We all know what it’s like to not fit in, maybe in our family, at school, at the office, or when trying to start a new business.
How do we reconcile being true to ourselves, and being a part of larger group? Trying to fit in with a group that doesn’t share your core values or mesh with your personality is a losing battle that will end in self-compromise. Yet, we all find ourselves there at some point.
Fitting in has never been my forte. Growing up as a competitive skateboarder in small-town Minnesota was not a recipe for acceptance. Neither are many of the things that accompany the lifestyle of a sponsored rider. As for school, that was just an obstacle to skating. When it was time to start thinking about what path to take out of high school, I knew that it wouldn’t be college, or working for my father’s company. Fortunately for me, rather than pressuring me to be what I was not, my Dad encouraged me to pursue what I loved, and what I excelled at: skateboarding.
At 16, I started a skateboard company, and somehow, leveraging the relationships I built over my years of traveling, and making every rookie mistake I could, I built the business into a global brand within the first year of operations. From there I was recruited to build a footwear company for a manufacturing business in Hong Kong, consulted with national brands and organizations, founded and sold two youth marketing agencies, and am now a published business book author.
So how does being an outsider in Minnesota flip to being a sought-after marketer, author, and speaker? Not easy, but simple: I knew who I was, and who I wasn’t, found people who lived similar lifestyles, and kept an open mind.
What does fitting in mean to this story and to running a business? In the plots of movies and TV, fitting in is always this nail-biting experience of hoping for acceptance by the intimidating and dismissively cool group. And most of the time, the person who finally is accepted realizes they don’t even like the people they once thought were cool. We’ve seen Mean Girls. In the youth marketing sector, I encounter a lot of professionals who look at their customers/audiences markets with a similar unfocused distance.
They see them as an abstraction of the complexities that truly describe the stages a kid goes through on the way to young adult. Businesses don’t always have a strong enough sense of who they are, or what their company can offer these groups. They struggle to be accepted by a market that they don’t necessarily connect with, and they don’t know how to maintain the relationship authentically.
As a young entrepreneur, it was fun for me to market to skaters. We had everything in common; it was an easy relationship. Now as an adult, relating to young people isn’t always so effortless, but the same formula still applies: know yourself and what you have to offer; identify the common ground between you and your audience; build on that in a way that helps everyone grow and prosper.
At Engage Youth Co. (EYC), I help young professionals and brands to get to know and develop themselves, their mission, and their offerings, and use that to identify what audiences they would connect with best, or would like most to work with, and why. We encourage the building of relationships that benefit both parties, so that brands aren’t chasing illusions, but rather, nurturing a long-term partnership.
We have distilled this process down into five guiding principles that apply just as easily to a friendship as to a business relationship. Identity. Trust. Relevance. Possibility. Experience. Following these takes the angsty uncertainty out of earning acceptance, and replaces it with informed confidence.
Identity. Know your who you are, or be very focused on figuring it out. Confidence and acceptance of yourself and what you do is a big part of bridging the gap between you and your audience. As is knowing yourself well enough that you can evolve and still stay true to what is at your core. If you are authentic, consistent, and transparent, it will be much easier to find like-minded audiences. Part 2 of identity is being able to identify those who will appreciate and connect with you. We must take the time to look beyond demographics, and see what makes groups come alive, what excites, moves and motivates them.
Trust. Are you trustworthy? Once you have identified an audience that you think would match well with your brand, how will you get them to stop and invest their time and attention, much less their money with you? What can your brand do to prove that it is trustworthy, and will deliver on the promise of its marketing or product? A breach of authenticity or any shadiness does not go over well with today’s youth market, or any market.
Relevance. What do you share with your audience, and can you connect on this common ground? Are you offering products and services, and a brand story that means something? Are these offerings conveniently available when and why these groups need it? Is it consistent with what is most important in their lives at that time? With a million and one possibilities out there, your brand must stand out as one that is tuned in to the needs and desires, as well as the culture and lifestyle of your audience.
Possibility. How do you inspire or generate enthusiasm? What do you offer your audience that they can’t do on their own? How do you help them to imagine their world differently, or solve their problems?
Experience. What is your relationship like? What does your audience feel like when they interact with you? Do you elevate them or allow them to experience the world in new or better ways?
To be successful and confident in anything, we must create an environment where we, as individuals or businesses, can thrive in our relationships with enthusiastic audiences. This means knowing ourselves and the groups we serve, and knowing how to operate in that shared space. Fitting in should not be an uncomfortable game, but rather an ongoing journey towards finding the right fit.