Personal and Corporate Branding

I got a death threat last week from a guy who is a senior at Brown University who didn’t think I could track him down. More on that in a second. The first thing I want to deal with is the question someone asked me the other day, “how do you make a personal brand?”. When I hear the words “personal brand” I think “someone is going to lie to me and then try to take all of my money.” Personal branding, I guess, is descended from the mockery called “corporate branding”.

The Coca-Cola company, for instance, loves the drug Ecstasy. My favorite TV commercial is  not the 1984 Apple commercial (although that’s a close number two) but a commercial for Coke Zero (“Coke Zero Roller Girl”).  It takes a song that was originally writtten by  Paul Oakenfold. The original topic of the song was about how great it was to take the drug Ecstasy and go to a rave. Anything could happen.

There would be pretty girls, great music, and at the end of the night, total communion with nature. In the commercial though, there’s a girl roller-blading. She looks like she’s on the boardwalk in Santa Monica. The song is playing in the background. She’s not taking Ecstasy but drinking Coke Zero. She dances/roller-blades around her studly friends, her beautiful girlfriends, and it ends with everyone taking Coca-Cola Zero, the fizz going up like a group ejaculation into the sky. Coke Zero – the brand where you can find your own personal ecstasy.

Whenever I watch that commercial I feel like I want a life like that: free from worry, stress, free from thinking about money or petty jealousies. Surrounded by friends and beautiful people. Moving without effort, the ocean in the background. As they say in the song: “once again, I find myself with my friends”. Coke Zero tells me the dream is possible even though intellectually I know its a myth. Freedom isn’t found that way. But we’re willing, as a culture, to accept the lies that Coca Cola tells us. And they are willing to use songs about drugs to help us accept those lies.

Perhaps Coca-Cola figured out that maybe this time they had gone too far. They pulled the commercial down. Sometimes I can actually find it on YouTube and sometimes I can’t. They try hard to make it disappear.

What they never explain is that coke zero is essentially brown-dyed water with about 16 teaspoons of fake sugar in it and add a little bit of CO2 and you make it fizz. That’s the secret formula that’s locked in a safe in some bank in Atlanta. I can make SuperJamesCola with that formula. But then I can’t license that music, get those sexy girls, and run that ad on the Super Bowl and a thousand other places. I can’t do corporate branding by myself.

But alright – let’s move past the artificially safe confines of corporate America. That’s dead and if you haven’t planned your exit strategy yet, you will have to soon enough.


So now I keep hearing about “personal branding” –  the idea that your career, your mind, your body, everything that makes up the superficial “you” can be packaged up into a brand just like Coke or Mcdonalds can. With the spectrum of pornography allowed by Facebook, twitter, linkedin, google+, etc etc etc a personal brand can evolve and grow like any superbowl ad. Kim Kardashian’s didn’t have an answer when Barbara Walters asked her, finally, “but aren’t you really just known for a sex tape?” when Kim initially tried to “re-brand” herself as a “businesswoman” in a very intimate interview.

So we start to arrive at the truth of the matter: Branding is lying.

But personal branding is even worse because the joke is over. Now we’re talking about me and you. We’re talking about who YOU are. And let’s face it. It’s not pretty. You need to re-brand from birth.

People confuse “honesty” with a type of “happiness”. He can be honest because he is happy. But it’s not true. Life is a series of failures punctuated by brief successes. That’s honesty. Failure is not necessarily bad. It’s reality.

But branding tries to reverse that. With a “personal brand”, you suddenly pretend to be super successful, a “businesswoman” in Kardashian’s case – failure is non-existent, and out of your mind comes the exact mathematical formulas that if someone drinks your Cola and snorts your Ecstasy then they too will  have the pretty girl, the success, the money, the accoutrements.


I know a stockbroker who sends a Christmas card every year to his clients. He wants to present an aura of success. Each time he’s in some other blue lagoon on some random part of the world, with a blonde girl (different each Christmas) with huge fake breasts and they are snorkeling or hugging in the water (blue blue aqua) or staring off into a beautiful mediterranean ancient city. He makes money. Lots of it.

And you can’t even look at him, the girl is so beautiful and her eyes are staring at him and she’s kissing him and it’s all over his facebook page. His status might even be “engaged” together with her exotic name.The only problem is, “and you can’t tell anyone because this is the beautiful part” he is telling me in his tell-all because he’s a good friend and knows I will never reveal his name: is that he’s gay.

Honesty is about the scars. It’s about the blemishes.  But it’s more than just bragging about failure, which could be a form of ego. It’s about truly helping people.

There’s 1 trillion websites competing against each other. The most honest website of all? Google. Google can’t help you with your problems. If you suspect you might have herpes after a particularly courageous night out on the town, going to Google will not help you (although you may feel a vague feeling of remorse when you see the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button).

Google has no content on it at all. But Google is honest about that. You just walked into their store and said, “Please, help me – do you have anything to prevent a potential outbreak of herpes” and Google will say, quite honestly, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you, but here are ten of my competitors who can potentially help you. And, by the way, here are three more of my competitors who MIGHT be able to help you but, in full disclosure, they are paying me to tell you this.” And then Google shrugs its shoulders. That’s all they can do for you.

But that’s honesty. That’s not branding. So you’ll come back to them. Because they are a straight shooter and the target was on your head. And when you need to know about that growth behind your ear, or what the best software is for keystroke logging, they will say the same thing: “sorry, we can’t help you – but we can direct you to at least ten of our competitors who seem pretty decent at it.”

With honesty they’ve set themselves free. Here’s the thing about a brand. It puts you in jail. You know who had the original patent that Larry Page tweaked into the PageRank that made Google (and separately, that Robin Li ALSO tweaked into the patent that became Baidu?) I’ll tell you: Dow Jones. The Wall Street Journal.[See, “10 Unusual Things About Google”]

They knew how to make Google years before Larry Page even thought of the idea. But they didn’t do it. Why? Because their brand says they don’t give out stuff for free. Their brand says that everything you need to know is trapped inside something with the Wall Street Journal or Dow Jones trademarks printed on it and if it’s not there then it’s not anywhere. Branding jails corporate America but honesty sets entrepreneurs free.