Monday, December 22, 2008

Have you started your brand yet?

Much earlier this year, I bought a bag of M&Ms. My excuse was that these were special M&Ms, a tie-in with the Indiana Jones movie. (Remember that? A big deal, and a so-so movie, and totally over by now because the hype has stopped and the movie isn’t good enough to generate further interest.) I keep the empty bag in a kitchen drawer where I can see it occasionally. To remind myself that I bought the ad, not the product, and that I got caught by the hype.

Eating M&Ms is pretty much a complete waste. Great candy if you like sugar and are about eight years old. But I like dark chocolate, and the chocolate content in M&Ms is low. I figured this out a long time ago. So what does that M&M bag signify? That we can all be lured into buying something whose value is negligible, simply because of its tie-in. If I really care about M&Ms, if I want to associate myself deeply with them, then I can buy all kinds of alternative products wrapped around some candy. I can litter my house with M&M seasonal packages and useless containers, and other tie-ins, and more. Or if it’s Harrison Ford I want to identify with, I can buy a poster of him and put it where I’ll see it every day. This is a complete waste of my time and money, though. I don’t know Ford and I never will and he isn’t important or even real in my life. When we buy the M&Ms or the licensed product that makes the M&Ms attractive, we are affiliating ourselves, identifying ourselves, with a commercial entity that we see as attractive and strong. Perhaps unlike ourselves.

The reason to not do this is that we each need to create our own brand. The Internet allows us to create new brands every day via new online names, and then try them out on various sites. If we get tired of our brand, we can abandon it with no one the wiser except Yahoo or Google. Not that they actually care if ViolinGenius and MashupMaven are identities generated from the same computer.

But why our own brand, instead of buying into and/or wearing the symbol of someone else’s? This is a good question, because historically, many people have been happy to draw their identities from their service to someone else’s brand. The lackeys of the nobility wore their masters’ crests, just as today, a factory worker might wear a company uniform. But this only works if it’s a two-way street. The serfs were legally tied to the land of their baron and he in turn had legal responsibilities to them. Today in America, we can no longer pretend to ourselves that we will hold any job for a decade, let alone even five years. Given that, we can’t afford to put our identities into some company’s hands. They’re going to dump us and we’ll feel all empty and miserable because we lost our brand affiliation. So we have to create and maintain our own identities.

I admit this is scary. The best example is the difference between a secretary versus any other employee. Both have a boss. But the secretary is shielded by the boss directly, is answerable only to that boss, and can assume the mantle of the boss’s power to enforce her or his needs in the office. The office worker is one of a pool of workers who are supervised by a boss, but who cannot act for or in place of the boss, and who is not shielded by the boss directly. The office worker acts on his or her own. The secretary does not.

What we are seeing more and more today in our employment milieu is the absolute need for each worker to act primarily in her or his own interests by becoming a self-directed sole proprietor of her or his own business: A brand. If the employee doesn’t pay attention to what is good for her or him, then the employee gets caught by layoffs and downsizings. If she or he has created a brand and invested in it, the employee is already seeking another job before the catastrophe occurs. Or has forged the office affiliations to keep being seen as a value to the changing company and survive to fight another day. Being nimble and agile is very important to continuous employment today. Trying to meld with a company’s brand, and become a company man or woman, is a mistake.

When it comes down to dollars and cents, so is buying a branded product unless it fits our own brand’s goals. Thus, it’s okay for me to buy the M&Ms for an upcoming party, because they are finger food that doesn’t cause a mess, and people like them. But it’s not okay for me to buy M&M souvenirs such as dolls holding the M&M logo, because I don’t own M&M, nor do I work for M&M. Sure, maybe I root for the company.

And that leads us into the area of expenditures on sports memorabilia. A bunch of guys (or gals) is paid to play games for us. We choose which teams we like, and then we show our loyalty to them by buying tickets to watch them and licensed products as souvenirs. It’s a phenomenon that has been studied a lot so there’s no need for me to go into the psychology of it. But quite obviously, it’s another instance of buying into somebody else’s brand.

But what is left at the end of the day, as the team advances to the Superbowl or the old M&Ms holiday packages are discounted on the store shelves? The memory of someone else’s athletic achievement and an empty bag from the M&Ms. No progress made towards creating our own brands, and forging ahead to our own better future.

We need to think of ourselves first. Of what will help our brands, our lives, first. Back in high school, we were briefly encouraged to think strategically when it came to choosing a college. We weighed each school’s academic and social strengths. We asked ourselves if we were personally suited to certain schools. But after college, the choice did not appear to be in our hands anymore. It was all up to the employer to pick us. This is not true.

Do you want to work for a specific company? What are you doing to prove it to the company? Are you frequently contacting hiring managers, HR managers, or even clients of the company? Have you been carefully following the company in the financial press (which includes the Internet) so you know where the company is heading and what are its obstacles and strengths? Have you made an effort to train in the specialties that this particular company values? If you haven’t, then not only are you not branding yourself, but you aren’t paying attention to the company’s brand. When you get an employment interview, you want to come across as knowledgeable about the company, and knowledgeable about your own potential value to the company. And you don’t want to be vague. You want to be specific.

This requires work. But the fact is that it is easier to hire someone who knows all about a company than someone who knows nothing. Training takes less time. Integrating with the other employees and getting up to speed takes less time. That’s why a would-be Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader has an advantage over the other contenders if she takes dance lessons before trying out, if she makes sure her BMI is correct for the skimpy uniform, and if she also educates herself about the football team. Her goal is to take on the Dallas brand. It helps to know what that is, in detail.

But I don’t want you to do that without previously deciding what your own brand is, and how working for this other brand will help your brand. Don’t just buy a package of special M&Ms, or a Redskins hat. Know what that brand is, and most of all, what you will get if you associate yourself with it. Maybe for some people, wearing a Yankee cap is like being on the team, and that’s good enough. But recognize you are drawing your identity from something outside yourself, and thus you risk being hurt by situations in which you play no direct role. It’s a substitute for real life. And meanwhile, real life is happening to all of us, willy-nilly, and we need to find our brand and burnish it and make plans for our future. Not for the future of M&Ms.

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