This week may have seen the second Inauguration of our country's first African-American President, but the hottest topics of the week have involved a lip-syncing controversy and a college football player's made-up girlfriend. Did Beyonce really sing the National Anthem at the President's Inauguration or did she pull a Yo Yo Ma/Obama Inauguration 1.0 and mime her singing? When did Manti Te'o, the baby-faced Heisman finalist All-American Mormon linebacker from Notre Dame, know that his former girlfriend, "Lennay", was an elaborate hoax?
For both the pop diva and the football player, there is a lot at stake, or so they think. They both built their images on the shifting sands of the personal brand. Beyonce is the consummate entertainer who is always "on point" - stylish, sassy, not a hair out of place. She is feminist empowerment in a catsuit and high heels, penning anthems that encourage women to stand up and be heard, while admonishing their boyfriends to put a ring on it. Beyonce can be tender, but she is not weak. This is her personal brand, that mental shorthand that conjures up an image in the public mind whenever her name is mentioned.
For Manti Te'o, his personal brand was that of a religious, hardworking college athlete, whose humility and goodness helped him to weather the storms of personal tragedy at the deaths of both his grandmother and his girlfriend in a 24-hour period. And while details of his courtship of this fictional girlfriend continue to be revealed, what's most interesting to me is how Te'o seemed overly committed to preserving a personal brand that seems to have existed long before he came to prominence as a college athlete. Te'o's great-great grandfather was one of the first native missionaries in the Mormon church, serving in Samoa in the early 1900s. That tradition of mission continued with Te'o's grandfather and uncle, and was joined by another tradition in Te'o family - football. Te'o's father, and several uncles, all played on championship-winning high school football teams. That Te'o would grow to become a dominant athlete with an even temper, a good heart, and a welcoming smile, then, came as no surprise to his family and to his friends. And it didn't take long to establish the Manti Te'o personal brand in the media and for a public hungry for someone displaying genuine goodness.
The problem with strong personal brands is that, at some point, the person inside of the brand becomes trapped and the brand takes control. You stop reacting and, instead, calculate what is best for the personal brand. Watching an interview with Katie Couric and Manti Te'o that aired on January 24, 2013, Couric asked Te'o if he had perpetuated the story of the phony girlfriend because the story had become "sort of a legend that you had endured this hardship and gone on to play your team and your school to victory?"
The personal brand has leached into the collective consciousness, and for proof, you don't have to look any further than the lowly television reality show. Pick any of the "Real Housewives" franchises and you can see the personal brand in full flower - from the sassy, finger-snapping, aggressive femme fatale to the over-botoxed, surgically-enhanced, extension-wearing man-stealer who struts around in her basic uniform of too-tight, too-short clothing, daring anyone to "disrespect" her.
Turn on "Top Chef" and the personal brand is on the menu every week. There is the sullen, over-tattooed macho bad-boy chef. There's the hipster chef, with that Owen Wilson catch in his throat who ends his sentences with a rising inflection that's supposed to be non-threatening, but is really just annoying. During this current season of the show, three chefs from former seasons were invited to participate with the new crop of cheftestants and watching them reactivating the personal brands that had become their stock in trade from past seasons was like watching someone trying on their old clothes, and discovering that they no longer fit. One returning contestant, Chef Josie, has been particularly interesting, to the point of distraction. Her gift of gab alienated fellow contestants, and caused a serious outbreak of eye-rolling that rivaled anything thrown by the First Lady to Speaker Boehner! The "Josie Show" is what it's been called on the show, but I like to call it the attack of the personal brand. At some point, the you that you've created gets in the way of the you that you are.
Maybe we've all got it wrong, and instead of trying to find the perfect quote, the perfect profile picture, or the perfect status update as a shorthanded introduction to who we are, maybe we should just be satisfied by cultivating friendships with a chosen few and perfecting those friendships. And maybe we should leave the branding to things like blue jeans and soft drinks.