"Just Be Yourself" & Other Branding Lies You Learned In High School

Proms, popularity contests, and Friday night football. These are some of the elements that helped define our identities at a special place called high school. The glory days for some and a time best forgotten for others, it is here that we learned valuable lessons about who we are and our place in society.

Then we grew up and realized we had it all wrong.

But, awkwardly enough, when forging brand identities, companies adhere to the same lessons, leaving them as hopeless and navel gazing as a nerd in bottom locker.

Being Different is stupid.

In high school, to be different is to be considered an outcast. Trying to draw outside the lines of what is "cool" is like an instant fail. As a brand, however, the biggest way to fail is to not be different.  If you're just like everyone else, then really, who needs you? Be different and find your own audience. Otherwise you're just a poser, and nobody likes a poser.

Test scores are EVERYTHING

Some people believe that SAT, ACT, and other standardized test scores will reveal whether you'll end up driving a Mercedes, or servicing one. Of course, there's more to being successful than metrics. You can test data, do focus groups, and have statistics, but at the end of the day, it's only information. Information that brands must be able to glean insight from. Insight that they must have the intuition, personality, and chutzpah to put into action. Without the proper mix of know-how and can-do, your brand will be about as successful as mystery meat during school lunch.

The Cool Kids Are Just Jealous

The jocks, the cheerleaders, and the other cool people just pick on the nerds, goths, and emo-kids because they're really jealous, and have to make others feel bad to feel better about themselves. Yes, but not always.

Sometimes it's about defining themselves versus their opposite. Forging an identity is as much about defining the enemy as yourself. The classic match up is Prom Queen (Establishment) vs. the people's champ (challenger). It's a theme in almost every high school movie that no one ever believes, but really should.

You'll Grow Out of It

The dream of many high schoolers is that one day they will simply grow out of their problems. This is rarely the case for kids or for brands. Problems only escalate as time goes on. And for brands, they don't get a chance to grow up, they just go away.

You have to make a strong stance for yourself, embodying something powerful, distinct, and heartfelt. Otherwise, you miss out on all the fun. There will be no cheering section, or someone calling out your name as you move across the stage of life. There will only be regrets for what could have been.

Just Be Yourself!

This is the staple piece of advice everyone receives in high school.  It  isn't bad advice, it's just kinda lazy. If everyone was just themselves, we'd all be some pretty boring, lazy, and unattractive people, who would only stand out when we pass gas. We have to be our "best" selves.

Brands have to find that special element that is natural to them. Detergent can't just be soap for your clothes, though it really is just soap for your clothes. It has to be the soap that mom's can depend on to help clothes last longer, or a young socialite's soap that keeps her little black dress black, or is simple enough even the man of the house won't mind doing a load.

So, in the end, it is up to the little nerd, goth, or LARP enthusiast has to find that thing that can universally appeal to others. That certain something that makes them cool, helps them get the girl (or boy), have the product lifecycle they dreamed of, and brand happily ever after.



Written by Ken Hammond on May 11, 2011


Add A Comment

It can be uncomfortable to stand out, but an absolute necessity when it comes to business and branding. Thanks for your insights!

Ken says:

Very true. Most of the time people advise someone to "JBY" as you put it, when they've run out of patience and want the other person to figure things out themselves, and find their own "niche." As far as brands go, they do need to be themselves, but need to find that thing that is also original to them as well, as far as what specific truth they wish to share with their audience, or the one thing that makes their product different from competitors to find success in an ever increasing and competitive marketplace.

Athirson says:

“JBY” is horrible advice. Duh! We all know how to be ourselves. But for some of us, we have to step out of that in order to get results. If just being myself reliably got me the results I wanted, I wouldn’t need the advice in the first place.

Not only that, but I’m sorry, but saying that ‘JBY’ is some sort of codephrase for being authentic, etc., in nothing but a cop-out. If the advice is to be authentic (which OTOH I have no problem with), then say, “Be authentic”. Don’t make your advice any more difficult to follow than it needs to be.

Written by
Ken Hammond