I got a death threat last week from a guy who’s a senior at Brown University who didn’t think I could track him down. More on that in a second. The first thing I want to deal with is the question asked me the other day: “How do you make a personal brand?” When I hear the words “personal brand,” I think “someone is going to lie to me and then try to take all my money.” Personal branding, I guess, is descended from the mockery called “corporate branding.”
The Coca-Cola company, for instance, loves the drug Ecstasy. My favorite TV commercial is not the 1984 Apple commercial (although that’s a close number two), but a commercial for Coke Zero (“Coke Zero Roller Girl”). It takes a song that was originally writtten by Paul Oakenfold. The original topic of the song was about how great it was to take the drug Ecstasy and go to a rave. Anything could happen.
There would be pretty girls, great music, and at the end of the night, total communion with nature. In the commercial, though, there’s a girl rollerblading. She looks like she’s on the boardwalk in Santa Monica. The song is playing in the background. She’s not taking Ecstasy but drinking Coke Zero. She dances/rollerblades around her studly friends, her beautiful girlfriends, and it ends with everyone taking Coke Zero, the fizz going up like a group ejaculation into the sky. Coke Zero – the brand where you can find your own personal ecstasy.
I WANT THAT
Whenever I watch that commercial I feel like I want a life like that: free from worry, stress, free from thinking about money or petty jealousies. Surrounded by friends and beautiful people. Moving without effort, the ocean in the background. As they say in the song: “Once again, I find myself with my friends.” Coke Zero tells me the dream is possible, even though intellectually I know it’s a myth. Freedom isn’t found that way. But we’re willing, as a culture, to accept the lies Coke tells us. And they’re willing to use songs about drugs to help us accept those lies.
Perhaps Coke figured out that maybe this time they had gone too far, because they pulled the commercial. Sometimes I can find it on YouTube. Sometimes I can’t. They try hard to make it disappear.
What they never explain is that Coke Zero is essentially brown-dyed water with about 16 teaspoons of fake sugar in it. Add a little bit of CO2 and you make it fizz. That’s the secret formula that’s locked in a safe in some bank in Atlanta. I can make SuperJamesCola with that formula. But then I can’t license that music, get those sexy girls, and run that ad during the Super Bowl and a thousand other places. I can’t do corporate branding by myself.
But no matter – let’s move past the artificially safe confines of corporate America. That’s dead and if you haven’t planned your exit strategy yet you will have to soon enough.
SO WHAT IS PERSONAL BRANDING?
So now I keep hearing about “personal branding” – the idea that your career, your mind, your body, everything that makes up the superficial “you” can be packaged up into a brand just like Coke or McDonald’s can. With the spectrum of pornography allowed by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. etc. etc., a personal brand can evolve and grow like any Superbowl ad. Kim Kardashian’s didn’t have an answer when Barbara Walters asked her, finally, “But aren’t you really just known for a sex tape?” when Kim initially tried to “re-brand” herself as a “businesswoman” in a very intimate interview.
So we start to arrive at the truth of the matter: Branding is lying.
But personal branding is even worse because the joke is over. Now we’re talking about me and you. We’re talking about who YOU are. And let’s face it. It’s not pretty. You need to re-brand from birth.
People confuse “honesty” with a type of “happiness.” He can be honest because he is happy. But it’s not true. Life is a series of failures punctuated by brief successes. That’s honesty. Failure is not necessarily bad. It’s reality.
But branding tries to reverse that. With a “personal brand,” you suddenly pretend to be super successful, a “businesswoman” in Kardashian’s case – failure is non-existent, and out of your mind comes the exact mathematical formulas that if someone drinks your Cola and snorts your Ecstasy, then they too will have the pretty girl, the success, the money, the accoutrements.
A FRIEND OF MINE WHO DOES PERSONAL BRANDING
I know a stockbroker who sends a Christmas card every year to his clients. He wants to present an aura of success. Each time he’s in some other blue lagoon on some random part of the world, with a blonde girl (different each Christmas) with huge fake breasts and they are snorkeling or hugging in the water (blue blue aqua) or staring off into a beautiful Mediterranean ancient city. He makes money. Lots of it.
And you can’t even look at him, the girl is so beautiful and her eyes are staring at him and she’s kissing him and it’s all over his Facebook page. His status might even be “engaged” and she has an exotic name.
The only problem is, “and you can’t tell anyone, because this is the beautiful part,” he is telling me in his tell-all voice because he’s a good friend and knows I will never reveal his name: is that he’s gay. He picks up his boyfriends in dungeons. He’s been smothered in concrete until he was unable to move and holes would be poked through so he could breathe, and only then with a boy whipping him and arranging this unusual punishment would he be able to finish.
Honesty is about the scars. It’s about the blemishes. But it’s more than just bragging about failure, which could be a form of ego. It’s about truly helping people.
There are a trillion websites competing against each other. The most honest website of all? Google. Google can’t help you with your problems. If you suspect you might have herpes after a particularly courageous night out on the town, going to Google will not help you (although you may feel a vague feeling of remorse when you see the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button).
Google has no content on it at all. But Google is honest about that. You just walked into their store and said, “Please, help me – do you have anything to prevent a potential outbreak of herpes,” and Google will say, quite honestly, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you, but here are ten of my competitors who can potentially help you. And, by the way, here are three more of my competitors who MIGHT be able to help you, but, in full disclosure, they are paying me to tell you this.” And then Google shrugs its shoulders. That’s all they can do for you.
But that’s honesty. That’s not branding. So you’ll come back to them. Because they are a straight shooter and the target was on your head. And when you need to know about that growth behind your ear, or what the best software is for keystroke logging, they will say the same thing: “Sorry, we can’t help you – but we can direct you to at least ten of our competitors who seem pretty decent at it.”
With honesty, they’ve set themselves free. Here’s the thing about a brand. It puts you in jail. You know who had the original patent that Larry Page tweaked into the PageRank that made Google (and separately, that Robin Li ALSO tweaked into the patent that became Baidu?) I’ll tell you: Dow Jones. The Wall Street Journal. [See, “10 Unusual Things About Google”]
They knew how to make Google years before Larry Page even thought of the idea. But they didn’t do it. Why? Because their brand says they don’t give out stuff for free. Their brand says that everything you need to know is trapped inside something with the Wall Street Journal or Dow Jones trademarks printed on it and if it’s not there then it’s not anywhere. Branding jails corporate America but honesty sets entrepreneurs free.
WHAT WILL HONESTY GET YOU?
#1: PEOPLE WILL STOP SPEAKING TO YOU
Forget personal branding. Start to dip your toes into personal honesty. Let me tell you what will happen. Your family might stop speaking to you.
I have experienced this not just from myself but all the bloggers I consider “honest bloggers.” Some of your friends will also stop speaking to you. Some of your colleagues will avoid you. Some investors will shun you. Your personal “network” will transform and shift.
My own personal motto is: honesty to a point. I will never harm anyone. I believe in what Buddha said to his son Rahula the day after he showed up after abandoning his son for 7 years:
Before, during, and even AFTER you say something, make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone.
But even despite that rule, people will stop speaking to you because not every hurt you can control. Historical is hysterical for many people.
#2 PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU ARE GOING TO KILL YOURSELF
The next thing that will happen is people will ask “Are you killing yourself?” Because every blog post almost seems like a suicide note.
#3 PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU ARE CRAZY
Then people will send emails to your friends, “Is he as crazy as he sounds?” And that’s how I make friends now because introductions will be made and people will have to find out for themselves.
#4 PEOPLE WILL GET FRIGHTENED
So they will call you names. Oh, that guy is just trying to be a “contrarian,” for instance. Or an “idiot.” Or worse. I’ve been called everything. I had to call the Brown University Public Safety office the other day because I got emailed a death threat and the guy didn’t think I could track him. The guy was a senior and had also apparently threatened the life of a librarian there.
They need to understand why you are telling the truth. Why you are being honest about what you really think. In meetings at the office, everyone is quiet. You’re not supposed to speak up. So people will dislike you, try to put you down, post comments, whatever. In many cases (but not all) these are what I call “crappy people”. And here’s how to deal with them.
#5 PEOPLE WILL FIND YOU ENTERTAINING
Then finally, people will come back to you. Because you’re entertaining – if 20,000 people are lying and only 1 person is telling the truth, then that 1 person is going to stand taller than anyone. At first people will come back to you for voyeuristic reasons. Why? Because they know if they watch Real Housewives they aren’t watching anything “Real” and they aren’t watching “Housewives.” But you’re real. So they want to know what you’ll do next.
#6 PEOPLE WILL TRUST YOUR ADVICE
People will also come back for advice. Not always because they agree with you. But because they know the advice is coming from the heart and not because there is anything for sale. It’s like Google can’t cure anything. But they can direct you to all the people who can. So you go back to Google because you might not always find what you want but at least you know they are trying hard to direct you to the right place.
We’ve all hidden our failures in dark comets orbiting the peripheral edges of the solar system, where the sun is dark and faded. But when someone brings their orbit close to the sun we want to land there for a brief moment and see if actual living conditions exist. And if so, then maybe a small settlement can be formed, advice can be asked, a failure can be related to, a friendship can be formed.
#7 YOU BECOME FREE
At first we hug our boundaries in chains. We think “If we tell the girl we like her, she might not like me back.” We think, “If I say I like this candidate, my friends might hate me.” If I say X, everyone else might say Y. And so on. But more and more we start to feel where those boundaries are and we push them out. We push them further and further away from ourselves. Until finally they are so far away it’s as if they don’t exist at all. You don’t need money for that. Or a big house. Or a fancy degree or car. Every day, just push out those boundaries a little further.
We reach for that freedom. We never truly get there. We’re always striving to see how far they can go, just like a little child with her parents. But eventually, the boundaries are so far away we begin to feel the pleasures of true freedom.
And it feels good.