Walk into any public middle school or high school on a winter day, and you’ll notice the girls’ cool weather uniform.  Not a mandated uniform, but a voluntarily adopted one.  It consists of a Northface fleece jacket and a pair of Ugg boots.

In September 2010, as my now 11-year-old daughter Fiona was entering the fifth grade, she developed an acute desire for these items.  I wasn’t entirely surprised as my neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter had expressed the same desires a couple of years before.

But I didn’t realize how widespread the girls’ conformity went.

It’s not just Natick schools or Massachusetts schools or secondary schools.  It’s everywhere – nationwide, through the university level and beyond.

The Northface/Uggs pairing is an adolescent girl conformity juggernaut.

It’s so pervasive that the trend has spawned rebellious blog entries and Facebook pages.

Hannah Orenstein, an NYU freshman, wrote a post in November 2010 on Hercampus.com called “Step Away From the Uggs and North Face!  How to Look Cuter Than Everyone Else”.  In it she called the Northface/Ugg pairing trend an “epidemic.”

Christine Little, a Quinnipiac University student, penned an article around the same time in The Quinnipiac Journal entitled “Please Lose the UGGs and North Face jackets.”  She noted that “These choices are selected for comfort, as well as the conformity that comes with them.”

Let’s just say that the “anti northface/ugg” page on Facebook objected more strenuously and with less tact.

But these objections are the exceptions.  Many, many more girls are happy to conform.

Why?

Joani Geltman, a Child Development and Parenting Expert who specializes in teen-parent relationships, explains that adolescence brings a new awareness, one where teenagers worry incessantly about what other people think of them.  The easiest way to calm these fears and avoid unwanted scrutiny is to blend in.  To be invisible.

And the best way to disappear into the crowd?  Look just like everyone else.

This isn’t a new phenomenon of course.  I remember my own battles with my mother over the price of designer jeans 30 years ago (Jordache, if you have to know).

But while blending in may be the key to surviving human teenage years, it is the death knell for a brand.

Sadly, this is the mistake that many Brands In Adolescence make.  During their launch, they tout their differences to get attention.  After their initial years of growth, however, they become more aware of their competitors.  Now that there is an existing business at stake, it feels riskier to stand out and not match the competitors feature for feature, benefit for benefit.

Instead of increasing their market appeal though, brands that go this route blend in and look just like their competitors.  By emphasizing their sameness upfront, these brands squander the opportunity to set themselves apart and gain consumers’ attention.

Don’t fall prey to this temptation.  Not only is it bad marketing, but by responding to competitors instead of having a strong point of difference to define your brand, you let the competition frame your market and set the rules of the game.

As the brand champion, you need to trumpet your brand’s meaningful differences, not bury them.

How do you combat the conformist tendency in your adolescent brand?

  1. Revisit your original reason for being.  What got your brand into the business in the first place?  A unique calling, story, feature, business strategy?  Remind your team of your start to help them find the original passion and infuse that message into your communications.
  2. Find out why customers buy your product now.  Brands evolve.  If you’ve been in business for a while, make sure you check in with your customers to understand the role your brand plays in their lives now.  How do you help them?  Why do they buy your product over your competitors?
  3. Lead with what makes you different.  In the adolescent analogy, think of your marketing more as applying to college than joining the in crowd.  What can you say to stand out in a positive way so that they pick your brand?  Lead with what sets you apart and then follow up with the great credentials you have that everyone else seeking admission has too.

To prosper, your brand needs a meaningful difference that it can proclaim proudly and often.  Once you’ve got your prospect’s attention, then you can fill them in on the features and benefits that you have in common with your competitors.  But it’s your difference that will keep them coming back.

Am I worried about Fiona’s fondness for Northface jackets and Ugg boots?  No.  She isn’t defined by what she wears.  And let’s face it, navigating the social life in middle and high school can be tough!

If you liked this post, you’ll love the next one.

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