The Branding Iron

Are you as tired as The Curmudgeon is of hearing businesses and even individuals being referred to as “brands”? Do you share his belief that this is marketing overkill and business school jargon taken to an extreme?

We’re all familiar with the concept of brands. We’ve always used different “brands” of products. Some of us, for example, brush our teeth with Crest toothpaste; others with Colgate, others with Gleem, others with Aquafresh, some with Sensodyne, the crunchy granolas among us with Tom’s of Maine, and others with others. They’re all brands – brands of toothpaste.

Nowadays, though, everything is about a brand. Companies, we’re now incessantly told, have brands, communities have brands, even people have brands. It’s gone much too far, and The Curmudgeon has taken it upon himself to collect a few examples of this silliness.

In a Philadelphia Inquirer about whether people should include photos on their LinkedIn page, the reporter wrote that “Caldwell says start with something as simple as using a professional picture in which you are smiling. Too often, people think they need to use pictures that make them look serious. But employees want to see an image that reflects personal brands and values.” Really? Ordinary people have brands? Really?

Even fictitious people can apparently have brands, as noted in an article about actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her cable television program Veep: “Veep, HBO’s wickedly delicious comedy about a vice president vainly trying to advance her brand…”

Oh, so that’s what the show’s about: the character advancing her brand!

Cory Booker was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey before he was elected to the Senate. While Booker never did a great deal to help Newark – sorry, Booker fans, but not being corrupt in public office, while novel for Newark, is not an achievement – he quickly became become a darling of the press. How? The Philadelphia Inquirer asked a New Jersey state senator that very question. “In many respects, I both admire him and am jealous of him,” Lesniak said of Booker. “That’s life. … Cory went out and he did this and he established his brand.

But apparently you don’t need to be a celebrity, or even a fictitious character, to have a brand, or so suggests a headhunter, er, “human capital consultant,” in the July/August 2013 edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. When asked about how recruiting has changed in the digital age, the headhunter explained that “The level of data on candidates is significantly greater than even a few years ago. This can be invaluable if candidates want to promote their personal brand.”

Their personal brand! As opposed to someone else’s brand! So you, too, can become a brand – you’re Wheaties, you’re Green Giant, you’re…you’re…you’re Kotex!

In a rather insipid Philadelphia Business Journal article about dressing for success – The Curmudgeon is confident that any article that needs to advise people not to wear bunny slippers to work can safely be labeled insipid – the writer, identified as a “career expert,” poses a question to someone she’s advising: “What do you want your brand to be?”

The Curmudgeon’s not the only one to mock the whole brand concept. In the book This Town, about behind-the-scenes life in Washington, D.C., writer Mark Leibovich described a scene at the funeral of Tim Russert, where the Washington elite are gathered not so much to mourn Russert’s death as to see and be seen – and to be seen because they’ve been summoned to the invitation-only funeral.

“Punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling,” Leibovich writes, “accompanied by a mad dash of ‘self-branding,’ to borrow a term that had now fully infested the city: everyone now hell-bent on branding themselves in the marketplace, like Cheetos (Russert was the local Coca-Cola). They gather, all the brands, at these self-reverential festivals.”

Drexel University, trying to assert itself in the shadow of its better-known Philadelphia neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, erected an enormous billboard announcing its presence along a major city highway. Why? “It’s a fun way to create brand awareness,” gushed a Drexel spokeswoman, according to Philadelphia magazine.

Yes – very fun. Billboards are always fun, aren’t they?

ESPN spent more than a year working with PBS on a documentary to air on PBS’s Frontline series about brain injuries and NFL players. When ESPN executives saw a trailer for the documentary, however, they decided it was too sensational and withdrew ESPN’s name from the partnership.

It was brand protection time. First, the NFL – ESPN’s business partner – demanded that ESPN “protect the NFL brand,” the ESPN ombudsman (yes, ESPN has an ombudsman) wrote on the ESPN web site. Next, it was ESPN’s turn to protect itself: ESPN’s president decided to “remove the brand because we did not control the content.”

Back we go to the Philadelphia Business Journal and, in this case, an interview with a consultant who helps companies develop brands for themselves and their products. Said consultant, however, gets a bit carried away with himself, and when asked, “When you meet someone, what is the first thing you notice about them?” he replies, “I often see how radiant or not their personality is, along with their personal brand.”

Yes, their personal brand – like maybe a logo in the middle of their forehead? Or maybe a brand burned onto their hindquarters, like in the cattle industry? The title of the article was “CEO: I really dislike being boring,” but apparently, that hasn’t stopped this CEO from being a colossal boor. Or bore. Maybe both.

Apparently, even political parties have, or are, brands. In a rather silly piece that attempts to make the case for Republicans having inflicted terrible, terrible damage to themselves through the already-forgotten fall shutdown of the federal government – did you even notice that shutdown? – American Prospect magazine big-mouth Robert Kuttner wrote in the magazine’s November/December issue that “Based on the cost to the Republican brand and the pressure from corporate elites…”

So now Republicans aren’t a party anymore; they’re a brand. Congratulations, Republicans!

The cable network CNN is known for its news coverage and struggles to attract viewers when there are no sensational stories to cover. It has diversified its series offerings, so it was reassuring – or was it? – that the company president, Jeff Zucker, told USA Today that “CNN is not and never will abandon our first and fundamental brand equity, which is news and breaking news.”

Not only brand, but brand equity!

We all know Jon Gosselin, the beleaguered half of the “Jon and Kate” of Jon and Kate Plus Eight fame. Jon’s fall from fame has been hard, but at least he’s got one thing still going for him: his brand.

Yes, his brand.

Jon told a Philadelphia magazine reporter, “I started to think about my brand,” and then he went on to explain his work as the host at an obscure suburban restaurant by noting that “How can you get people in the door? It’s not the entertainment industry, but it’s the food industry. Cross-brand marketing right there.”

Demonstrating ample room in his mouth despite the presence of his foot, Jon continued that “The main thing the tabloids did was separate me from my brand. My brand was Jon & Kate Plus 8. Now that I’m divorced? My new brand, because of the tabloids, is Jon Gosselin.”

So there.

Everyone knows Kobe Bryant, the basketball player.   Most of us remember the inconvenient little problem he had in Colorado, when he was arrested for sexual assault. So when those charges were settled and life went on, what did Bryant worry about? His marriage? The embarrassment his parents felt? His reputation? Here’s how he explained it in a New Yorker article:

“So I’m sitting there thinking, what am I going to do now? My vision was to build a brand and do all these things.”

Staying momentarily in the world of sports, here’s an headline: “Canucks fire GM Gillis to save brand.” (Note: The Canucks are a professional hockey team and not, in this case, a derogatory way of referring to the people of an entire nation.) The Curmudgeon has to confess: even though he’s a pretty big hockey fan he has no idea whatsoever what this meant.

The NAACP has been around for 105 years. The Curmudgeon has always thought of it as a cause, but apparently not everyone sees it in such narrow terms. Currently in Philadelphia, there’s a dispute over how some money donated to the local NAACP was used, and the national office of the NAACP had to step in and try to restore order by suspending the people involved while it conducted an inquiry into how the money was spent. Among those suspended was the chapter’s president, a man who’s been a very high profile figure in Philadelphia for nearly thirty years. His reaction? He said he had been “careful” about publicly discussing the dispute “out of concern for the image and brand of the NAACP.”

That’s right: he was concerned about the brand. Not the cause. The brand.

The broadcaster Robin Roberts seems to be America’s darling: from college basketball star to ESPN sportscaster to co-host of ABC’s Good Morning America, her brave fight against cancer has endeared her to viewers and made her an inspiration to many. The New York Times, though, has a much more crass way of describing Roberts’s medical ordeal, noting that it “…boosted her brand, making her even more relatable, more sympathetic.”

Somehow, The Curmudgeon suspects that Ms. Roberts would just as soon not have undertaken this particular branding journey.

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  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On June 26, 2014 at 8:18 am

    The Curmudgeon once again captures the insanity of humans searching to add meaning to their lives, especially work lives. It strikes me that the most important jobs don’t need “brand”–fIrefighters spring to mind. I have been called upon to define my “brand”, personally and professionally, more and more lately. You have to go along with the vernacular or risk others thinking you are not current; I tend to use the terms while also mildly mocking so everyone can climb down off the high horse a bit. I guess Peaches’ brand is sort of “Tall Girl/Big Mouth/Good Sense of Humor”. I’m working on a logo 😉

  • foureyedcurmudgeon  On June 26, 2014 at 8:33 am

    I had an internal debate – the hardest kind, because while you always win, you also always lose – over this because I could stand accused of having, and having created, my own brand: Curmudgeon. I concluded that it’s more a gimmick than a brand, that I only use it in one very narrow and temporary sphere of my life, and that in real life I am obviously a ray of delightful sunshine.

    • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On June 26, 2014 at 9:37 am

      But that’s the whole point. The “terminology” and the pseudo-business gobbledygook that surrounds it is where the artifice emerges. We all “brand” and. “rebrand” all the time, and we did so long before we had that term or had built whole jobs around it. The advertising of individuals continues. PT Barnum smiles. There’s a sucker born every minute.

  • Barb  On June 26, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Every time I think I’m caught up in pop culture, I learn that I am not. Brand?? Could anything be more stupid? smh Thanks, Curmudgeon, for keeping me o n my toes.


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