A couple of years ago I read an article about two women who, for a heart-stopping amount of money, would create a personal “brand.” The author of the piece was interviewed and given a brand, a process involving questions about her, everything from her taste in interior design to childhood memories. Being a narcissist of the highest order, the most appealing thing to me was the notion that you could pay these women to spend hours asking you questions, listening to you talk, and focusing on nothing but…you. Therapists limit conversation to 50 minutes and want to talk about unpleasant things, friends and family expect some reciprocal attention, but these women were charged with nothing short of being fully in thrall to the details of a client’s favorite high school class, fabric texture, and Austen heroine. (I am intentionally not googling these women and finding out the details about their product; my purposes are better suited by the kind of hazy recall that can best be expanded or contracted without the tedious parameters imposed by Actual Facts).
Best of all, at the end of the Q & A, and after the proprietary voodoo calculus was complete, one had a brand and could go forth able to tell any prospective employer, date or customer exactly what they could expect. Surely, for the thousands of dollars involved, no one was branded as “sleazy, selfish and concrete,” even if such a summary might be honest, and give fair warning to all comers. It seems far likelier, that no matter one’s shortcomings, a brand identification would involve words like “dynamic,” “creative,” “fearless” and “compassionate.” I don’t know what, if any ethics rules apply to the business of personal branding, but one rather suspects that the zero-bedazzled check is handed over along with a clear expectation that one will be portrayed as Nelson Mandela rather than Kate Gosselin. I wondered, though, whether a person who was given such a brand would also then be…branded like some readily identifiable head of cattle, and possibly constrained to remain with that herd of dynamos, aesthetes or do-gooders for all eternity. Would one have to go through the process again if things changed, or was a premium placed on sticking to the original brand as a tool for generating loyalty and easy identification?
Although I am generally not a big thinker on business topics, the notion of branding interests me a great deal. If you are Apple, everyone knows what to expect – cutting edge, user-friendly, sleek and beautiful products. We would be shocked if Apple produced, for example, an iPod with a pebble-textured navy plastic backing. We would also be surprised to see processed cheese at Whole Foods, or to learn that Volvo was introducing a new line of two-seat sports cars with molded fiberglass bodies. A strong brand can even withstand and bounce back from controversy or bad press. Bill Cosby did it, and both Apple and Whole Foods have risen above bad products, criticism and negative reporting. Toyota and Tiger Woods are strong brands that seem to have been kneecapped, but both stories are far from over. My husband says Tiger can bounce back if he plays golf again and wins, and Toyota could emerge sadder, wiser and back on top.
We want to be able to believe in something, we want to be able to trust that something branded and sold as “reliable” and “good” is actually reliable and good, provided that our own experience dovetails with what we are told. If we have an iPod and love it (I myself worship my Touch in an unseemly manner) we are predisposed to discredit data that says Apple is not really cutting edge, that it’s smug and full of itself, and that it is often marketing technology developed long ago by competitors. We know it is a cool product, and we’ve known that since we first felt the arrows of envy piercing our hearts at the sight of a milky white MacBook or a pair of iPod headphones trailing into a jacket pocket. If they slip up, we dismiss it as we would with a beloved friend; we tell ourselves that people (and companies) make mistakes. It’s not like they sent Pintos out on the road, or something.
So a personal brand might be a useful thing, I guess in dealing with people with whom one planned an arm’s length sort of relationship. For the most part, one’s business associates want someone reliable and competent rather than someone who shows too much human flakiness. When I had a law office it was white and airy, with lots of bright colors and non-law books, calculated to create a sense of ease and normality for distressed clients. If I had attended a seminar on law office management and transformed my work space into something dark and forbidding, my clients would have felt both anxious and misled. In that situation, I had essentially created a brand and knew intuitively that my success depended partly on maintaining it regardless of changing personal influences and preferences.
If one buys a personal brand, I am not sure if one puts it on one’s business cards, on one’s CV, or, perhaps, on a banner affixed to the driver’s side door of one’s vehicle. Maybe there’s a sort of catalogue, a prospectus kind of thing with glossy pictures detailing the various components of an individual’s brand: “Mimi prefers to be active, and hates to be cooped up indoors. She skis, sails, climbs rocks and hikes every weekend. She likes bright colors, sports cars, and the scent of fresh grass. She believes that government should be downsized, and that people make their own good fortune through hard work. She likes sushi, The Beach Boys, Eames chairs, and landscapes. She handles some of the largest accounts at her bank and has been promoted three times in three years. Her favorite designer is Calvin Klein, and she shops most often at J. Crew and Ann Taylor. She was born and raised in Alabama, and still has an accent and a love for barbecue and hush puppies. Her favorite vacation spot is St. Lucia, and her scent is Estee Lauder’s ‘Beautiful.'” On reflection, that might be a bit much for someone to assimilate in the time it takes to read the words “Whole Foods,” see the endless stretches of freshly-buffed produce, and get the organic linen, ex-hippie, peace-and-love-with-money vibe.
If one is branded as well as Whole Foods is, I suppose it must be necessary to make choices consistent with the branding, in order for it to have any weight or utility. This is probably easier for a business than it is for a person, and would undoubtedly be my downfall as a brandee. If, for example, Mimi spent a weekend in the house reading “Paradise Lost” in ratty sweats while eating leftover Moo Goo Gai Pan and Saltines with spray cheez, it would be hard to square her with the dynamic adventurer of her branding. Perhaps part of the personal branding process is a set of rules which must be followed in order to get the most out of the thing; one could take the risk of choosing to disregard them in private, but Mimi in a Dodge Pickup at Cracker Barrel would cause the same jarring and uncomfortable disconnect for a client that Tiger Woods caused among his fans. If we believe in the brand, we are angry when we feel it was all a lie. This seems to me to be a much less significant issue for a corporation, for which any kind of change is akin to turning a large seagoing vessel, than for an individual who can wake up one morning and decide to get dreadlocks or start relationships with a fleet of blonde and surgically enhanced women.
There is no cosmic conclusion, here; my main interest in the branding issue (and I told you I was a narcissist) is what would happen if I won the lottery and hired the Branding Fairies. My honest guess is that, although I would thoroughly enjoy the process of spelunking in my own history, preferences and quirks, I could not be successfully branded as anything other than some hideous cultural mash-up. This would probably do me less social good than my present system of burying what doesn’t fit with what I’m selling in a particular situation, or of concealing it until the time is right and I’m “in” enough to wave my freak flag without fear of rejection. People who would hire me, befriend me or promote me based on my love of Watteau, Chanel, “Vogue” and Bach Partitas might be somewhat shaken in their resolve if they knew that I also liked outsider art, hemp hoodies, “The Utne Reader” and Muse. I am energetic and slothful, organic and processed, a hermit and an activist, meticulous and expedient, a Myers-Briggs “introvert” one day and an “extrovert” the next, a lover of both ridiculous TV and Henry James.
In short, I am a muddled, complex human. I think that has to be my “brand,” for the time being, and quite possibly yours, as well. We all have to think, on a daily basis, about what we’re selling, because even the most counter-cultural among us are selling something, even if it’s just the clear rejection of parochial and temporal standards. The good news is that branding our selves leaves us free to change and grow with impunity, to spelunk our own depths, and to re-invent ourselves based on new understandings, inspirations and aspirations. Probably, the qualities that truly define us, that are our “brand,” will shine through regardless of our external trappings, and be visible to anyone close enough to matter. Negative feedback from the outside world gives us an opportunity to make changes, think deeply and re-evaluate the way that others see us. It is far less glitzy and entertaining than paying someone to figure it all out for us, and takes some fairly consistent work, but we all have the capacity to brand ourselves by living in a way consistent with our values.
Best of all, it’s free.