Dec 062007

In a recent post, Gwen Bell cites my work as a partial basis for her thoughts about “personal branding.” She has some sensible suggestions, but I think the idea of personal branding — common though it is — gets things backwards.

1. Meet the Smith Brothers, Trade and Mark

Of course, most of us know or would recognize hundreds or even thousands of brands: Heinz Ketchup, Toyota Prius, Apple iPod, AT&T, Hilton Hotels, Pepsi, Dr. Martens boots, Republic of Tea, Tamagotchi  “pet” and on and on.  But what is a brand? Why do they relate differently to persons than persons do to each other? Two aspects of brands are important.

The first is their linguistic role. Superficially, a brand name is an example of a “proper noun,” similar to a the name of a place or person. As it happens, I just returned from Spain. The word “Spain” is a proper noun or name, signifying a particular place, a particular country, and a particular society, all at once, and all with the same complex history. But Spain, at least in this sense, is not a brand similar to those I mentioned above. There is only one Spain, while there are many, many identical bottles of Heinz Ketchup on tables throughout the world, just as there are many, many Toyota Priuses on the roads, and millions of iPods plugged into people’s ears, etc.

Linguistically then, a brand (name) is more like an ordinary noun. It differs from a common noun, such as “table,” “cow,” or “strawberry,”  in that it is supposed to refer only to a line of pretty much identical products that all are associated with a particular company. Heinz Ketchup, Toyota Prius, and iPod, for instance, are to be kept separate in our thoughts from similar, more generic ones such as no-name ketchup (or catsup), just any hybrid-drive car, or any old MP3 player. But you or I or any person is as singular and unique as Spain. There is only one of you, not many identical versions Even if your name happens to be as commonplace as “John Smith,” you are a particular John Smith, found only in one place at one time, specific in yourself, and except perhaps for relatively rare cases of identity theft, in no danger of not being specific. (Common “identity theft” does not steal anything more than financial identity; it does nothing to the individuality of your thoughts, feelings, personal relationships, physical movements, expressions, etc.) You are already much more individual than a brand would make you.

(Philosophers sometimes say that common nouns have a definition or sense, whereas proper names only refer to or label individuals. For instance, your name singles you out, but does not define you — except perhaps by implying you are human being. Here again, brands are intermediate between definable things such as cars, and mere labels.)

2. Which Smith Brother, again?

The second point is that regular brands — far from being something that individuals need to emulate — are actually reminders of the singular persons or personalities who originated or stand behind the branded products or services.  Microsoft has thus far equalled Bill Gates as the driving force. It’s possible that it will come to mean Steve Ballmer as well or instead, but that remains to be seen. Apple represents Steve Jobs; Ford once represented Henry Ford; Kodak represented George Eastman, who invented the notion of easy photography; etc. The founder or re-founder’s personality sometimes continues to inform and shape the company in question long after she or he is gone. In the terms I have offered before, your attention  passes through the brand (or the branded object)  to the prime person or persons behind it. It is the same as how your attention right now goes through the words you see on the screen to me.

As the influence of the prime personality or personalities fades over time, the brand itself almost always tends towards the generic. It eventually becomes meaningless, except in those cases where it clearly comes to represent a new personality, who gives it new singleness of meaning. The process of dry photo-reproduction by electrostatic means was invented by Chester Carlson and introduced to the world under the Xerox brand. But soon enough, the word “xeroxing” just came to mean generic dry photo-copying, using any machine that could do it. Xerox, Inc., had to go to ludicrous lengths to “defend” its brand, but it still cannot prevent ordinary people from using the verb, “to xerox” in a generic sense, with no regard for what company produced the machine being used. The company has had a hard time finding a strong personality to give new meaning to the brand.  When you use a copier without thinking of the brand, whatever attetnio you pay to it May go without your knowledge to Chester Carlson, but  not via the Xerox brand particularly, that is it goes to no instigator in the Xerox company or any other.

Without such new personalities, the best a company can do is to stick rigorously to the initial impetus of the founder, say in the case of an unchanging product, like Tabasco sauce.  But even this is going to be a matter of interpretation, especially if there is to be any further innovation at all; someone has to at least be the “high priest” who interprets the founder’s or founders’ intent in new circumstances; so that personality will then be who is behind the name. This will be true, of course, even when most customers have never heard of this leader, just as they may never have heard of the original founder by name.

3. Why Pablo Picasso is Not a Brand

Of course, in being the brainchild of relatively few distinct personalities that still influence the “culture,” corporations are from alone. The US still is partly shaped by the visions of the likes of Jefferson and Hamilton, and, more distantly, Locke and Montesquieu, though the details have certainly changed. The Roman Catholic Church to some degree still represents the historical Jesus and some of his early interpreters.
On a still more personal basis, the great artistic, musical, literary and architectural creators are still represented by their works, and to some degree by the styles they introduced. In Spain, I went to see Picasso’s famous Painting Guernica.  It used to be in New York, but now you have to go to Madrid to see it, because it is unique, and totally unlike  Heinz’s Ketchup in being so.  A Rembrandt is a Rembrandt; a J. S. Bach cantata is clearly Bach; Hamlet is a Shakespeare play.  Much the same goes for philosophical, political  and even scientific innovators. Also for actors, singers, and other performers, especially since around 1900,  when it become possible to record their work.

The point is that by being who they are, taking their own expressive and creative impulses and thoughts seriously, all these people do not need to pay any attention to the concept of branding. They are themselves, and they reveal themselves in everything they do. As selves, they all evolved throughout their entire creative lives. A late Rembrandt or Picasso painting or drawing has some connection with earlier ones by the same artist, but also substantial differences that can only be connected by studying the works in chronological relationship. The late Wittgenstein takes off from the earlier one but is profoundly different as well. Much the same holds for more recent or living creators in whatever medium, even minor ones.   Being true to one’s evolving inner sense of what is right and important and what comes forth now — this minute —  is what one has to keep at, not some superficial characteristics.

4. Moving the Goalposts

Gwen Bell says that a blogger, be distinctive needs to be clear about “goals. In  what sense she does not make clear,: ultimate goals or the immediate creation at hand? I think goal setting is mostly a misleading concept taken over from crude business how-to texts.  A significant creator pours all of who she is into the work, and the goal of the moment can be as specific as finding the right word to use in a sentence or poem, the right gesture in acting a role, or can be much more long-range, but the goal emerges from the intensity of what one is about and who one is, not the other way round. As a portraitist, the artist Giacometti had the goal of actually capturing the face of the sitter as he saw it, but he was really never satisfied with his attempts. The intensity of his striving is what counted for him. Goals constantly change as one proceeds, just as in creating anything one continually redefines oneself.  (A corporation can have goals only to the degree that its few real leaders do, and they too are less in need of defining these than in maintaining personal intensity and expression.)

The vast majority of would-be artists, novelists, actors, essayists, columnists, journalists, political leaders, etc., get much less attention than they might like. There simply is not enough attention from other people to go around. No matter how they try to conform to some model of good blogging behavior, such as Bell’s, most bloggers will face the same problem (of not enough attention to go around).  Being successful as a blogger or at any other form of attention getting is primarily a question of luck, and after that, I think,  of being as fully yourself at the moment as you can be. Even this rule is not any guarantee of success, and breaking the rules, whatever they are, is often a good way to stand out.

5. Look Before you Leap — or Don’t

Bell mentions thinking carefully about what you are doing. That may work. (It certainly appeals to me, except I already do too much of it.) But being very spontaneous and not thinking consciously at all might work better, for some. Personal branding, though,  is a red herring, not worth worrying over. Don’t give it another though. (Except, perhaps, the one that follows….)

6. Addendum: Subtleties about Copies:
One possible response to the above would be to point out that while each creative person may be a unique individual, nonetheless, just as there are many identical but distinct Toyota Priuses on the road, defined or guaranteed as such by their brand, so the particular creative works of a person — a novel,say,  might exist in many many, identical but distinct copies. Why then should we distinguish between the author’s “personal brand”  and something like a car brand?

You could even say a blog exists in many copies, on the computer screen of every different person who web surfs to it. You want to read only “a John Grisham,”  let’s say, just as you may want to drive only a Prius.  But when you get to the bookstore, it turns out that all the John Grisham’s they have you have already read. You do not mean by that that you have read the exact copy that is on the bookstore’s shelf. To have read the book is not to have read the specific copy. The book exists more basically as an idea, separate from its physical manifestation. So in a very real sense, each novel is as unique as its author, in a way that each car of a particular brand and model is not. A painting or sculpture or building has a physical manifestation, of course, meaning it can only be experienced in a particular place at any one time, and that it is not the same as copies of it.  You cannot confuse having Picasso’s Guernica in your living room with having a reproduction of it, though you would be unlikely to think you drive a reproduction of the Prius instead of the real thing.

The idea of the Prius  is of course just as singular, just as much the creation of a single person or small group of people as a blog entry or a novel or a movie  or a painting is.  But a Prius, like most branded objects is a product of the industrial system, valuable not just for its idea, but for its utility in transporting you — in reality and not just in imagination — from point A to point B. It required many, many people’s efforts to make each individual one, whereas the human effort needed to create a copy of a blog entry on your screen is very very small. Blogs, like other works of mental value, are part of the attention system, not the industrial one. That is why personal branding does not make sense.