I don’t know if it’s true that dog owners end up looking like their pets, but it’s a fact that a company will forever bear the DNA of its first avid customers.

Successful positioning can come in many flavours. Apple marketed its machines by giving away computers to high profile artist’s like David Hockney and to this day the brand is strongly tied to the creative industry. Meanwhile, its arch rival took the position of catering to large corporations. When Steve Jobs said the problem with Microsoft is they lack taste that was probably okay with Bill Gates, who deliberately chose trustworthiness over hip.

Successful positioning of a brand in relation to a certain target segment doesn’t have to correlate to reality by the way. The actual customers of Marlboro are probably a far cry from rugged fresh air loving cowboys, just like real fighter pilots and extreme rock climbers will most likely stay away from Red Bull’s jitter inducing energy drinks.

But what about companies that fail to control the narrative of their brand? Perhaps surprisingly, that doesn’t always have to be a problem.

The iconic Mini provides a good case in point. It was designed in the late fifties by Sir Alec Issigonis who had in mind to build a spacious little vehicle that would get grandma safely to church. Only when speed-head and racing entrepreneur John Cooper got his hands on one of the early models, did the Mini come into its own.

Cooper came from the world of formula-1 racing and immediately saw the potential in the Mini. As it turned out, Issigonis had indadvertedly created a rough draft of what would become one of the most successful track racing cars of the sixties.

Cooper’s version of the Mini shockingly won the Montecarlo rally in 1964, 65 and 67 (it would have also won it a 1966 if it wasn’t for French racing official who couldn’t stomach the foreign supremacy and disqualified not only it, but also the other three cars that came in first — all of them British, for violating an obscure paragraph in the race’s rulebook having to do with the angle of the mounted extra lights.)

Clearly visualising the first hardcore customer is often especially challenging for founders, who tend to live partly in a future dream world just in order to endure the stress of early stage startup life. This future-focus is a double edged sword. On the one hand you have to live and breath the vision of what your company can become. On the other hand, even if you’ve invented the smartest thing since sliced bread and one day your product will pervade the lives of just about everybody, you’re only going to get there by first securing a bridge-head segment of hardcore fans. 

If you don’t keep your eyes on that prize, you’ll end up confused about your core value proposition, and hence about your identity as a company.

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