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 going 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 character. 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.
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.