In The Rhetoric of Fiction, the late Wayne C. Booth discusses a concept of the “implied author.”

Donald F. Larsson of Minnesota State University describes the “implied author” this way:

The implied author, according to Booth, is a “second self” from the actual historical person who wrote the work in question, not the flesh-and-blood being but a hypothetical entity that includes “not only the extractable meanings [of the text] but also the moral and emotional content of each bit of action and suffering of all the characters” (73). To rely solely on extratextual sources that will verify an author’s “intention” is at least problematic, if not a “fallacy.” The implied author, though, is a construct prompted by the text itself. The implied author, Booth asserts, is responsible for the “norms” and “values” that seem to be expressed in the work but cannot necessarily be attributed to a narrator and should not be attributed to the historical author.

In other words, you can’t know the “real” author of a book by reading the text. The implied author is the author as perceived by the reader, the audience, based upon perceptions of the text. The implied author is not the same as the actual author. Quite often that’s deliberate. But it’s also a matter of perceptions, and how imperfect the text can be in communicating intended meaning. All you can do is extrapolate an “implied” author: the person who seems to be who wrote the text. The text is the lens, and who you see as its author is not the same person as the actual author, it’s a reflection. A projection.

This concept translates to branding quite easily.

Brand Intentions vs. Brand Perceptions

When we see a disaster like the broken underwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, consider that to be “the text.” Whether you believe BP or Halliburton or the government is responsible, your perspective of those entities is guided — defined, in fact — by their outward appearances to you. Such views may be closely aligned with the true characters of those entities, or you may be way off. You can’t know. We can’t know. All we can go by is what we see. The actions. The text. –And third-party descriptions (by the media, friends, persons with axes to grind) of the text. The brand ends up being defined by perceptions, not simply the brand-maker’s intentions.

Flip that around now.

How misunderstood does an author feel when her book is interpreted in ways she never intended? Writers will often blame the reader for misunderstanding a text. Samuel Beckett wryly commented, “No pun where none intended.” This consummate self-reflexive author who always seemed so aware of the implied author his texts projected would steadfastly refuse to explain his texts, yet seemed not to want to accept it when people took the wrong meaning.

But how can there be no pun where none intended? Whether intended or not, a pun is in the ear of the beholder. If there’s a pun, and nobody’s around to hear it, is there a pun after all?

And yet, and yet, Beckett’s work was about how author and implied author were rarely, if ever, the same. Take the opening lines of Worstward Ho:

On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.

Say for be said. Missaid. From now say for missaid.

To be said. To be missaid. Your intentions are for naught.

Let’s take this back to brands. No matter what a company may intend, what people react to is the company they see through an imperfect lens, colored by their biases, attitudes, expectations, prejudices, politics…. What they react to ends up defining the brand. It ends up being the brand.

The brand is the implied company.

Collage of fake company brands satirizing the actual brands
Fake Brands Image by Chuck Coker.

Personal Brands, Personal Intentions

On BlogHer recently, Maureen Johnson declared in her Manifesto:

I am not a brand…

I am not saying that it is a bad or dishonest thing to try to sell your work. It is not. What I am saying is that I am tired of the rush to commodify everything, to turn everything into products, including people. I don’t want a brand, because a brand limits me. A brand says I will churn out the same thing over and over. Which I won’t, because I am weird.

But what Maureen is describing — this churning over and over — is not branding, this is factory work. Branding is not about being a factory. Branding is about being aware that you have an image, and that image may have little or nothing to do with who you really are. And if you have a reality out there where people don’t know the real you, just this impression of you from your logo and/or ads and/or website and/or blog and/or tweets and/or news profile, guess what!

You have a brand. Or at least an implied you that is not your own real you.

Maureen’s manifesto starts off:

The Internet is made of people. People matter. This includes you. Stop trying to sell everything about yourself to everyone. Don’t just hammer away and repeat and talk at people — talk TO people. It’s organic.

I agree. But that is not a negation of branding.

But I will say that even the most seemingly transparent, honest, heart-opening writer ends up projecting an image that is only a facsimile of the actual person doing the writing.

Call it a brand.

Call it an implied author.

Call it an image.

A rose by any other name smells just as sweet. So let’s cut the baloney.

(To be fair, Maureen’s post seems to be, at least in part, a rebuttal to a woman who, as she describes her, could play straw-woman in any branding discussion — huckster, pushy, microphone hog.)

Brands have a way of happening whether you want them to or not. It’s not about selling. It’s about perception.

Tara Hunt, in a blog post last year, takes a slightly different tack:

We talk about authenticity, but people rarely want to see the negative side of a person. When I’ve been truly honest – angry, sad, scared, belligerent, grumpy, negative, depressed or anxious (and I keep it under control, but I have terrible anxiety) – people get nervous. I lose followers. I get long emails from people asking me to stop being self-indulgent. I get messages from concerned friends saying, “Don’t you worry about damaging your brand?”

And that’s it. Do we want authenticity? Or do we want branding? One of the most memorable lines in a movie for me is from Magnolia, where Claudia says to Jim:

“I’ll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.”

I love that line because I think it’s what we all want to do, but are afraid to do it. We love people who represent the ideal, the perfect, the imperfectly perfect, the happy, the successful, the amazing, positive, go-for-it, wa-hoo in life. And I’m not saying those people don’t exist. They just don’t exist as much as we think they exist because there are so many bloomin personal brands out there that are inspiring the crap out of us that we lose the fact that behind the scenes, they are probably falling apart now and then…

I don’t have a personal brand, I have a personality – complete with crazy moments and drunken nights, super highs and heartbreaking lows. And every single one of those moments define who I am. Now. Who are you? A personal brand or a personality?

Tara’s awareness that the image we project, or even the image simply perceived by others, can be at odds with the real us, gets at part of what I’m saying. She rejects the word “brand,” but is a “personality” as perceived by others really that much different? Especially when you consider that brands can have personality?

Of course we are more than our public persona. That’s true for everyone — even companies … even BP.

But maybe the issue, then, is not about whether we have a “brand” but rather how authentic is our brand. How much does your “brand” — your public image, your persona, your personality as perceived by others — truly reflect who you really are?

And is that even the goal? Do we really want everyone to know about our phobias, our weaknesses, our cravings, our petty jealousies, our financial worries, our medical concerns, our family aggravations? If I know all about the fungus between your toes, do I now know the “real” you? Or does that fungus just distort my image of you? To you, that fungus may be a minor pain in the arse annoyance, but to me, if every time I see you I think about the fungus between your toes, am I now seeing the real you?

My point is that what you choose to project ends up influencing how people perceive you. And being more “honest” or “transparent” is not necessarily going to lead to people seeing the real you. Or liking you more. Or even understanding you better.

The Unnamable

When Samuel Beckett said, “No pun where none intended,” he was in effect declaring that critical interpretations, or for that matter any reader’s views, of his text were secondary to his own intentions. He was, in a way, trying to take charge of his image, his brand — even while he generally shunned publicity. For him, greater transparency in his life did not mean he would enjoy a truer public image. The uncontrollable nature of identity as perceived worked at the center of his writings. And if you’ll forgive me one more quotation, Beckett touches on this theme in the opening paragraphs of The Unnamable:

I am not I.

Or: I am not the “I” you read here.

Doc Searls writes, in Brands are Bull, that brands are by definition non-human:

The man is not only the closest any golfer has ever come to walking robotics, but his whole golf persona has always been remarkably mechanical as well.

Turn a person into a brand [emphasis mine], and what do you get? Something incomplete at best, and fake at worst. Borrow that human brand to represent your company, and you take some risks. Your branded celebrity might actually be a fine human being. Or they might be a philandering scumbag. Either way, the brand is a paint job. It’s not real except in the commercial dimension, and only in a narrow way even there.

The only advertiser that has stuck with Tiger since the bimbo bombs started going off is another landmark brand: Nike. The latest Nike/Tiger ad features the golfer’s sad face, staring at the camera, while the voice of his dead father speaks. “I want to find out what your thinking was,” Earl Woods says.“I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything.” Well, one thing the rest of us learned was that Tiger was with one of his mistresses on the night he got word that his father had died.

To me, this only emphasizes that you can’t always control your brand. Accenture and Nike did not turn Tiger Woods into a brand. Tiger Woods already was a brand. These two corporations simply tried to hitch their brands onto the shining image of Tiger’s own brand. That they suffered when Tiger’s brand crashed and burned is merely guilt by association.

Every professional athlete is a brand — not because they are selling something (even if they are), but because they have public images driven by media, surrounding hype, lockerroom talk, as well as their own actions, interviews, tweets, whatever.

And when you pull the scope back from the spotlight and turn it on “regular” folks, the same is true — not on the same level, but still true. We have reputations, grades in school, credit ratings, driving records, things people say about us, perceptions drawn from things we do (almost always taken devoid of a larger context). Don’t call it a brand, call it an image, call it a reputation, call it buzz, call it karma — it’s expressing the same thing.

We are not our image. Our image to others is not necessarily similar to who we really are. And if not, the problem may not be not enough transparency but perhaps the wrong transparency, or too much surrounding noise.

Or poor management of getting out your message, whatever it is, in business or in your personal life.

The Bigger Picture

All this is not to say that we should focus on brand at the exclusion of all else. There’s no question that, in our culture, there seems to be a real obsession with brands. For example, in politics one could say the mainstream media have been focusing on political brands far too much, when you consider things like the press coverage of the recent national healthcare reform debate in Washington, which a recent Pew study found:

Fully 41% of health care coverage focused on the tactics and strategy of the debate while various reform proposals filled another 23%. But only 9% of the coverage focused on a core issue — how our health care system currently functions, what works and what doesn’t.

For which we can all collectively thank the press for focusing on brand battles rather than what the legislation was actually about. (How many of us understand that even now?)

No, focusing on brand is not the only thing.

But it’s something to be aware of. Even if you don’t want one.