Brand Me — Not, Not With A Hot Iron. How Do You Become A 'Brand'?

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Independent writers these days, we are told, must create, nurture and sell our “brand.”

If only I had one.

Great piece on that issue  — I can’t link to it, sorry! — in this month’s GQ, by Shalom Auslander: funny, moving, bitter, thoughtful. He finds the whole idea of becoming a brand, as do I, freaking nuts — sorry, risible; (if my brand is smart-girl, I had best select thoughtful, erudite diction.)

I understand, and get, style, voice, consistency. Monet and Manet look as different from one another, equally gorgeous and immediately identifiable to my eye, as Jenny Holzer and Damien Hirst. The Eagles aren’t Arcade Fire. Rachael Ray isn’t Julia Child.

But branding one’s writing? That’s a tough one, as every plagiarist apologizing these days, and it’s almost daily, points out. You can be rilly pretentious and write in so florid and bizarre a way that it’s your brand — but who wants to read it?

The idea of a personal brand is also deeply abhorrent to anyone who believes in complexity and in modesty. Any intelligent writer knows that stringing words together is damned difficult to do well, in the best way, which is in a way so deeply unbranded, so unobtrusive your readers slide seamlessly into it without ooohing and aaahing at its “watchwatchme-ness” as they read.

Great writing never tells you it’s great. It just takes your damn breath away.

An intelligent writer, in my view, does not pretend to compare themselves, nor wishes to, to a can of sugary beverage or a gleaming new SUV. Reduced, say, to three tidy adjectives. (Or is this a good thing? Is complexity over-rated?)

A brand is known by its easily-defined characteristics, wherein lies the problem.

I’ve always been, and hope to be for a few more decades, a mix of silly, deeply serious, compassionate, brutally practical, geeky, adventurous, curious, technophobic — but attached to my new Itouch. I read by candle-light, am passionate about using objects that pre-date the 19th. century but thrill to the smell of jet fuel, my heart beating faster at the exquisite design of an Embraer jet wing.

Born in June, I’m a Gemini, the twins’ sign, so I’m allowed, astrologically speaking, to be two people. That’s on a slow day…

A brand is consistent. I am consistently — not.

Who’s that simple? Who wants to be?

30 thoughts on “Brand Me — Not, Not With A Hot Iron. How Do You Become A 'Brand'?

  1. Michael Roston

    I just don’t understand the germ for this *at all*. Shalom Auslander, of all people, unquestionably has a brand. Our new intern Chloe just dismissed it to me as “Philip Roth-lite”, but it’s a brand no less.

    Caitlin, I think you have a brand, too. It’s a brand I enjoy reading. You shouldn’t run away from it like it’s some hot poker that’s going to leave a scar on your ass.

  2. Michael Peck

    You nailed it, Caitlin. Too much of today’s writing is self-absorbed. It’s achingly, annoyingly obvious that the writer feels a need to make himself the story. An occasional piece of gonzo journalism or personal essay is welcome. But now even newspapers have joined the Me Generation.

  3. ebizjoey

    I make it no secret why a guy pursing a degree in E Business Management calls himself ebizjoey! Thanks for not being boring, you never are!

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Michael, I may already have a few scars just from dead- tree journalism as it is! 🙂

    I appreciate that you like my stuff. Very kind of you. But the whole notion of being so defineable seems very odd to me. I’d hate to be so casually dismissed as Didion-lite (not that I am!!) I guess I feel we’re all so (one hopes?) layered and nuanced that putting us into a tidy box seems a little sad.

    I wonder what shape that scar would be…Maybe a beaver fighting an eagle?

  5. andreaitis

    The layers and nuances don’t conflict with the brand, they enhance it. People are branded in different ways, by different characteristics. For some it’s a deep expertise in a particular topic. For others it’s a voice, a style or perspective. Perhaps it’s harder to see your own brand from the inside out. But I agree with Michael: You do have a brand that comes through every time you post and comment, a voice that is distinctly yours. It’s not a “tidy little box,” it doesn’t restrict you. A brand gives the reader some sense of parameters, of expectation and anticipation.

  6. Hi Caitlin-

    I enjoyed this piece, but I think you may have the wrong idea about branding. everyone has a brand. Obama has a ‘brand’ (Hope & Change), yet even his critics will tell you he’s intelligent and multi-leveled. I think the danger is not in self-branding, but mistaking the brand for ourselves. A brand is nothing more than a shorthand description of who we are, so yeah, by it’s very nature, it’s reductive, but I don’t think you need to be afraid of thinking about what your brand is and being mindful of it.

    Think of branding less as a constriction and more as a pole star to guide you.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Andrea, thanks for weighing in. Lots to think about.

    I wonder if this idea (?) of branding, or being a brand, is much more familiar to those of you who worked mostly in on-line ventures — where being distinctive from the get-go is essential to being found, re-found, followed — survival!
    This may be a holdover, for me, from decades spent writing for print (where you, certainly freelance, have to assume each publication’s voice/POV to address their specific audiences) — while blogging is such a different medium and method because you get to be….you.

    Defining that persona for myself feels odd after so many years. Yet I recently gave this exact advice to a young journalism grad who says she keeps tailoring her work to each editor and I urged her to find HER voice — then find editors who want to hear it.

    I have talked about this issue with friends, for example, who work for the NYT (which many journos still would consider a prestigious brand to be associated with) and one, a very distinguished foreign correspondent, wondered if they would, in fact, have ANY brand of their own — if they left the umbrella/imprimatur of the Times.

    I write for the Times, but am not a classic Times person; too quirky and outspoken for that.

    Japhy, thanks for your thoughts on this. I guess I am still trying to figure out what my brand is. It probably is not essential for me to define as long as people find it useful or appealing.

  8. john

    If I were a writer I would eschew such things as brands and labels because I wouldn’t want them to compromise my voice. But I agree with Andreaitis, because it’s in our nature to label and categorize. On a certain level you want to be known by editors and readers for a certain quality in your writing, no? But that shouldn’t encourage or discourage you from conforming to a given label. I imagine you do that pretty much without thinking about it because your inherent youness is going to come through no matter what you do.

    At the same time, you are doubtlessly creative & independent, so you have a lot of freedom to augment your voice, change its timbre, pack it with some emotive quality depending on your feelings about your topic and so on. Thing is, even if you got really fired up about something and started channeling Taibbi – getting all snarky with the language – that sticky stuff of you, or two, would still be there. . .

  9. Very interesting article, but I would have to agree with Mr. Rolston on this one. You certainly have a brand, whether you deliberately cultivate it or not. While a brand may certainly be “known by its easily-defined characteristics”, the true essence of a writer’s brand is where it exists in the mind of readers. You don’t need to compare yourself to an SUV or soft drink to “brand” yourself, as your brand as a writer is the sum of all interactions your readers have with you. From your witty and thought-provoking writing, to your picture that appears at the top of this post, all of that goes into what consumers think of you. Even posting on True/Slant affects your “brand”, as secondary associations readers for this site are invariably transferred onto you.
    And nothing says that your brand as a writer must wholly consistent. Let’s leave that for those gleaming SUVs and sugary beverages you spoke of. Nobody wants to read a writer who is going to consistently publish the same thing day-in and day-out. You don’t have to easily define yourself or flaunt your greatness as a writer to brand yourself. You brand yourself by writing interesting pieces like this. You just keep writing compelling pieces like this and Voila! You’ve built yourself a brand!

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    john, thanks…I love the word “youness” and I think that is true. It’s certainly true for/of me. It leaks out even when writing for print publications as my POV remains pretty consistent.

    I have been wondering about how popular (I admit to some jealousy) Taibbi and others are, but they are very different sorts of people and writers. Not better or worse, just different. One of the essential elements of being Canadian born and raised is the importance (to me anyway) of trying to see and talk about multiple sides of many issues, no matter how divisive. That certainly limits an audience, I know. But tant pis…

    Emotion is a tricky thing to add to one’s writing, as we know. Too much anything — anger, pathos, bathos, outrage — can be off-putting.

    Grif, such helpful comments. Much appreciate your enthusiasm for what I’m doing…also just gives me a lot to think about and mull over. My post really was a sincere question; often I am quite puzzled by this blogosphere and still learning a lot about it, on the fly.

    Readers do make up their minds about a writer, as I do as well. I think, for me, a fair bit of that is trust…Is this someone whose voice/POV/worldview makes sense to me? I don’t have to agree with them, but I need to know they are bargaining, as it were, in good faith.

    I’ve become good friends with a few T/S writers, none of whom I knew before coming to this site, equally attracted to them by their writing and perspective on the world.

    1. john

      The emotion bit is very interesting to me, especially in writing. It’s interesting because of the declarative nature of what the writer does as she makes choices about what words and turn of phrase to use, and what of herself to blend into the narrative.

      You as the writer have 100% understanding about how you feel about a thing and when you choose to include that bit, you somehow pack that into words and transmit them. I as the reader of course unpack the narrative and get facts and so on, but there also these other layers. I bet at most I get 40% of their meaning and yet it still adds color. I contrast that with other sorts of writing where something as sublime as humor is often hard to detect. I agree that too much can be tiresome, but there is certainly a sweet spot to be found. I find that I’m draw in by it because it shows some sort of passion. Not that the writer is necessarily passionate about every subject, only that the mind is inquisitive and insightful so whatever the next subject is, something cool will come out of it.

  11. libtree09

    Not only should you embrace your brand, but you should take it to the next level, think about all synergies to improve your bottom line and hire some MBA to explain it all to you.

  12. Caitlin Kelly

    Darlin’ my bottom line is just fine as is. But I hear you, think we should definitely impact the situation and work on a robust suite of solutions…

  13. Steve McNally

    Your brand is more than your voice and your writing. It’s Caitlin in the interview, Caitlin on the Tee Vee, at the book signing. Your brand is your work and your life – mostly the former – outside of a specific publication or venue. Rather than

    Caitlin Kelly – Reporter Daily News


    Caitlin Kelly

    That make any sense?

  14. Caitlin Kelly

    Steve, I don’t define myself by my last staff job — it was four years ago! And I’ve changed a great deal since then, personally and professionally; my credentials, hopefully, reassure people I’ve got some track record. Much as I enjoyed being part of a major media organization, it didn’t, per se, define me. I wasn’t a very good tabloid person anyway — much more of a broadsheet sort of writer.

    I hear you, but you know that each interview is slightly different; different host, different audience. I’ve been on NPR and NRA radio — pretty different crowds. But I do remain consistent when I speak….blunt, straightforward, pretty serious. I don’t see any of that being a “brand”, just the expression of my values.

    To me, a “brand” (and I am not wedded to this notion, just exploring it) somehow connotes falsity, artifice, a construct that is meant to be widely appealing to the largest possible audience. I don’t have that in me and just don’t want to. I think this is the root of my question….how one remains true to oneself while also somehow being sufficiently commodified (?) to appeal to lots of readers. It seems like an intriguing contradiction.

    1. Steve McNally

      I completely get what you’re saying re not defining yourself by your job. I even understand a bit of “anti-Brandness.” That’s why it’s your lot to build a brand of which you can be proud.

      Is there a designer you like and ask for by name? A car line you seek out? Coffee or plumbing hardware you’re especially keen on using? I like Apple and even IBM as brands. They say quality and innovation to me. There are lots of brands I don’t like, including those full of artifice and delusion.

      The different interactions you have with different hosts and audiences, that’s all part of you; professionally speaking, they’re all layers of your brand.

      “Simple” examples of people brands are Oprah and Martha Stewart. They can put their names on magazines, tv shows, linens and those will succeed based on their brands’ power. We lesser beings make due with a reputation, a body of work, a set of styles, behaviors and some “knowable quantities” of who we are and what we do that help people say “Yeah – Caitlin Kelly would be *perfect* for this engagement!” That’s what I think of when I hear about people “developing their brand.”

  15. Caitlin Kelly

    john, it’s true…every word is a choice (one hopes carefully chosen) and every inflection an option. I always feel that writing with emotion is like walking through a minefield; you can so easily lose a leg (and your readers) if you overplay it.

    In writing my book right now, about my experiences (and others’) working retail, one of the toughest challenges is finding the right emotional tone, and it’s hard because — of course — I have to figure out what I am feeling, talk about those feelings publicly and do it artfully. For someone who grew up in a cerebral family where feelings were just not something we discussed openly, it’s all pretty new.
    No pressure!

  16. Caitlin Kelly

    Sadly, I tend not to be the person people think of as “perfect for”….which suggests my brand isn’t terribly compelling….or clear. Part of it is that I am a generalist in a world of super-specialists, and I am fascinated (and write on) everything from the military to museums. My only defining characteristic is that almost everything (except politics) interests me. So not effective as a brand….

    Oprah and Martha exemplify why I hate brands! They are both wildly successful businesswomen for which I have terrific respect….but as people? As human beings I might want to know socially or admire for their personal qualities? No. I suspect both are Teflon-coated. I find Oprah very weird indeed on television — all faux empathy. So even if I watch her show and read her magazine, I don’t find her “brand” very compelling. Because it IS a brand. It’s a commercial expression of….of what? Of who she really is? I doubt it.

    Do I admire brands? Braun appliances. Farrow & Ball paint. Embraer jets. Lillet. I struggle to think of (m)any.

    I am not, in fact, a huge consumer or brand person. Unless you consider Paris a brand…:-)

    1. citifieddoug

      Well there’s your brand: Caitlin Kelly, who bears all the complexity of life on earth woven though hit fingers among the letters of her keyboard and as modest as a comet tracing heaven’s vault.

  17. Todd Essig

    What an interesting read with morning coffee! Plus it’s a courageous question to raise. For those involved in T/S “brand” has to be a valuable something to build, otherwise we’re working for nothing. One possible take on what you’re asking is the seditious question “are we wasting our time here.” I don’t think so, I’m actually betting not, but your question of brand being “a commercial expression of….of what?” still floats unanswered.

    I think it might be a bit easier for me since I’m not really a journalist/writer, more of a recovering source who decided to have his own say. I guess writing for T/S is becoming part of my “brand” as a psychologist, although I’ve always thought of what I’m doing in terms of crafting a “professional identity” rather than the more commercial-sounding “brand.” In fact, the first question I ask residents and interns at the start of supervision is “what kind of a doctor to you want to be?” to get them to start thinking about questions of professional identity from the start.

    What’s the difference between brand and professional identity? Probably more one of scope and size. Having (being?) a brand rather than a professional identity suggests significantly more commercial power with much less personal freedom. Braun really can’t just start making cosmetics because the CEO get’s interested in lipstick. So, I guess whatever limited “brand” I build as a blogger/journalist/writer will eventually become part of a more encompassing professional identity.

  18. I think you should rename your blog “Hot Poker in the Ass” — the HPA Brand.

    HPA consumer products for women (hats, shoes; HPA “style”). HPA digital publishing. HPA self-help websites.

    HPA — the Movement.

  19. Caitlin Kelly

    Todd, I did raise the question sincerely, not seditiously. I really enjoy blogging, (luckily) but was also told, in no uncertain terms (!) that I had to blog to sell my book to a publisher and build an audience for it. I’d do it anyway because I enjoy it. Sort of a sad notion that 20+ years of serious journalism wasn’t enough.

    Not sure how it will play out for you in your field; I do think asking new doctors who they are or want to be — i.e. having some professional self-awareness – is smart and helpful. As you well know, you can be credentialled up the wazoo and be a horrible, horrible person from a patient’s perspective.

    Scott, I’m thinking T-shirts, a concert tour, tattoos. You’re my new director of marketing, baby!

  20. solfish

    Uuuummm. Alienated Labor anyone? Is the idea of a tension between the creative/true and popular/salable extinct? Are we really at the point where there is no distinction between the words themselves and their exchange value?

  21. Caitlin Kelly

    solfish, that’s the crux of the matter. In the world of publishing — with 24,000 of us journos canned in one year alone, last year — it’s all hands grabbing for any lifeboat imaginable, ethics and integrity and selling out be damned! And, in very specific terms, when writers are — as we are — paid by the word (in print anyway) it’s a blood sport to achieve a decent per-word rate when every magazine is cutting their fees.

    I have told every class I’ve ever taught in journalism that you may wish to be creative — God bless you — but if you wish to earn a living from your work, you are more likely to focus in being (industrially) productive. Very very different. As we know, some of the most creative (challenging, difficult, questioning) work is the least commercially appealing.

    Given this “branding” conversation, I was fascinated to read today’s NYT front page story about the rise and fall of Desiree Rogers, social secretary for the White House. They were apparently appalled by her use of the word “brand” to describe Obama.

  22. john

    I love that this thread is still going on. To Todd’s point let me offer an an answer for you to tear apart. Brand is the commercial expression of the perception of identity. I’ve used the perception of identity because it’s butterfly wings. If you try to touch it, it’s ruined. Much like a company that markets itself as one that is concerned with quality, but peddles anything but. So it’s built up over time until some tipping point is reached and bam, you got brand, Some immutable set of characteristics that define our perception of a thing.

    As for being a generalist, you are perfect for pulling string (my way of saying provoking thought), but more than this a generalist facilitates interdisciplinary communication.

    While you lament that part of your brand, chin up. It is precisely because the world is so specialized that we need more people to help bridge it all together. I’ll give you a nerdy example. In the medical world there is something called Evidence Based Medicine – the “conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.” In the world of software design, we’ve borrowed that concept and turned it into Evidence Based Design, which is simply about infusing design decisions with data-driven insights. Now, how would that happen without a hot poker in the ass generalist to help facility cross-mojonation of the domains? Dear God woman! If that isn’t compelling I don’t know what is!

  23. jeannettemontgomery


    How timely that I read your post. An online connection suggested I read it – and she didn’t know I’d been thinking about this lately. Stars, align.

    Yesterday I had a conversation about branding and whether or not it was time to brand me. It was talking to this person – someone who’s well branded in their own field – that I realized what I didn’t want. That. I don’t want to be a brand and I don’t think I have to be.

    Maybe it’s language that’s getting my goat here: Kenneth Burke might argue that we’ve constructed language to put things in order, and that’s what we need. I imagine him beside me yelling, “Shut the whining up and get on that brand-wagon already.” Well, maybe not quite like that.

    It’s difficult enough for me to identify as a writer; I think of myself as someone who writes. Brand? No way. I have a few sub-categories of writing styles. The writing I do for my blog is different than on the blog of someone who has paid me to help them find their voice. That’s expected.

    As for branding, I’ll leave that to the farmers & their cattle and the odd person who feels the need to take the tattoo thing to a whole other level.

    Please don’t ask me to brand myself. I’m not sure I can put it together in a neat little package like is expected of a brand. Unless we evolve the meaning of the word. It’s language: isn’t that what happens?

  24. Caitlin Kelly

    john, what fascinating insights. I am totally with you on “butterfly wings” — do you know the Ray Bradbury tale (one of my favorites, read as a child) when a time traveler steps off the path accidentally, crushes a butterfly — and alters the entire future?

    I agree that it is such an amorphous gift; we decide who we trust, whether product or person. That takes time and consistency. I appreciate that you see the value of inter-disciplinary thought — it’s what I thrive on. My book about women and guns was really about: violence, power (political, economic, literal), men, women, competence, athleticism, sociology, criminology and feminism, to name just a few things. 🙂

    My second book, about my work in retail, will also talk about everything from why store makes us spend to what happens when you talk to a customer too soon, i.e. crossing many lines again.

    jeannette, part of a writer’s dilemma – if s/he is to make real money — is to be a tailor or carpenter, someone with excellent skills out to each client’s specific needs. Maybe not for fiction. But I speak here of writing non-fiction and journalism.

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