I am a Brand (But I’m Not)

This column originally ran in August 2010. That photo was taken almost two years after the column was published. So … for what that’s worth. 🙂

In early June, Maureen Johnson posted what she called a Manifesto. [One that has, apparently, disappeared.] Rather than regurgitate all the details, I’ll let you read it for yourself.

I’ll give you a few minutes. humming to myself So, finished?

Just in case you didn’t read the whole thing, it’s an amusing look at how some people simply fail as marketers. Johnson ascribed a lot of this failure to people referring to themselves as “brands.”

She used, as an example, a woman who was on a panel with her. (A panel of social media “experts” — I think Johnson would approve my use of quotation marks.) This woman was, to put it bluntly, simply obnoxious. She hogged the microphone and stated repeatedly that she was a brand.

After this experience, Johnson developed her Manifesto. It goes something like this:

“The internet is made of people. People matter. This includes you. Stop trying to sell everything about yourself to everyone. Don’t just hammer away and repeat and talk at people-talk TO people. It’s organic. Make stuff for the internet that matters to you, even if it seems stupid. Do it because it’s good and feels important. Put up more cat pictures. Make more songs. Show your doodles. Give things away and take things that are free. Look at what other people are doing, not to compete, imitate, or compare . . . but because you enjoy looking at the things other people make. Don’t shove yourself into that tiny, airless box called a brand-tiny, airless boxes are for trinkets and dead people.”

Okay, so Johnson got a load of comments (essentially, all variations on “Attagirl!”) and, yes, the post was funny and refreshing. No one wants to be thought of as simply a brand. Human beings aren’t boxes of cereal or this year’s model car.

Having said that, I couldn’t help but notice that the post completely confused two separate issues.

First, there’s the matter of branding. Then, there’s the matter of how you market. They are, in fact, two different things.

Let’s tackle the subject of marketing first. On that subject, it’s completely clear that simply going around telling everyone how great you (or your products) are isn’t an effective way to sell anything. This principal is nothing new. While the Internet (which, by the way, should be spelled with a capital “I”) is allowing more of the bad type of marketing to reach us on a daily basis, that doesn’t mean self-aggrandizement has ever been considered a good way to make sales.

If you look at any marketing primer, it will advise you to listen to what people want, instead of yakking about yourself all the time.

And when you do convey a message to potential customers, it’s also Marketing 101 to tell them what value your product offers. In the case of fiction authors, it involves answering questions like: Why is your book special? What will readers enjoy about it? What makes it different and interesting?

If you’ve been listening (I repeat, listening) for what your readers want, you should be able to answer these questions.

So, given that basic advice, how wise was it for that woman to keep grabbing the mic and dominating the conversation? I’d say it was pretty dumb from anyone’s point of view.

This was true long before the Internet existed. Unfortunately, the Internet has given people like this a much bigger platform and a bigger mic to shout into.

Essentially, nothing’s changed except the capability of the obnoxious to spread their messages (constantly!), in a virtual and often automated way.

Okay, moving to the second issue — branding. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a brand in several ways. One definition is “a class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer.” Another is “a characteristic or distinctive kind” as in “a lively brand of theater.”

Now, it’s quite clear we don’t fall into the first camp. We’re not products of any firm or manufacturer (our parents presumably qualify as neither). However, if you produce a product, it most likely has something characteristic or distinctive about it.

Again, let’s apply this to fiction authors. If you write fiction, it almost goes without saying that it should have a distinctive voice. The best writing reflects the author’s unique way of expressing things. Writing knock-offs of other people’s work is a losing proposition.

Point is that the thing that makes my work distinct from, say, John Grisham’s is what constitutes my brand of writing.

My own special voice goes into my writing. In that way, I am (in fact) my brand.

Having recognized that, it doesn’t mean I have to shout about it or constantly post about my brand or beg you to buy my book all the time. I also know that even if my books have a brand and even if my name (essentially) tells readers what kind of book they can expect from me, that doesn’t mean I’m not a person, too.

At least one of the commenters (identified as Taylor Trask) made a similar point. To wit:

“I love your writing style, but think you have a very singular idea of what a brand is. Unfortunately, this woman at the panel didn’t help matters.

“Brands CAN be big and unwieldy and cover a wide range of stuff. Just look at Virgin. Or Neil Gaiman. I think what a brand really is, fundamentally is the expectation your fans/friends/consumers have about you. That expectation can be as flexible or as inflexible as you’d like, but I would still say you as an author have it.”

Thank you, Taylor Trask. I couldn’t have said it better.

Originally published at http://randomandsundrythings.wordpress.com on December 3, 2021.

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New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including the Sam McRae Mystery series. Screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. My website: www.debbimack.com.

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