Selfishness need not be defined as doing something at the expense of others. It’s not a measure of greed. The great brands learn how to be self-referential without being predictable, overly indulgent, or creatively lazy. With stunning persistence, those brands create moments that elegantly refer back to their core values, delighting their consumers time and time again. They constantly loop back to their brand’s point of view, instead of just "making stuff." The best-in-class authentic brands--whether they’re people, products, or services--do this effortlessly and relentlessly. But don’t assume any of it is a coincidence or is magically improvised. It never is. 

Here’s my take on the 10 most unapologetically self-referential people, places, and things:

1. Rappers

All of them. Ever heard a selfless rapper? Of course not. Even rappers who have their authenticity challenged, like Macklemore or Baauer. Then he’d be a folk singer. Rappers have to establish their unique voice among fierce, almost World Wrestling Entertainment-style competition, all while referencing the "culture" and somehow casting themselves above the fray. From Kanye to Rakim, from the Beastie Boys to Run-D.M.C., studying rappers--the self-boasting, the almost psychotic pursuit for notoriety--is a master’s class in building authentic personal brands. Just ask Ben Horowitz. A billionaire venture capitalist (Groupon and Skype), he frequently uses hip-hop to explain business and even sends rap lyrics to other executives to help them make decisions.

2. Andy Warhol

For the young reader, you know enough to know that he was a cool motherf*cker, even if you don’t know exactly what he did. That’s the power of his brand; even in death he’s an "unlabel." Andy was the master of controlling his environment, best represented by the Factory, his studio that flung together artists, celebrities, and a stew of offbeat notables. (The concept inspired me years later.) Whether it was the tireless white wig he rocked or his nonstop postering of pop-culture icons, Warhol, like the contents in his famous Campbell’s soup can, understood which ingredients to serve again and again. And again.

3. Jesus

This one’s controversial, I know. And this has nothing to do with the pros or cons of any organized religion; I know less about theology than I do about advanced calculus. That said, building a personal brand looks more like creating a religion than creating a marketing deck. If you want to observe the ultimate execution of deploying a self-referential marketing tactic, look no further than Christianity. As an iconic symbol, the Boss on the Cross is tough to top.

4. Alfred Hitchcock

From the specific cinematic devices he used time and time again, to his recurring themes, to his "hidden" cameos in all of his films, Hitchcock was a hardcore self-promoter. He’s also a story of "It’s never too late," as he didn’t direct his first American film, Rebecca, until he was 40 years old.

5. Oprah

What’s so interesting about her is that her ability to be self-referential--whether in books, shows, O Magazine, or even on the Oprah Winfrey Network--makes us all more aware of our own selves. She makes us forget that she’s a billionaire who rolls with celebrities. By baring all her scars and her battles with weight, she’s self-referential in a way that makes her human.

6. The USA

What a brand. It has it all. Dramatic story with all sorts of violent twists and turns. Sick logo. Red. White. Blue. Stars. Stripes. It even has a catchy soundtrack and strong merch! It has everything from the rockets’ red glare to the apple pie to the pursuit of happiness. The brand’s still standing, unwavering, after generations of cultural and tectonic shifts more than 230 years later. Your brand has done something right when it can pull that off. Ask Ralph Lauren; he even tried trademarking the flag.

7. Star Wars

George Lucas, more than anyone else I can think of, managed to create an entirely new mythology that has a self-perpetuating, self-referential engine at its heart. (And that’s why Disney bought them. Yoda is the greatest invention since Mickey Mouse.) This is the reason "the force" will stay strong forever. Some critics have panned Lucas for extending his brand too broadly. That pisses me off and makes me want to go on some saber-and-blood-soaked revenge fantasy to destroy the rebels. What George created in all these strains of his brand--from the LEGO Star Wars partnerships, to the animated series The Clone Wars, to Industrial Light & Magic, to Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), and even to Jar Jar Binks--was a pop culture virus built on being self-referential. He never falls into the trap of getting lazy. It’s still fresh. It still works.

8. Will Ferrell

The most self-referential comedian. There’s a reason we all love Will Ferrell characters; the only thing that distinguishes one from the other is the wigs, the makeup, and the mustache. Practically every one of his characters, whether George W. Bush or Ron Burgundy, is a reckless alcoholic who, through brilliant timing and the escalation of his voice, will suddenly start talking very loud. Most importantly, these characters all share something else in common: Will Ferrell’s face. There’s absolutely a "Will Ferrell brand" in the DNA of each of these characters, from Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory to Frank the Tank in Old School.                              


If you were to write the business plan for AARP, you would laugh it out of the room: "We’re going to be this brand for old people. We’re going to be the Nike for the elderly." But whatever you think about AARP--good or bad--you have to respect the shrewd and persistent way that William Novelli, its CEO, has created mechanisms to promote the brand, whether it’s insurance products or the AARP logo or positioning the organization in both culture and politics.

10. M.E.

Not just any "me," but Marc Ecko. This is my formula, so I’ll be damned if I don’t include myself in a "Selfish" list that includes Yoda, Frank the Tank, and Jesus.

Don’t be selfish, just be yourself.

The word "selfish" has an ugly implication, but a strong sense of self--both internally and externally--is the engine that powers your brand. You need to dig deep, into your flesh and bones, to discover this core sense of self, and then you must own this self, from your guts to your skin.

Be as close to your singular purpose as you can. Gandhi knew who he was--and he was at peace with himself. Nike, for instance, knows what it is; regardless of the product or sport, everything has its clear and common purpose. You get in trouble when you get split against yourself. Like when Microsoft cranked out the Zune, just because it thought it should. Or that kid who comes back from spring break with fake dreadlocks. Or athletes who rap. (Sorry, Shaq.) You’re better served when you’re authentic to your nature and to not the pomp or perception.