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Tales of Brand Management

"You're a marketer, Venus … it's about personal brand management. Perception vs. reality," said Dry Ice when I told her of some of my most recent challenges. Which got me to thinking …

Tale #1 – The Hero Who Wasn't: When I was about 10, a new family moved to our rural farming community – always a cause for excitement. There were two older sisters who came to our school, and a boy who joined us in our Grade 5/6 class. The family had moved from a large American city to our humble little rural farming community.

The new boy was tough, mouthy, and full of bravado. He, and his sisters, were also the finest athletes any of us had ever seen. Where his social skills were rather rough around the edges, his physical presence was sleek and highly tuned, even at the tender age of 10.  It didn't take long for the new boy to isolate and hone in on the weakest among us. His preferred victim was Johnnie, the mentally and physically challenged 16 year old boy in the seventh grade. Johnnie was a member of one of the farming families in the community, a near permanent fixture in the school and, until the new boy showed up, simply a sweet and endearing presence among us. The new boy decided to make it his mission to pick on Johnnie, his favourite taunt being to grasp Johnnie's nose between his fingers and twist until Johnnie screamed out for mercy.

I clearly remember raging daily to my mother about this horrible new boy and his cruelty to Johnnie. Mom was sympathetic and horrified, too. I told her my plan, which was simply to beat the crap out of the new boy. "We're gonna get him," I can remember plotting and planning. Mom was even more horrified now. "Don't you DARE lay a finger on that boy!" she admonished. We argued for a few days when the subject came up, and there was something in her voice that made me hold back from executing the plan-du-jour. I couldn't understand why Mom was so insistent when, normally, she'd let me barrel on in and learn my lesson the hard way. We just HAD to step in and protect Johnnie, didn't we? Why was no one stepping in? I really didn't understand. Finally, after several days of me raging and railing and practicing my high karate kicks on imaginary new boys everywhere, my terrified mother blurted out, "You stay away from him, do you understand? You cannot beat up the black boy, under any circumstances, do you hear me?"

My mother, the spin doctor. Worried about the optics of the white farm kids (because this would need to have been a group effort) ganging up on the new black kid.  What it was – neutralizing a bully – was irrelevant. What mattered was what it looked like. Perception vs. reality. Wrongly perceived, as it surely would be, and our community brand would be severely damaged.

Tale #2 – The Princess Who Wasn't
: About a million years ago, my first l-t love needed to earn a bit more cash. Being a resourceful sort, she started to clean houses on the side. Being very good at this, she quickly built a substantial word-of-mouth client base. One day, she headed off to meet an acquaintance who was interested in having her come to clean her house which was in a lovely older upper middle class neighbourhood. When I met up with first l-t love after this interview, she recounted the following excerpt of conversation.

First L-T Love: So … this looks very doable, your house. Tell me – where do you keep your bee mop for the floors?

Potential Client: Bee Mop? What's a bee mop? Do I need to get one of those?

First L-T Love told this story with a snort and quite a bit of derision as she inferred, from the Potential Client's response, that PC had never washed a floor in her life since she was completely in the dark about the existence and location of the ubiquitous bee mop. We both had a good laugh over PC's clearly elitist and bourgeois perspective on floor washing.

As luck, fate, or complex small-town circumstances would have it, years later, Potential Client became my second long-term love. (pause to absorb … wall chart to follow)

Eventually, I got around to teasing Second L-T Love about this conversation.

Me: So, what's this with you not ever washing floors?

Second L-T Love: Huh?

Me: Well, you seemed kinda clueless about the Bee Mop thing.

Second L-T Love: Jaysus, Mary and Joseph – until my Aunt died, we couldn't afford mops. I used a bucket and rags, on my hands and knees, like everybody else!

The assumptions we make, based on the tiniest sliver of information, defy the bounds of logic. Potential Client, by virtue of having inherited enough money to buy their family's first "nice" home, also acquired a brand – upper middle class house holder -  the strength of which completely skewed First L-T Love's perception of her responses. So sure was First L-T Love of the accuracy of her perception that she didn't even make a motion towards checking out those assumptions. Perception = reality. Done deal. So trusting was I of First L-T Love's interpretation, so open to believing it as truth, that I shared the joke without question or reserve.

Tale #3 – "Just Go Around": My local Food Basics has great deals, but lacks something in the layout department. There are huge structural support columns in some of the aisles that unintentionally divide the aisle into "just barely cart width" and "not even close to cart width". If someone happens to be standing between a column and the shelves  on the side that IS cart width, you can't get down the aisle with a cart.

Recently, this very thing happened. As I stood with my cart staring at something on a shelf and pausing to consult my list, a woman came up the aisle towards me with a basket, dropped the basket loudly on the floor right beside a column, muttered something, and started to put noodle packages from the bottom shelf in her basket. She looked neat and well-dressed, urban-funky looking, perhaps a bit harried. Maybe in a bad mood. It was hard to say from my perspective as I'd only been paying a fragment of attention as I debated brands of chick peas on the opposite shelf.

After she had about 10 packages of noodles in her basket, the woman just stood upright, just stood there, staring straight down at her basket, muttering. I wondered if she was counting the packages. I waited a few moments, then I smiled my most charming, slightly apologetic smile, and said, in my sweetest voice, "Excuse me, could I just get through here?"

The woman turned slowly to look me up and down, finally leveling a gaze at me that would melt glass. "I'm so fuckin' tired of you women.You want me to move over? You want to get past? Me … move over … for you? You know how much of that I've done in my life? How much of that I've done just TODAY? Stand aside? … you just fuckin' turn and go around the other aisle this time, huh? Just go around … How does that feel? You see how that feels? You like it?"

Clearly, my brand in that moment read as "privileged white woman with a bad haircut" and I experienced poor product location, finding myself in a grocery store that is part of the St. Jamestown neighbourhood. I was perceived as out of place. Sensing the futility of debating the social constructs of race and class in a crowded grocery store aisle with a really pissed off woman, I went around.


Perception. Reality. What it is vs. what it looks like. I'm starting to think that as hard as some of us try to put the clearest, most consistent brand possible out there, the perception of that brand is always going to be skewed by the receiver's own set of assumptions or filters. Thus, one's brand becomes less about who one is and so much more about how one is perceived once filtered through the receiver's assumptions. The more powerful the assumptions we combat, the harder it is to be accurately perceived.

And this troubles me, especially when I have occasion to run into some pretty powerful assumptions in some pretty surprising places. 

Professional marketers place huge value on gaining a deep understanding their audience, identifying and analyzing their behaviours and assumptions. Knowing as much as possible about the receivers of a branding message will help craft that message appropriately. Will help avoid offensive product placement issues, for example. 

I don't think the parallel works so well for interpersonal branding because, in any given day, we each find ourselves in front of a series of demographically fragmented audiences. If we needed to severely adjust our brand for each new audience, we'd get schizophrenic in fairly short order. The essence – the importance and value – of who we are as unique individuals would get lost in the constantly shifting projections of facets of who we are. Yet – we do make shifts for different demographics in our lives, for various excellent and necessary reasons. In family settings. At work. With friends. With intimates. It is the degree of the shifting that needs some review, in my case anyway. Sometimes I need to shift more. Sometimes, less. I am, as always, a work in progress.

Nonetheless, I do find that as I get older, I have less and less patience for other people's misguided assumptions about me / my brand. Well, I have a lot of patience for that woman in the store. I just don't think her anger had anything to do with me, but rather with what I represented to her in that moment. Telling her "you go girl!" in that moment would have really messed her up.  I've also checked in with my own assumptions and discovered that, yes, I would have turned on the charm and said "excuse me" to any person of any race, gender, sexual orientation or religion in that moment. Furthermore, I have examined what this situation would have looked like if the tables were turned and, yes, I would have moved in a heartbeat if she had been the one asking. My request to her was not borne of oppression but of a desire for collaboration. That bit didn't make it through her filter, however.

I do wonder if our assumptions and filters – mine included – have become so rigid that we take our emotional response to incoming information as "truth" without really taking the time to examine for "assumption"?

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2 comments to “Tales of Brand Management”

  1. Hi, thank`s for the article that you wrote article… A lot of time I was trying to find some new material for me, and I guess I have it thanks to you. Thank`s once more. I will be waiting for interesting articles that you write.

  2. I'd rather think that if you try much enough, even the most complicated thought can be covered in so many details.

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