It’s all about the brand.
This vaguely cynical idea has existed in marketing and advertising forever, punched up over the past five or six years by the whiskey-soaked soliloquies of Don Draper. But what some people don’t necessarily like hearing is that what is true of products is also true of people. The most important thing you have to sell is yourself. So make the pitch a good one.
About a month ago I spent a somewhat contrary night watching a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson and finishing To Kill A Mockingbird, which I hadn’t read since my freshman year of high school. Hunter and Atticus – two very famous men on two very opposite ends of the spectrum, right down to one being a real person whose life reads more like fiction, and one being fictitious in a way that seems completely real.
What matters in the case of both isn’t how they may actually be, but how people perceive them to be. Hunter is an anti-hero, Atticus is a hero. In truth, anti-heroes are usually more interesting. It’s a skill to be able to brand yourself an anti-hero without seemingly doing it at all. On the one hand, your behavior speaks for itself. On the other hand, you’ve got to be good enough at what you do that people are willing to put up with the bullshit. And while plenty of people may like to think of themselves as that good, most of them aren’t.
Conversely, what I love about Atticus is that he makes it interesting to be the good guy. Dependable without being boring, something that isn’t easy to achieve anymore than it’s easy to be the well-loved, drug-addled madman (unless your sole source of opinion comes from creative writing majors who love things that are destructive because it’s the cool thing to do). Atticus is admirable and tough as nails, and remains fascinating without stepping outside the realm of a seemingly realistic character.
So when it comes to branding ourselves, where do we fall? The anti-hero? The hero? Somewhere in between? The thing that makes branding yourself so important is that if you wait too long to do it, other people will do it for you. They won’t publish blog posts about it, but they’ll form their own ideas. They’ll put you in a box of their own design, and you’ll find it very difficult to climb out. People often roll their eyes at the idea of a personal brand, but by merely being present on social media, most people have created a brand already. So why not be intentional about it?
My love affair with Hunter S. Thompson is torrid and unpredictable. Learning about his life is frustrating, reading his work is fascinating, figuring out just how aware he was of the persona he created is maddening. But there’s something addictive about that kind of brand. It’s a brand for artists and creatives who can’t work without at least a little bit of frustration within them. It’s poetic, but not necessarily realistic. It looks good, but it’s destructive. It takes an element of genius that’s far more rare than some may think.
Atticus Finch is a noble goal. To be the same person out in public as you are in private. To be authentic to yourself 100% of the time is almost as unrealistic as trying to catch the anti-hero spark of genius, but if you can do it, you’re a rare breed. And with that comes a deep level of responsibility that can at times feel overwhelmingly suffocating.
Asking yourself what brand you want to sell is essentially the same as asking yourself who you want to be. And make no mistake, you do have a choice. Branding and self-identity are entwined and increasingly inseperable, because it isn’t just literary giants and wild outliers who are branded now, it’s every single person who presents themselves online. We are brands. We tell stories. We create the persona we desire. We make ourselves available in an oversaturated world in the hopes that someone is searching for our product.
So, who are you? What story are you selling? Think carefully.