A few weeks ago a good friend admitted to me over lunch that for the last few years, whenever she read something I’d posted on Facebook, it had struck her as “a little off.” “I can’t explain it exactly,” she said. “I knew it was you, obviously, but at the same time it didn’t seem to be totally you.”
I cringed. After all, no one wants to be accused of inauthenticity. Yet it seemed that was exactly what my friend was implying. What I heard her say, in so many words, was that I was not quite the same person online that I was in real life.
Years ago, long before I’d published my first book, my agent and I talked often about marketing and branding. She’d encouraged me to figure out who I was and where I fit in the Christian publishing landscape. “You need to find your place and your people,” she advised.
It was good advice. Finding your audience is important, especially for a new writer. The problem was, I didn’t seem to fit anywhere.
As a member of a mainline Protestant denomination, my personal theology aligns with that of “progressive” Christians, yet I’m not outspoken, and I shrink from controversy like it’s the Black Death. I admire many progressive Christian authors, read their work and agree with many of their views, but I also knew the online realm they often occupy was too contentious for me.
On the other hand, my views on marriage equality don’t square with most evangelicals. Though I was always welcomed with grace and love, I also knew in my heart that the more traditional evangelical online communities for women weren’t the best fit for me either.
It seems there is ample room if you sit squarely on either end of the theological spectrum as an outspoken “progressive Christian writer” or a more traditional “evangelical writer,” but, ironically, less space for those who roam the gray area in between.
I wrote both biography and memoir. My first book was released by a progressive Christian publisher, my second (and third and fourth) by a conservative evangelical house. Depending on both my mood and the tenor of the piece I was writing, my “voice” swung from gritty, self-deprecating and sardonic to encouraging, contemplative and lyrical. Once or twice when I was feeling especially convicted I wrote provocative “lightning rod” pieces, but my preferred sweet spot was writing stories and observations about ordinary life and faith.
In short, I did not write in a single genre. I did not have a finely tuned message. My voice varied, and I didn’t fit neatly in one place with one particular audience.
I also did not have a consistent personal brand.
“A brand,” marketing expert Debbie Millman said recently on the Hurry Slowly podcast, “is the result of manufactured meaning.”
Think of the Nike swoosh. What was once simply a random mark, something you might have absentmindedly doodled in the margin of a notebook, has become imbued with meaning. Today we can’t see “the swoosh” without automatically connecting that once-random symbol with attributes like strength, power, athleticism, success, action and “just do it.” Nike manufactured meaning around its brand.
With the rapid explosion of social media came the rise of the personal brand. Influencers from entrepreneurs to movie stars to talk show hosts have personal brands, and these days, most authors – particularly non-fiction authors – have a personal brand too (or at the very least, a consistent, recognizable image and message).
The fact is, the most successful non-fiction authors – both “regular” market and Christian – have constructed powerful personal brands (to be clear, I’m defining “success” based on sales numbers, and, to a lesser extent, number of social media followers). Look no further than best-selling author Rachel Hollis, whose first book Girl, Wash Your Face – published by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson – has sold 1.5 million copies. Hollis has 1.4 million Instagram followers and 1.5 million Facebook fans. Readers know exactly who and what they’ll get when they pick up a book by Rachel Hollis (or when they visit her Instagram, listen to her podcast, watch one of her FB Live videos or attend one of her RISE events), in large part because Hollis has masterfully built a clear, consistent and compelling personal brand — a brand that sells.
Hollis has done exactly what Forbes magazine journalist and entrepreneur Goldie Chan advises in her article “10 Golden Rules of Personal Branding.” Along with “Have Focus,” “Be Consistent” and “Be Genuine“ is Rule #8: “Live Your Brand”:
“Have your lifestyle and brand be one and the same…Your personal brand should follow you everywhere you go. It should be an authentic manifestation of who you are and amplify what you believe.”
At first glance this sounds perfectly acceptable. Who can argue with authenticity and beliefs, right? And from a business, marketing and promotions standpoint, it makes sense. Consumers like to know what they are getting and to have their expectations met, and branding helps achieve that goal. If you like the image and message Rachel Hollis projects online, chances are good that you’ll like her books too.
The problem, though, is that we are talking about human beings. And human beings are inconsistent by nature. We are complex. We are messy. We are complicated and unpredictable. No matter how genuine or authentic we aim to be online, these projections of ourselves are mere holograms. Our very inability to be defined and contained is what makes human beings both amazing and, at times, awful. We are fearfully and wonderfully made; we are flawed and fallible.
We are both/and. And both/and does not make for an effective brand.
Branding works great with sneakers, cars, appliances and handbags. But human beings are not sneakers. We are not cars, appliances or handbags. Human beings are not intended to be brands.
I think this is what my friend was getting at when she observed that there was something not quite right about my online presence. She couldn’t put her finger on it exactly, but I suspect what she was intuiting was a subtle tension, a quiet battle of sorts unfolding just under the surface. I was trying to convey a consistent message. I was trying to offer a consistent voice and a consistent image. I was trying to find a place to fit. I was trying to have focus and be genuine – please believe me when I say that I was genuinely trying to be genuine! I was, in short, trying to give my “audience” what I thought they expected or wanted. In my own stumbling way, I was trying to have a brand, to be a brand. But on the inside, my soul knew better. My soul knew that a human being can’t be a brand.
Here’s the truth about me: Sometimes I’m crabby as all get-up. Sometimes I’m snarky and cynical. Sometimes I’m funny, silly, lighthearted, full of joy and optimism. Sometimes I’m morose. Sometimes I’m energetic. Sometimes I’m withdrawn. Sometimes I’m outgoing. Sometimes I’m exuberant. Sometimes I’m subdued. Sometimes I’m compassionate. Sometimes I’m selfish. I’m two parts sweet and sentimental, two parts crass (or maybe that ratio is 1:3). The scent of a blooming apple tree can move me to tears in the middle of my morning run. I also burp out loud in the privacy of my own home (much to my family’s ongoing horror) and use the F-word from time to time.
I mean, can we just be honest here? No brand in the world could be an “authentic manifestation” of that!
If there’s anything consistent about me (and dare I say, about any human being, even the most masterful personal brandmasters!) it’s that I am inconsistent. I’m a bundle of contradictions. I’m always changing. Sometimes I’m growing, moving forward, being transformed. Sometimes I’m stumbling one step forward two steps back. I won’t be the exact same person tomorrow that I am today. I’m not the same person today that I was yesterday.
In short, I am a human being. I am messy and magical, mundane and mesmerizing. And here’s the truest thing I can tell you about myself right now: I’m grateful that everything that makes me both fabulous and flawed can’t possibly be captured and contained in a brand.