Put Your Personality at the Center of Your Brand

This week, there seemed to be a lot of conversations about whether Google+ would be more valuable than Facebook, and similar questions. While I am participating in Google+, and closely watching how people are finding value in it, I’m also thinking: this is the wrong question.

Again and again, we choose to put the PLATFORM ahead of CORE VALUE in our brands, be it an individual brand of an author, or the brand of one’s company. Online technology platforms will come and go, trends and capabilities will have them constantly evolving. We seem to constantly be migrating to and from one platform or another. But there is one thing that is the unique differentiator for your brand that is constant and impossible for others to take away: you. For larger companies, this may be: you, and your employees. And for all of us in business: you, and your customers, fans, partners, and other affiliates.

So today I want to explore how we sometimes focus on the wrong thing: commodifying our own identities, our greatest unique differentiator, in order to develop “scalable platforms.” Nothing scales better than people. So while many brands do what they can to build themselves up to bulletproof entities, where every cog – every employee & customer – is an easily replaced component, I want to talk about the value of being a human being in business. Let’s start with a story…

Many companies create systems for innovation. Carefully constructed rulesets and practices that are supposed to encourage the creation, capture, and vetting of good ideas. Some of these systems are wonderful, and work well for specific industries and roles. But then you have the anomaly of thousands of years of human achievement: that innovation comes in messy ways, at inopportune moments, by the person you least expected. (and isn’t that sort of wonderful?)

I have been watching behind-the-scenes “making of” documentaries of innovative special effects films such as James Cameron’s Avatar and Peter Jackson’s King Kong. I am seeing a common theme emerge, I’ll use King Kong (from 2005) as an example.

The “making of” segments explore the years of development that went into the design of the characters, sets, costumes, visual style, of the creature of Kong, and the technology that made it possible. They go into great depth to show the complicated systems that are created, and how they overcame challenge after challenge to create a movie that has hundreds of special effects shots.

And then, the entire tone and focus changes.

At this point in the documentary, the focus turns to the actors. And what you see for the role of Kong is how the actor who played him – Andy Serkis – completely takes over. He dons a makeshift Kong costume, and motion capture is used to turn his movements into the creature. And it’s interesting because the entire movie hinges on this one guy. The development team who designed their fancy CGI system now relies on this one artist – who has his own interpretation of who the character is.

Technology – the platform – takes a backseat to the art – to the soul – of the story. And the director Peter Jackson ensures an actor does what he knows special effects cannot. (You can see the multipart documentary starting here.)

Many companies don’t do this when developing products, services, and platforms for communication and interaction. Instead, they commodify their processes, their employees, and even their treatment of customers. Why? For fear that a single person – a single cog – can gain too much power. Too much control. They also begin to feel that whatever they are developing, every product, service, and message from their brand, needs to appeal to EVERY person on the planet, so that core idea of having a personality is off the table.

Having a real personality means that you may be incredibly engaging to some people, and a total turn-off to others. Making that choice, for individuals is just part of our everyday lives. For a company or an individual building a brand, there is the temptation to vanilla themselves down – to become so bland that they couldn’t possible offend anyone. The unfortunate side effect is that they truly engage no one.

So for us, here on the web, we can’t let the platform alone drive us. Tweets, status updates, videos, social networks – all are useless without our personality, our ideas, our connections. The messy, human, amazing stuff.

The same goes for the work that we create and share. We can’t turn out voices into SEO linkable “content.” It is best to step outside of the echo chamber, to find a new sound, new ideas, a unique experience never before seen.

This is why I love when “best practices” are ignored and broken. Yes, they can serve as a guide, allowing us to focus on more important things. But breaking free of them can be the first step in a personal journey, one that might just surprise us, and the world.

After all, this is our legacy.

I saw a very interesting video this week, one that seemed to show someone with complete lack of inhibition. It’s a simple video of a kid dancing in the Apple Store:

(I found this video via Jeffrey Harmon)

When I watched it, at first I was sort of embarrassed for him. But as it goes on, you realize his confidence, and that frankly, he’s just having a ton of fun.

This reminded me of the feeling I remember having at the New York City Halloween parade years ago. I was in my late 20’s, and dressed up in a decent, but understated costume. But when you walk the streets around the parade, something amazing happens. People are completely alive. There are tons of others dressed in the craziest costumes, everyone is laughing and actually talking to complete strangers on the streets of New York. It is infectious. By the end of the night, you see someone in a crazy Snork costume, wearing bright orange spandex, and for a moment, you think to yourself: “I should have dressed like that.” You wish you went overboard, and feel completely lame for having censored your own creative energy.

Yes, there is risk in choosing to take actions that show your personality in a larger way. But in that risk is where opportunity lies. To explore what you are capable of. To connect with others in new ways. To create something truly unique that has a positive snowball effect in the lives of others.

This is what many companies and individuals building their brand need to understand: that the formulaic products, platforms, and content they create and share leaves them too scared to really be brave. So they struggle for inches instead of leaping miles.

What are brands afraid of? Why do they do this? Well, because of Leeroy Jenkins. Who is Leeroy? He is the mythical “lone nut” who will destroy all of your plans. You can see Leroy in action in this classic viral video, where a group of players in the video game World of Warcraft strategize how they will attack a roomful of enemies. (warning: some cursing in this video, but hilarious and kind of instructive.)

This is why some companies fear giving their own employees too much power or freedom. How they justify restrictive customer service policies. Why it is hard to talk to an actual person if you want to contact a brand.

This is not just for corporations – you see this in many small businesses, and brands that consist of a single person.

In the end, this is all a personal choice. In how you represent yourself; in what you mean to those around you; in the legacy you leave the world.

Will you be just another status update sharing the same news, the same pithy comments, the same basic thing that everyone else is creating? Or will you create something unique, something special, something worth living for?