Monday, May 23, 2016

You Gotta Have a Gimmick

"When deep space exploration ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything: The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Microsoft Galaxy. Planet Starbucks." 
-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Brand (noun)
1.  Kind, grade, or make, as indicated by a stamp, trademark, or the like:
the best brand of coffee.

2.  A mark made by burning or otherwise, to indicate kind, grade, make, ownership, etc.
the letter M was branded on each animal 

"What's your brand?  What's your brand?  Yeah, but what's your brand?!?  You gotta have a brand!"

I keep hearing this barked as if it really means something beyond a new catchphrase to spew, kind of like "Actionable (and literally ANY word you put after it)." Everybody's got to have a brand these days, it seems, if not BE a brand.  Even not having an overt "brand story" can be in and of itself part of your brand-identity.  Can this get any more annoying?  Only if it comes with a new and improved Kung Fu grip, which I'm sure it does ... somewhere.

Every time I hear the latest wunderkind spouting endless silliness about brands as if they've just re-invented marketing altogether, I feel myself glazing over while this plays in my head ... (you can uh, you can uh, you can uh, uh, uh!)

... Of course, before slipping into a Sad Affleck in order to cope with the barrage of nonsense these people so dearly believe in.  That's not to say marketing isn't an integral part of business, and an incredibly useful tool, because it obviously is, I just think we're getting a little carried away with it.  Truthfully, this isn't about marketing at all, it's about our latest obsession with branding everything under the sun including humans and the lives we live.  Personally, I believe it's a gross misuse of time to be devaluing the human experience down to a product (which in certain circles is blasphemous, I know).

***Devaluing?! But I'm making my life look so awesome across all social media platforms that everyone wants to be me, and buy, and do all the things that it takes to project this shallow existence and live like me, Me, ME!!!  Surely I'm creating value!***

I guess that depends entirely on what an individual values in the first place.  I will say, I know a lot of people drowning in popularity, with products flying off shelves, and many thousands of followers who are wildly unhappy people, so really we owe it to ourselves to get clear about what's actually valuable and what's not.  No judgement here.  All I'm saying is, if what you're doing, selling, making, living, saying, being, or breathing is decreasing the happiness in your personal or business life, you owe it to yourself above all else to figure out what's not working, and make the necessary changes.  For some of us those changes include taking a step back and realizing that this branding mania we're being fed is more than just a bit ridiculous.

We are living in a time when our reputations are being twisted into "personal brands" (whether we're the ones doing the twisting or not), rather than simply being the esteem in which others hold us, and not only are we buying into it, we're glad it's happening, as we further blur the lines between what's personal and what's business, especially for those of us on the smaller end of the business spectrum.  While I do believe that a good, or professional reputation is indispensable because "Business," as Leonie Dawson has put it, "Is really just one person offering their gifts to those souls who need them," and I find that this is what prompts a lot of people to go into business for themselves, or become freelancers, or embrace the whole "soulpreneur" ideology in the first place; wanting to bring the human element back into business whilst building a career that is soul-driven, or just plain feels good to do, I find that rather than doing just that -- bringing the human element back into business -- it is pulling us in a direction that removes us even further from soulful work, and puts us back into an ego-driven world of meaningless slogans, and snappy one-liners sure to get our product on the "tips of everyone's tongues!" -- all by taking that first step of becoming our brand ourselves, because we're told it's not enough to just be the person behind the brand.  We believe in it; that this is the correct move to make because we feel that if something sounds deeply personal, then it has to be deeply personal, talent-based, or representative of oneness, or honest, or any other meaningful interpretation you want to include here.  Sadly, this is often untrue.  You can learn the lingo, and still get it wrong in practice especially when the same terms used by those trying to spearhead a new standard of business are appropriated, and bastardized by industries thriving on, and run by vanity, superficiality, and are dependent upon people's insecurities (those of both the entrepreneur and consumer).  Because of this we run the risk of slipping right back into patterns many of us are trying to escape by creating our own businesses in the first place.

I 'm not suggesting that we eschew it altogether (branding, marketing, etc.), just that we need to be acutely aware of what we're doing or being asked to do.  Is it necessary to traffic ourselves and our private lives, and even become caricatures of ourselves in order to peddle goods and services?  I, personally, find it dehumanizing to diminish everything that a human life is down to a single blurb or press-kit in order to be pimped across a multitude of platforms in the name of authenticity.  Authenticity isn't just a matter of  "letting it all hang out," and then shaping what's hanging into an over exaggerated, hyper-reality that looks so super-duper-exciting that everyone has to enlist RIGHT NOW in order to participate and gain all of the additional bonuses of living in your world.  Authenticity, to me, is making the conscious effort to keep what you're putting out there about yourself, brand, product, or service genuine and true, and that it is not coming from a place of greed, desperation, or a hunger for elevated status. 

They say we should let fame, notoriety, and recognition be the by-products of hard work, passion, and a job well done, and not something we actively pursue.  I agree, yet so often see exactly the opposite not only happening, but encouraged; make yourself famous (or infamous) first because everyone needs a ready-made, built-in audience, then get a product (or better yet, someone else's product to put your name on), punt it off onto all of your worshipers followers and move on to the next product before they find out the first one is actually junk (and typically something they don't need anyway), wash, rinse, repeat ... Put your feet up and congratulate yourself on all your "hustle" skills.

Is this what it looks like to sell one's soul?  Is the Brand™ going to be the mark of The Beast (said tongue in cheek, and not to be confused with extremist talking points) we were all warned about in Sunday School as youngsters; the identifier that we let our un-quenched desire for more pull us further, and further from our true selves and what really matters, where we become a bunch of soulless mouthpieces endlessly chattering on about this product and that product unable to differentiate if we ARE the product or not, completely removed from what each of us truly is, and happy to be there?  Will we be diving like Sneetches into star-affixing machines, or off cliffs like lemmings? Where will it end?

I think it ends the moment we wake up from the illusion that's been created to distract us, and decide to stay alert.  Does this mean we won't get pulled off-track now and again?  No.  It's probably a little inevitable that we will, but I think if we allow ourselves breathing room we will allow ourselves a way to always come back to center.  To keep myself on task there are three things I always ask myself:
-Is this the correct direction?
-Does this feel good?
-Am I contributing in an important or helpful way?
And, one thing I always remind myself:
I. Am. Not. A. Brand. 
I'm a human being.  You can take that even further if you like -- I'm a spiritual being having a human experience. Words do not define me.  Catchphrases do not describe me.  I am not a commodity.  I do not fit into a tidy soundbite, and neither do you.