I Am Not a Brand

At a press dinner a few weeks ago I meet a 20 something from Shanghai. He had terrific slang choked English and bleached hair and a lot of bracelets strung up his wrists. He’d been to New York and LA and loved them both. He was crazy for American television — he mentioned True Blood and Gossip Girl. He’d worked in marketing cosmetics for men to the Chinese market and was fond of quoting his social media statistics, he had something like one million followers on the equivalent of Facebook in China. He decried how difficult it was to be different in China, to stand out. “It wasn’t until I found personal branding that I became happy,” he said.

At which point, I became very sad.

It was depressing to have the mad consumerism of American society parroted back with the volume and the saturation turned all the way up. It was something else to see the vanity economy given the same treatment. “What about art and nature and love? ” I thought. (Admittedly, I had been drinking; I don’t typically go existential on a dime like that.)

This Chinese kid was just reflecting the commercialization of the individual that’s been permeating the zeitgeist for a while. I’ve attended a number of conferences lately that include this idea of “personal branding” on the agenda. A quick search returned 39 million pages on personal branding. Apparently, the  individual is a product now and that product needs branding.  Yay.


On a conference call recently, a public relations rep  asked me about my strategy for my blog for the coming year.  “I don’t have a strategy. I want, should my budget and calendar permit, to go some cool places and to write well about them. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to publish some work elsewhere as a result, I like getting stories off my blog and into the world. My blog is only a tiny portion of my identity, and it’s not the business arm, so, uh, strategy? Uh,  I’m working on a book, I have a plan for that…”

This played okay. She said, “You know, it’s kind of refreshing to hear that.” I can’t shake the nagging feeling, though, that it was the wrong answer. I’ve been fretting that I should have said, “Grow my readership by 27%, increase my revenue by 49%, and spend 37% more time traveling as a result of that, preferably on 83% sponsored trips.” I have a gnawing doubt that’s telling me if I’d had the right answer, I could have sold an ad campaign and scored some travel and inked a deal.

I don’t have any grand plans for my blog, though there are a few things I’d like to do. I should update my affiliate links with new stuff that I’ve found over the last year; there’s good travel gear that I stand behind and sometimes, people click those links. I should add a first timer’s guide to Oahu, a place I found hard to like on my first two trips there but have since developed a raging crush on. I’d like to connect with more of my readers in person, that’s always a delight. I’d like to continue to cultivate reader loyalty and satisfaction, (damn, that’s jargon-y, what I mean is make stuff my readers seem to like) which is maybe a metric that gets tossed around as “engagement” or maybe not.

Huh. My blog is a product and it requires packaging as well. And a strategy.


I’m not interested in marketing. I don’t want to sell you anything. I’m not sure that I have anything to sell you, even. But wow, a lot of people are walking around convinced that they do want to sell you something, and that product is their musings on the world, perhaps, in digital format. They would like to sell you their audience especially  if you are a potential advertiser, though I would argue that an audience is not yours to sell, they are your garden to tend. They want very much to sell you themselves — as experts, as brand ambassadors, as representatives.

I’m weirdly uncomfortable when my contacts in the travel industry tell me I’ve built a successful brand. I know this is meant as a compliment — it means that I have a clear and unique voice that manages to be distinct in the static-y noise that is the web. I’m asked, from time to time, how I did it and I never have a satisfying answer. It’s not a 13 step program that anyone can follow, though I suppose you, too could marry an Austrian, start a blog, take up the ukulele, develop an obsession with writing, tap into your art school education (oh, yeah, you’ll need to go to art school), and replicate any number of things I’ve done in my life. But I didn’t set out to “build a brand.” I wanted to write some things down and talk to other people about them. That was about it.

There are any number of striving humans out there who would like to be famous, perhaps for being famous only, sometimes, this is the only goal as though fame were a contest. They want to be a desirable property, perhaps to be listed in the societal version of Sotheby’s marketplace for the fabulous, and then, to be rewarded for that. There are branding guidelines you can follow, and strategies; if you have some money you can hire a branding expert — I’ve freelanced for a branding firm and I’ll tell you honestly, I never understood what the hell they did. They commoditzed ideas and sometimes people. My job was to read their documents and send them back to the account manager heavily annotated with revisions and questions.  “M: I have no idea what this means. Grammatically, it’s correct, but I don’t understand it at all.”

That Chinese kid had made himself a product. I couldn’t tell what he was like at all. He’d attached objects to his body that were heavily labeled, his camera strap bore the brand name, as did his shoes and his t-shirt and his bag, I’m sure he could have told me what product he used in his hair had I asked. The things he liked were all other heavily produced items — American television, the shopping in LA, his favorite memory from his visit to New York was standing on the curb in front of the office where you’d catch a taxi once The Donald had fired you from The Apprentice.

I realize that I am not entirely in control of how my own identity plays out. At times I am a cartooonish left coast woman, a user of public transit, an eater of kale, a wearer of Goretex, a driver of a modest and practical car, a technically literate and creative writer. My globally acquired affectations are ridiculous, a fondness for Vietnamese coffee, European baking, the ukulele… I’m no better than the mood boards produced by that branding agency I worked for, a series of pictures cut from travel and lifestyle magazines and pasted on to pressed board in a projected order. I’m am not immune from the prints left on my work by sponsors, I’m keenly aware of them, in fact. I’m also not saying that it’s entirely negative, I’ve had the chance to do some great work in brand based relationships. But I had dinner a few weeks ago with the results of taking this idea much, much too literally and much too far. It’s not a good look. Not at all.

If I worked on my strategy, if I solidified my personal branding, I could probably market that. I could evolve from a human being with ideas, from a slightly peculiar middle aged female into a race car. I am leaving money on the table. Slapping all those stickers on  would allow me to drive around in circles a lot more than the alternative, just doing stuff I like and trying to be good at it.

I think I’ll stick with human being with ideas over branded product for a little while longer. I’m probably doing it wrong, but I’ll take the risk.

Images: Upper: Cattle branding, 1898, Library of Congress. Lower: Brand flag via Adbusters.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

30 thoughts on “I Am Not a Brand

  1. I loved this. The whole branding thing is something I have struggled with (and against) for years. Where is my blog going? Dunno, we’ll see. Stuff come up. Whims are indulged in. Inspiration hits. New fascinations develop. How can you plot all this out in advance? How can you measure it? How can you neatly define something so broad, so wild? I’ve got an interview with a Shanghai magazine coming up and they want to talk to me about writing, about why I blog, about what makes a good blog. I’m not sure what to say.

  2. Loved loved loved this!

    I was raised in a good socialist household, and often heard my mom spout little gems like, “Under capitalism, everything becomes a commodity.” Even ourselves it seems.

    Let’s have an enti-branding party, eh?

  3. Thanks so much for putting these thoughts in words. And gently too. For many branded personalities, there are conversations about honesty and freedom that they are denying themselves in the pursuit of putting everything else in service of the optimal pursuit of ‘fame’.

  4. Must admit, I take an opposing view on the matter. Not going to try and convince anybody otherwise with a rambling comment here, but will merely say that I think the Chinese man is doing the best thing for him by adopting that particular mindset.

    Now I will go cut down some trees, steal candy from children, and trample human spirits whenever possible.

    • As long as you’re clear in your direction, Ryan. 🙂

      I’m pretty good at separating my own reactions and emotions from those of other people. He seemed like a happy guy. I was hardly going to tell him to stop, it’s not my place, not by a long shot, and what do I know from the stifling conformity of his society? NOTHING. I don’t even know that it really is stifling and conformist, but he made some remarks to that end.

      I just know how that interaction affected me and how I’d rather not be a commodity, even though, from right inside my own head, I’m aware that I probably am.

  5. I think people confuse brand and personality.

    Obviously you are not a brand in the same sense that Apple or Ford are brands. You do however have a personality and attributes that people connect you with. That is true of everyone and is unavoidable.

    There are certain attributes you stress, intentionally or not, and that is all part of “branding” or whatever you want to call it. You blog about your passion for writing, playing the ukulele and your hatred for personal branding. I’m sure there are a ton of things that also define you that you don’t talk about as much.

    Both what you stress and what you don’t stress are part of developing a public persona, which is i what some people call “personal branding”.

    I’m not sure you can avoid it. Even complaining about it is doing it.

    • 1. Brand/Personality disconnect? Agreed.
      2. I think that some people would LIKE to be a brand like Ford or Apple. So maybe I’m not one, but that there are folks who would like to be and there are methods to follow to get there.
      3. The unintentional nature of my own branding is the result of applying an external construct that says I’m a brand whether I want to be or not. I think I get to say that I’m not a brand. Your mileage may vary on this point.
      4. I’m not complaining. Go ahead, brand the daylights out of yourself. Enjoy. I’m saying the idea of human as commodity makes me uncomfortable, especially when it’s applied to me. Subject, again, to interpretation.

      • Personality can be a brand. Oprah is a brand. Anthony Borudain is a brand.

        I also think personality is more powerful than a non-personal brand. I don’t know why someone would want to be an Apple or Ford. They are anonymous and impersonal. Even if it is a company people like (say Apple) I still think people relate to another person much better.

  6. This is exactly how I feel! I started my blog to help a few friends. Now with thousands of unique visitors every month, my MBA education and life experience kicks in and wants to make it more…but then I think, “this is just me. This is my food, this is my life and my journey.”

    Someday, something will come from all of this… for now, this is just me.


  7. As the official stakeholder in the Nerdseyeview Merchandise Line (T-shirts with “get off my lawn”, “Let The Eat Cake” etc – pens shaped like ukeleles etc) I’m disappointed you’ve ruined our, *our* best shot at being rich here.

    More seriously…

    I have no problem with branding. It’s just a word for “having a good story”. With some people it’s too slick, with others it’s devoid of humour or warmth or humility, in some people it’s a shiny plastic veneer over something hollow or rotten (or worse, a veneer that covers itself, so “the brand” stands for “the brand”), and in some it’s a total lie. That’s branding gone wrong. I have a problem with that.

    But “branding” is just another business word, like “portfolio” or “application”. It’s just a shortcut-word. Not a dirty one. Just a branch of marketing. Which is just a branch of storytelling. And we all tell stories about ourselves, and reinforce them, whether in business or for fun. Branding is a sense of identity that we’re happy to let the world define us by. And I think that’s a really *good* thing – if we remain ourselves when we’re putting it all together.

  8. You may not want to be a brand, but you are branded in the eyes of your readers, and as a writer/blogger/online storyteller you have the distinct advantage of being able to do so in a much more personal and resonant way than many corporations out there.

    I don’t think “brand” is a dirty word.

    Like you, I don’t have a set blog schedule. I don’t have the time with the other work I do to post as frequently as I’d like, but that’s ok because I’ve built the site with longer form posts and writing what strikes my fancy as days go by, not rigid strategy. But unlike you, I don’t see someone telling me that I’ve built a successful personal brand as a negative, or as something that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not advocating the commodification of society in 2012, don’t get me wrong. I just believe that in a world of overabundance and a lot of crap available online, if people see my site/my work as a personal brand as standing out for being judicious about what I post, and for being honest, then I’ll take it. I’d rather stand out using the current vernacular and try to make a difference than walk away from the sandbox people are playing in because I don’t like the words they use.

    I’m not saying you don’t do the above, just that I don’t see the fallout to calling the umbrella reach of you as Pam (in all that it encompasses, not just this blog) a brand. I’m also coming from the background of being an advertising lawyer, so this kind of branding to me is a positive and not a negative – it’s honest and it’s sincere. Nothing wrong with that 🙂

  9. interesting post and I agree with a lot of what you write but I am reminded of some Zen saying that, if applied to your post can go something like “to not have a brand is to have a brand”

  10. I would like to point out, as someone of Chinese heritage, that it can be pretty demoralizing to look exactly like 1.3 BILLION other people. I don’t think being a brand is a terrible thing, if being able to stand out from the crowd makes that guy happy.

  11. Perhaps this is just a semantics issue, but to me “personal brand” is just a new way of saying “personal image,” as in how you present yourself to the world, and how you’d like the world to see you. “Personal image” is something I very much want to be engaged in directing (or re-directing, if necessary), through how I act in public settings, what/who I use my platforms to promote, or what I post – and, just as importantly, choose not to post – on the intertubes.

    There have been “image consultants” for ages, concerned not just with whether your hair and makeup is just so, but also with whether you should be talking about being against animal abuse while wearing a fur coat. To me, as it applies to our world, “personal image manager” is kind of another hat we wear, and things like “acting professionally on a press trip” fall under this umbrella. The thing is, for some people it’s a hat you may not even know is there, because your “personal image” is just WHO YOU ARE.

    I do see a difference between people promoting themselves as a “personal brand” when there’s no THERE there (when it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors and a desire to just be famous) and people sculpting their “personal image” to attract more of the sorts of people (readers, companies, partners) with whom they want to hang out/do business.

    But I kind of think, like it or not, we all have a “personal image” that the world perceives and that many think is always the same thing as the person behind it. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Insofar as I get to have any say on my “personal image,” I absolutely want to do that. Beyond that, like art, it’s up to the reader/viewer/whoever to interpret.

  12. For me, a little self-promotion goes a long way – usually too far. My favorite bloggers are the ones who just share their lives and don’t point out how great they are in a Tracy Flick-esque attempt to garner attention and money. I get discouraged when marketers pay attention to the people who are all about attention. I don’t understand why anyone would want to read those shiny happy polished “I am a Social Media Maven” blogs. There’s this one guy who describes his site as “one of the top blogs on the internet.” Yeah. Pretty gross IMO.

    Maybe its the only hippie in me, but I have a hard time with people who slap logos all over themselves too – those logo-covered purses for instance. It just seems like they are afraid they aren’t cool enough on their own, so they have to borrow a personality as filtered through the brands they wear. Kind of cultural shorthand.

    All that being said, I still like it when sponsors give me money. Lots and lots of money.

  13. Brand, personal image, public image – semantics. Like it or not, your “brand” is just how the outside world perceive you — I guess you could argue it shifts from public image to brand when you start massaging it, but that is kinda shades of grey to my mind. Obviously some choose to cultivate it, others ignore it, but one can’t make it go away.

    Is it bad? Bah I dunno. I see ukulele shops and silly ukulele vids and automatically think of you (which I guess you realise as I then proceed to send them to you) and I guess that’s all warm and fuzzy — certainly more so than if the connection was to dead kittens or nuclear weapons.

    Sort of reminds me of that Naomi Klein book, “No Logo” whose cover became, well, a logo for a movement — and actually very successfully branded her to many people who till then had never heard of her.

    A brand can be a bit nebulous and difficult to keep a firm grip on, which is why I always advise gentle watering twice a day — it helps with root growth.

    • It’s human as contrived product that I object to. “Associate with my trusted brand!” Uh, no. And I like that people send me uke stuff, a lot, and that they see ukuleles and think of me. That’s sweet. But it’s something I love, not something I picked up as a self-marketing stunt or in a search for a more interesting identity.

      So, uh, yeah. Roots. That. BE the thing. Don’t tell me you are. For a long time I’ve asked that people stop telling me they’re awesome and just be awesome. Less telling. More being.

      Like that.

  14. So, to summarize…
    1. Ha ha. You’re branded whether you like it or not.
    2. Aren’t you cute, branding yourself with your anti-branding language?
    3. You’re arguing about semantics. Good luck with that.
    4. Right on, aka, I too am a freakin’ hippie.
    5. Suebob likes it when sponsors give her lots and lots of money.

  15. This is pretty deep post. I agree with the commentors who say it is unavoidable. It’s a sad fact in today’s world of commerce, unless you are Ford or Apple, you really do need to sell yourself if you hope to be successful. The days of loyalty to products are dying.

  16. I’m not a brand either. The term itself is nonsense marketing speak – plastic fantastic – meaningless jargon.

    The techniques of brand-building are inherently intrusive and slimy.

    It’s good that you’re reacting to this.

    Any perceptions that people have about you are natural outcomes of the content you produce. Here’s hoping that will make your blog commercially lucrative, but if it doesn’t, I surely hope you don’t tear this place apart and fill it with the sort of trite vapid content that infects most of the blogosphere.

    Keep on keepin’ on!

    • It’s pretty easy to take shots at the” trite, vapid content that infects most of the blogopshere,” and hell, it’s a good time, too. I’m not gonna lie, I’m as guilty as the next embittered writer chick of doing exactly that.

      I don’t know, however, if brand building is inherently intrusive and slimy, though — I’m not saying it ISN’T, I’m saying I don’t know that it IS. I get the value of image and I appreciate the irony that even my anti-packaged stance is potential a package. But I guess I’m not a product I’m trying to sell, and that’s my point. And I think we dehumanize ourselves when we focus too much on becoming a product.

  17. The only writers and photographers worth following are the ones who developed their reputations organically.

    That doesn’t mean promotion and such is wrong – business development is business development.

    But for a creative type to use the language and techniques of marketing to do what their content should have done is to dilute the value and integrity of their work.

    And why?

    It’s not like anybody is getting rich off of it (except maybe Google) – that makes it sleazy and stupid. Double-whammy.

    • “But for a creative type to use the language and techniques of marketing to do what their content should have done is to dilute the value and integrity of their work.”


  18. I just read this post and agree with you 100%. While I have made a few business goals this year, they aren’t the be all end all of the site. And when someone asks me what my strategy is for the upcoming year, I usually say exactly what you do, although in my head I’m saying to myself “my goal is to still be here a year from now …”

  19. Powerfully said. I don’t want to be a product, and I tire so much of all the meaningless fluff and promotion of said fluff out there on the web. It makes it hard to find anything of value, or try and share meaningful dialogue.
    Thank you for saying it.

  20. Wow, wow, wow, me too. I just want to write. And I want to build my readership but not my stats, and I want to visit cool places and experience amazing things and then I want to tell the story. Thank you for putting that into words for me.

Leave a Comment