A disruptive take on (un)-branding

An opening “Heads up!”

This article is intended to do something that is usually best avoided, at least in the context of an article.

Some students of culture describe semiotic frames that define a society’s possibles et pensables: they shape what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable within a society. And it is usually preferable to handle communication so that you aren’t asking people to overhaul their mental frameworks: if you can think far enough outside the box that you find possibles et pensables the sort of thing that can be easily brought into question, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it is usually best kept under wraps, and usually best kept in a back pocket.

This piece is designed to delve into deeper work and not be as quickly digested as other fare. It’s harder to process than an article intended to persuade you between two options that we both already understand well enough. I tried to think about how to make my point while dodging working on what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable, and I don’t see how to eliminate that work from my point. I want to revise what is seen as possible and what is thinkable about branding today.

Where did branding come from anyway?

To the best of my knowledge, and to only present the beginning and end of a story, branding was once what happened when cattle owners would use a hot iron symbol to brand an identifying mark on cattle they owned, to be able to claim whose cattle they were if there were any question. There is a fairly close equivalent to this in the modern business world, but the equivalent isn’t really “how a company communicates itself and its offering to the outside world.” It’s really much more the unsexy practice of attaching metal tags to valuable company equipment that say, “This is property of XYZ corporation, serial number 12345.” And while there may be good reasons for engaging in this part of due diligence, it is hardly that interesting or deep.

Not so with real branding in today’s business world, not by any stretch. As I have prepared and thought about the question, I’m not sure I can think of an equally significant concept that I have met. To pick two examples from my own field in information technology, Agile development and open source software may be significant concepts, but I do not see the same niches and layers. There is some theory about open source software as such, and people may complain that a company that releases software under an open source license but “drops patches [external contributions] on the floor” isn’t really walking the walk, but in my experience the theory that most open source software developers are interested are the computer science and software engineering issues concerning their tools and pet projects, and you simply don’t have subspecialized high value consultants on the theory and ideology of open source. But branding is in fact a very big concept, and you do have high-value consultants actively engaged for their expertise in some specialization or subspecialization somewhere under the “branding” umbrella.

And with this significance comes something else, maybe something less attractive: however useful or prominent it may be, it is far from a worldwide universal, and I am not aware of any Great Teachers who have thought in terms of branding. Not only that, but Socrates might very well have lived to a ripe old age, instead of being condemned to death, if he had lived a brand that would have been socially acceptable to the citizens of his city. (The entire story of his gadfly’s teaching and life is an example of how to avoid branding yourself if you want to succeed and live.) Discussion of branding may be anachronous if applied to Socrates, but the principle justifies such an intrusion.

Two seismic shifts, one after another

In the popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that a shift had taken place in wisdom literature: that is, what people have written about how to succeed as a person; one definition offered for such wisdom is, “skill for living.” Whenever the text was written, the author had apparently read a great deal of wisdom literature over time and made a cardinally important distinction between a character ethic and a personality ethic. Up until about World War II, the basic framing assumption in wisdom literature in the U.S. is that success is success arising from character. One needs to be diligent, and humble, and merciful to others, and so on. In short, we need virtuous living to get ahead. These virtues may include practices: Ben Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned” is an exhortation to the virtue of thrift. But success is acquired through growing as a person, by growing in virtue.

The subsequent sub-par personality ethic was much more superficial; it offered tips and tricks to get ahead, while avoiding anything calling for real internal transformation. And while there are definitely mere practices that we could do better (I could smile more), most of my problems aren’t on the level of personality, but where I need to do more inner work. The shift Covey documents is a seismic shift, and it is difficult to overstate its significance. Something like the character ethic and the personality ethic exist at least to some extent side-by-side in information technology: there are people who have been educated in computer science and software engineering, and who maintain a lifelong curiosity towards those areas as well as working their way through fads and individual tools, and there are educational programs that just teach buzzwords and individual tools with only incidental coverage of deeper issues in theory. A manager who has dealt with both kinds of programmers will know the difference well.

I would posit, or rather point out, that there has been a second shift after a shift from a character ethic to a personality ethic: a shift from a personality ethic to a (personal) brand ethic. There are books I’ve read that offer an induction into a brand ethic in ways that someone who’s not already an insider will understand: but I don’t remember anything I’ve read treating as a live question whether we need a brand ethic or a personality ethic, or whether we need a brand ethic or a character ethic. Personality has a place: it has a place because a personal brand on Twitter that incorporates some amount of what feels like personality is a stronger brand than one that is one-dimensional. The place for personality is neither more nor less than what the brand ethic calls for. And that’s odd.

But you, C.J.S. Hayward, have a brand!

In one sense, at least some people will say that I have a brand, and one that I have consciously contributed to. This blog’s background, for instance, is one touch out of many things that provide a sense of brand. Old-fashioned, exaggeratedly recognizable links could be called another.  None the less, I meet the concept of a personal brand with some degree of puzzlement. I’ve written dialogues before, but I’m drawing a blank at how to flesh out a dialogue with pretty much any of the world’s great teachers about marketing-style branding as a paradigm for how to relate to others. I do not find branding in the Sermon on the Mount, I have difficulty envisioning what Sun Tzu or other sages would say, and for that matter I do not think that Muhammad would have understood the concept, and if he had understood it, would find it to be extremely offensive: much as democracy’s foundational attitude that you have a say in things is profoundly un-Islamic (when George Bush was pushing to endow Iraq with democracy, my comment to friends was, “I wish that Bush would herald a goal that would be less offensive to Muslims, like a hambone in every pot.”).

It is possible for brands to be layered. It is possible for brands to have depth. It is possible for brands to present a tip of an iceberg with lots of room to dig. However, I would pick as a particularly bad piece on personal branding a book chapter which advised the reader to pick three positive adjectives on the list, and simply decide, “These will be my brand.” And this isn’t just one book. When a company has announced that XYZ represent its values, it gives the impression of something arbitrarily chosen and tacked on, something plastic, something that would really make Michael Polanyi squirm.

Our close contemporary Michael Polanyi (Wikipedia), to pick one of the achievements he is best known for, argued essentially that knowledge is not something separate from people. When people are initiated into a tradition of expert practice, there is knowledge tacitly held by those who are already insiders in the culture of expert practics, and this knowledge is tacitly transmitted to people who are being trained to become insiders, without ever being held or passing consciously to those in either role. He comments that swimming coaches and swimmers alike breathe differently from non-swimmers in that they expand their lungs to hold more air when they breathe in, and they keep more air in their lungs when they breathe out, using their lungs this way for added buoyancy. Other explanations may be available in this case, but, the broader picture is one that uses tacit knowledge, or to take the deliberately chosen title of his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge, and recognize that we have many layers beyond the surface. And I’m trying to imagine Polanyi reading a text telling him to pick three adjectives that should identify him as his personal brand. I see him squirming, much like the Far Side cartoon entitled, “Baryshnikov’s ultimate nightmare” that shows a square dance caller saying, “Swing your partner ’round and ’round, now promenade left and don’t fall down…

However, the concern I raise, which may or may not be terribly distinct from Polanyi, isn’t just that a personal brand is shallow, or at least has been shallow in every book I’ve read telling me I need a personal brand. It’s also designed as artificial and plastic, not real and alive. It may have an alive motif, like the handmade-looking lettering and art in cookie-cutter Starbucks locations. But it is what Neal Stevenson described in In the Beginning was the Command Line, in describing a mediated and vicarious experience waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland:

The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the  gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll amid stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient  structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar. The rust is painted on, of course, and protected from real rust by a  plastic clear-coat, but you can’t tell unless you get down on your knees.

And on this point I’d like to mention a point from The Cost of Discipleship. I don’t know now whether I’d agree with the suggestion Bonhoeffer makes, but he highlights that the Sermon on the Mount says both Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven, and also that we are to conceal our good deeds: But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. Asking how these two incongruous commands fit together, Bonhoeffer says that we should do good deeds but hide them from ourselves, that we should reach a state of doing goodness that we do it without being aware of it. Now whether that should exactly be believed in reference to the Gospel, I don’t know. But something like that is true of some secular skill. I remember a conversation with a Unix professional who said that in a job interview he had claimed to be a Unix wizard because that was required in that social situation, but it would have been “an outright lie” for him to make that claim among his peers. I assure you he was very competent. But his competency had reached a level where (among other things) he knew how little he knew and how much more there was to know, and like almost any good Unix wizard, he found calling himself a Unix wizard to feel like an outright lie. When I was asked in high school as the school’s student Unix system administrator, I hesitated, and I was both surprised and delighted when a friend said “Yes” for me; I would have been making an outright lie (in my mind) to make that claim. Nor is this a specific local feature of Unix wizardry. That is just an example close to my experience, and it seems that nobody considers themselves what in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine terms would be called Morlocks. There is a kind of “reverse hypocrisy” here. A Morlock, to expert practitioners, is someone else at a higher level of skill. (Linus Torvalds has voiced confusion about why others consider him technical.)

The general rule is that the most confident in their performance are usually the most-overconfident, and the most competent are actually less confident; unlike the over-confident, they are guided by a sharply tuned inner self-criticism, the same self-criticism that in any competent practice of classical music means that musicians hear their performance mistakes more quickly than even the most discerning audience members. What is going on here is the same thing as was told to me as a child, which I’ll leave in politically incorrect terms:

An Indian and a white man were standing on a beach, and the white man drew a small circle and said, “This is what the Indian knows.” Then he drew a larger circle around it and said, “This is what the white man knows.” Then the Indian drew a huge circle encompassing both other circles and said, “This is what neither the Indian nor the white man knows.”

And this quality, of seeing a huge encompassing circle of things that none of us know, is foundational to being a genuine expert almost anywhere. Hence a high school biology text compares the discipline of biology to trying to discern the characters, plot, and themes of a long and intricately complex movie, when all you have is half a dozen stills in varying conditions. Hence one biology teacher I remember fondly saying very emphatically that we don’t know what’s going on: all that biologists know now is only a tiny slice of the truth.

So what does this all mean for branding? It means a couple of things, and perhaps it may be good to have three positive adjectives you seek to represent. But one thing it means is that people are often not aware of their good (and bad) properties, or at least not all of them. This might be true morally, but it is also true in terms of professional competence. I remember going to a presentation on getting a government job and the “stupid questionnaire” (the presenter’s preferred term) where you were asked to rate yourself from 1 up to 5 on different areas of competency. Now coming from a business background where I had been asked to rate myself 1 to 10 in competency and advised the higher self-rating I gave, the harder test questions would be asked of me, thought of rating myself mostly 3’s with a couple of 4’s on the ones I was strongest, the presenter made crystal-clear that that was not going to work. The only acceptable answer was a 5, or maybe you could get away with one or possibly two self-ratings of 4. And that’s not selecting for competency. It is selecting for overconfidence, and for gaming the system. For someone who is genuinely competent, and is not aware of how and why to game the system here, giving a sincere and well-thought-out self-evaluation is a recipe for elimination even if that employee’s past five supervisors would mark the person as a clear 5 across the board.

The title I’ve been mulling over, The Twitter Job Search Guide, is part of the cohort of books where branding is bedrock. It also suggests that Twitter competencies expand outside of Twitter, so that a cover letter is composed of a few tweets and a resume is composed of a few more tweets. Now that’s an idea I’d be cautious about dismissing; communicating value concisely is a valuable skill, and in some sense Twitter might be seen as a Toastmasters of written communication. Toastmasters’ Competent Communicator course trains people with five to seven minute speeches addressing core competencies in speaking (plus a couple of other details), and the thought is not exactly that participants will only need to give speeches of that length, but rather to lay a foundation that is explicitly intended to be adaptable to longer or shorter speeches. And Twitter is not always 140 characters of nothing; there are profound contributions made, and it is a valuable skill, and one quite often present among the most competent gifted, to make a significant point clearly and concisely. For a business world that just wants the time, not the whole process of a watch being built, it may be good discipline and skill to be able to write a six tweet cover letter and twelve tweet resume. But I am concerned when this all falls under the aegis of branding. And in The Twitter Job Search Guide, the tweets for a cover letter and resume all fall under the heading of communicating a brand. Though there is (for instance) discussion of what constitutes a good ratio between professional and personal tweets, I’ve read two thirds of the text and I haven’t yet seen advice to tweet or communicate something that does not fall under the aegis of your personal brand. The beginning, middle, and end of what you are advised to communicate is brand. There is no other way to relate to others, it seems, and this is a plastic form of life.

Now before going further, there is one point I would like to clarify about boundaries (a topic that I believe is ill-framed, but that is not my interest here). One professor, addressing graduate students who were or probably would be teaching assistants, talked about “being the same on the outside and on the inside.” She went on very directly to state that this did not mean “letting it all hang out”; that was precisely what it was not. Normal social interactions embody both what is anthropologically called “positive politeness” and “negative politeness”, and on this point I would recall another professor talking about appropriate communication in crossing cultures. He gave some examples of positive politeness, things like saying “Hello!” to a friend (the sort of examples of politeness that jump to mind). Then he said that when strangers approach each other and look down at the sidewalk when they’re a few meters apart, that’s politeness. It is a refusal to wantonly intrude; it says, “You have not invited me in and I will not presume where I am not invited and I do not belong.” And that is politeness. He mentioned, to drive the point a little bit further, that he had one good friend he visited, and though he did not do so at this visit, he would have thought nothing of opening his friend’s refrigerator and helping himself to anything inside. The principle of negative politeness is that you do not do things without invitation; one may surmise that some point along the way the professor’s friend gave one or several invitations to rummage through the fridge without asking specific permission, and I would be almost certain that the professor had not asked permission to arbitrarily rummage his friend’s fridge; he had presumably been given that permission as the friendship developed. And outside of a few exceptions like this, it is a significant violation of negative politeness to rummage through someone’s fridge without asking.

Socially appropriate relations, or boundaries, or negative politeness, or whatever you want to call it, applies; that can and should mediate our interactions, and brands that have any sense to them will stay within these boundaries. However, while I believe we need the mediation of negative (and positive) politeness, there is something plastic about the mediation of brands. It’s good not to give TMI, but a personal brand is neither the only nor the best way to communicate within positive and negative politeness that respects boundaries.

I’m not sure this addresses all of branding; I’d expect that someone who knew branding well could point to currents within branding that survive this critique. I’ve picked examples that struck me as silly; I haven’t discussed the silliness I see about corporations picking three identifying values, and in much more mainstream and professional venues than a book in a career center offering a list of positive adjectives and an invitation to pick three as defining your personal brand. But for what I’d like to see instead, I don’t have a big program to offer, just appropriate social interaction: social interaction that is appropriate to degree of relationships and the roles of the participants. Others have written The Clue Train Manifesto; I have not examined that manifesto in depth but its opening words about a human voice suggest I’m not the only person, nor the first person, concerned with human communication.

My personal unbrand

I wanted to give a bit on my personal brand, or rather unbrand, or, if you prefer, ersatz brand. You’re welcome to say, if you like, that it is in fact just a personal brand, only a personal brand that embodies at least one classic and cardinal mistake. Or at least two mistakes, apart from the easily digested simplicity of an effective brand, the bulk of my effort is growing in terms of both who I am as a person, and how I can achieve deeper competence. Some attention is given to appearance, but a brand works primarily on image management. Skills one acquires, for instance, are there because of their usefulness to a branded image. But let’s return to the other basic attribute in what makes sense in a brand.

One of the parameters that is desired in a brand is doing one thing well, simplicity. There may be contours to the brand’s landscape, but if you are a jack of all trades you are assumed to be a master of none. One part of a brand’s job description, personal or otherwise, is to present a simple core, perhaps one core feature that offers a value proposition with one core benefit. Or, perhaps, there are a few pieces working together, but if you can’t write it on the back of a business card, you have failed. And in fact this is not restricted to branding. Good to Great talks about good companies that became great companies having and/or discovering a core “hedgehog concept” that they keep returning to, and while such a general title on business has to assume marketing and with it branding as part of the picture, I do not recall the emphatic “hedgehog concept” discussion portraying it as a particular issue for marketing and branding. In Good to Great, the “hedgehog concept” defines a one-trick pony that fundamentally outperforms Renaissance man opponents.

In my own case, what I offer is a profoundly gifted portfolio of interconnected skills. Want to know what reading Latin and Greek has to do with the business world? At a competitive local exchange carrier, we were working with an upstream provider who did business with us because they were required to by law, even though they didn’t want to, because they saw us as cream-skimmers. Nobody else in my group could make sense of their opaque, bureaucratic communication. I could, and there wasn’t much of a hiccup when my boss, with my consent, added communication with that provider to my responsibilities. I don’t know if any of my bosses have cared that I enjoy writing, but several have cared that I could create and edit clear and high-value documents. I don’t know whether any of my bosses have particularly cared that I’ve received rankings as high as 7th in the nation in math contests, but they do care when I apply that to solo programming that hits the ball out of the park. In the positions I’m focusing on now in User Experience, I don’t really expect my prospective bosses to care that I have postgraduate coursework in essentially all major User Experience disciplines: anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, with a distinctive work addressing something at the core of User Experience competency. However, once I am hired and running usability tests, I expect they’ll care how much that background lets me draw out of a test.

And, to dig a bit deeper, the achievements I value are not because of intelligence, but communication. I’ve calmly spoken to a bawling four-year-old with an extremely painful blood blister under her thumbnail, until she she had stopped completely. I’ve been asked why I know how to relate to Ukrainians. I’ve been told, “You are like a white American and like a black African, and closer than an African brother.” I’ve communicated across large gaps with remarkable success.

And, to give one last detail, I’ve had many projects and there is a common thread running through virtually all the ones I’ve liked most: I’ve reduced user pain, or made something a joy to work with. To pick one example from when I had just started a new job, I was given a four-word spec before my boss left for his vacation: “Get [name of employee] off overtime.” The employee was a revenue assurance auditor who was trying to keep on top of a provider who was slipping us inappropriate charges, a responsibility that had him on heavy overtime in a company which normally stuck with a 40 hour workweek. And I winced when I saw what he was doing. I respected him and his actions as a team player, but he was cutting a steak with a screwdriver because that was the only game in town, and I wanted to give a razor-sharp knife, designed for him personally. When he said he was perfectly willing to do drudge work, my unspoken response was, “I appreciate and respect that you’re willing to do drudge work. I still want to get it off your plate.” And I drew on Edward Tufte’s principles and made a carefully chosen greyscale (instead of numbers) system that cut his involvement down to 40 hours a week, then further down so only part of his time was spent keeping on top of this responsibilities, and he was in a position to engage other responsibilities that were out of the question earlier. At a certain point into the process, I told him, “The only reason I ever want you to do us the old tools is because you want to,” and he very quickly answered, “I don’t want to!” In other words, the new tool completely superseded prior methods, which is a rarity. I don’t remember exactly how far along we were when my boss returned from vacation, but the employee told me he was raving to my boss, and in that whole position my boss never really showed much inclination to micro-manage me. (He described me as “nearly self-managing.”)

These and other things could be a basis for a number of personal brands that I could treat as my working contract with the professional world. However, it is my preference not to have my dealings mediated by a constructed personal brand. I’d like to give my friends and employers alike the real “me”, and while I will act differently with friends, family, church, and an employer, I don’t want people dealing with an artificially infused personal brand. I want them to deal with me. And while one friend explained that a fellow graduate student in psychology who dealt in measuring psychological traits answered a questionnaire for a job application, she understood exactly how the test worked, answered like the personality profile that the company wanted, and just made sure to act like the profile they wanted while she was at work. I don’t want to judge, but I find something very sad about the story. And it has everything to do with working with a personal brand.

This is not as crystalline as a normal brand. That’s intended.

Back to a character ethic…

Doxology

God the Game Changer

God the Spiritual Father

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, ascesis