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Applying a "brand" aid?

I find it a little troubling that we are beginning to take our values from marketers. I'm speaking specifically about our concern over personal "brands."

After reading Jeff Utecht's post about helping his students create personal "brands," I decided I ought to look the term up to see what it actually meant, having no background in business. The website has a variety of definitions, but opens with this interesting observation:

What is a brand? Too often even marketing professionals don't have an answer, and too many have their 'own' answer. Which makes life very confusing!

Indeed. But the article quotes The Dictionary of Business and Management as:

"a name, sign or symbol used to identify items or services of the seller(s) and to differentiate them from goods of competitors."

While I certainly understand and agree with the advice that we need to help all Internet users be aware of their online (and I hope offline) reputation and history, I am concerned that we are stepping too far into the realm of image rather than accomplishment.

Are we about style or about substance? Is it in our student's and our own best interest to simply think of ourselves as products that should be made as marketable as possible? To what extent do we truly encourage individuals to purposely develop unique identities online, especially when being true to oneself may not be appealing to mainstream society and work against traditional employment or "successful" career paths? (What if a student should decide to "brand" herself as the foremost authority and practitioner of devil worship on the planet - following a probably passing adolescent interest?)

Are we making sure that students understand that an image alone has little value? A clever brand might get attention, but unless it backed up by a body of meaningful work and experiences, reliability and consistency, of positive values and thoughtfulness, it might work against an individual as well as for him. (Edsel, Thalidomide and Nazi were all brands, after all.)

I'm not sure this topic deserves the kind of attention I've given it, but something didn't' set right with me about teaching self-marketing to seventh graders. Have we all drunk of Seth Godin's Kool-aid, and developed a 24/7 neurosis about being purple cows in order to survive in tomorrow's society?

Oh, do consider the source: if this writer has a "brand" it may be a small, smelly mammal that is either very cold or depressed.


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Reader Comments (7)

While teaching marketing to 7th graders may seem reprehensible on the surface, perhaps a discussion of "branding" could be held within a wider context, such as teaching adolescents how companies use branding to create unrealistic images that these kids try to live up to every day.

Perhaps having the students establish a brand for themselves early on will allow them to explore alternate identities, something we encourage as we recommend books to kids. While I am certanly aware that many of our kids are creating less than flattering online personalities, I am also aware that ignoring this trend will not make it go away. If even one student stops to think about his or her "brand" before posting something questionable, then this is certanly a conversation worth having.

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlpbryan

lpbryan makes a good point - part of "branding" could be "how you present yourself on-line". What do your posts/pictures say about you? Is this the way you want to be seen? Look at the persistence of brands and reputations (your phrase "drink the Kool-Aid", for example, shows a brand in an incredibly unflattering light, or how the name Adolph has negative connotations), and talk to students about how 5, 10, 15, 30 years from now their "brand" today may not be the way they'll think of themselves then, but the damage may be done..

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLazygal

I think today the idea of branding is much more about authenticity than it is style. In that regard, substance has a greater chance of being at the heart of the brand. The Madison Avenue style of branding that most of us old guys grew up with is slowly fading.

I hope the language doesn't get in the way of the intent. The fact that our work and lives will be largely online, changes the game and changes they way we think about teach kids about reputation. Transparency trumps gloss every time. When I "google" someone I treat it in the same way I would relationships offline, I get a first impression and then if I"m interested pursue the relationship. Sometimes first impressions are bang on, sometimes they aren't. Online, this takes less time when all the content is there but it's the same process.

Not sure if my rambling made sense but the bottom line is I think the connotations of the word "brand" are different in many ways today than they were 20 or more years ago. I think you're premise might be off a bit, but thanks for raising the issue.

Just my 1.7 cents (that's Canadian currency conversion)

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDean Shareski

I'm with you here, Doug. I've been finding almost everything for about the 10 last years to be much more "about image rather than accomplishment." And as a school librarian, it really troubles me.

When I was in fifth grade, we had a unit about advertising, which used some 50s/60s textbooks to teach about advertising methods. While it was most fun to use them when we made projects during the unit, what sticks with me is knowing the methods that are used to sell, and being able to judge them more accurately. I don't remember ever having difficulty differentiating between ads used to sell me things and content of magazines, books, or television shows. Now I notice my fifth grade students have great difficulty telling the difference between an ad and not-an-ad, and I think "branding" one's self just feeds that difficulty.

Also, I'm finding more and more people excusing their propensity to judge a book by its cover by suggesting that "that's just how people are." They feel it is the government agency's/school's/person's/company's responsibility to show them depth that they can't be bothered to find out about themselves. They don't feel like they have time to get beyond first impressions. I think someone wrote a book about what an unfortunate thing that can be for the impressor and the unimpressed. :) Being overly concerned about how you look to others, whether we call it image or brand or vanity, is ultimately destructive as it destroys self-confidence and keeps society from forgiving mistakes.

May 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKate W

Hi lpbran, Lazy and Dean,

Looks like I am in the minority on this one. I guess "branding" has a far more positive connotation that I've ascribed to it. I think we all agree on kids understanding their online rep and that's what matters.

Thanks for the comments,


Hi Kate,

You said better than I did my concern of "style over substance." Thanks for your thoughtful reply!


Oh, I did grow up in the Mad Men era!

May 4, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I'm all for teaching about branding and having kids look at it carefully to see what they are being sold, by whom and through what means. I think it would be an interesting process to then think about what choices you make as you figure out who you are and what you want to be and how you want to be seen. If that means I want kids to figure out their 'brand' then I can support it but if it is about 'selling' yourself. I have concerns. I think we do our students and ourselves a disservice when we think about the world only in terms of commerce. I am more than what I buy and what I sell and I want students to know and become more than buyers and sellers. But hey, I'm a socialist so what would you expect!

May 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

Hi Susan,

I think it is the commercial angle of "branding" that I disliked. I certainly realize we need to teach how kids present themselves online regardless of what we call it.

Thanks for the comment!


May 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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