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Six-Point’s CEO, Meghan Lynch, ran the Vermont 50 miler in 2014. A race of that length pushes people to their limits, so it isn’t surprising that she learned some things along the way. What is surprising is that she learned some things about brand strategy!

On a misty morning in late September, I found myself at the starting line of the Vermont 50, an endurance race for trail runners and mountain bikers.

(My journey to get there is a story for another day.) Friends were shouting last words of encouragement and advice, and then, unceremoniously, the pack of runners started moving forward, and I was swept along with them.

If you have never been exposed to the ultrarunning community, running 50 miles might sound impressive…or just ridiculous. If you have been exposed to ultras, then you know that 50 miles is a JV distance, and nothing to write home about. I have friends who regularly compete in 100 mile races, and now even 200 milers are popping up around the country. I’m not bringing it up to brag. I’m bringing it up because I have never learned or done anything in my personal life that has been so applicable to my professional discipline of brand strategy, and I think the lessons are worth sharing. So here we go:

  • Lesson #1: You do not run 50 miles all at once. I knew that I was at the starting line to run 50 miles. That was the goal. But as soon as I made that first step, I was running “aid station to aid station.” 8 miles to the first stop. 6 miles to the next. Each one had volunteers offering food and water to refuel, or friends and family cheering me on, or a “drop bag” where I had left myself some special treat.

You don’t build a powerful brand all at once, either. You need to have the ridiculous goal, the impossible vision. But then you need to figure out how to take the first steps – how to break down the impossible into small, achievable brand goals that keep you on that path. Four research tasks towards really understanding your core customer. Six design tasks to refine and codify your visual presence. Five writing exercises to get a consistent and compelling brand voice. And before you know it, you are thinking about how far you’ve come, not how far you need to go.

  • Lesson #2: The work and preparation of other people helped me achieve my goal. There is a reason that I never ran 50 miles on my own in a training run. Could I have? Perhaps, but I would have put the likelihood of my success at maybe 5%. The race directors who plotted the course know the area like the back of their hands. They decided what those distances between the aid stations needed to be, and what food and drink were needed at each stop. They gave us information before we started on what to expect and how to train. They marked the course. They had medical personnel standing by to help with blisters, stomach issues, ankle sprains, or even more dire problems. They enabled my success. I was not out there alone.

Brand strategy is similar. There is a reason why Six-Point Creative and our Solve for Y program exist, and it is to help you go further faster and more easily than you would on your own. Could you get there without us? Probably. If you’ve ever listened to How I Built This, you know that a smart, driven entrepreneur will eventually find a way. But wrong turns, wasted time, lack of preparation, and lack of experience mean wasted resources. If you could plug in to a well-organized infrastructure and skip the wrong turns and have all of the aid you need along the way… why would you stumble around the woods by yourself?

  • Lesson #3: Don’t let your plan get in the way of reality. While I would never recommend taking on a challenge like an ultramarathon without a plan and some expectations about how it will go, 50 miles is a long enough distance that things are never going to go completely according to plan. Yes, stopping to take off your shoe to dump out a pebble will slow you down and get you off your pace charts. But if you don’t do it at mile 5, by mile 30, that little irritation will become a huge blister. Now you need to take a lot more time to stop for medical attention, or limp along for the last 20 miles, or even drop out of the race because the pain is too intense.

Again, the correlations to brand strategy are real. You need to make assumptions and have a plan to move forward, but you need to build in a framework for constant re-evaluation and look for anything that signals that your brand is on the wrong track. Refusal to pay attention to the signs will result in wasted resources, or simply never achieving that long-term goal. That is why instead of annual marketing plans, we work in 90-day “sprints” with a built-in mechanism to track leading indicators and step back to evaluate the work. If we sense a pebble in the footing of our strategy, we can help our clients pivot quickly before the stakes become too high.

  • Lesson #4: Sometimes you are your own worst enemy. Ultramarathons are as much a test of mental strength as they are physical endurance. You need to learn to get outside of yourself and see your dark mood as a symptom of low blood sugar. You need to have an important, personal “why” that is driving you to finish the race that you can focus your attention on when your body starts to tell you that you can’t go another step. Also, for the last 10 miles or so, my best friend, Jess, could also run with me. She was called a “pacer” but she was really my motivator. By the time I reached her, I had all of the excuses ready as to why I didn’t need to go the last 10 miles, but she would have none of it. She kept me on track, made me run the hills I wanted to walk, called my bluff when I said I didn’t need any more food or water, and overall just kept me focused and upbeat. There was nothing in it for Jess to be out there with me, other than she wanted see me achieve my goal.

When you are in the midst of working toward your long-term goals for your brand, there will be times that you want to short-cut, or switch gears, or will tell everyone who will listen that it just isn’t working. You need to allow yourself to have those ups and downs, but you also need to find some trusted advisors who care about you, and who want you to achieve your goals. These are the people who will save you from yourself at those points, who will gently (or not so gently) challenge you – not for their own ego, but in service to your vision.

  • Lesson #5: Nothing is impossible. If you talk to an ultrarunner and tell them that you could never run 50 miles, you will hear one consistent refrain: If you want it, you can do it. And I would tell you the same. Because everyone who has done it also once thought that they couldn’t do it. But then they did. And once you have been on the other side, you see how it is possible in a way that you can’t do before you have been through it. And the beauty of the trail and ultrarunning culture is that these runners will also share their experience, giving you tips and encouragement, and helping save you from learning lessons that they learned the hard way. You still won’t truly believe it until you do it, but when you start hearing the how, it no longer seems quite so impossible as when you just hear those numbers: 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles.

It is the same for your brand. We can put artificial limits on our companies, and go into scarcity mindset. We’re not GE…Starbucks…Coke…McDonald’s. True. You’re not. But there was a time when they weren’t those brands either. Sometimes you need someone else to tell you: If you want it, you can do it. And this is how.