the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Storytelling and Branding

Some think writers are crazy, idealistic fools with no sense of the real world. I completely disagree. Just look at the above video of a well-known storytelling guru. Amy and I hope to exhibit as much passion as Nicholas the Storyteller in our BlogHer session.

On the same day that I was taking some notes on “storytelling,” from Nicholas, I had an interesting chat on the phone with a PR professional attending the conference in Chicago.  She is very interested in the concept of “branding” online, both for companies and individuals. I asked her some questions about branding, because I see the word used frequently online, but never completely understood it.

When I thought about it, these terms — storytelling and branding — have a lot in common.  They are both about using words, and sometimes pictures and music, to create a narrative which entertains or persuades.  The main difference is that “branding” is about control, fine-tuning a message so others will see you or your company in exactly the way you want it to be presented.  You do not want any holes in your story.  For branding to be effective, you want to focus on the truth — but only a certain slice of it.  The other elements must be swept under the rug.  Currently, the Jackson family is attempting to “brand” the Michael Jackson story, focusing on his talent and inspiration, hoping that his legacy will be positive, and not that of a pedophile.  Have you ever been to the Nixon Library in Orange County? It is a educational place, but the curators do some history re-writing in order to make the former President seem more like a towering historical figure than a creepy guy.  Branding is important because it puts our best face in front, like the photoshopped avatar in Twitter.  Branding is an oil company putting on a “green” logo on their brochure because they know it sells.  When it doesn’t sell, they will brand themselves as something else.

Don’t get me wrong.  Storytelling also hopes to manipulate you.  Stephen King wants you to jump out of your seat at the right moment.  A comedian knows from experience when you are going to laugh at a punchline.  The better the story, the more the writer controls your every thought.  But the heart of a good story is less about placing a barrier between the real soul of the writer and the audience, then about digging deeper, so that the one dimensional becomes three dimensional.  The writer is communicating, but also searching for his own meaning. The lone cowboy is a one-dimensional image.  It is the Marlboro Man in a famous cigarette advertisement.  The cowboy who likes his cowboy friend and checks out his ass while lassoing the steer is a character in Brokeback Mountain, and that wins the Oscar.

Writing a blog is a combination of branding and storytelling.  At times, I do present a one-dimensional side of myself because it makes it easier for me to relate to you, and for you to “get me.”  If I were to start my blog over again, I might spend more time “branding” myself.  I am jealous of all the mommy and daddy bloggers, the dating and tech bloggers, who are able to focus their energies on a certain aspect of their lives.  Maybe I should have restructured this blog as a marriage/separation story, focusing on my relationship with Sophia, and then writing a book about it.  Instead, this blog is all over the place.

Do you see the difference between branding and storytelling? If I was “branding” myself, I would try to be clear in focus, so you would be able to quickly identify me, like you can on my Twitter avatar where I wear a fedora like a 1940’s detective. In this almost five year story of my life on my blog, I spend most of my time searching for this “brand,” this clear-cut identity or vision. Once I achieve it, there will be no more reason for a blog. Once I am my own brand, then I have nothing else to explore. That’s when I just market t-shirts with my name on it.

Do you get a clear sense of who I am?  Probably not.  I don’t. I’m nice and friendly and sometimes a jerk.  I flirt with women and tell sexist jokes, but I’m very politically correct.  Probably the biggest misrepresentation of my self relates to the sex posts. Now that I am less than two weeks away from meeting so many women, I am a little concerned about my reputation. Does anyone going to BlogHer really worry that I might hit on them in the bathroom, saying, “Let me see those tits, baby!” I’m never going to say that.  I probably wouldn’t even think it.  I mostly think of those things when I am at home, writing blog posts by myself.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not dangerous.  Oh, the neilochka brand is dangerous all right.  What you REALLY have to worry about is me during the keynote address, when I run onstage, grab the microphone from whoever and point to some well-dressed woman in the fifth row and say, “MomBlogWoman, I can’t keep it in any longer.  I’m in love with you.  I know I only met you ten minutes ago, but the way you were slurring and spilling your drink all over yourself last night when you were sloshed was so beautiful, and the way you put that business card in my hand, so our fingers touched ever so slightly, and the fact that you skipped The Bloggess’ comedy session to come to ours instead — I just know that you were the one, and that I must have you as my own.  I know you are married with three children, but I just received these engagement rings in the mail in exchange for putting a link from this jewelry company on my blog, and I would like to get on my knees like the guys do on “The Bachelor” and, in front of 1500 of these wise women, and ask you, MomBlogWoman, will you…”

Anyway, you see.  I’m not going to feel you up.  That’s not me.  That is all “branding.”  My story is more complicated and intense.  I want to be in love!  Love!  Do you hear me?  And then we will dance the night away on a riverboat as we sail between the famous buildings of the Chicago Skyline, fireworks in the sky from the special event going on in Wrigley Field, Bat Day and Fireworks Day and Love Day, all rolled into one.  Sigh.

Yeah, avoid me.

Then again, I’m not sure how true this is either.  Maybe I do just want to feel you up.   Maybe I should call Sophia and see how she’s doing.

24 Comments

  1. Joie at Canned Laughter

    Wait. I was supposed to photoshop my avatar? No wonder I look like everyone’s maiden aunt!
    I’m not quite convinced that blog branding is about telling a cohesive story. Perhaps that’s best left to books. Rather, I think it might be about maintaining a cohesive tone through story choice and graphics. And your tone? Is cohesively adorable.

  2. V-Grrrl

    You are branded Neil. You are a complicated and endearing, creative and indecisive, smart and overanalytical, funny and sad, multi-talented mess.

    At least that’s what the V-Grrrl focus group says.

  3. Lisa @ UnfilteredInsanity

    I am like you, no brand. I don’t just talk about my kids. (I can only say how annoying they are so many times before I start to lose readers) I don’t blog about my marriage because my husband’s really great and I don’t wanna talk about our sex life. So I meme more than I’d like but I’m often at a loss for something new and original. Dammit, now I’m depressed!

  4. Neil

    Joie, how can anyone keep a cohesive tone as life changes?

  5. Karl

    Yeah, my online brand is mostly crude and inappropriate, but I’m a total teddy bear.

    I cannot, however, guarantee that I won’t get drunk and repeatedly shout, “Show me your tits!” next week. Maybe to the girls, too.

  6. Twenty Four At Heart

    You just gave me an identity crisis. It would be easier I suppose if I were a mommy blogger, or a story teller or, or, or. I’m adrift in no-man’s land. By the way, I’m very disappointed you won’t be feeling up everybody’s tits. I wanted a photo of the women lined up waiting for their turn.

  7. Chag

    You seriously think you don’t have a brand? Your brand is you. Same as 99% of all bloggers.

    Even the mommy and daddy bloggers.

  8. bri

    I love this post. I also feel lost in a bloggish non-branded identity search and have for 6.5 years now. No, that’s not true at all. I didn’t worry about branding until I started reading posts about BlogHer exactly one year ago. You are making me want to write angsty posts about the whole thing. But first I will twitter and eat ice cream instead.

  9. Anonymous Admirer

    I suspect that I would disagree with whatever the PR person told you about branding. When it’s right, it’s a tool that both clarifies and amplifies the essential truth of the branding’s subject. Good branding absolutely has to get at what is true, and when it’s really good it’s participatory for the consumer/audience–they become an essential component of shaping the brand (think of Harley-Davidson). If it’s just a lot of hocus pocus people see right through it.

    As for blogging and branding, I’m finding myself feeling very intolerant of blogs that are part of the blogging community echo chamber. I’d rather read what’s true about a life as it evolves than keep up with people who are self-consciously sticking to their personal branding script. Yes, it’s great for a site to have a look that’s consistent with the content, but, honestly, that’s about the extent of it for me.

    A blog will reflect a point of view as long as it’s honest. If that point of view is in flux that’s not a bad thing–it’s because the author is growing and changing. My own blog is on hiatus because I have felt unprepared to emotionally put myself out there with what’s going on in my life of late. If I’m not ready to be honest, I’m just going to keep to myself until I am.

    In a related rant, I’m ready to unfollow a bunch of Twitterers who seem only to talk about the load of garbage they learned at this blog branding seminar or that blog PR seminar, or others who seem compelled to retweet every compliment that comes their way. What a lot of useless noise.

    At any rate, I think you rock. You are very real in your blog. Of course your readers don’t know all of the dimensions of who you are–that’s fine. But what you put on your blog is obviously honest. And that’s what makes it compelling.

  10. Corina

    I am random these days as well, attempting to find my way through writing,photography, getting tripped up along the way. I stumble, and, believe me, I am quite the klutz.

    Writers. Storytellers. Brand? I am not so sure. I think a book, a story, a blog, in many instances (not all) is a confessional and a laboratory. A place where we can invent and reinvent ourselves, a place where we can confess our multitude of flaws, looking to get some feedback, some camaraderie. This occurs even in novels, where characters are often some thinly veiled version of the author or the author’s history.

    I feel a blog post coming on……

  11. sassy

    I want to react to what you said but I am so blown away by Nicolas the Storyteller’s speech anontation, buggy eyes and medeival costume (wtf?) that I’m at a total loss for words… where did you find that guy??

  12. headbang8

    Now, as yet another so-called branding professional, let me throw in my tuppence.

    It might add a slightly different nuance.

    If storytelling is one form of “branding”, what is a “brand”?

    The “brand”, really, is character. In the case of a blogger, it’s the author. In the case of an entertainment franchise, it’s the hero.

    There are other branding devices apart from a story.

    Appearance is one. (as you noted from your fedora-avatar experience). The place you hear the character’s story is another (I will treat a character that appears on HBO more seriously than one on broadcast TV, for example).

    Let’s take a very, very powerful brand–David Beckham. He has lots of associated meanings; masculine, cool, sexy. We deduce much of that meaning from his story. The multi-million dollar deals, the glamourous wife, all that good stuff.

    Have you noticed, though, that his management doesn’t allow him to speak very much?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P842Tmi6lrc

    In fact, the only place where he’s actually allowed to speak is on Japanese TV.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCmZrSB2Bgw

    Let him open his mouth too much, and it would blow the brand. (if you’dd pardon the expression)

    The character’s story, or backstory, is powerful. But it’s not the only influence.

    You may decry that your story goes all over the place, Neil, but the character of Neilochka, Sophia, and even your mother are all incredibly consistent with their “brands”; that is, their characters. The stories make the characters easier to understand, and vice-versa.

    Brands that behave inconsistently earn our distrust and fail to earn our affection.

    You build the Nielochka brand no matter what you write about. As long as the story is good, and you stay Neilish.

  13. 180/360

    Oh Neil… this is why I love you. I know I’m on my own little boat in regards to what is happening in the sell-out of Blogworld, but I’d much rather buy into the story of your life than anything else you could ever try to sell me. Branded by YOUR words is branding enough.

    PS. Out of everyone you could be doing your session with, I’m so glad it’s with Amy.

  14. Casey

    The only time I ever find blogs at all interesting is when they fall out of their set branding. That’s probably why I have so few blogs in my reader. I guess there is something to be said for persistence of vision, but unless you are Simon of Space, I don’t want to hear the same shit from you in every post.

    I was branded for a while in the marriage/separation category and it did make me popular. But how long can one guy bitch about it?

  15. Anita Ovolina

    Do it from your gut just like you are and it will be great 🙂
    BTW – awesome video!
    Thank you for stopping by Ovolina.com
    Cheers,
    Anita

  16. anymommy

    I don’t know what I think about branding v. storytelling. I do believe, and I think you said in there somewhere, that good storytelling, letting people get in and get to know you, is branding of a type, at least in the world of personal blogging.

    I’m looking forward to the BlogHer session!

  17. Deidre

    I feel kind of the same way about my blog – i don’t have any real focus or brand…

    And I definitely have no storytelling skills….so, um, my blog is clearly awesome.

  18. Annie

    Neil-I think we can read you pretty well and I think most of the women who read your blog know that you would be very polite and shy in person. That is your brand, you have one and so do I, it is the face you show us every time you post :-).

  19. janet

    I don’t think it’s so far fetched that these things go hand in hand. PR and Advertising is all about impressing people via the written word. Far less of them of course, but the written word nonetheless.

  20. Postmodern Sass

    A brand is not a story, but a good brand has a good story. Think Coca-Cola. A brand is more like a character: it has attributes which, when collected together describe its personality. It has values, and it stands for something.

  21. this new place

    come to boston. I’ll find you someone at the piano bar to hang with. and find you some love. from me, I changed my blog again.

  22. Momisodes

    This post was brilliant. And I truly hope I get a chance to meet you at BlogHer. I will have to check out your session!

  23. Ann's Rants

    Teaser alert! My post tomorrow combines storytelling and branding, and I tagged you in it before I even knew about this post.

    I hope you enjoy it if you have time to read it. It posts at midnight tonight and it’s called “Shopbop, BlogHer, and Annsrants?!?”

  24. Chris Hoke

    Lovely post, Neil. I loved the part where you burst on stage. The thing I admire the most about your writing is that I immediately recognize it as distinctly YOURS.

    I’m sort of just expecting that as time progresses that I’ll find my online persona (which is frighteningly close to my real one) refined into a respectable shape. I’ll focus more on certain things, eschew others, and become a fairly reliable source of snarky amusement. I don’t think I would even know how to skew myself in one direction or another.

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