Recently, blogger Penelope Trunk announced that she is separating her blog from her brand (Brazen Careerist). My first thought was, “is that even possible?”
Her blog bills itself as “advice at the intersection of work and life,” and given her peculiar life and work, it actually works. Every post attempts to offer some useful career advice, while unavoidably incorporating some of Penelope’s own eccentricities (she even has a navigation section titled “My life disguised as career advice”).
It got me thinking, though. What happens when the personality IS the brand? Is it possible (or even desirable) to separate them? Are we talking about breaking up the Beatles, or more like breaking Sting free of The Police?
The Barefoot Contessa
There’s the case of Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. When Garten bought an upscale food store in the late 1970s, she kept its brand, Barefoot Contessa, and fit her approach into it: simple and fun, earthy and elegant. Over the next 20 years, she built it into THE place to go for high-end take-out comfort food in the East Hamptons, with smoked salmon for $32 a pound, or, for the budget-minded, roasted potatoes for $11 per pound.
When Garten tired of the day-to-day running of the business, she sold it to the general manager and chef and moved upstairs (she retained ownership of the building) to figure out her next move.
That move turned out to be leveraging the Barefoot Contessa brand into cookbooks (and, eventually, a TV show).
It might seem counterintuitive (or even actionable) to sell a business with an existing brand, let it continue to operate under that brand, and yet continue to use that brand yourself for a separate business. But after all that time, Garten and the brand were synonymous. Quite aside from Ava Gardner, to many of her customers, she WAS The Barefoot Contessa. The store itself closed the year after the sale (possibly at Garten’s influence – she reportedly offered a different lease agreement unacceptable to the new owners). Whatever the behind-the-scenes maneuvers, The Barefoot Contessa has long outlived its original location, purpose, business, and owner, and is still going strong – as is Ina Garten.
Men With Pens
On another end of the spectrum is James Chartrand, freelance copywriter and founder of Men with Pens. For many customers, Men with Pens IS James Chartrand – his monthly advice on Copyblogger is as popular among writers as Dooce is with housewives.
One of the great benefits of virtual interactions, where copy is always digital and a “meeting” means an online chat, is that you can present yourself in any way you choose. As Chartrand explained in “Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants,” the ‘James Chartrand’ brand (the male pen name) simply did better than her own.
The male brand brought in more money, more respect, less hassle, and more jobs, for exactly the same work.
Despite this revelation, Men With Pens continues, with Chartrand at the helm. The brand has simply been reframed. Only time will tell whether letting her mask slip affects the power of the brand.
Experts and Owners
In our industry (business and marketing planning), we have a lot of experts who are essentially their own brand, from our own Tim Berry to Guy Kawasaki to John Jantsch. Offering advice as an expert, it’s almost unavoidable. Any independent accountant, any martial arts instructor, any small-business owner who has lots of personal contact with customers becomes the company brand. Or it becomes them, as with Garten. This is fine while the business is small, but what happens when you open another location? When you want to retire? When you want to change roles in the company?
Make sure you’re not letting your association with your brand get in the way of change or growth – either your growth, or that of your business.
-by Sara Prentice Manela
Palo Alto Software, Inc.