Brands As People, People As Brands

People strive to be brands creating a loss of self, and often a loss of any potential brand. Brands try to be people, in programmatic and contrived ways. Both are organic as a Twinkie asking how the fellow kids are doing. On a call for a long-dead startup building its empire on Google+, someone, a…

First published in on April 17, 2023.
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On a call for a long-dead startup building its empire on Google+, someone, a person, objected to being paid to appear in a commercial promoting a class they sold because of how it would impact their brand. They were a chef, not a famous one. But in July of 2011, they had quickly amassed a following of about 6,000 in under a month on the hot emerging social network that was Google+, and they believed fame was on the horizon.

Google+ launched with hype in 2011. Even a flurry of new players fighting to capture the mindshare of an uncertain Twitter doesn’t match the hype I saw around Google’s new social network. It was a big deal in June, July, and part of August in 2011.

The startup I worked with used Google+ to connect experts with people who wanted one-on-one online instruction. Solid as a concept, and outsourcing almost the entirety of product development to the rapidly growing social network arm of a major tech company left startup costs at nearly zero.

R.I.P. Google+ June 28, 2011 – [Technically] April 2, 2019

In November of 2011, The BBC ran an article titled ‘Google denies Google+ death reports‘. The BBC joined the chatter after most of the tech press had already called the time of death. A critical mass of normal users abandoned Google+ by September.

In January 2012, Google made signing up for a Google+ account mandatory to create a Google account. But just because you make a horse create an account doesn’t mean they will log in. I expect Google+ is the fastest-growing social network of all time by number of inactive, resentful signups.

In April 2014, Tech Crunch pronounced the social network the ‘Walking Dead’. As of September 2014, joining Google+ was no longer required to create a Google account. It was a ghost town of a social network, just a few survivors posting, and responding to one another.

Google+ was laid to rest in April 2019. A wild ride, where the only real activity came during a three-month window at the start.

People Want To Be brands

Celebrities say no to things out of concern for their public-facing brand. But many people who are a far cry from celebrity status lose perspective. Someone with 10,000 social media followers will often come across like a bad first-time novelist’s interpretation of how they think a famous person behaves.

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I’ve had calls with representatives for actual celebrities of the performance at the Grammy Awards variety. I’ve also had calls with people (and their management) who think they are on track to perform at the Grammy Awards. The constant from those conversations is far more concern about a brand image from those with thousands of followers than those with millions of fans.

Back to the chef. Due to their brand concerns, they objected to nearly every marketing decision for the marketplace they used as a seller. Late-night calls opposing words used in marketing copy on pages unrelated to them type of objections.

So far as I can tell, our chef never built a social following outside of Google+. If memory serves, even on Google+ they peeked at just over 18,000 followers. Our chef had a Google+ page, not a brand, but they acted like they thought they were Gordon Ramsay.

I wouldn’t expect that level of nonsense from Gordon Ramsay. I know for a fact that Gordon Ramsay didn’t refuse to allow any advertising of his brand image to promote his video course from Master Class. Here’s the trailer for that Master Class if you don’t believe me.

Most People Aren’t Brands

Don’t get me wrong, 18,000 real, organically amassed followers are impressive on almost any social network, but it’s not a brand. Few were searching for this chef outside of Google+. Even on the platform, the chef was hardly sought out.

I hold with most of the ideas in the essay 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kell. That a creator only needs 1,000 true fans to make a living is a fact. Here’s what Kell calls a fan. 

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen;

Rarely will 18,000 followers translate to 1,000 or even 100 true fans. On social media, followers are largely transient and unattached. What’s more, social media followers are non-transferable. They don’t move with a creator from network to network.

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MrBeast, a creator with a strong brand, has 146 million YouTube Subscribers but only 25.4 million Instagram followers and 19.5 million Twitter followers. That’s a huge following on multiple platforms but far from a 1:1 ratio. No large creator is so loved that their entire audience will modify online behavior to keep up with them everywhere.

When a creator has a dispassionate following on only one social network, they are completely at the mercy of that networks whims. The company could suspend them or suppress them. A government could ban or attempt to ban the network. The platform could simply dwindle in popularity.

Brands Want To Be People (Organic And Real)

Sans Steak-umm and Wendy’s virtually no brand pulls off being hip and relatable online. But most seem to try for it. We all know the memes.

Brand: Hello fellow users I am a hip relatable brand.

Fellow users: Silence brand!

Brands decided to be organic, but with rules and guidelines that create the least organic feel possible. The style guides of large brands often note tone of voice. Meaningless phrases such as, “Always confident, never cocky,” fill pages of documents adjacent useful information like the brands official colors. These long brand bibles are always expensive, and rarely useful.

Brand guides should exist. But for almost every brand on earth they should be under 13 pages. Information about the colors and fonts, taglines, notes of phrases that must always be said, and notes about what words are never allowed, and what topics will never be addressed.

Always say “Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” for branding reasons is understandable. Never say “guarantee”, “animal testing” or “Harry Potter” will also be understandable. A custard brand, could sensibly have a don’t say ice-cream rule, but it won’t feel organic.

People do not see brands as socially organic. Disney, Coca-Cola, and adidas (seemingly styled as all lowercase) are large faceless companies. People think they are cool; They like the products, but Disney has no friends, because Disney is not a person.

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Brands however get hung up on this organic branding, despite all logic and evidence that it’s less effective than just embracing brandness. Nearly 10 years ago, I had an argument with a brand manager who vetoed all social ads from a media plan. They wanted to be seen as organic. But they were not organic.

Driving home I heard a radio ad and saw a billboard for the same brand. In the name of being an organic brand, the company posted to Facebook to reach about 4% of their audience with the exact same creative that would have gone in the advertisements. It was a choice to miss a goldrush of incredibly underpriced advertising, in exchange for valueless branding.

The Convergence Is Fake Plastic Trees

Online almost everyone, including myself has a brand face. For a while my online persona was a combination of Dril and some sort of angry professor working two jobs while waiting for tenure. For me, this was turning my personality up to 11, and my inhibitions to the rain on my skin. Not who I really am, but a caricature thereof.

I know many who strive for a manicured lawn brand on the internet. The type who despite 900 Instagram post only have four photos; power stance in a suit, shirtless in the gym, skydiving / plane taking off, and disembodied hand holding a drink. The image is not who they are, who they wish they were or any part of them.

People strive to be brands creating a loss of self, and as seen with our chef a loss of any potential brand. Brands try to be people, in programmatic and contrived ways. Both are organic as a Twinkie asking how the fellow kids are doing.

Everyone can smell the fake plastic trees. It wears me out.

Article by Mason Pelt of Push ROI. First published in on April 17, 2023. Photo by JFGryphon is marked with CC0 1.0.