The brand’s the thing (for a’ that)

Reading the paper today– including business pages and parts of those “special supplements” that appear now and then on technology, entrepreneurship and whatnot (whatever sells the most ads I suspect) – I am struck by this notion of branding and how anyone who’s anyone needs a brand: an easily understood meme for who they are, where they stand, in the grand scheme of things.

Like Kleenex or Xerox (which I should, by rights be adding that squiggly trademark symbol to) where the name contains what linguists call a script and normal people simply use as shorthand.

We all need a brand, at least according to this Canadian woman with some 30,000 Twitter followers whose 140-character pearls of wisdom are all about this.

The piece, alas, made zero sense to me. I read it carefully, finding out in the process that this woman has several employees so clearly makes money. Yet, she does not recommend individual brands. Um .. so who pays her? (This, incidentally, is my ongoing question with so many tech companies – where’s the damn money? If even information on the internet wants to be free, how do these companies get valued at x billion dollars? Who is buying into this, and why? And if nobody clicks on that sponsored Google site, will it continue to exist?)

Which gets me thinking. If I were to “brand” myself, what would I be? Writer? Teacher? Critic? Eccentric? Curmudgeon? Zontar, Thing from Venus?

Could I be any more last century? Writer? Surely it’s content provider. Critic? Curmudgeon? Does anyone even know what these mean, at a time when we compute in the clouds and watch movies on our phones, at least while the battery lasts.

In any event, a proper brand needs to sound important – so even more important people will notice and be impressed. Certainly all manner of people (and not just tiresome 24-year-olds like the Zuck, founder of Facebook) seem to have managed this. So surely anyone with an ounce of nous should be able to as well, non?

A brand simply reduces things down to a noun – or a phrase, max. So Starbucks is shorthand for coffee; Kleenex: tossable hankie. Xerox: photocopy. It’s a great thing, being the corporation that makes the whatsit that stands in for all the other whatsits in the world.

But you and me?  Surely we’re not that easily reduceable. Our social roles alone should take up a bit more space.

Maybe that’s why everyone’s always nattering on about how the digirati are all under 25. (The Zuck needs to watch out, he’s nearly obsolete.) That’s the time in your life when you honestly believe that what you know and feel matters more than what’s been said and done. It takes a mind that’s only recently left high school to conceive of a program that considers superficial social ties more important than, well, life. You have to have that swagger of youthful self-absorption – and, frankly, also be a bit stupid (which we all are at that age).

More important, it’s a time in your life when there’s not a lot of baggage – mortgage payments, credit rating, ageing parents, a bum knee and roots that need touching up every five weeks. Even though you don’t know it, you look and feel great even after pulling an all-nighter and pulling on some wrinkled jeans (you don’t know this of course, which is why you complain incessantly). If you screw up, well, who cares, you have your whole life ahead of you.

Then, things accumulate. Not just stuff – that needs ever larger space to enclose it as George Carlin pointed out – but life. In all its marvelous, tiresome added-on-ness. Which makes it all rich and chaotic and wonderful but it also makes it all complicated. You can’t just pick up and leave for six months to backpack through Europe and Africa. Aside from the obvious physical issues (you want me to carry that thing on my back?! you do realize I have a compressed disk in my spine, yes?) and the fact that walking down the hall to a washroom in the middle of the night is No Longer An Option, one simply has too many responsibilities and things to do to simply pick up and leave for that long. That’s why old people call it the best time of your life even as you’re wondering where they get off saying anything that daft. It’s simply harder with time, particularly if you want to pick up more or less where you left off.

As always I digress. So back to this branding thing. Are we really going to take it seriously or is that woman simply boasting about all her Twitter followers? Because really, easily half of them probably don’t even read her tweets. Here’s the thing. The people who follow my tweets number in the double digits not in the tens of thousands, but why most of them have opted to follow me defies logic. I suspect they neither read nor care about my tweets, it’s that number – following and followers – that’s the end game. The numbers game.

Expressing messy qualitative information in neat quantitative terms: popularity and importance expressed in terms easily compared and neatly understandable. Reductionism personified.