They pop up frequently – in brightly-colored banners on websites, in aggressive social media ads. Sometimes when I wait in line at Barnes and Noble, I catch them staring at me, glassy-eyed, from book covers.
They have power suits. They have perfectly coiffed hair. Their smiles are fixed. Their expressions are hungry.
They are… the Brand Mavens.
You know who I’m talking about. Brand Mavens are those peppy, cutthroat folks who talk almost exclusively in business-ese. They write urgent, vaguely condescending blogs and books that claim to reveal the “secrets to success”. They insist that to Get Ahead in this World, you have to aggressively market yourself as a nice, safe, tame product that appeals to the broadest swathe of humanity possible.
They probably start their mornings with a nice hot cup of coffee mixed with rocket fuel and the blood of innocents.
Okay, fine. I’m not being quite fair to the Brand Mavens. They’re only trying to make a buck out of the advice game, and some of them have perfectly sound advice to give about self-promotion (heck, even a blind squirrel finds some nuts). If you’re looking for tactics to aggressively market some carefully cultivated version of yourself, these people are good gurus to have.
But Brand Mavens so often insist on self-promotion for its own sake, implying that you are a hapless FOOL if you are not aggressively shoving a “brand” down potential clients’ throats. And worse, they often insist that you define your brand in the most homogenized, highly “saleable” way possible – in a manner that could never offend (or excite) anyone.
That. Is. Claptrap.
You can be yourself – your authentic self – and get clients. You do not have to fit into some artificial mold to find freelance work. What’s more, if you can accept (and even amplify) your own weirdness, if you let your sense of humor leak through, if you try hard to pursue opportunities based on your authentic interests (and not some dubious expert’s marketing plan)… you will build stronger connections. You will gain better clients. You will enjoy your work more.
Ricky Gervais once shared some extremely good insights into this subject, which I will liberally quote here:
“… being original is often considered dangerous if you want huge mainstream success. It seems safer to make anodyne stuff that most people might consume without offense. Homogenized by committee and focus grouped to be like something else that was quite successful. The white sliced bread of art. This is indeed a reasonably safe approach but where’s the fun, apart from the commercial gain? … From my own experiences I’ve learned that quirky, different, fringe projects that may only be cult, often travel a lot better internationally. Mainstream comedians and TV shows that might be the biggest thing, on say, UK TV for a while, often don’t sell a sausage around the world. Comics selling out arenas in the UK often can’t sell a ticket in America or many other places. If you do something peculiar and remarkable it might not be for mass consumption in your own country but there are 7 billion people in the world. People everywhere in the world will recognize and appreciate its innovation. A world cult is many times bigger than a single country’s mainstream hit. So in the long run, being different can make commercial sense as well as artistic sense. And you’ll often hear the term ‘water cooler moment.’ The broadest, most inoffensive, mainstream hits are so often the least ‘talked about.’ They just happen and wash over a disconcerting majority once a week.”
Listen, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that your genuine “brand” – the slick, nasty little term for the encapsulation of your quirky, esoteric personality, your unique likes and dislikes, your skills and talents – is FAR MORE INTERESTING than any manufactured, safe “brand” that these Mavens would have you construct. Authenticity gets people’s attention. It’s genuine. It’s cool.
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I have many eccentricities. Many of them would not be considered conventionally “saleable”. I have a rather dark sense of humor. I have three different careers, which I do more-or-less simultaneously. I am relaxed to the point of lassitude about logistical details. I like absurdity in all forms. I like collaborating more than controlling. I have a cynical streak, and when I! GET! EXCITED! I! TALK! LOUDLY!
Because I’m open about these things – because I can laugh about them and acknowledge them to potential clients – I’ve found MORE work, not less. I find clients who really want a freelancer with a snarky sense of humor: someone who rolls with logistical changes, who pipes up in meetings, and who values flexibility. Because my “brand” is just me, and not some sanitized, trying-desperately-to-be-palatable version of myself, I get clients who actually want… me.
And that makes us both happy.
If you, too, find Brand Mavens to be terrifying – don’t let those overly hair-sprayed vampires get you down. When you market yourself, don’t try to please everyone BUT yourself. Be authentic, and try to make genuine connections with Your People. They’re the ones you really want to work with, anyway.
Your weird brand? Your mutant, strange, eccentric brand? People want it.
My friend, that weird is so sellable.