Brands: Surface level Reputations for an ever-busy world

Brands – one reason our world is heading down the toilet.

Most specifically, the idea of “personal branding” and the immense importance being put upon the concept in our current environment.

Over the past few decades, the idea of “branding” oneself has grown exponentially. No longer, it seems, is it a “nice to have”, but instead a “need to have”, especially in the corporate world. Any cursory search online for “personal brand” brings up hundreds of listings with anything from tips, how-to’s, suggestions, failures, and personal branding “gurus” offering their services to give your brand pep in it’s step. In a world where billions are online, it makes sense that many people are scrambling to find ways to be noticed. Thousands upon thousands work to stand out as unique in order to create opportunities and more importantly, to be recognized as influential. However, when that quest for recognition feeds upon itself: when we become a two-dimensional dossier striving for popularity in a high school-like environment (especially when everyone is mostly concerned with promoting themselves instead of understanding the other brands out there) it defeats the entire purpose and only sows aggression and discontent.

As I launch my own business, I too have stumbled into this arena, working to create content that is both catchy and informative, insightful yet colorful and have found myself stretching out way past my comfort zone into the world of social media in order to show the world what I have to offer. Conceptually, this is distasteful to my psyche and against my nature. Calling for attention feels gross; selling myself at times makes me both physically and mentally ill. These feelings have caused me to question this “need to have” idea of branding.

Where did this concept come from? How does branding affect our lives? Can one really exist online in a way that follows today’s norms while still staying true to our morals, values and philosophy?

For example: the other day, while on LinkedIn, I stumbled across a post bringing up the subject of branding in a way that was unsettling, and the conversation that ensued was surprising. The question posed in the post asked their community if one’s personal life should have an affect on their professional brand. Overall, the conversation focused on the rise of the “Karen” and “Ken” labels floating through society. For anyone that is unfamiliar with the terms, a “Karen” or “Ken” is a person who has been shown on video reacting (usually over-reacting) to a situation where the outcome makes them look racist, like an anti-vaxer or anti-masker, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or some other form of anathema unacceptable in our current environment.

The community comments responding to the post had some level of disagreement, however the overall majority soundly responded “Yes” in one way or another. Seeing the ease that people were able to pass judgement on another without knowing anything about the nuance or context surrounding the situation was extremely disappointing.

The conversations and responses were very much in agreement that these incidents SHOULD affect their brand, and that any repercussions they may suffer due to these altercations were rightly justified. Many of you reading this may agree with this judgement being passed, but I was horrified by the responses and will plead my case here. Let’s take a deeper look at the concept: where branding came from, how and why it became so popular and why it has become dangerous to our communities.

The Concept of Branding

Originating from the Old Norse language, the word brand originally referred to a piece of burning wood. Later the word came to mean “mark permanently with a hot iron.” Over time it came to be used as a verb, referring to marking that which was owned such as goods, animals and (horrifically) people. (skyword.com)

Modern day branding for companies and corporations came about in the 20th century, most likely due to “the standardization of quality products for consumers in the middle of the 20th century, which required companies to find a new way to differentiate themselves from their competitors.” (the Atlantic)

Personal branding for everyday people gained notoriety in 1997 from a man named Tom Peters. “Peters told us that no matter what industry we work in, or where we live, we’re all CEOs of our own personal brand, and that means that we must market ourselves just as vigorously as any product or service.” (fastcompany.com)

By the mid-2000’s, this concept was mostly used by entrepreneurs and small business owners trying to keep pace with the larger corporations to help them stand apart from the group. Those most savvy and on top of technology really benefited from this idea and were able to gain unbelievable recognition with the help of the internet, and more importantly the beginning of mainstream use of social media.

This also led to a boom in the marketing industry. According to the Atlantic, many companies didn’t even have a marketing department until the late 1990’s, but seeing the success that some of these “branded” companies were having caused many to realize that this extra cost was exponentially worth the effort. As we all know, this concept has only grown and spread, promising social media-ites fame, fortune and success if only their brand is good enough.

Personal Branding

Brands are problematic because they allow us to be lazy about connecting and lack the nuance of a reputation. Brands and Reputations are often compared and deemed interchangeable, but they are actually quite different. Before the internet, the closes thing to a “personal brand” was a reputation. Individuals created a reputation through in-person discussions, what groups we spent time with, what information we digested, clothing we wore, and items we purchased. A reputation takes time to build, and is the consensus of how you live up to your philosophy. In the past, reputations reached our friends, our family, our communities; the boundaries based mostly on how far we were willing to travel from home.

It is impossible for the entire internet to know each one of us, so brands have taken the place of a reputation. A brand is a promise to the world of who you are, what you stand for and what you intend to pursue while on this Earth. A visual way to see what people (or companies) are all about, without having to get to know them. A two-page dossier, or a few social media pages shouting your qualifications and strengths to the world.

Brands can be staged, propped up and often tell only the story that the person wants one to see. History has shown it is possible to rebrand something with enough resources, and this is why they are disingenuous replacements for reputations. Think of the amount of companies that are still in business even though they have taken advantage of or caused harm to our populace. Think BP, NFL, and other corporations that you may very well be a fan of that once had a poor reputation but due to successful rebranding were able to stay in the mainstream. Brands are fake, a promise that does not need to be lived up to as long as one has a good marketing team. A concept that allows our populace to continue consuming whatever has the best or loudest 30 second commercial that grabs our emotions and holds on tight.

Regular people do not have good marketing teams. Regular people do not have the money necessary to squash all bad press that portrays them in a bad light. Knowing that does little to stop the judgement that we so easily throw at each other at the drop of a hat. We live in a time where people are kept to higher standards than the corporations that supposedly took an oath to provide us with fair and true products and services. People are judged on one video, post or tweet; each time given 30 seconds to impress us, disgust us, or charm us. We judge how it made us feel, then toss it aside as the newest sparkly things dances before our eyes with little regard for what comes next for the person we just encountered. Yes, there were instances where one’s reputation was ruined prior to the internet, but often one could work to reinvent themselves within their community or in the most dire cases, relocate and start anew. The internet offers no such quarter.

A flash-in-the-pan moment and someone’s life could be ruined, with little chance at redemption if they have no marketing expert by their side. Call it many things, “wokeness“, “cancel culture“, “accountability”, I call it laziness and scapegoating. A way for the rest of us to feel better about ourselves and our choices. A way for us to feel “perfect”.

The way forward

It would be silly for me to say that we should stop using brands. So long as the world is our stage, small fish will feel compelled to make themselves known and the fastest way to do that is to create a snazzy brand. Social media is not going away anytime soon, nor is online communication, and with those concepts we will all continue to feel the need to shine a light on who we are and what we stand for, often in ways that go way above and beyond. My hope is to convince the majority to take more time before weighing in or judging others so quickly, especially when it comes to an incident that goes viral. We need to go back to caring more about reputations, that which is built over time providing an arc of consistency rather than judging someone on what could have been their worst day. Even criminals caught on tape are allowed a trial, time to plead their case and explain their mindset.

To move us in a better direction we much reconstruct our social contract. I mentioned earlier that our social contract is our inherent agreement of how we each should treat each other within our community. We will discuss this topic more in future blogs, but suffice it to say that our social contract in America needs a lot of rework. In this spirit, I put forth these suggestions for a new social contract when communicating online:

How to stop being a part of the problem

When watching a scandalous viral moment:

  • If you don’t have time to research the person’s prior reputation, let this stuff pass you by. Don’t comment, don’t judge.
  • If nothing else exists on the person (one hit wonder) after a search and you want to comment, make sure it is about the behavior, not a personal attack. Do not just “throw shade” but comment in a way that gently corrects the behavior, mentioning why it was so unacceptable and how they could have approached the situation instead. Have respectful conversations with those who suggest differing behaviors, work to come to a shared understanding.
  • In the case that you know this person, and know this is not who they are, speak up. Firmly denounce the behavior, but tell a story about who the person really is. Suggest reasons why they acted that way; give the benefit of the doubt.
  • Even if the person is historically flawed, again, feel free to comment on the behavior, provide gentle correction, but then ask yourself why this matters in your life. How does this person affect you? Are they influencing people you know? Turn your focus there and work with your community to help them understand why this is unacceptable, what should be acceptable, and most importantly how to live well. Reconfirm your shared social contract.
  • Don’t focus on building a brand. Focus on building a reputation.

We have enough hate, anger, aggression and unhappiness to last us all more than a lifetime. Let’s turn these moments into constructive learning opportunities instead of creating more enemies or social prisoners.

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