As I climbed, hands on knees, up the steep trail, I could hear bongo drums, cowbells, and shouts getting closer. I emerged from the dense woods into the bright clearing at the summit, took a deep breath, and quickly exchanged my scowl of concentration and pain for a big smile. I thanked volunteers, waved at spectators, and loudly cheered on the lead runners who had already turned around and were heading back, miles ahead of me.
“You are strong! You got this!”
“Keep smiling! You’re doing great!”
I could hear people responding to the big grin plastered on my face, and feeding me back the energy I knew I would need to complete the 12 grueling miles of the Seven Sisters trail race, often referred to as “New England’s Toughest.”
When I descended the last hill before the turnaround, I could hear a similar cacophony. This time, mixed in to the encouragement of the volunteers was a runner who looked as beat-up on the outside as I felt on the inside. He was complaining about the pounding his legs were taking, was frustrated at the food options at the aid station, and was scowling. You could feel the volunteers edging away from him, timidly offering options and trying to encourage him, but also reminding him that he could get a ride back to the starting line if he wanted to drop out.
I caught the eye of a wary volunteer and another exhausted runner, and flashed them a big smile, and cracked a bad joke. “It’s all downhill from here, right?” Together we looked up at the massive climb back to the summit that awaited us. We laughed and more people edged over to us, offering energy bars, words of encouragement, and more smiles and laughter.
At Six-Point, our clients are very humble, “real” people. Many dislike – and even avoid – marketing and branding because it feels fake, boastful, or insubstantial to them. Authenticity and trust are their core values. They don’t want to pretend to be something they aren’t.
At the same time, they get frustrated because their growth is limited. Their potential customers think their company is smaller than it really is. Or that they don’t have the depth and breadth of products or services that they do. It makes it harder for them to capture growth opportunities, and to attract the next level of talent that they need to continue pushing the business forward.
This humbleness is one of the reasons why I feel so connected to our clients. I don’t love attention; I am an introvert at heart. But when I am running, especially a race or distance that pushes me past my known limits, I know I will go further and faster with the help of others. Here’s the magic: People respond to what I put out there. I have learned that when I feel terrible, if I can still summon up a smile and a high-five, I will get that energy and encouragement back, helping me push a little further. “Faking it” actually does help me reach my goal.
For business, the same is true. You need to be slightly aspirational with the “face” you put out to the world. When you can communicate your vision for the business clearly and in a compelling way, it attracts people to it – both customers and team members. Everyone is energized. It accelerates growth instead of hampering it.
Where’s the line?
I can totally relate to feeling discomfort with being inauthentic, though. Trust is everything, and you can’t take that lightly. So where is the line between being aspirational and damaging trust?
In a race, I know the line. There is a big difference between lying about an injury or telling people that you don’t need any water versus encouraging a fellow runner or thanking a volunteer.
In business, I think of it as showing up as your best self. If your team performed to their potential, if you had your best day, if you were given that big opportunity, what would you be able to do? You need your brand to reflect that confidence.
Because, if you are content with showing up like you might feel on your worst days, or as a little bit less than your potential, you are cheating the business of opportunity. Who wants to work for a company that doesn’t respect itself? Whether you are a customer or an employee, confidence and vision are attractive.
Also, when you act a little bigger than you are, or a little more confident than you feel, it creates a positive creative tension. It pushes your team further than you would make it otherwise. If the gap is too big, it creates misaligned expectations and puts trust at risk. If it is too small, there will be inertia or even decline. So getting the tension in the brand just right becomes a critical strategic tool for growth and opportunity. This is particularly important at inflection points – moments like next generation transitions, cultural transformations, new market entries and product launches, or mergers and acquisitions.
Recently, I got a thank you note from a client who completed a successful exit from their business that shows the power of positioning. His father had started the business as a specialized printing company, but over decades, they had developed proprietary technology and the ability to serve clients in cutting edge industries like healthcare and security. The team at Six-Point repositioned the company to be more reflective of these emerging opportunities, and it caused both excitement and also some trepidation. There was always that fear that maybe they were changing too much, acting “too big,” or straying too far from their roots.
Over the years, I have seen their team leaning into the new positioning, and growing as a result, but I was extra excited to receive the following note:
“A quick note to say thanks for your help with our rebranding. I sold the business two weeks ago to Avery! I do think that our fresh brand played a part in attracting the interest of the largest label company in the world. I hope all is well for you, the company, and your family.”
While I know an exit is bittersweet for him, I also know it was the culmination of decades of work, growth, and careful stewardship. And I know that it would have been unlikely to execute a strategic acquisition without intentional positioning that reflected opportunity, not just the status quo.
If you are looking for a detailed example of the decisions that go into this kind of positioning, stay tuned! I’ll soon be breaking down Six-Point’s journey to update our own branding, and providing some practical takeaways that you can use for yours.