You Are Not “A Brand”

YOUR-BRANDINGI might be doing the old windmill joust here, but I’m going to toss the spear anyway…

I listen to a lot of audiobooks; they’re useful for filling up time in the car when whatever they’re talking about on NPR really doesn’t interest me. Given my devotion to All Things NPR, it’s surprising that I listen to and finish as many audiobooks as I do…

In the past week I’ve started listening to a book called “Reinventing You” by Dorie Clark. Maybe the subtitle should have given me pause, it’s “Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future.”

Because I’ve been somewhat actively engaged in an exercise of personal “reinvention” this year, the main title was enticing. I expected the book would give me some ideas about how to mine my inner resources in order to come up with a meaningful (and remunerative) creative contribution to offer the world.

But this book isn’t about looking inward. It’s about managing perceptions. It’s not about digging into your soul to find a calling. It’s about establishing a beachhead in the meat market of lost souls.

It’s not helping that the narrator reads this book in a softly plaintive, treacly tone that slithers into your ear and under your skin like a just-out-of-college third grade public school teacher. Listening to this book makes me want to commit some egregious classroom transgression that will get me sent to the principals office (a place I spent a fair amount of time in during the third grade…).

My willingness to tolerate the content of the text and the timbre of the narration reached its limit about 12 minutes into the second chapter, where the book instructs the reader/listener to solicit feedback from friends and colleagues with “face to face interviews.”

“Focus on friends, colleagues, and family members who know you well,” Miss Treacle reads. And then explain what you are trying to do: “I’m going to spend the next twenty minutes asking you about my brand….”

Well, gag me.

Can somebody please tell me: When exactly did the word “brand” enter the vernacular as the ultimate goal of human evolution? Since when do we have to define ourselves as a product in order to find a place in the world?

It seems to me that this imperative to “brand” ourselves is a coping mechanism that has emerged out of the infinite cacophony of the internet era – even more so with the advent of ‘social media’ in the past decade or so (which really should be called “narcissistic media,” present perpetrator guilty-as-charged…).

I find an explanation for this phenomenon of person-as-product within one of the central axioms that Marshall McLuhan offered in his seminal assessment of technology and culture, “The Medium Is The Massage: An Inventory of Effects” – a pioneering ‘multi-media’ volume that was published in 1967.

The Medium Is The Message

The Medium Is The Message

McLuhan – for the vast majority of you who do not recognize the name – was the ‘philosopher of communication theory’ who coined the phrase “The medium is the message.” He is also credited with coming up with the expression “Global Village.”

Writing as he was in the mid-1960s, McLuhan was mostly reflecting on the transition from the mechanical to the electrical environment, from print to broadcasting and mass media. Though computers were just beginning to enter the equation, he knew nothing of the Internet, but his message echoes as loudly today as it ever has. Maybe more so.

McLuhan observed that in times of technological and cultural transition, “new media do the work of the old…we approach the new with the psychological and sensory responses of the old…”

Translation: we are in a new environment, but we still think like we’re in the old environment. Though our technology is now irrevocably and overwhelmingly digital, our culture and economy is still dominated by patterns of thinking and processing data that were formed in the analog era.

Which is why we’re expected to re-imagine ourselves as “a brand” – as if doing so will empower us to rise above the white noise of the broadband firehose. To get our signal heard above the noise, we’re instructed to refine our message into “a brand.”

But the whole idea of a “brand” is a vestige of the industrial era that is now fading in our cultural rear-view mirrors. Creating a “brand” – think Model T, think Chevrolet, think Oreos, Quaker Oats, Marilyn, Elvis, Kennedy, The Beatles, The Stones – was how companies conveyed their products into our minds, then off the shelves of industrial distribution and into our lives.

Now the analog/industrial era is giving way to something new and not yet entirely understood. So in the absence of a firm grasp of where we are now, we keep thinking the way we were taught to think before.

What the Internet does is give us all our own little soapbox from which we can share our confusion. Not knowing what to do with that platform, we fall back on what we know: we adapt the familiar patterns of the prior era. We ask the new technology to do the work of the old. We are given the most powerful means by which to declare our individuality, and what do we do with it?

We emulate industrial corporations.

We fashion ourselves into “a brand.”

Well, excuse me. You are not “a brand.” You are a person.

You are not a corporation, you are a human fucking being (umm, hopefully… literally).

(And as long as I’m tossing this spear: Dammit, corporations are NOT people. There is probably a corollary essay lurking somewhere about how, now that corporations are on the verge of obsolescence, their primacy has been belatedly reasserted by a certain Supreme Court decision. Classic “rear-view-mirror”ism. But I digress…)

Brands are clean, well defined, pillars of glass and steel distilled into graphically bold logos.

People, on the other hand, are messy, ill defined, quivering towers of protoplasm.

So please, stop calling yourself “a brand.” Stop wrapping yourself in the vintage vestments of a industrial perfection.

You want to reinvent yourself? Great. But reinvent for the future. Don’t drag the artifacts of the past with you. Don’t ask me to help you redefine yourself as “a brand.” Not unless you want me to leave you back in the 20th Century world of assembly lines, three broadcast networks and commercials every 15 minutes.

I’d really rather get to know you as a person, filled with doubt and uncertainty, trying to find a place in a rapidly evolving world.

Not as a logo.

And, Audible? I think I’m going to ask for a refund for this one…