Cafe Witness

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Are You a Person or a Brand?

An hour ago, Chris Brogan made the following comment, via Twitter:

Clarity of message is worth more than you know. One topic. Go deep. One topic.

When I debated that point, Chris clarified his reasoning:

[S]imple branding. If you come to me and tell me 41 things, I'll remember 3, if any.

Fair enough. The web is an information orgy, after all.

But I think these statements raise a major issue regarding how we conduct ourselves online, what we expect of each other and what exactly we are.

The Problem of Complexity

With so much information (and so many people) sprawling across the web, there's a temptation to force people to summarize their very essence into 15 second pitches.

The upside? The web becomes more easily navigable.

The downside? Each of us becomes far more limited and replaceable.

If you read this blog because you're interested in my opinions, or because you know me personally, then you view me as a person.

If you read this blog strictly because you're interested in social media, then you see me as a brand --- one of many within your realm of information consumption.

I believe I can be both, depending upon my audience. But Chris's comments seem to question whether we can truly have it both ways, especially when we need to make snap decisions about whom to listen to or what actions to take.

So, to be blunt: Are we individuals or are we brands?

The difference (as I see it):

A person...

* Is multifaceted in interests and abilities
* Is frequently scattered and unable to focus
* Stretches limited resources across multiple channels
* Can be contradictory
* Can make mistakes
* Isn't easily summarized
* Has opinions
* Offends 50% of the populace with those opinions
* Requires a steeper learning curve
* Can evolve without needing permission

A brand...

* Is instantly recognizable
* Is best served when narrowly focused
* Can conquer small markets, then expand
* Often weakens as it expands
* Cares fiercely about "message" and "image"
* Must chart a course and follow through
* Changes slowly and uniformly
* Sees the world in black and white
* Can transcend self-defined borders
* Powers an agenda

Why Does It Matter?

Under these conditions, we have two options when "living" online:

* We can be individuals -- free to dabble, experiment, make mistakes and allow for complexities and contradictions...

* Or we can be brands -- restricted in breadth but limitless in depth, iconic, reductive, and easily replaceable.

Each has their pros and cons, but neither is perfect:

* One seems fickle, the other finite.

* One is unclear and prone to failure due to diffusion of message and purpose...

* The other is constricted and struggles to maintain relevance against faster competitors.

What Should YOU Do?

Obviously, that's up to you. Perhaps you even feel you have the freedom to switch between "personhood" and "brandhood," depending upon your audience. (Google might beg to differ...)

However, this differentiation has consequences. It can help you decide things as complicated or mundane as:

* Your screen-name
* Your signature
* What information you decide to make public
* What outside information is "important" to you
* WHO is "important" to you
* WHY you use the web
* When to speak and when to remain silent
* If you use email, or Twitter, or a blog
* If you need a MySpace or Facebook account

Etc., etc., etc.

On one hand, I worry that a web filled with people is too complex to amount to anything more than a headache of contradictions.

On the other, I suspect a web filled with brands would be a soulless and disposable sphere devoid of meaningful interaction.

And yet... to move forward, don't we need some of each?

What are YOU?

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  • Very thoughtful points about net identity you posted here. Sometimes I think we're making a bit too much about how we're dressed at this party.

    By Blogger Attitude, at 11:43 AM  

  • I agree with about 50% of what you say on Twitter and in your blog.

    I like that. You are tackling issues that others neglect.

    Person vs. Brand is a brilliant topic.

    I visit your blog because I see you as a Person who uses Twitter and blogs to present ideas on branding and marketing. Ideas that make me applaud...or explode!


    My most hated quote from you is "a blog that's not making money is a waste of time". [paraphrase]

    By Blogger steven edward streight, at 11:50 AM  

  • My main mentors throughout my direct marketing and Madison Avenue ad career have been Al and Laura Ries.

    But I define "brand" as "what is burned into the customer's mind as they use the product to satisfy a need, solve a problem, or enhance an lifestyle".

    This definition of "brand" is entirely independent of advertising and hype, con artists and greed.

    You form your own opinion of a product as you use it, loving it or hating it.

    That mental branding is the only "branding" that really counts.

    By Blogger steven edward streight, at 11:56 AM  

  • I am really enjoying your thoughts on the internet. This is a great notion -- person vs. brand. I've been grappling with this since I started my blog and I've had to set boundaries both online and offline with regards to my semi-fictional characters and the real me. I think we can take advantage of the branding without losing our own humanity. (Think of it in terms of branding cattle ... is that blog going to mark "me" for life? Or am I leaving my "mark" on it?)

    For me, Twitter, FB, etc; is a way of staying connected or making new connections but ultimately only a means to an end.

    Anyway, thanks for some good, refreshing reads!

    By Blogger Maria de los Angeles, at 12:04 PM  

  • I am sooooo a Person. And the more and more I seek to be a Person, the less I care to be a Brand.

    By Blogger Grayson: Atlanta, GA, at 12:19 PM  

  • a couple of years ago I switched my "corporate" homepage to a wordpress blog.

    Now, since I've done that, a common occurrence is that people get confused when they visit my site.

    They go there expecting a "brand" of my service and to see what I can offer them as a business.

    What they find, instead, are my personal posts about whatever is on my mind at that point in time.

    Oh my gosh, they seem to say - there is a real person here.

    We can bitch and moan and call out companies by name - yet, grab an employee of said company and suddenly what/how you say/do changes because it's been taken to the human level.

    I find it endlessly interesting how corporations take on a living entity form - quick example, Enron - we're all aware of what the "corporation" did to folks - yet few of us can remember the names of the people who were actually behind screwing people out of their money.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:22 PM  

  • Great points, but be careful, the more you extrapolate on your argument, the more you start to contradict and nullify yourself. Unfortunately, that's how classifications work. The farther you go, the more useless they are.

    For instance, can only a person make mistakes? Seems that Brands can make mistakes, too, only they usually are more destructive or costly. Does that mean they "can't" or it's just worse than if a person did it?

    Not to mention that if we drop the philosophical pretense, brands are made up of individuals. The United States is a sovereign constitutional entity, a brand, but it's still run by contradictory, opinionated individuals. Same goes for any other brand. It all leads back to individuals.

    This strikes me as High Fidelity for bloggers - instead of debating who's a "true" artist or who's "metal" and who's "thrash," - we all sit around and debate who's an individual or who is a true brand.

    By Blogger UJ, at 12:51 PM  

  • This is a twisty web of a question. I see "person" and "brand" as a "square" and "rectangle" riddle.

    A person can be a brand, but a brand is not necessarily a person.

    I have an online brand as a professional communicator that I cultivate in my own way. It is not all of me, however. I put some of my personal/private life into my blogging and Twittering and Facboogolooing. But on the other hand, anything anyone know about me is fair game and informs the brand.

    Plus, my brand reflects on the Topaz Partners (my employer's) brand, and vice versa.

    So wait, it is more complicated that that, because a person can be a brand, but that brand only represents as much of the person as they put into it-- unless people connect the dots (say, personal vs. professional life) and mash them together. OK, too bad, your whole life informs the brand, including your kids and your cat. And any organization you are connected to informs your brand and vice versa.

    I need to lie down now.

    By Blogger Doug Haslam, at 1:02 PM  

  • Brian: For better or for worse, there will always be sticklers for detail...

    Steven: 50% sounds about right. If anyone agreed with me 100%, I'd cease to exist.

    Latinbombshell: The question of who's holding the branding iron - you, your blog or the reader - is something Freud could have monetized in a heartbeat... If I only had a notepad and a couch...

    Grayson: I suspect 50% of these readers would agree with you...

    Michael and UJ: You both hit on the same point -- everything, at its root, is comprised of individuals. There's nothing a brand can't do that an individual can't do, or vice versa. It's all labeling shorthand.

    However, the deeper issue is: how personally involved and multifaceted will you allow yourself to be (easily) online, vs. how streamlined and minimalist do you think you need to be to become effective at achieving your goals?

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 1:04 PM  

  • Interesting. Who would you cite as an example of someone who has been successfully multifaceted, and who has been successfully minimalist?

    What would you consider yourself?

    By Blogger UJ, at 1:09 PM  

  • Justin, I feel that lately I've been arguing (too often?) with your posts and points about the web and social media. So I'm delighted to say that I'm highly interested in this question you've raised.

    I'm drawn more to complex, complicated persons, and less to people that act like focused brands. Then again, many people have great success living as brands. Tiger Woods, Pete Sampras, and other athletes come first to mind, followed by uber-entrepreneurs like Bill Gates.

    Yet single-minded focus isn't required for success and public awareness. I'd call Steve Jobs a little more of a person in this parlance (although he's pretty heavily branded too), and Larry Ellison as well.

    For me personally, I find it too constraining to stick to a brand message in all aspects of life. I like the Renaissance man's life more -- Leonardo da Vinci, for example, playing with art, science, technology -- and that's what I aspire to be. If being multi-faceted brings me success in work, that's nice, but I hope more that it will bring me joy in life.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:11 PM  

  • Doug: Sadly, all the points you raise are valid, which points out the lunacy of "brand managing" your very existence.

    Cynthia: Your last point is incredibly important, and I think is missed quite often by web users -- when you're online, are you LIVING YOUR LIFE (which SHOULD be multifaceted) or are you USING A TOOL (which necessitates specificity).

    Personally, I agree that I'd rather live a well-balanced life in general. The internet is just an aspect of my life, a tool within it, not a replacement for it.

    UJ: Examples of successful people?

    Multifaceted: Chris Brogan, Seth Godin, Angelina Jolie (all complex, even within their specific disciplines)

    Minimalist: Amanda Congdon, Gary Vaynerchuck, Rush Limbaugh (all personalized brands or Pavlovianly associated with a specific topic)

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 1:23 PM  

  • [UJ: Which am I? Neither, because I'm not (yet) successful. :) ]

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 1:24 PM  

  • What happens if your brand has a split personality? Mine does. That's why I struggled when I chose to go with my online nickname, SassySonya, for Twitter as opposed to one of the brands I represent. Unfortunately, the brand I've been twittering about almost exclusively for too long now is not the one that's closest to my heart. My day job is to host, produce, and direct a national Canadian HD TV show called Festival Bound, but my true love is for my very own Sassy Science podcast.

    Your post, Justin, is really hammering home how I - as a person on Twitter - have been neglecting the brand that's most important to me. (Not that I needed a reminder.) I twitter about what I do, what I read, what I think, and of course - occasionally jump in on twitter conversations. While what I post has been very much focused on my day job lately (due to its insane production schedule that's going to slow down after next week), what I digest from other people's tweets is usually for myself or Sassy Science.

    But am I a person or a brand? I'd like to think I could have it all - no matter how diffused it gets. I am one person, but two brands. One brand pays the bills and takes all my time. The other desperately needs my attention. But boil that all down and I'm all that's left.

    Me, a person.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:40 PM  

  • Ahh, which comes back to square one - how do YOU define success?

    2005 article from MarketWatch, 8.9% of Americans are millionaires. That translates to roughly 2.6 million people.

    How many do you know? Can list? Less than 10, probably.

    Does being a millionaire make you successful, or is it only a success if you are both a millionaire, and people remember your name?

    Throw the monetary part of the equation/definition out and then....does the definition of success change?

    We begin then, to list people who have done/are doing good deeds for the less fortunate.

    All in all, we're all a great success. Why? Because we can debate topics such as this without resorting to name calling and basic animal behavior.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:45 PM  

  • Sonya: You're right, a lot of people manage multiple personalities / brands online. For example, I represent myself, plus STBD, plus PodCamp Pittsburgh...

    However, when you boil it down, yes, one voice bubbles to the top: YOUR OWN VOICE. Everything else is an extension, but you can't lose yourself in the process.

    Michael: I can name hundreds of millionaires. Most of them are actors or athletes. Few are artists or change-makers, because that's not what the public will traditionally line up to buy... not without some pitch-perfect marketing to accompany it.

    What constitutes success? That's a question for another day...

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 12:01 AM  

  • Nice post, Justin. I wonder what you think about this popular Tom Peters article from way back when... "The Brand Called YOU"


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:00 AM  

  • Mani: I think that article still applies, but I believe the buzz that necessitated its creation has scaled back over the past decade.

    Sure, "you're a brand," in one sense. That IS inescapable -- it's what everything from first impressions to personal trust are built around.

    But the concept that each of us must be a monodimensional abstraction of ourselves in order to be "successful" online is a destructive claim that insists on breaking people into bite-sized boxes.

    You bemoan the death of the attention span? Incorrect; bemoan the death of complexity.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 3:09 PM  

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