Don’t Productize Me, Bro


Getting Branded

Sometimes, getting yourself a “Personal Brand” actually does involve getting poked with a hot piece of metal. 

If your name is Andrew Meyer, that piece of metal was a taser.holytasersbatman

Andrew Meyers, aka the “Don’t Tase Me Bro” guy,  was the unfortunate instigator/victim of the University of Florida Taser incident, just over a year ago. When we talk about today’s speed of communication and potential for rapid  information cascades, “Don’t Tase Me Bro” ranks as one of the best examples of how quickly an idea — and a person’s reputation — can take hold in the public’s imagination.  Literally within hours of the incident, domain names were registered and t-shirts became available online.  And since that time, Andrew Meyer has been trying to keep a low profile. 

We Are All Individuals

The “Personal Brand” meme is just over a decade old, and has become the fodder for an untold numbers of books  and articles about career advancement. I still have my original August 1997 copy of Fast Company magazine, with it’s Tide-brite “Brand Called You” cover and article by Tom Peters.  Call me sentimental, but I feel like this magazine is a perfect artifact of “the heyday.”  Tom Peter’s article was a veritable clarion call to the hypercaffeinated masses, like that famous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

BRIAN:  Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we’re all individuals!
BRIAN: You’re all different!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!
DENNIS: I’m not.

f-edcompany-brandcalledyouI also remember an Utne Reader magazine cover from the same period, with a decidedly different take on “personal branding:”  The cover featured a drawing of a guy and a gal, covered with tattoos of famous consumer brands.   The themes of the Fast Company and Utne Reader articles were about being “cool” and “irreverent,” but in two very different ways.   One was an embracing of  the notion of self-promotion, when an individual is seen as a “unique product” to be marketed.  The other was a critique on individuals who “rebelliously” self-identify with certain products and brands, forming consumer “tribes” — a variant on what anthropologist Grant McCracken once described as the Diderot Effect.    Yet, the two covers related to a similar troubling idea: The lack of distinction between people and products.  “The brand is equivalent to human identity,” wrote Utne Reader columnist Tom Frank, in his angry retort to Fast Company’s glib conveyance of Tom Peter’s “Happy-to-be-Me, Me, ME” motivational message.

Tom Peter’s “Brand Called You” concept is really just a metaphor — a metaphor that helps people apply tried and true marketing techniques to one’s professional life, in order to promote (or “position”) oneself for whatever market one is  looking to “sell” to.  These techniques are highly effective, and in my opinion, have their place in one’s arsenal for as a tool of professional self-promotion. However, taking the Personal Brand as an organizing principle for one’s professional life, many career advice writers (who often happen to be current or former corporate recruiters) make the following demand:  If You Want To Get Paid, Become Expert In Exactly One Thing and One Thing Only. In this way, the Personal Brand is the extreme, logical conclusion of hyper-specialization, and ultimately, the productization of individuals.  If you see yourself as a product — a commodity good — then the best way to promote that product is to take the complexity of your human identity and package it neatly into an audience-specific, targeted brand.

The culture of expertise and personal branding — where inviduals and their identities are packaged as specialized products —  has some major pitfalls that can affect one’s financial and psychological health. For example, assuming you actually succeed in positioning yourself as the “Person Who Is All About X,” what if you later decide you aren’t this Person who you have Become?  Getting yourself out of a pigeonhole that you’ve created for yourself can be a lengthy and exhausting process.

On a deeper level, if you “succeed” in the Personal Brand game, then what you’ve actually done is successfully objectified yourself. With this objectification comes a dependence on the image-of-a-persona that you’ve created for yourself. You are investing yourself into an Image… a Story. The Personal Branding gurus (and there many) insist that the “Brand Called You” cannot be veneer — it must be authentic.  You must believe the Story and BE the Story. They are right — a brand is not compelling when it’s not authentic.

Therefore, in order to be an Authentic Brand, you are likely to invest yourelf  psychologically into the Story. It is very easy to go from there and have your sense of self-worth tied to this Story — and dependent on its success.

Why All The Fuss

We’ve come a long way from simply picking a trade (or two or three) that creates economic value in the market, and simply living off those skills, haven’t we?  We’ve mastered the system of trade and markets to such an extent that, in the process, we’ve become part of the system.  And when it comes time to replace the cog in the wheel that we inhabit, we will be thrown out like yesterday’s garbage.

‘Till the next rock superstar, with no shame
Give him a year, he’ll be right out of the game
The same as the last one w
ho came before him
Gained fame, started gettin ignored, I warned him.”

Rock Superstar, Cypress Hill

The stakes are higher than ever now, with the Internet serving up a permanent memory of all our public appearances, making all our “branding” moments increasingly hard to shake off.  Once tased, always tased. We live in a Hater’s Paradise, where an instance of being lame (l4m3z0rz) or demonstrating personal hubris can — and will — be swiftly punished. (That’s part of what’s so uncomfortable about blogging, actually.)

Change The Market Can Believe In

People aren’t brands because people are multi-faceted, complex, self-contradictory and changing. You can find complexity and contradiction in things like art and human relationships, but not in so much in brands, which are meant to be simple and easily understood. Now, to describe a person as a work of art, as opposed to a brand, is a little more ennobling, but there is still an objectification happening. As for describing a person as having a “brand” that is the sum of their relationships (as Keith Ferrazzi sort of says, in his book Never Eat Alone ), well, that’s not demeaning at all. That would be like describing an object in terms of the space that it occupies in the landscape. If we use the word “brand” in that sense, we’re really just talking about reputation.  Reputation is a real attribute of real people, and like people, reputations are dynamic and ever-changing…  though admittedly it’s probably harder for authors to sell books about “Personal Reputation.”

Speaking of things that are dynamic, multi-faceted, complex and self-contradictory, how about the Economy or the Current Job Market?  It’s funny, but I’m actually now starting to see career advice articles come out and say, “You know, it’s real important to maintain your versatility in this marketplace.  Don’t be just one thing or married to just one industry.”   These articles are appearing in places like TheLadders.com which, historically, have long-championed the cause of people just Sticking to What They Know Really Really Well, in the Sectors They Know Really Really Well.  Yes, it makes the recruiter’s job easier to filter fewer, specialized resumes. But considering how much time we spend at work, perhaps we should develop our careers on a path that is optimized for our own long term benefit, not that of resume screeners. 

The classic career advice article goes like this:  “Focus on just one thing that you do well, that you enjoy doing, and that the market has a real demand for. Do this, and money and happiness will follow.”   Ah, if only life were so simple.  You might also want to focus on finding companies that aren’t run by sociopaths, that provide real value and quality to their customers, that invest in your development, or any number of other factors.  

Brands fade, but our careers and our lives need not be tied to some fleeting market desire.  It take a bit more effort, but we’ve got to think for ourselves. We are not brands. We are individuals.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on December 22, 2008, in Business, Career, Life, Metaphors. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Great post! I really appreciate the use of Cypress Hill to prove your point. Whether by genetic programing or overactive curiosity and imagination I have never accepted hyper-specialization or limited my interests to a narrow channel. Even Eratosthenes (yeah, that guy who measured the earth and invented latitude and longitude) was criticized in his by his contemporaries. He was considered second rate and a dabbler because he had multiple interests. His nickname was “beta” (the second letter in the Greek alphabet) because he supposedly proved himself to be the second best in many fields. And yet we owe many of our modern concepts and ideas to him.

    • Thanks for your comment, MW. Glad you appreciate the Cypress wisdom. If the Devil can cite Scripture, then we mere mortals can cite B-Real.

      Yes, Eratosthenes had a personal branding problem, perhaps he could have benefitted from a R-U-IN-Style makeover? Or maybe just a simple name change would have helped him? Five syllables, seriously… you’ve got Plato with two, Socrates with three, and Aristotle with a daring four… but FIVE?? For some people, the real pleasure is in the Ideas themselves… the Money and the Glory (“cash, clothes…etc.” to quote a different rapper) are merely incidentals.

      You referenced genetic programming, curiosity and imagination. I have the difficult-to-prove belief that we are all born with boundless curiosity, but that it gets quashed in many, primarily through fear. A Utilitarianist might argue that curiosity is not necessary for many (or most) people. I have the slightly-easier-to-prove belief that curiosity is a key ingredient to adaptability, and that adaptability is a very useful trait to have in a highly volatile economy. Curiosity is one of the ways to transform the idea of “being adaptable” from a passive attitude, to a more proactive one. In that way, curiosity opens up doors that might not otherwise be seen. Finally, I have the easy-to-prove-if-only-I-had-access-to-an-MRI-scanner-and-some-grad-students belief that the satisfaction of curiosity is an intellectual pleasure that our brains come hard-wired with.

      Questions? Comments? Random inappropriate rap lyrics??

  2. that skit, i think, is my favorite piece of Monty Python genius. I even remember when i first saw it.. in ur (parents’) tv room… was funny as hell.

    in the spirit of “being part of the system”,

    i wonder how much does immersion in a business culture affect our view of things. the whole idea of branding, personal branding, specialization, hyper-specialization, making formulas.. those are all business concepts. Meant to be applied on business models… yet, being immersed in this world, we start thinking about our worldview using those concepts.. and the next thing you know, we’re branding people. It’s like retrofitting economics to philosophy/anthopology.

    it can be used to simplify complex concepts.. but fails when it comes to exact application.

    as you mentioned, people are complex. very complex. people dont fit very well in molds, brands, patterns. Happiness and satisfaction cannot be simplified to a formula. Job satisfaction has as many internal parameters as it has external parameters. We can use cute little formulas to simplify things for comprehension.. but we cant rely on those formulas for anything pragmatic.

    RUinStyle: “betas” make the world go around… cuz there are many more of them. “alphas” are unique people that happen once in a blue moon.. making their usefulness impractical to rely on. i believe (just like you seem to) hyperspecializing works only for special people with special talents (and usually when ur one of those u kinda know it) for the rest of us, we’re better off expanding horizontally! Awesome job bringing in eratosthenes to the party!

    Dan: i tend to take the opposite no-need-to-prove approach and say, if the environmental pressures and the genetic programming are not going in the same direction, there’s never pleasure. I also have the difficult-to-prove belief that we are all born wanting to shine. and the proper environments that lead us to the best shine provide the most pleasure. and to shine, one does not need to limit ones self to any one wavelength.

  3. Ok, it’s been over 8 months since this particular conversation thread was last updated… though our conversation has continued in some other blog posts in the meantime.

    Going back to the main subject of “personal brands” and “branding,” the good people at the Boston firm Blackcoffee have come up with a neat little conversation starter:

    Please add your definition of brand, by finishing the sentence “A brand is…”
    http://www.blackcoffee.com/blog/a-brand-is/

    The focus at Blackcoffee is on corporate brands, and there’s a nice analysis/synopsis of the responses they’ve gotten here: http://deniseleeyohn.com/bites/2009/09/03/an-analysis-of-a-brand-is/
    (hat tip to Gil Yehuda)

    Reflecting on this post and our conversation, I decided to take the Blackcoffee challenge and write a definition that would encompass the traditional notion of a corporate “brand” as well as this relatively newer “personal brand” meme:

    A brand is a way to individualize products, and to productize individuals.

    The statement is value neutral, especially on the second part of the sentence — you may or may not like the idea of “productizing” individuals, and you may or may not agree on particular instances where it’s a good idea to use a “branding” strategy for a person’s professional advancement. .

  4. Brands are as complex as people, just reference Tiger Woods and Nike or Buick! They are feelings and feelings are never simple or static!!!!!!!!!

  1. Pingback: A brand is a way to individualize products, and to productize individuals « Meme Menagerie

  2. Pingback: Think B4 U Txt « Meme Menagerie

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