The High School Brand

I never really thought about how important branding is to teenagers until long after high school was over. It’s not something you’re really thinking about when you’re 16, even though a lot of time unconsciously goes into building an image.

  • What do you wear?
  • Who are your friends?
  • Which classes are you in?
  • How high are your grades?
  • What clubs or sports do you play?
  • Do you like who you are?

These are the questions that the world of a teenager turn on.

Right now I’m incredibly close to my four youngest cousins. For the first time in a long time I’m close enough to visit every few weeks. The oldest two are in high school, and the youngest two will soon be following them. With all the time I spend with them, it  brings back a lot of memories. It also brings a lot of perspective into the decisions I made post-high school and how lucky I really was.

A brand can be a great thing for a teenager. It helps give you identity. Boundaries. And if you have good friends, it provides positive influences and structure to your decisions. Not parental structure, like “be home by 10,” but social structure. Are you going to skip class? Sneak out of your house at night? Will you prank your friends for fun one night? Are you a bully, the bullied, or someone who stands by and watches?  These are the beginnings of who you will be and the roots of the brand you will build for yourself.

The structure is nice. It’s comforting when you’re younger. But growing out of those structures is inevitable. Brands are constricting. They set boundaries on the acceptable versus the unacceptable. People grow, even more so than brands, we evolve and change. If we’re lucky the people around us grow with us, and take those changes well. Sometimes they don’t, and that’s part of the process of growing as well.

I remember analyzing the ways I had changed before every college vacation right before I headed home, trying to guess what my friends reactions would be. One year I learned how to put make-up on (this would have been out of the question for high school Bridget). Another year I started dressing more like an adult, and less like a tom boy (I discovered high heels and skinny jeans). These are little things that don’t seem to matter in the long run, but were so integral to my imge in high school. I never put on make-up, always had messy hair, wore comfortable clothes, and could barely wear heels without tripping.

I’d go home and flaunt all my changes. I found my high school brand restrictive and by the time I reached college I was desperate to expand it. I was 17 and had been holding on to the same image since 6th grade. Of course, I found it restrictive. I’m sure most of my friends did to, even though at the time I didn’t realize it.

The funny thing is, how that changed now that I’m an adult. I’m 24. I’ve known my best friend for 14 years now. Most of my best friends I’ve known for 10+ years, because most of my best friends were the people I met in high school. These are the people who knew a frizzy haired, nose in a book, chronically shy and definitely nerdy version of me. In a lot of ways I’m still the same, though I don’t  navigate hallways while reading a book anymore, so maybe I’m not that similar to 16-year old Bridget!

I couldn’t wait to go home for Christmas this year. Not because I wanted to show them how I’ve changed during my year in Florida; though I have changed. Instead because I can’t wait to share with them how we’ve all stayed the same. The things about my image that I found so restrictive in high school, like how I felt like I couldn’t wear a skirt or make-up, have faded away. What stayed are the parts of my personal brand, and our brand as a group, that has always made us so tight knit.

We’re all different now. There’s a news producer, a theater stage hand, a priest-in-training, a doctor, a advertiser, a concert lighting technician, a lab tech, a nuclear physicist, a engineer or three, a game store owner, a solider, and more. Life has taken us further than any imagined when we last sprawled on the high school floor together and talked about the things we would do in college, but the brands we started to build in high school and stayed with us through college and kept us closer together than we could ever have hoped to stay.

However, I digress. The point I started out to make is that our choices define us in more ways that we realize. They define who we will be and what we will do with ourselves, but also (and almost as importantly), how we will be perceived. By ourselves, parents, friends, teachers, bosses. Habits in how we dress, what we say, how we interact with others, and which friends we keep close all start in high school.

It’s not something a teenager ever thinks about, of course. It’s something that builds subconsciously. But when you get right down to it, every teenager understands the social importance of the brand they build. Perhaps even more so than some of the experts.

But back to my previous digression and reminiscence about my own high school brand. Here is the brand I built in high school and continue to build for myself today:

2005 – Leaving a Happy Graduation message in a friend’s lawn the night before she left for college

2009 – Attempting to apply Halloween make-up for my 21st birthday party/Halloween bash. My best friend drove up for one night, just to make fun of my make-up fail. And to wish me a Happy Birthday…

2011 – Six years after highschool, and we still can’t manage to all smile nicely at the same time for a picture. Rather like our friendship, some things just haven’t changed.

2012… No matter where we go next and how we evolve our images, there are somethings that I hope stay exactly the same. This group of people is one of those things!



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