though because the brands that market themselves in a way that resonates with their audience are the ones that grow.

That’s why when people encourage me to make my business appear bigger to attract big company clients, I resist.  I am a solo professional who partners with other professionals as needed.  Faking a large company to establish a client relationship would only lead to a breakup like Dave and Katherine’s.  That’s not my goal.

What does leading with your unique characteristics look like in practice?  Brand attributes can set the pace in many ways.

Founded in 1994, restaurant chain Not Your Average Joe’s ran into a credit card breach and the 2008 recession just as it was entering adolescence.  Rather than proceeding with its original expansion plans, management pulled back to study the brand and make its restaurants more profitable.

Among the moves that emerged from this study was to apply their not-your-average brand attribute to its workforce.  Instead of assigning staff based on forecasted demand (the usual industry practice), they measure server performance and reward highly rated servers with more tables and preferred schedules.

Profit is up and the chain is back in expansion mode.

Atlas Travel encountered radical changes in customers’ travel habits and interactions as it hit adolescence.  The combination of reduced travel post 9/11 and the emergence of online travel services like Expedia challenged to the company to evolve the brand to stay relevant.

Elaine Osgood, who founded her agency in 1986, spent many hours listening to her business travel customers and identified a need for travel statistics and insight that did not exist then.  She set the provision of that information as an aspirational characteristic of her agency’s brand and then went to work to develop it.  The resulting sister company, Prime Numbers Technology was founded in 2008 and has recently come under the Atlas Travel & Technology Group umbrella.  The company reports that it grew 58 percent in the last three years.

To grow by being authentic:

  • Identify the top three or four unique attributes that your audience associates with your brand.  Remember that your audience includes internal constituencies (employees, management) as well external ones (customers, prospects, vendors, distributors, referral sources).
  • Consider where you see the brand going in the future.  Think about the problem you solve for your customers and the image you hope to convey.
  • Identify aspirational attributes if that is relevant to your brand’s evolution.
  • Finalize your brand’s defining attributes choosing from your audience list and the aspirational one.  It’s best to keep this list to three or four.
  • Infuse everything you do for your brand with those attributes.

Be true to your brand DNA and use it to your advantage.  Your audience wants an authentic connection with your brand and isn’t interested in being duped.  Give them what they want and watch your business thrive.

Do you have a favorite coming-of-age movie?   Please share it in the comments.

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