Brand This

I’m not the first to complain about the overuse and adulation of the words brand and branding. Naomi Klein effectively sounded the alarm in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Written fifteen years ago, No Logo indicted consumer culture that elevates image over represented product. Hers is still a valid critique today; to it I will add just a twist of updating: branding in the 21st century includes not only products, businesses, and corporations, but people. You are your brand.

Tom Peters, business management consultant and author, is one of the persons most responsible for the above statement that equates humanity and commerce.  Like Klein, he also published a book in 1999, The Brand You 50. Despite the book’s cheerleading demeanor and its overuse of italics, bold, ALL CAPS, (and parenthetical side comments), it has a loyal following. The main point of the book – the importance of showcasing one’s unique skills, in business settings and in life – is unassailable. Distinction, as exemplified by the term Me, Inc. (used by Peters extensively in the book), makes the brand.

A few years before Peter’s book came out, I participated in a “thinking expedition” for innovators. Led by Rolf Smith, a recently retired USAF colonel, this conference gathered executives and leaders from companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Exxon, among others. I was Rolf’s pastor at the time, and he was kind enough to sponsor me as a participant. I was first exposed to the term Me, Inc. at the conference, and consequently encouraged to broaden my vocational identity through a Me, Inc. mapping exercise. (Rolf Smith – not Tom Peters – created the Me, Inc. concept.) As I look back on it, the expedition played a small but vital part to inspire me to write Just a Little Bit More.

It’s a good thing to take personal inventory – to see how one measures up and to contemplate future possibilities based upon one’s skill set and capabilities. That is precisely what happened for me when I did the beneficial Me, Inc. mapping project in 1996; Rolf never encouraged us to think of ourselves as brands.

Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel (What Money Can’t Buy) correctly warns us that market values have been on the rise for the last thirty-five years. He reminds us that there are some things that are better off not having price tags attached to them: giving blood, helping older ladies across the street, encouraging underachieving elementary school kids to read (and paying them to do so). The intrusion of market values storms forward as people are increasingly encouraged to put price tags on all things, even to the point of considering themselves as brands. How far will we allow it to advance? Not everything is to be bought and sold, and not all things (especially people) are to be branded and commercialized.

Brand this: I have unique distinction for who I am as a person, completely unrelated to brand and branding. I am not my brand, and I won’t be branded any time soon. Brand that.


Rolf Smith wrote The Seven Levels of Change in 1997. It’s now in its third edition. Highly recommended.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is available in paperback at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. Ebook to be released later this summer!


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