Personal brand: red hot, with a smell of burnt flesh

Draft of 2008.06.03

May include: businessadvice&c.

“Brand and brand! What is ‘brand’!?”

We design our personae, our cultural affectations and signifying traits, as a matter of almost-conscious choice. We pick stereotypes to adopt, or eschew, and set ourselves up convenient abbreviations of implication. You’re a Geek, you know about computers; you’re an Academic, you work long hours on things nobody else really cares about; you’re a Suit, you know all about public speaking and you like golf or swimming; you’re a Consultant, you’re bad with execution details but rather insightful with a 30000-Foot View; you’re Gay, maybe you dress a bit better; you’re an Entrepreneur, you’re working 30-hour days and always ready to make a cunning strategic leap; you’re a Temp, you’re running out the door at 4:45 every day; you’re a Curmudgeon, you get to swear on the Internet.

You’re not any one of those things, and you’re never obliged to suffer from any one of those traits. But it helps, sometimes, to let people know kindof where you are. Signals. Signs. Messages. Summaries. That’s what culture is: little modules of significance that help us mentally (and socially) model one another. And even ourselves; we model ourselves, too.

Personae are expeditious.

We use these personae as communication conduits, as channels through which salient information can be filtered. Integrating ourselves into the flow of conversation, to aid our interactions by glossing and masking our intrinsic uniqueness. And for blocking what we don’t necessarily want people to see. And if we’re cunning, for derailing assumptions so we can take advantage of our peers’ cognitive dissonance (nothing I love more than walking into certain meetings in my General Suit, for instance).

You should have a persona. You should strive, diligently, to use your personae as tools in your life. Because life’s easier for human beings when they don’t need to explain everything every time. We’re made to model one another’s minds; personae make that modeling easier.

Sure, things get out of hand or we slip up or we do a bad job picking or we get into the wrong context, and all of a sudden we’re suffering from the negative consequences of that “simplification”. Up to and including gettin’ killed daid by some asshole thinks he’s better than you.

That’s arguably a biggish risk, gettin’ killed daid by assholes. There are plenty of assholes in the world, more than enough to go around. You’d think the tendency would have been bred out of us by now. But regardless of the costs, the benefits mean we really all do it, all the time. And we do it because we’re constantly dealing with one another in individual social situations, and for the most part we can adapt to those situations.

Pick some rules, follow ’em as long as it makes sense… but we all know only a bigoted idiot assumes she knows everything about a person just because she recognizes a stereotypic trait or two. That big football geek may be a D&D nut; that old man may love World of Warcraft; that C-level exec may actually be a useful programmer.

That’s how people work. You find those details out, you disclose those things or hide them, when you talk with people—when you actually interact with one another.

Face to face.

Now. In the “new world” of Social Media (which is typically read to mean “media you don’t have to ask somebody else to make for you”), we’re “all” “empowered” to “build” our own “personal brand”.

Fact: Brands are not personae.

Brands are immutable. They’re rigid, they’re committee-designed, and those committees create them for use in fucking broadcast media, people. For commercials. For newspapers. For signs.

You design your brand; you label your brand; you defend your brand. But you can never, ever adapt it contingently as the situation demands.

Branding is not for people. Branding is for cattle. Branding is for slaves. Do you imagine it’s a coincidence that branding is for property?

Branding is for immutables. Branding is what you do to shit you plan to sell in a bottle, when you don’t want to give away the recipe but do want to assure customers that it will consistently be the same shit no matter which branded bottle they open. A brand is a promise of eternal consistency.

You. Do. Not. Want. A. “Personal”. Brand. You do not want to even start to think of an individual person as having a brand. In fact, real life will not let you have a brand, you cannot “be” one, and are a fucking idiot if you approach your online (or real) life that way. I don’t care if you’re in business, or you’re some kind of maven, or you’re just an random schmoe who believes new words equal useful ideas.

Sorry: This is not a mere matter of semantics, or of usage. Not a matter of misinterpreting what people “mean” by the phrase.

No matter how much you want to deny it, you’re an individual. A complex human being. I don’t care whether you want to sell something, including yourself: It’s your goddamned responsibility to pay attention to the people you’re talking with, interacting with, having conversations with.

And adapt to them. Not “adapt your message”. Adapt your self.

And I don’t mean “that’s a good strategy for your success!” I mean it’s your responsibility as a human being. Otherwise? You’re not listening. And if you’re not listening, not participating? You’re of no use.

And that, right there, that’s what your “brand” has bought you: a clear implication of your uselessness, your immutability, your mindless consistency. You’re the same crap in a branded bottle, no matter which bottle we open.

I bet you think you want a “brand” because brands are “recognized”. Brands are famous, right?

You will always be the same branded shit in any bottle we open. You might be the best shit in any bottle in the whole wide world… but you’re the same brand, no matter what. That consistency right there is the price of fame. Ask anybody who regrets their fame, any successful author or performer, any star, any luminary. “Do that thing you always do! No, not that new one—like you used to in the old days.”

Mindlessness, uselessness, inhumanity: those are the price of fame. And you know what? Fame can be worth those costs, if you really want it strongly enough, if you reap rewards commensurate with the costs.

But only a fool would think having a brand—being a brand—is the path to fame.