Sunday, June 12, 2011

On being a branding expert with no branding clients.

Saw a tweet the other day that struck a nerve. About how annoying it is when people write about branding, but don't have any clients.

Struck me hard in the gut. I do this, I thought. (Expletive deleted.) Maybe I'm a phony?

Don't get me wrong...for the past decade-plus I've led a "branded" life. I worked as a brand consultant, led a branding institute, did branding research and communication for a Madison Avenue thought leadership group, and have been speaking, writing, and published since I started. I'm an adjunct assistant professor of marketing and do integrated marketing communication for a government agency on a full-time basis (all opinions my own.)

But technically, technically - the truth still remains. I am not a private-sector brand consultant or CMO now. I have a Ph.D in sociology, not marketing. And people who know me frequently ask aloud why I don't have a career in technology, given how much time I spend futzing with the computer. (I read Lifehacker.com for inspiration, OK? Still planning to make a garden one day out of Altoids mint tins.)

There really is no "answer," no hard "truth" on this. I can't explain why I am so passionate and dedicated to this field. Nor prove that I am qualified to say anything about it.

One thing I do know is that there are numerous people who do much the same thing:

* Penelope Trunk is a stay-at-home mom who lives on a remote farm in the Midwest who has thousands and thousands of followers on her blog about career success. (She is a serial entrepreneur as well...currently in goat cheese.)

* A Secret Service agent who served Presidents Obama and Bush is running for Congress in the state of Maryland based on...disagreeing with President Obama's policies plus doing "a lot of research.")

* The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday about a former computer programmer who taught himself day trading and left his job to play the stock market full time. He delivered testimony and three dozen pages of documents in a case regarding WaMu (Washington Mutual) that left the judge and an industry insider impressed.

* Currently the fashion industry is enamored with a teenage fashion blogger who is like the "Doogie Howser" of fashion - really sharp, insightful, and even brilliant.

Consider the opposite argument - that only working-in-the-field subject matter experts should speak. I am not convinced they are any better suited to do so, no matter how many clients they have. Because expertise, in public discourse, is about the free market of ideas. And paid experts have hidden agendas.

Good example: I read an article in the Journal, also yesterday, by an ad agency executive talking about copywriting. So here is an expert, working in his avowed field. Should be credible, right?

Well, I have to admit it was a pretty good piece...until the end when I saw him promoting a new tagline his agency came up with. Which I didn't really like. And maybe neither did he. Except he "has" to like it because he is writing an article for the Journal and the mention is a not-so-subtle plug for his agency.

It is true that people working in their field have expertise worth considering. But it is also true that people outside of it, who care a lot and have no "skin in the game," have a certain objectivity. A refreshing cold-water-in-your face perspective. It's actually good to pay attention to both. (Like listening to Tea Partiers alongside Republicans and Democrats...you get a fuller picture.)

Last night Jack Welch was on Piers Morgan's interview show dissing Sarah Palin. "She's a celebrity, not a politician," he said, "because she lacks that certain gravitas." He likes Tim Pawlenty, because of "what he actually says," even though as Piers pointed out, he is a bit, well, boring. And Palin was actually the governor of Alaska and has political experience.

I am not taking sides here, but theoretically speaking - who actually is better suited to represent the people? A celebrity they relate to who needs some schooling on the issues, or a schoolteacher they don't who needs a charm injection to keep even the reporters awake?

We are living in a time in history where change is so rapid as to be a blur. What expertise really requires is to have your finger on the pulse of that change. And to take a pulse, you have to be able to measure a heartbeat. In any field, people who care enough to monitor, read and write about something - and whose thoughts are useful to others - are in my view well-qualified to do so.

Plus, most people I know of who are successful, learned as they went along - rather than having answers from the start. (Just ask my kids.) As Einstein put it, "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?"

Only you, with G-d's help, can invent your destiny, and your brand.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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