My brand started in my parents’ garage in Lakewood, New Jersey, where I spray-painted T-shirts and sold them for $10 a pop. I grew that brand to the tune of a billion-dollar retail business. I’ve built skate brands, hip-hop brands, magazine, and video game brands. I’ve built brands that people literally tattoo on their bodies--"branding" in the truest sense. But the most important brand that I built was me, my personal guts-to-skin brand.
My philosophy is simple: unlabel. It is also the title of my new book, Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out. In it, I encourage you to channel your creativity, and find the courage and confidence to defy convention so you can better compete. I offer ways to deeply understand yourself and your brand, and to take action so you can create a sustainable business (that really reflects you) over the long-term.
I am a brand, but I am not a label. You too are a brand--whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not. And when I say "un" label, I don't mean it in the nihilistic or negative sense of the prefix, but in the "refuse" sense of the meaning. Refuse to be labeled.
Create your own brand (yourself), then sell it.
I found success--measured in both guts-to-the-skin happiness and billion-dollar companies--only when I scraped off the labels of the gatekeepers, ditched the boxes, and created my own personal, authentic brand that captured the attention of the people who count: the goalkeepers (the ones who vote; the folks with the shopping carts and cash in their wallets).
How people see you, feel you, understand you, and make assumptions about you when you are not in the room are pieces of your personal brand, and this is true whether you’re the president of the United States, a priest, or a plumber. Whatever your product or service, you are essentially selling you. Deal with it.
We as a society put things in a certain taxonomy. You’re labeled in hundreds of ways by thousands of people. These labeling frameworks help us, as consumers, navigate the world. Without labels, we’d be unable to tell a can of peaches from a can of beans.
Refuse to be labeled, and create a brand that’s authentic.
There are all sorts of unintended consequences of being labeled. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself running your business along the lines of the label that society has slapped on your tin can. You’ll wear pleated khakis, you’ll make your résumé look just like everyone else’s, and you’ll join the herd of sheep.
Yet even when you try to shake free of the herd, you sometimes end up as a black sheep in an identical herd of black sheep anyway. (Exhibit A: The "rebellious" goth high school kids who all wear the same eyeliner.)
But when you refuse to be labeled, you’ll start playing by your own rules. You’ll measure yourself by your own standards, not the gatekeepers’ standards. You can define the terms of your brand, your creations, and your success. You can be an artist without being a starving artist. You can sell without selling out. But first, you need to create an authentic personal brand that transcends the gatekeepers (the critics, the haters) who want to put a label on you, and which gets right to the goalkeepers. The goalkeepers are the only judges who matter.
Creativity is not divine and branding isn’t dirty work.
Forget the haters. They’ll say the mere association with a brand or a dollar sign strips you of credibility. And that branding sucks the life out of culture. (My take: That’s b.s.)
Creation doesn’t have to be the work of the divine. And branding doesn’t have to be the dirty work of the Madison Avenue ad man. In this fragmented media culture hyper-enabled by efficiencies of social media and self-publishing, you are a brand. So go ahead and be commercially responsible in your business, and let yourself feel creatively fulfilled by expressing your ideas.
Once you find that balance, you’ll see that what makes you a good artist is what will make you a good entrepreneur, too. If you’re authentic in the one, you’ll be authentic in the other. The labels "they" will project on you simply won’t matter. And if you’re willing but unable to commercialize your art? That’s okay too. You’re still an artist.
If you’re an artist, live by these words.
Never feel bad about successfully selling your creations.
Never feel bad about creating art you can’t sell.
It takes hard work to understand, grow, and nurture the anatomy of a brand. You can’t do it on the surface and you can’t slap on a Band-Aid when you lose direction or mess up. You have to dig deep and poke around with a scalpel--because your brand is not skin-deep. Labels are skin-deep, but a true, authentic brand is made of blood, bones, and organs. A brand has a heartbeat. Fluids ooze within its circulatory system, chunks of muscle tear and then rebuild, and sweat is secreted to cool the system down. It’s made of puss, mucus, ribs, and guts.
The anatomy of a brand, in turn, is defined by its authenticity. And just like a doctor can’t describe the wonders of the human body in a pithy one-line description, a brand’s authenticity can’t be cleanly defined in 140 characters.
I went through the ringer and came out on top.
People can take your job, but no one can take away the brand you’ve created--and your ability to create again. What happens when you lose your job or your brand, product, or service becomes obsolete?
These aren’t just rhetorical questions. I’ve had to answer them. I nearly lost all control on my company. I struggled with crushing debt. I even thought I might lose my house. I was a media darling and then a media target. But it was okay. I was okay. You’ll be okay. Because if you do it right, your brand is still there selling for you. And when you know you can truly create, your brand will help you recover, get a new job, and make it "new." Your brand is your bedrock.
Fight their labels. Ignore their labels. Peel off their labels. Refuse to be labeled by the gatekeepers. Create your own label. Find your swoosh, your Apple, your Rhino. (I’m not talking about making another cool "logo.")
I am a brand. You are a brand. And your brand is…?