4 Keys to an Authentic Brand

Photo Credit: Ivi*Photo via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ivi*Photo via Compfight cc

by Suzan Bond | Featured Contributor

I’m about to do something that I shouldn’t. I’m going to tell you a story about an awful time in my life: the first time I tried to brand myself. It was a miserable failure. If it weren’t for a phone call from a Wall Street Journal reporter I might never have recovered.

After spending the earliest years of my career in corporate marketing, I’d gotten out. It was 2001 and even the economy had just soured, I was ready to make my business, and my life, my own. Pulling together every cent I had and taking a contract marketing job on the side, I launched my business.

I followed the rulebook I’d learned during my years promoting Top 5 consulting firms and big retailers. I gave my company a fancy name and puffed up my bio to make me sound more experienced and important. Though it was just me I used “we” liberally all over my website. I used big words that are better suited for SAT tests. My language was formal and dry despite the fact that I tended to be more informal and friends knew me as a free spirit. My copy sounded like a bad 1970’s commercial for a ginsu knife.

“For just one monthly payment of $250 I’ll get you into a new career!”

It was awful. Sure, my business grew a little but I never quite felt comfortable with the way I was selling myself. In fact, every day it became just a little bit harder to feel good about myself. Then my business became stagnant. I had a few potential corporate clients but for some reason they were like the horse you’ve led to the water but won’t drink. My bank account was rapidly shrinking.

A Turning Point
Then one day I got a call from a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who said she heard that I had cashed out my 401k to start my business.  Her article was intended to shed a light on this mistake many people make when opening their first business. The title of the column was “My Biggest Mistake.”  She wasn’t unkind but said that the article probably wouldn’t show me in a positive light.

My breath drew in, my stomach dropped. I knew that talking publicly would expose me, revealing me as far less perfect than I had portrayed myself to be in the past year as I’d built my business.

I was scared. I didn’t know how this revelation would turn out. Admitting my biggest mistake probably wouldn’t help my business.  But. I knew it was the right thing to do. At least I’d be able to look at myself in the mirror and feel like I recognized the person I saw. And so, one Tuesday in July, I curled up in my home office–in reality, a stifling walk-in closet–and shared my tale with the reporter.

The morning the article was supposed to appear in the Wall Street Journal I paced. I pulled out the morning paper circling wanted ads for marketing jobs. I was sure my business was about to tank.
Instead, something else happened.

My voicemail and inbox started to fill with people thanking me for my honesty. People weren’t judging me, they actually thought I was brave. There were also people who wanted me to help them navigate their own careers or market their first business. I got five new clients, one even telling me that my willingness to be upfront made me more trustworthy; I was exactly the kind of person he wanted to work with.
Instead of crippling my business being vulnerable had actually made it more successful. I couldn’t have been more shocked.

How to Promote Yourself (or Your Business) Authentically
Even though I’d been working in branding for several years that day I learned my biggest lesson: being slick and overly packaged can make you look suspect.  People have far better B.S. detectors than we think. They know when you’re not being honest; they stop trusting you. Projecting a “perfect” image puts you (and your brand) on a precarious precipice from which you can topple at any moment when you become human.

To wit: a recent study by Iconoculture suggested that brand authenticity was highly important, particularly to younger consumers. Even Jay-Z’s once rock solid brand has begun to erode due to a perceived lack of authenticity. Promoting yourself can be a tricky business. Here are a few things I learned through my early failure.

  • Instead of embellishing, be upfront about your experience and focus on your drive to do good work.
  • Don’t inflate the size of your company, focus on your strengths by playing up your personality and your unique value.
  • Rather than using bland, corporate language spend time finding your true voice, allowing that tone to pervade throughout your marketing materials.
  • Stop minimizing your mistakes. Own your foibles fully. Sharing your vulnerable moments, and the lessons learned, is more valuable than pretending you’ve got it all together. Besides, people can see through that fake veneer.

Ultimately, a powerful brand is one that builds trust with its audience. You build trust by being vulnerable and just by being yourself. So go be you…and be successful.


Suzan Photo by Aimee GieseSuzan Bond – Branding Expert of Suzan Bond & Co. (Denver & New York City)

Suzan Bond is a brand strategist, CMO-for-Hire and the founder of Suzan Bond & Co  Since she was a wee lass Suzan has been obsessed with the study of human behavior, communication and personal presentation.

Suzan started her career helping brands like Accenture, Banana Republic, Sears and Walmart marry their offline marketing and branding efforts with online strategy and execution. She honed her personal branding expertise as an Executive Coach using her unique formula to help professionals craft their personal brand and market themselves. A writer by nature, Suzan wrote a book about intuition and is currently at work on a memoir and a book about personal branding.

Since leaving the corporate world she has guided numerous startups, entrepreneurs and software developers to discover their persona and genuine messaging. She believes that branding should always be organic and true to the person or organization represented rather than artificial or overly constructed. Her favorite saying is: All you have to be is you.

After growing up just outside Detroit, Suzan’s wanderlust drove her to live in San Francisco, Chicago, Boulder/Denver, Minneapolis and finally New York…for now. By the age of 16 Suzan had visited all of the continental states except one. A devout Twitterer, she’s proud that Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction RT’ed her. Twice.

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One Reply to “4 Keys to an Authentic Brand”

  1. Rachael Hammer

    This is a great example of storytelling and transparency. I love one tiny piece of failure: Teaching others to avoid the pothole I fell into. Your story resonated with me as we need to encourage others to share. We can all advance together. Well done.

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