You, Inc.

Following along with a couple of themes I have touched on in this blog, including yesterday’s articles about what it takes to succeed, I want to talk about branding.  Essentially one take away from the exercise of rebooting my niece’s college prep was that we re-branded her from someone who was just meandering along in life, taking whatever fell in her lap, to a take charge, motivated action-oriented achiever.  Anyone can do this. Not that everyone wants to be a go-getter, but that whatever it is you want the world to receive you as, you can craft yourself, and not leave it to chance or the control of someone else.

One of the positive outcomes of my intermittent experiences in the corporate world, first working for my dad, later working for one of my in-law’s companies and now running my own little micro-business, is the experience I have accumulated in branding myself.

When I first thought of this, back in the late 90’s, it was because four different factors intersected at basically the same time.  First, I was working for a family company that my husband, a partner and I were asked to run.  It was the farthest thing from my mind, but being marooned in California, away from the career path I had embarked on in NY, I dove in and tried to take as much value from the experience as I could. Secondly, the internet and world-wide web exploded onto the scene and I decided the company just had to have a website, so I taught myself to make one.  Thirdly, I was helping my niece (per yesterday) get herself set up with a future path, and fourth I created my own ‘vanity’ website.

Let’s talk about the entire idea of ‘vanity’ site before I go much further.  Notice that language.  I am not sure whether I think it is appropriate to cast something so logical in such negative and feminized a light.  What a vanity site simply translates into is branding oneself.  One thing we know from the ordeal we have endured over the past thirty years in this country (at least, 30 years ago is when I woke up to all of it) is that you are personal brandinggoing to be branded and it is just a matter of who does it, you or others.

In fact, another thing I learned in the business world, that I might or might not have had I followed the straight academic road I set out on, is that you and your life can and perhaps should be run like any company.  That starts with the foundational structures that companies have, that we don’t conceive of as applying to our personal lives.  But they do!

If we really think about it, for example, incorporating ourselves early, would mean we would create a stand-alone corporate avatar or legal entity to manage all our affairs and present itself to the public in social, legal, and promotional arenas with all the protections and rights that corporations have even if individuals don’t. Without going into too much detail, my time as a novice in the harsh and ruthless business world of Los Angeles (just imagine if it had been NY or Chicago, it would have done us in.  We would have been wearing lead boots in one or the other river, I am sure) taught me how much latitude and smooth conduits corporations are accorded.  Asset protection, inviolate bank accounts, tax breaks, investment incentives, loans — all the skids are greased for corporations.  But that is a topic for a different post.

One of the most formative and positive things we can do, while viewing and setting ourselves up as a business, is to create a strong brand image and develop it.  If it is done properly, it will be flexible and grow with us.  That starts with picking any name we want.  One thing that has always amazed me, is how people cling to the names they were born with.  I had this discussion with one of my sisters-in-law, who kept her maiden name and was quite militant about it.  She haughtily announced to everyone in earshot, that she was not about to take a man’s name. Seriously? Whose name did she have?  Her dad’s.  Duh.  We live in a patrilineal, patronymic culture. Beyond that, what is the need for maintaining a particular family name? Either can be changed to fit the person and the brand that person wishes to create.  If I had a name that I didn’t like or which didn’t suit me, I would change it without a second thought.  These attachments are little more than sentimental (nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t mandatory!) and enslavement to convention.

When you brand yourself, even as an intellectual or academic exercise, you free yourself to be more dispassionate and practical about managing your life, time, and resources.  You present a stronger profile to the world, particularly the social and economic worlds where most of us live.  We don’t have to be in the arts to do this.  I don’t care what field you are in (and most of us will have several over our working lifetimes, which have been extended to well into advanced years), your brand image is a powerful force for good, bad or indifferent.

One thing I took away from my time as a marketing manager is that every encounter the company or corporate entity (You, Inc., here) has with any other entity, individual, public, or private, can be assigned a valence: plus, minus, neutral.  In other words, when you meet people, you will leave one of those impressions.  Whether that meeting is face to face, or merely in an email, online or over the phone.  There is no such thing as a non-valent interaction.  Branding yourself properly can increase the positive weight of the total score for any experiential area.

There are so many obvious examples of this possibility.  Every time you step into another business environment, you are going to be sized up by the personnel.  Depending on how you dress, groom, and conduct yourself, you will receive varying treatment.

One of my FIL’s NYC business associates married into a Hollywood family.  His wife, the daughter of two famous parents, was a larger than life you incorporatedcharacter.  She adored my MIL and they often went out to dinner and the theater in Manhattan when they were both in town. I got to meet her a couple of times, accompanying my MIL and this woman to lunch. She was an exhausting force to deal with but I humored her because she meant well and she was my MIL’s friend and my FIL’s business associate’s wife.  I had to go along to get along, etc.   One time when my MIL was out of town, this woman asked me to accompany her shopping.  I almost died because there was no way I could shop the way she could, but I figured, I would just go around with her and try to stay in the background (not that she would have shared the foreground with me any way — this woman is a diva).

She sent her car for me and we set off to visit the usual suspects up and down Fifth, Madison, and Lexington Avenues.  It was a cringe-worthy experience for me, since I was young and quite self-conscious about not making a scene.  Being flamboyant came so naturally to her that it did not bother Lynn one bit. She swept noisily into every store, commandeered sales people and department managers alike, had them show her whatever merchandise she was interested in, and then insisted on getting a discount.  At the time, she had a TV show that aired in the Tri-State area.  Her position was, give me a lower price and I may mention you on the show.  This worked at small boutiques, occasionally (it was still hard for the small stores to deal with this over-stepping of conventions), but it was a spectacle of epic proportions in places like Bloomingdales or Saks Fifth Avenue.  Lynn would flounce up to the counter, take off her dark sunglasses dramatically, and hand her card to the salesperson.  Then she would wait for recognition.  She always got a strong reaction, not because they truly recognized her (her show was on during the day, why would they, after all?) but because she was so convincing that they felt they should know who she was.  Without belaboring this further, she got the discount every single time that day, even at lunch in a well known celeb watering hole where I am pretty sure they had no idea at all who she was.  Branding.  Lynn had a brand and lived it every time she stepped out of her Fifth Avenue apartment, whether physically or virtually.

A more arcane example is going to the doctor. I have always had a hard time with doctors, except my  parent’s family doctor growing up.  The reason is, as a health fanatical quasi hypochondriac, I always came to the experience loaded with data and opinions and instructions.  It was tolerated at best by most of the doctors I encountered and at worst, it went badly, very quickly.  Physicians think they know it all and I am not a medical doctor, so it was bound to be contentious.

When I got to California and had worked for a bit in what I jokingly refer to as The Firm, so much like the Windsors are my in-laws, it suddenly dawned on me that I could throw this corporate elan over my personal life and make it work for me.  This happened because I once showed up for a doctor’s appointment after I had gone out to a business related event, and I was dressed up in my usual suit, heels, up-hairdo and having left the event badge attached to my collar. It struck me that I was getting better treatment that day.suited up

So, I made up a business card for myself, my own brand.  I have a few degrees.  All I had to do was create a very austere, white card with blue and black print that simply had my name, address, phone and fax, E.I.N. (employer identification number  – I eventually incorporated myself) and the academic initials on it and the attitudes of everyone at the doctor’s office seemed transformed.  From the receptionist to the nurses, to the physicians I got a more collegial and collaborative response. I showed up with a brief case and in a suit for every doctor’s appointment thereafter.  I made sure I wore reading glasses, and took out a pad and pen, and started taking notes immediately, walking in the door, as I interacted with them.  Now when I tell them what I want and how I want it, not that they agree or concede, but at least there is parity during the discussion.  Some of this now is due to my own progress as a more mature individual, but I arrived at this conclusion in my late 20s.  I could have done it earlier, had I just known to do so.

Your life, your brand can be crafted like a business.  It pays off in many ways, above all in giving you clout in your own sense of self, with all the benefits that accrue from putting a structure under you for support. It can empower you to take control of every aspect of your day to day transactions with the world at large, steering them to see and treat you on your own terms. You don’t have to and shouldn’t let anyone else define you.



23 Comments on “You, Inc.”

  1. Some wonderful advice here. The academic world tends to work in extremes- expecting the grad student to be subservient and kowtowing to the advisor and staying in the shadows at conferences and such, and then, once the milestone of the PhD is surpassed, suddenly expecting the level of confidence and ‘branding’ that the student once supported.
    I will certainly take your suggestions on board as I continue my own re-branding. Great post!


    • Thank you. Well, post-PhD there is little more respect other than by people outside of academia, I have found. Post-docs can be little more than permanent drones, but I left that world so I can no longer comment. All else being equal, academia is always my favorite environment.


  2. This is interesting, but honestly, I don’t know that I could do it. I think it’s in my genes to be very scattered and unfocused and impulsive.. I think you were surrounded by very driven, organized, and successful people growing up – but for me it was such the opposite, and I have come to believe that it is more than a social or ‘taught’ inheritance on my part. I think it’s a part of my fabric to detest the clock and/or schedules of any kind, and this sort of packaging and presenting myself in an organized, thought-out manner…I honestly can’t think of one person in my family history who ever approached life from this perspective. We are all slow movers, and dreamers to an extent. I’m not making excuses – it’s something I’ve come to observe in my family over the years and now see in myself.

    I hope you know I am not criticizing any of this. I think my nature has held me back from job promotions (and in some cases, getting the job) and other levels of success. But I am so NOT wired this way, that I cannot even begin to fit myself into this mold. I’m not depressed about it or anything, I am accepting of it. It’s just interesting to me how different people can be in their internal drives.


    • Well, the way I see this is not necessarily to regiment ourselves in order to get ahead or be super ambitious, but more to give ourselves permission to be who we are and not let someone or something else tell us whether that is good or bad. I am not a very ambitious person myself, but you are right, I grew up with those kind of people all around me — very competitive. And Geoff’s family is like that on steroids. All egoists and highly judgmental. I am trying to carve out my own space so I don’t lose my sense of self with these people. I knew you weren’t being negative. I see this as applicable to the creative world as well. I don’t think my mother would have achieved as much as she did, career-wise, on her own. My father pushed her, hard. He also pushed me. I don’t like being pushed! I want to be self-propelled, LOL. 🙂


      • Ah I see, I may have taken this as more one “kind” of branding. So one can brand themselves as mellow, uninterested in being on time, and uninterested in reaching some high level of career success? If so, then I could totally do that. In fact, I see the benefits of doing it. It places you (or me, I guess) in a position to define yourself first before others do – taking power back from what might be otherwise seen as a negative label (there’s a book about introverts that discusses the power of being introverted in a world that only values extroverts – it’s that sort of thing).


        • Exactly. Not that you would frame it as being irresponsible with time and unmotivated, but more, an iconoclast unhampered by limited notions of accomplishment, something along those lines. In my niece’s case, there was a great kid that everyone underestimated because she allowed splashier people to push past her. When someone framed her abilities as solid, balanced, reliable, and deep, she was able to use that to put her best side forward. When we stop being compared to people with those obvious extrovert traits, by defining ourselves positively, first, along different parameters, we can shine in our own way. That is what I mean. I only wish I had done for myself, what I did for her (I had academic success but far less recognition and support).


          • Interesting! I really like this idea and have nibbled around the edges of it for awhile, but you articulated it in a way that clarified the importance of it for me. I like this.


            • Me too. It appeals to me so I am free to define myself, what I do, and what is important to me, myself. Not based on society, or family, or even what I have done in the past. It is very liberating – and takes some of the pressure off.


  3. Oh, I know first-hand that branding works. I’m 4’10” and I vividly recall living and working in downtown San Francisco and being ignored in department stores by sales people who thought I was a kid when dressed in jeans and T’s. Once I went back to the same stores in suits and high heels with full make-up (this was also in the 80’s and 90’s), they fell over themselves to assist.

    Now that I’m in my elder years and don’t care to impress, I only go to smaller, less expensive stores where they know me even in my sweats!


    • Yeah, me too. I stopped worrying about it, but depending on where I go, like to the bank, I do dress up. Now with doctors, I sort of feel like I can handle them better now that I am a bit older. It was more an issue with pulling my act together and being comfortable with being me and not letting them (or anyone) intimidate me. That took me awhile to master. Thank you :-).


  4. Beth,

    As much as I disagree–from a life philosophy perspective, in that I see personal branding being somewhat inconsistent with pursuing a genuinely spiritual life–with what you’ve proposed, your excellent writing and congenial nature force yet another sincere “like” from me.

    Civil disagreement is such a wonderful thing. Hope you don’t object to a heretic following your blog.

    I will register my polite disagreement with your interpretation of family names as being a patriarchal practice in the sense of feminist interpretation (if I’ve correctly understood this). I submit that it is, or at least should ideally be, indicative of love and commitment and identity.

    Matriarchal heritage tends to be much more obvious that patriarchal heritage, and the latter has always had a much greater doubt associated with it historically (e.g., the wretched chastity belt). Parents are such a fundamental part of identity and self, and mothers tend to have natural advantages in contributing to the developing selves of offspring over fathers, especially since the Industrial Age (I believe Warren Farrell has written to this effect).

    I am inclined to interpret the practise of paternal family names as being a natural means to strengthen the father’s contribution to the offspring’s developing self. I know Mom suckled me, so I am her’s. I have Dad’s last name, so I am his.

    We share the same last name, so we are a family. Also part of my identity and self.

    I will confess to not being particularly learned on this topic, which is something I hope to rectify for future writing. Regardless, thanks for your excellent thought-provoking post.


    • Well first, let me say that since you are a guest at this blog, I would like you and others to feel welcome. So, I don’t want to push back on these points disproportionately and may even be far less assertive than I would be, were you not the guest and I the host.

      However, I do not see any conflict or mutual exclusivity between taking charge of one’s identity vis a vis others and a spiritual approach to life. I consider myself quite spiritual, but my aim is to be in charge of how I am interpreted and my actions defined, not against some arbitrary pattern or societal pre- or pro-scription, but as an individual with self-determination and intelligence as well as the integrity to conduct myself in a beneficent fashion. In other words, as much as I am a product of my culture and aware of and respectful of social norms, that does not mean I have to be a slave to them or that I should allow anyone else to evaluate me largely on the basis of those norms.

      That said, I think your responses in general reflect something akin to the old saw, ‘when you have a hammer, everything seems like a nail’. By that I mean, you, based on what has transpired in your life, are particularly attuned to anything that you believe fits into the male/female struggle issue. That is not a pivotal subject for me and it had no part in this post, as far as I am aware.

      When I refer to patrilineage and patronymy, I am using accepted, established social scientific terms. In fact, they especially belong to the science of anthropology. These terms imply no evaluation or negative/positive judgment. They are descriptive. We live in a Western culture that traces genealogy through the male line and we assign names on that basis. It had and has economic and social implications that inhere to the cohesion of the group. The fact of those norms being in place does not mean that they have to continue to constrict our behavior. We are not living in the 10th century, but the 21st.

      I believe in family, the role of males and females in the raising of a healthy child. But, the idea that that male and female have to be mother and father is culturally and ethnocentrically specific. In some other cultures, the mother and her brother raise the children and the father is merely a sperm donor. This is not right or wrong, it is simply custom, longstanding.

      We are free to choose any name we wish without impairing our relationships with any relative. And, we could have adoptive parents, with equal freedom from genetic ties to whom we feel just as much filial loyalty and affection as we would or do to our biological mother and father. So, maternity or paternity are not necessary for a strong familial bond to be established. Behaviors such as nurturing, consistency, constancy, protection are far more determinative of that bond than are genetics or biology.

      Lastly, if we are to look at the strength of genetic predisposing of ties, the fact that only the mother contributes mitochondria is worth considering even from a social scientific vantage point.

      My main idea was not that we reject any parent when we choose our own name, but that as adults (which I define across the board as starting at or around the age of 18) we have the ability and the right to create our own identities and not be unduly constrained merely by what is now largely a vestigial holdover from a time when having a strong male figure to be connected with was essential for survival.

      Put simply, we are free to be you and me, not narrowly defined by someone else’s idea of who we are. You can reinvent yourself and be self-accepting. Otherwise, everyone who is not the ideal, let’s say: 5’11″/5’/7″, Male/Female, Heterosexual, 35 year old, blond, blue eyed, mesomorph would continue to be ridiculed and rejected as an outlier and be marginalized accordingly. That certainly is not on the right side of history in 2013.


      • Beth,

        Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response. I wasn’t trying to imply that you were bereft of spirituality, so apology if I mistakenly gave that impression.

        There are some areas of your response that I might continue to argue against, but I’d need to further consider and refine my ideas. Given the shorter time span of blogging, I think it best that I withdraw from any debate and ponder the issue some more.

        I do thank you for making me feel welcome here, which I do.


        • Well, you are welcomed here and feel free to take time and come back. My response to what you wrote was based on my training as a scientist, so I go where the facts take me. I also tend to trust research done by credible investigators, so most of what I say will be influenced by that tendency. Please do return to this topic any time. Certainly my ideas are evolving, on all things.


  5. Pingback: Marriage, Ink. | Beth Byrnes

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