Problems with Brand in an Era of Narcissism


Finding the Right Motivation—and Avoiding the Wrong One—to Start your Business

One day during the Christmas break, my mother and her friend Maria were sitting at the kitchen table, reading glasses on and hunched over a rarely used Acer laptop, laughing their heads off. You couldn’t escape the laughter, especially in a modestly-sized house, so I went to see what was going on.

On the screen were photos of advertising materials for a new real estate agent trying to break into the business. Those materials amounted to him plastering his face everywhere he could—the local newspaper, fliers, social media. Without context you might think here was a man going through a mid-life crisis, giving it once last shot at becoming a male model.

Maria, a real estate agent for more than 20 years, told us that none of her colleagues took the guy seriously, and to be frank, it was hard to. Even in a field like real estate where your image is likely the most important part of your success, this guy overdid it.

In any industry where the idea of the individual supersedes everything, there will be people who flock there. Traditionally, these industries have resided in the cultural sphere—literature, music, and film most predominantly. People who achieve success in these hyper-social industries become gods. Think about Ernest Hemingway, and Elvis, and Kurt Cobain, and Tom Cruise. Superstars, all of them—you know their names, and even the mention of them brings a hundred thoughts and opinions to most people.

But do you know the Google founders? How about the Yahoo founders? How many of the world’s 50 richest people can you name? If you’re struggling to answer those questions, that’s normal. Very few people rise out of the anonymity of the business world and embed themselves into cultural consciousness. But when someone does, it happens with the subtlety of a nuclear bomb.

What do you think about when you hear the name ‘Steve Jobs’? What do you think about when you hear the name ‘Elon Musk’? Jobs, and more recently, Musk, have reached levels of international fame never before seen by entrepreneurs.

In the past, monopolists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockerfeller had clout because of their political importance, which has been retroactively taught as a cultural impact. With Jobs and Musk, we can see their importance to global culture in real time. No politics, just two guys charming and intriguing their way into the zeitgeist. This is not to diminish the brilliance of Jobs and Musk, who are both visionaries. However, society only notices a fraction of the visionaries that exist or have ever existed.

The complete reverence that we have for Elon Musk and the late Steve Jobs has changed the game. Now that people know such recognition is possible in the entrepreneurial world, the way that younger generations approach advertising and themselves has shifted. Millions of people have launched tech start-ups with dreams of being the next visionary—of being a superstar.

Maybe this progression has always been inevitable, that a wider variety of industries would be able to springboard someone to larger, even national or global, recognition. Maybe in the age of social media and selfies, the increasing amount of narcissism is a better explanation for more people attempting to market themselves not just as employees, but as brands.

But what’s strange in the face of this wave of people trying to sell themselves rather than their ideas is that we’ve seen the founders of companies use themselves as their company’s brand before. Colonel Sanders is the face of KFC (despite hating what it became after expansion), Dave Thomas used his daughter Wendy’s name and likeness for his fast food restaurant, and Orville Redenbacher was frequently on television telling you how great his popcorn was. This isn’t a new idea, as there is a history of both good and bad (and astonishingly bad!) case studies using this tactic.

As more and more companies begin using this advertising tactic however, one has to wonder why they’ve chosen it. Is it cheaper to run ads where you only essentially need yourself and a camera (perhaps why so many small local businesses advertise this way)? Is there some kind of SEO that makes this more effective than other approaches? Or is it something else?

Yes, the technological boom that started in the 90s and has only accelerated in recent years can certainly explain a lot of the economic factors that drive small businesses and their advertising, but Steve Jobs was a pioneer of the modern technological boom, and Elon Musk figures to be at the reins of future innovation. Both men are inherently a part of the engine that powers modern life and the way our society reveres these men and credits their companies’ successes almost entirely to them is not going away, as witnessed by the media coverage of the Falcon Heavy’s successful launch this February.

Perhaps the prevalence of self-plugs as advertising has increased as a subconscious—or even more acknowledgeable—effect of living in a culture that seems to have bought in hook, line, and sinker to The Great Man Theory of Leadership. If we appreciate the individual over the company, we’re setting a dangerous precedent that could skew our country’s understanding of how businesses actually begin and succeed. Simply put, no one should not be using their business to plug their ego or to bring themselves exposure.

I’m not suggesting a real estate agent could ever reach national fame or even that the poor guy with his face plastered everywhere imagined he’d be famous, but the thought process of equating yourself to success isn’t all that dissimilar, especially when adjusting for local scales.

Advertising like that may be cheap and easy, but you must have a broader perspective on things whenever you consider your brand. If you are an entrepreneur and you happen to be your company’s brand, that’s fine—if handled carefully and done for the right reasons. That reason can never solely be about you, but about what your company does, what separates your product from the rest, how your product can help the customer, or dozens of other ideas.

Your motivation for starting a business will be a significant factor in how well your business does, because that motivation is the largest deciding factor in how much time and effort you put into your business. If your motivation for starting a business is self-promotion or self-realization, you will inevitably find yourself in the future fighting not for your company, but for yourself, and that’s a bad recipe for sustaining something serious.