“A Brand” Not “THE Brand”

Alex S. Brown, PMP IPMA-C

In the past month, I have thought a lot about my brand — my resume, my biography — every place that I talk about me. I listened to recordings and articles by trusted advisors, fellow speakers, and branding experts. I even went back and re-read that classic article “The Brand Called You” by Tom Peters. I read that article in Fast Company magazine back in 1997, and it inspired me to think about “my brand” in the first place.

I figured out something very important to me. My brand is about “a”, not “THE”. I figured something else out, which is even more important.

A good brand can be about “a” not “THE”. My brand is better with “a”, not “THE”.

A Little Background

I called myself “The Strategic Project Manager” a few years ago. I thought the title was a clever, unique way to brand myself. I had listened to branding experts who said, “Find your niche, then become THE leading expert in that niche. Whether it is a particular audience or a particular subject, become THE person in that niche.”

I looked at speakers and other experts that I knew and trusted. They were all “THE” something:

Ironically, I have a “branding problem” now, because “Strategic Project Manager” does not really make sense with “THE” in front of it any more. It is a job title, and people are now recruiting for “Strategic Project Managers”. Some helpful people told me that I could still reclaim the title, “The Strategic Project Manager” — I just needed to write the book with that title.

I realize now, though, that I cringe a little whenever I think of myself as “THE” anything. I know I am special and unique, but let’s face it — there are a lot of people in this world who know something about strategy and something about project management. “The Strategic Project Manager” always felt like a boast, not a statement of fact.

“A” Brand, not “THE” Brand

When I re-read Tom Peters’ classic article on personal branding, I stopped at the first sentence of the last paragraph:

“It’s this simple: You are a brand.”

I realized something equally simple:

“You are ‘a’ brand. You are not ‘THE’ brand.”

Peters article on personal branding is full of humility and grace. He did talk about becoming “the expert”, but he tempered those statements with down-to-earth examples — an employee who volunteers to write the agenda for a business meeting or someone writing an opinion piece for their local paper. Peters was not just talking to “THE leading expert in the world”, but to all of us, even those of us who are just “an expert”, along with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other people like us.

Great Marketers Value What The Customer Values, Even If It Is NOT Unique

Think about the great brands, the brands you associate with quality, the brands you trust, the brands you love.

Are any of them “THE only one” at what they do?

Nike is a shoe company. Coke is a soft drink. Coke may claim to be “The Real Thing”, but some of its most powerful branding messages were about what you could do with the whole world. Start the sentence, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke…” and millions of people in the world will say with you, “…and keep it company.”

That sentence is not about a unique selling proposition. You could “buy the world” any product and keep it company. That sentence is about a feeling of community and togetherness, and The Coca Cola Company successfully attached that feeling to their product’s name.

Happy To Be “A Project Leader” — Maybe Even “A Strategic Project Leader”

From now on, I will not call myself “The Strategic Project Manager”. That is a title that I do not need or want.

I am prouder of myself for those qualities that I share with many others:

  • A project leader
  • A caring person
  • A loving human being

I will never be able to affix a “Trademark” or ® symbol after those titles, and claiming to be “THE project leader” or “THE caring person” would be silly. Those qualities are a lot more important to me than any unique title anyone could give me.

When you are thinking about what makes you special, about what makes up your brand, do not focus exclusively on what makes you unique. If you are truly the only person in the world with a certain skill or quality, you should certainly celebrate it. Being unique is special.

But if you are one of many people with some skill or quality, do not discount it just because others also have it. Join me in being “an expert” instead of “THE expert.”

If other people share similar qualities and skills, then you have a community of people to learn from and to grow with. Chances are good that your most valuable qualities, the parts of your brand that people most value, are qualities that other people are striving to deliver as well.

At the end of the day, if we insist on being “THE”, then we insist on being alone. If we define ourselves as “a”, then we will always have company. Think about the brands that you most trust. Do you value them because they are the only one providing that service or product? Or do you value them because they fit in your life, because there is something about the way that they do what everyone else does, that you particularly like? The strongest brands that I know are companies that operate in a sea of competitors, where I know that I have many other choices of similar products, but where that brand has proven its value to me time and time again.

It’s this simple: You are ‘a’ brand. You are not ‘THE’ brand.

3 Responses to ““A Brand” Not “THE Brand””

  1. Beth Terry says:

    Alex – you make a lot of good points. Personally, I’ve always thought it a little precious when someone brands themselves as “America’s [pick a topic] expert” I would never presume to be America’s anything. Even Sandra Bullock, now being called “America’s sweetheart” makes one wonder. Does that mean EVERYONE in the entire North and South American continents consider her their sweetheart? (There’s more to America than the USA…)

    Niching is good on some levels because it saves time and makes marketing easier. But it’s a double edged sword. I chose my brand to encompass all topics relating to Resilience. But Cactus Wrangler┬« makes more sense to people in the western US than in most other places. It’s fun, and I’m enjoying it. Does it always serve me? Maybe not.

    Getting stuck in a brand is the same as an actor in Hollywood getting typed in a role. None of us can watch Alan Alda without thinking of M.A.S.H. We are uncomfortable if a person who played a part for a long time then tries something opposite. I still can’t wrap my head around Little Ricky Schroeder playing a grown up cop!

    So – your contrarian view holds water. In a world where we must constantly reinvent ourselves, do we want to be stuck in a brand that’s so cemented in people’s minds that we can’t change?

  2. Alex, I visited your web site to learn more about you and your business. Glancing through your topics list, I chose this article as the first one to read for it’s title (“Hmmm … what can he possibly mean?”)

    I loved your “aha!” about the nuances of “a” vs. “the,” and admission that you’d rather be known for your qualities.

    Who knew there could be such power in the simplest of words?

  3. Alex Brown says:

    It was amazing to me what a huge relief it was to stop claiming to be “THE” anything. I have not read any branding, marketing, or sales people talk about this idea, and I have looked around on-line since I wrote the post. Tom Peter’s original article is the closest thing I have found. If anyone knows of someone with a similar marketing and branding approach, I would love to hear about them.

    Thanks for your comment, and I look forward to talking more with you soon.


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