At the very first Podcamp Boston, CC Chapman and Mitch Joel did a great presentation on Personal Branding that altered the way I approached my web projects. Instead of always staying in the background, I learned how important it was to own your blog and podcast, add your personality into the mix, and give your projects a human face and voice. This is still excellent advice, for businesses or individuals. Without a sense of personality, of humanity to our writing and work, we lose the most compelling aspect of it, and what people want the most- connections and affinity with others. (I’ll save the diatribe on Maslow’s Heirarchy of human needs for another post.)
There’s a small downside to personal branding, though. When some web personalities become really successful, like Robert Scoble and Guy Kawasaki, they become not just a personal brand but a brand unto themselves. They become a product. And people expect different things out of products than they do people.
Products are supposed to be available on demand, whenever we want them. For example, I am in the process of replacing the “twitter van”- my old Toyota Sienna minivan with over 197,000 miles on it, with something new. The old girl is just sad looking at this point, and my husband has declared enough is enough, so I am updating my “personal brand” with a new car. We’ve been shopping for cars for some time, but I was disappointed to find out the brand and model we wanted were sold out of 2009’s so I have to wait for a 2010. Dealers were surprisingly blasé about selling me a car. I would have expected them to be a bit more enthusiastic about the prospect, but only one dealership did any sort of work to really see when the models would be available, see what they could order, and give me a great deal. When I took this offer to another dealership closer to my home to see if hey would match it, they seemed incredulous that any of this was possible. Yet, here I sit, with the VIN number of the car in hand, awaiting its delivery in the next few days. The bottom line in terms of branding is that I expected with this brand that the Company as a whole should be happy that I want a car from them, that they should have them ready for me unless I want something really unusual, just as if I were buying a bottle of ketchup. And as a brand, I expect they should be willing to do at least a little to make sure I don’t go off and decide to get the large purchase elsewhere.
But when people become brands, they can never be exactly like a car or a bottle of ketchup. They can produce great books, like Trust Agents or Six Pixels of Separation, (both written by friends of mine), that act as products or souvenirs of the people and their ideas. But the people themselves don’t scale the same way. They still have lives and families and friends; they need to sleep and eat and have private time. But some of this gets murky once personal branding and actually branding start to merge.
Think about this in terms of celebrity. I think it really started with the Beatles. The band became more than just records and music. They became icons, they became lunchboxes and action figures and now even video games, many years after their initial fame for just being musicians and song writers. Now you see the merchandising of fame and celebrity being as important as what ever someone did to become famous in the first place, but what gets lost in the hype are the people themselves. A quick trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will bring this all into relief, as you see how many people get chewed up by the fame machine, and see the few that have managed to survive it.
We don’t always consider how weird and difficult a childhood someone like Michael Jackson or Lindsay Lohan have had. We don’t think or look at them empathetically, as people. We look at them as side shows, as entertainment, and when they seem to crack up, we say “Well, they asked for it, what did they expect?” On some level, they just did what they did best, acting or signing or writing or whatever. The rest became the business of being a celebrity, which has its privileges and up sides, but has just as many down sides as people take random pot shots at you, or think you have some magic you can lend them, or give them a big break so they can be just like you, or whatever.
Celebrity, the height of personal branding, breeds a certain amount of expectation and neediness in others. We expect our celebrities to be the bottle of ketchup we can get a fix of whenever we need. We expect them to keep on delighting us with every new project and we’re more than happy to express crushing disappointment when our appetites aren’t fed. And the media, professional and amateur, seems only to happy to find something to criticise at every turn. We think “Oh, what a big head they have now that they’re big shots.” Or “Well, you don’t seem to remember that you used to be just like us before you got lucky.” Or “Why should I feel sorry for them? They have it easy.” Or “Well, they’re snobby now- I can’t even seem to talk to them anymore- I guess we aren’t really friends.”
All of this is ridiculous, of course. All that’s happened is that a greater number of people constantly want the personal attention and adoration of the person whose “made it”, and that the person can’t scale like their product can. All this drama is happening on the side of the audience, not from the person on the pedestal, and the person can’t do much other than watch it happen, because the cat is out of the bag, and there’s little hope of getting it back in.
I don’t think there’s any easy answers here. I think part of it is for all of us to realize that personal branding is a great thing, but once you reach the product stage, there are hidden traps along with the benefits. And I think this is meant as a wake up call for all of us who have friends with strong personal brands, to remember that our friends still need the same love and support and attention they always got from us, even if it doesn’t always come back reciprocally- they are trying to scale, but they’re finding themselves trying to be people in a product loving world. And that seems like a busy but pretty lonely place to be.