My double life: getting over “personal branding”

“I’m a slightly mad aristocrat and I’m okay with that”

In this Beg to Differ: a shocking personal revelation from the Big Differ, view who wonders if “Personal Branding” is too narrow to capture the range of authentic, and but playful, roles we play in our professional lives.

Yes, that's the Big Differ, DenVan, as the Captain of the Pinafore in 2006
Yes, that's DenVan as the Captain of the Pinafore with Meredith Matthews as Buttercup in Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore at Centrepointe Theatre (Savoy Society of Ottawa).

Confession: I’m leading a double life

Yes it’s true. By day, I am indeed the mild mannered head of my brand strategy consulting company and the less-than-faithful blogger whose words you are reading right now (among other things).

By night, I am a slightly mad member of the British aristocracy – and I’m okay with that. I’m a Lord, a commander of troops, master of the Tower of London.  I oversee torture, beheadings, and a castle-full of sopranos. I find wives for dying men, support jesters on unicycles, drag rivers, and make sure Beefeaters stay off the bottle.

And that’s just this month. In the past decade, I’ve been a Japanese Lord High Executioner, the Prince of Darkness, the Captain of a warship,and a young Pirate apprentice.

Tough jobs all – and difficult to sum up on a resume.

Multiple personalities? Nope. Just one big ham.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m either a) delusional, b) addicted to role-playing video games, or c) an amateur actor and singer. Although my wife might wish for an “all of the above” option, the answer is c).

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to land some fun roles with a couple of great local musical theatre and operetta companies. And on April 21, I’ll be hitting the stage again with a small lead in Yeomen of the Guard (see the promo video below for details).

It’s fun; it challenges me; I get to make an audience laugh (hopefully).

And in this role, I will try to be true to the character I am playing – to the playwright and director’s vision, to my fellow actors, to the audience.

But is “actor” my “personal brand”?

Um, kind of? It’s a role I sometimes play that lets me play other roles.

Yesterday, in a Twitter chat, the topic of “personal branding” came up again. And as always, somebody threw out the line that “personal brands need to be authentic!”

But if you accept that there can be such a thing as a “personal brand” (which I don’t) this idea of “authenticity” comes to mean the same thing as “personal integrity” which implies “you must always play the same role, because your brand is who you are”.

A brand is not a person, and it’s not personal

This is true for corporate brands, professional reputations, and it’s true for the roles we play in everyday life. Being an “authentic” dad is very different from being an “authentic” consultant, or being honest as an actor.

In Social Media we play many roles depending on the app we’re in or the nature of the conversation. Even within this blog, I’ve played different roles: advisorcritic,  jilted lover, and poet. And I’d like to think I was authentic in every case.

In the corporate and product realm, one company can support many brands with different “authentic” personalities. Procter & Gamble can “be” Mr. Clean, Dolce & Gabbana, and Pampers to different customers – as long as each brand is “authentic” within its own brand role and, most importantly, within the expectations they build for each customer.

The play’s the thing

  • A brand is a role you play for a group of customers.
  • “Play” is an important word here – branding is a game with rules, boundaries, and expected codes of behaviour, so yes, play with integrity and consistency.
  • But once you’ve established those boundaries, there’s incredible latitude for growth and creative movement.
  • When you’re on the field, be true to the game. But learn to keep the game on the field.
  • In your professional life, keep your “brand(s)” at arm’s-length from your “self”. Your customers will be happier, and you’ll be more helpful.

So what do you think?

iPad, uPad: Apple meets the push-up bra

Apparently iPad has been enhancing feature sets for a while….

So of course, health Beg to Differ was riveted on Wednesday by “The Big Speech”. No, stuff not the State of the Union Address: it was the unveiling of a new product by Apple that had our attention. And apparently, we weren’t the only ones watching: so were trademark lawyers for several other “iPads”. But will any of it matter for Apple? Read on.

A padded insert from Coconut Grove Intimates - with a branded insert of our own.
A padded insert from Coconut Grove Intimates – with a branded insert of our own.

Trying to pad the feminine market?

On Wednesday, our big question was not “what will this miraculous new product be?” Everybody knew that already. It was leaked long ago that it would be a tablet device that would look something like a big iPod or iPhone.

We were watching to see what they would call it.

The “i” naming convention was a given with iMac, iTunes, etc. But would this one become iSlate? iTablet? iShtar? Surely not <gasp> “iPad”?

Nope, iPad it was

The Fujitsu iPad product
The Fujitsu iPad product

Now, we’re fans of Apple branding in almost every possible way, and we lauded the return of Steve Jobs in a previous post. But instantly upon the announcement, we watched the media and the Twitter universe light up with criticism, and some really off-colour humour, about the name sounding like a feminine hygiene product (see the MadTV clip at bottom).

Even more shocking: it turns out that the hygiene connection was just the beginning. Neither the name itself, or the association with products aimed at females, were unique.

Fujitsu has already filed suit based on its own iPad product (above), and several others are out there.

But the one that jumped out at us was the “iPad” product sold by a small Canadian company called Coconut Grove Pads Inc.. It’s a bra insert like the one shown at the top of this post.

But will any of this matter?

In a word: no.

Let’s be clear: I would never advise a smaller client to go with such a name. There are just too many risk factors, as the media have been gleefully pointing out.

But Apple knows this. And they went ahead in spite of it because, well, they’re Apple. Their market awareness is just too big, and the new product just too smart, for any of this to matter.

They will settle with Fujitsu after some posturing by both parties, the Twitter wags will get their “Maxi” giggles, and the bra company will get its moment in the sun.

But most importantly, the name “iPad” will quickly lose its association with MaxiPads and other feminine products.

Why? Because we will all take ownership of the name as the way to refer to the Apple device – which will push all other uses to the back of the collective consumer brain bus.

And in the branding game, that’s what really matters.

What do you think? Are we artificially inflating our opinion? Let us know in the comments!

Bonus: MadTV scooped Apple on the iPad name in Nov. 2007

NOTE: This is very funny – but mildly gynecological humour might be a bit “edgy” for more conservative work environments, so view with caution.

Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Are the Muppets back to stay?

Has Disney finally figured out how to deal with the Muppets?

Yesterday, medicine Beg to Differ introduced you to the brilliant new Bohemian Rhapsody parody from the Muppets – but with no brand focused commentary at all. Since then, try we’ve realized that the big story here isn’t the video itself (or the others we’ve included below). The big branding story is the Muppet brand itself and its current caretaker: Disney.


Keeping your Beakers and Bunsens apart

A Disneyland attraction that people liked, but didn't recognize the characters.

When I showed the Bohemian Rhapsody video to my kids – aged 3 and almost 5 – they laughed and laughed and laughed, just as my wife and I had done. Of course, they totally missed the parody, but it was heartening to me that they seemed to love the characters and hooted along with that trademark goofy, over-the-top vaudeville campiness.

But when I asked my 3-year old what he’d liked about it, he said: “Those Wild Things were funny.”

Anaheim, we have a problem.

It’s not like we haven;t done our parental duty by exposing him to the Muppets. This is a kid who has an Animal doll, 50 Sesame Street books, and has sat and watched the Muppets on YouTube, as well as the season 1&2 DVDs with the family. But even he couldn’t identify the “Muppet” brand, and couldn’t recall any names except Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Turns out my son is the market in microcosm (I’m so proud). Kids don’t get the Muppets. And I blame Disney.

Disney’s problem with Muppets

Since acquiring the Muppet brand in 2004 Disney has been widely criticized by fans for under-utilizing the Muppets characters and failing to re-invigorate the brand for a younger generation. For an exhaustive insider background, see Jim Hill’s blog post from 2007.

But in brief, I think this verbiage from the February 2004 press release captures the problem in humourless, corporatese:

The transaction includes all Muppet assets, including the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal characters, the Muppet film and television library, and all associated copyrights and trademarks…

Now read that again in your best Rizzo the Rat voice to hear how ugly, inhuman and unintentionally funny it becomes. These are cartoon puppet critters people!

Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he's doing in front of an SUV.
Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he’s doing in front of an SUV.

It’s not easy being green (but it’s worth a try).

And it went downhill from there. Disney efforts have included an aborted attempt to make Kermit more “edgy” for his 5oth birthday in 2005, and a tone-deaf attempt to exploit the lead characters as commercial shills. The Ford Explorer ad shown here is a great example.

Demographic fact: Muppets are loved by nostalgic 30-40 somethings. Frog-leap of logic: Hey! Kermit can sell SUVs!

But through it all, the big problems that were festering under the surface were 1) a failure to generate any significant new Muppets content (or that the new content was bad), 2) erosion of the brand equity of secondary characters, and 3) lack of respect for the real brand qualities that made the Muppets so charming and relevant, and sustain them to this day in the hearts of 4) the brand’s real owners: who are you, me, and hopefully, our kids.

The Muppets of the mind

So that’s why it was so nice to see yesterday’s Bohemian Rhapsody video get hundreds of thousands of hits and quickly become a trending topic on Twitter. It’s also nice to learn that more videos are coming (watch for “Dust in the Wind”, “American Woman”, “Popcorn”, “Carol of the Bells” and “Stand By Me”) and that a new Muppet movie is in the works – among other interesting projects.

But most heartening of all, there’s the tone of the new content – which finally shows signs that Disney actually gets the Muppets. The new stuff is funny, and the characters seem like themselves again. And that’s why I felt like I had to share that video immediately.

To us, the real owners of the brand, the Muppets are about creating a warm space where comedy, pop-culture, kid-culture, and pure unadulterated silliness can come together. The real Muppets in our heads never take themselves too seriously (see the “assets” quote above), and they are also never mean-spirited or even “edgy” (they’re refreshingly nerdy actually – kind of like Queen music).

Oh, and take note: the Muppets in our heads would never sell an SUV, so they won’t help us buy one either.

Welcome back Muppets

But lest we be accused of getting too serious ourselves (we beg to differ!), below are a few more recent YouTube videos featuring some great second-string Muppets.

Bohemian Rhapsody – in case you missed it

Beaker does Ode to Joy:

The Swedish Chef carves a pumpkin:

Sam the Eagle gets patriotic:

Is “Personal Branding” an oxymoron?

Evidence for and against the term

“Personal branding” isn’t new, pills but it seems to be a term that’s spiking upwards right now, viagra buy pushed by an enthusiastic tribe of “personal brand experts” who are starting to throw their weight around – particularly in Social Media. They dominate every Twitter search on “branding” for example. But for me, malady as a brand guy, a #brandchat conversation last week and blog posts by Mitch Joel and Rob Frankel set me to wondering: Is a “personal brand” even possible?

Batboy 2
My son "branded" himself as Batman for a Halloween party over the weekend. But was it "personal"?

The case for “personal branding” (i.e. it’s not an oxymoron)

  • Brands are important: I’ve built my career around the idea that the concept of a “brand” is a powerful tool to build relationships between people,  products, companies, services, government programs, charities, and various combinations of all of the above. So when I hear someone – anyone – reinforcing the importance of brand-oriented thinking, part of me yells out an involuntary “Amen, preach it brother!”
  • Persons can have brands: individuals can and do become incredibly powerful brands – and many of them consciously cultivate these brands in much the same way a smart company manages their brand portfolio. No one can ignore the phenomenal impact of the Obama, Oprah, or even the Glenn Beck  brand – although impact may be the only thing those particular brands have in common.
  • Tom Peters: I was inspired by a ground-breaking article in Fast Company from 1997 called “The Brand Called You” in which Peters says:

It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.

  • The rise of Social Media: this development more than any other is what is driving the growth of the “personal branding” industry. Just look at the Personal Branding Rock Star Apparent Dan Schwabel’s Web site, blog, or Twitter stream: your Social Media “footprint” is mostly what he’s talking about. And indeed, now that our thoughts, deeds, and misdeeds can be broadcast to the world with the click of a button, we all need to be aware of how our online actions affect our perception by employers, business colleagues, and potential customers.
  • My own work: I myself have done almost a dozen seminars on branding for individuals at universities, professional organizations, and networking groups.  My first such presentation was at a “Company of Friends” meeting in  2001 (selected slides below), in which I encouraged attendees to look at their careers, areas of expertise, and public communications through the lens of branding. I even wore a T-Shirt with “I AM BRAND” on it and encouraged them to repeat that phrase in their heads.

So let me be clear: I’m not against “Persons” “Branding”

To sum up, before I get to the negative stuff: the intersection of “Branding” + “Individuals” is a powerful connection that I strongly believe in and promote.

Clear? Got that? Cool. Let’s move on.

The case against “personal branding” (i.e. it is an oxymoron)

  • Personal branding often confuses “identity” with “brand”. These are different things. Identity is the part of your brand that you control – that is, your name, what you say about yourself, how you look, etc.; but your brand is much bigger, and includes a lot of stuff that you don’t control – most importantly what other people say about you.
  • Branding is not about you. It doesn’t matter what you are trying to promote, your brand is only as good as what it does for human beings – that is, how useful your brand is to human beings as a way of finding, understanding, and referring others to something they value.
  • No one can “own” their own brand. Here’s my definition of brand for the record – one which I’ve honed and refined over 15 years of building practical brand strategy for companies big and small. Note as you read that “brand” can not be created ex nihilo (from nothing), nor can it be owned by the same people who own the “product”:
  • A brand is the whole set of ideas, words, images, and expectations that humans* associate with a product**.
    (* “humans” means multiple customers / influencers / observers.)
    (**”product” can mean a corporation, commodity, service, concept, or individual)
  • Or, a shorter definition: “a brand is a promise.” And a really strong brand is a promise kept consistently, and reinforced publicly, over time. This is where the “personal” part starts to break down: it implies private, non-public, just between me, myself, and I. Say “personal promise” to yourself. Sounds wrong doesn’t it? That’s because a promise is only meaningful if it is made to someone.
  • At its worst, the personal branding movement misses the point. Far too often, even most of the time from what I’ve seen,  “personal branding” is a fancy word for “narcissism”. It’s a cover for the selfishness, greediness, and egomania that are temptations for all of us – and should never, never be celebrated or recommended.  That is, bad personal branding is about introspection or “self-help” – or making your life better, not about making the lives of your fellow humans better.

So can “personal branding” be redeemed?

Personally, I’m going to avoid the term as much as I can. It’s just too distracting for my corporate clients if I get too deeply tangled up in the narcissistic side of the field.

But there are people out there on the Light Side of the Force. And on that note, I’m going to leave the last word to Mitch Joel from Six Pixels of Separation:

The Key To Your Personal Brand

“If there’s one lesson/opportunity when it comes to developing your personal brand, it is to make everything  about the people you are connecting to and not about yourself.” (underline added by me)

– Mitch Joel

So what do you think?

  • Am I being fair to “personal branding”?
  • Should we use the term “personal branding”at all?
  • Is there a better term for the branding of individuals?
  • Am I using too many “quotation marks”?
  • Yummy Mummy & Urkelo’s: 15 breakfast brands we’ll never see again

    Breakfast Cereal brands that didn’t stand the test of time

    After yesterday’s post on Laser-Engraved Corn Flakes, and Beg to Differ took a look at the Wikipedia list of breakfast cereals and noticed just how many of these cereals failed for one reason or another. Either they were meant to promote a short-lived movie, prostate character, ed or cartoon, or given names that became liabilities for other reasons, or they were just hilariously bad ideas.

    Sad spoon

    15 breakfast cereal brands we’ll never see again

    biltedCer1) Bill & Ted’s Excellent CerealRalston (1989)

    A short-lived cereal based on the equally short-lived Saturday morning cartoon of the late 1980s starring a pair of teenaged slackers – one of whom was a very young Keanu Reeves. Funny, he never made the cereal aisle again with subsequent movies. Perhaps  Dangerous Liaisons Crunch?  The Devil’s Advocate Loops? Matrix Flakes?

    Baron von Redberry2) Baron von Redberry & Sir GrapefellowGeneral Mills (1972)

    Interesting concept. These two characters were set up as mortal enemies – World War I flying aces in a dogfight for breakfast-table supremacy. They both spiraled down in flames, but you have to admire the effort.

    3) C-3PO’sKellogg’s (1984)

    This of course was a cereal based on the Star Wars character, C-3PO. I remember seeing this one on the supermarket shelf. Why the fussy, anally retentive protocol droid and not Leia Cinnamon Bun Crunch or Wookie Pops? Who can say.

    Tag line: “A Crunchy New Force at Breakfast”

    4) Cocoa Hoots – Kellogg’s (1972)

    This cereal was described on the box a “sweetened chocolate flavored cereal – fortified with 8 essential vitamins”. Its mascot was named Newton The Owl.

    But is it just me, or is there a striking resemblance to the logo of a certain chain of restaurants?

    Coincidence? Probably.
    Coincidence? Probably.

    crazy-cow5) Crazy CowGeneral Mills (Late 1970s)

    To me, this name is an odd duck – or perhaps a weird heifer? The idea is that it would turn your milk a “crazy” artificial pink colour. But as if that weren’t appetizing enough, I’m pretty sure after the Mad Cow scare of a few years back, this one won’t be making a comeback any time soon…

    Dunkin Donuts6) Dunkin’ Donuts CerealRalston (1988)

    The brand connection between the chain of adult focused coffee-and-donut stores and a kid-oriented breakfast cereal is a bit of a stretch. Particularly in 1988, when I would have expected this to taste like Styrofoam, day-old coffee, and cigarette ashes. Mmm.

    Tag line: “Crunchy little donuts with a great big taste!” Two varieties: Glazed Style and Chocolate.

    Flutie_Flakes_10th_Anniversary_Box7) Flutie FlakesGeneral Mills (1998-2001)

    Named for quarterback Doug Flutie, these ones actually lasted quite a while, and the cereal became an ironic pop-culture hit – with a box appearing in the background on Seinfeld for example.

    Wikipedia also notes that Flutie Flakes became the subject of a minor controversy in January 1999 when after Doug blew a playoff game against the Dolphins, Miami Dolphins‘ head coach Jimmy Johnson poured Flutie Flakes on the ground and invited his team to stomp on them. This made Flutie very angry.

    Freakies8 ) FreakiesRalston (1972-1976)

    Very elaborate product line and character universe, but a fairly sizable flop for Ralston’s first attempt at sugary breakfast cereal. But even today, you can order T-Shirts from this Freakies fan site:

    9) Mr. T Cereal – Quaker Oats

    As a famous man once said: I pity the fool that ridicules this cereal. So I’ll let another famous man introduce this cereal to you (and the other denizens of his demented playhouse).

    Pee-Wee Herman eats Mr. T cereal

    Mud and Bugs10) Mud & BugsKellogg’s/Disney (2003-2006)

    Mmmm. Tasty. I’m going to award this one the “Least Appetizing Name” award. Of course, it’s a promotional tie-in worked out with the Disney merchandising folks and meant to promote the launch of the Lion King franchise.

    And yes, I can see the “gross-out-mom” appeal of “Mud & Bugs”. But even as a kid who loved grossing out mom, the name alone would inspire me to skip breakfast entirely.

    Green Slime11) Nickelodeon Green Slime CerealGeneral Mills (2003)

    Sorry, I take back the Least Appetizing Name award and give it to this You Can’t Do That on Television spin-off. Funny though, that this would have come after the lifespan of the show – with the golden era of You Can’t being the late 1980’s.


    12) Nintendo Cereal SystemRalston/Nintendo – (1988-1989)

    For a commercial product tie-in, the name and “System” concept are creative, different. We like that. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the “system”:

    “The cereal box was divided in half. One side, called Super Mario Bros. Action Series, had fruity-flavoured Marios, Super Mushrooms,Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and Bowsers, and the other, called Zelda Adventure Series, had berry-flavored Links, hearts, boomerangs, keys, and shields.”

    13) Punch Crunch – (Quaker Oats) (1970s)

    Cap’n Crunch apparently had a few spin-0ffs, including this violent-sounding sidekick. The “Punch” refers to the fruit-punch-flavour of these cereal rings. The mascot was a hippopotamus named Harry in sailor duds, who actually does some villain crunching in the old commercial below.

    Commercial for Punch Crunch:

    Urkel-Os14) Urkel-OsRalston (1991)

    How did this kid ever get a cereal? Named for Steve Urkel – the supremely annoying fictional character on the ABC/CBS comedy sitcom Family Matters, portrayed by Jaleel White, this one was mercifully short-lived and now we have only the commercials on YouTube to remember how close we came to the end of civilization as we know it.

    Commercial for Urkel O’s

    Yummy_Mummy15) Yummy MummyGeneral Mills (1987-1992)

    Funny, I’m married to one of these. But this cereal probably predated the wide use of the term for a nice-looking female with children. Also known as “Fruity Yummy Mummy”s, this cereal was part of the same cereal family as Count Chocula and Franken Berry.

    From Mr. Yummy Mummy was a “fruit flavor frosted cereal with vanilla flavor marshmallows”. The yellow marshmallow pieces seemed to resemble the shape of a head. On some of the cereal boxes, they were referred to as “monster mallows”. The other cereal pieces were red and orange. They may have also been intended to resemble heads, but the primarily circular nuggets with two slits in the center looked more like colorful little pig snouts.