We Are Brands

Shift CollaborativeBranding, Design

Someone forged my signature three weeks ago. They stole my credit card. This is the second time in three years I’ve had a security breach. Those thieves’ forged my John Hancock, and now I have no faith in my ink mark. Think how easy it was for someone else to sign my name. Humans have been signing things since they could pick up a stick and dip it in ink.

I think our obsession with the signature is outdated. A signature seems an antiquated way to represent ourselves. But the memorabilia industry that sells those signatures thinks otherwise. The autograph, which is a fancy name for a signature, is an obsession of many. The memorabilia industry is said to be worth billions of dollars. Let’s understand this world for a moment: Elvis Presley’s earliest known signature – on a library card he signed as a 13-year-old student in Tupelo, Mississippi – was one of the main draws in an auction of Elvis memorabilia. His library card! This is a serious business.

But I’m not a collector, I am a branding strategist. I create images and write text for companies to make connections with the outside world – you – the customer. We do this to evoke a type of emotional connection with a company or product. In almost every instance, we want it to be a positive emotion.

In life we always do a series of things to evoke emotional connections to the outside world. The posts we write on Facebook, the emails we send to coworkers, the flannel shirt we wear in June and the white you wear after Labor Day all say something about us to the outside world – hoping for a connection. If you don’t agree, or if you say you don’t do it on purpose, I say nonsense.

I look at the signature as the world’s oldest wordmark or logo. A wordmark is a set of letters that are designed in a specific way. The wordmark should be custom lettering (typography) that uniquely defines a company’s service or product. Similarly, when we write a signature, we shape our name in a way that defines who we are. One’s personal signature is a wordmark. We are brands.

Since I’ve had the right to sign things, I would guess that my signature has changed four times. I remember in one of my most memorable life transformations, I decided consciously and with authority to change my signature. As if my new “wordmark” would redefine my new beginnings.

We brand documents by signing them with ink, but technology has advanced and now it’s time to rethink the way we represent ourselves. In May 2013, the New Republic declared the signature “dead.” They claim that pin numbers are more important and that signature pads make it terribly difficult to swoosh that line over the “c” in your name.

At the moment, nearly everything about the process of signing one’s name appears to be in place to dissuade the signer from giving it an honest go: Signature pads at stores are terribly awkward, credit card receipt signature lines are often far too tiny, and the people accepting our signatures tend not to care about the appearance of what we scribble. Unsurprisingly, we’ve adjusted our behavior to fit the circumstances. We shorten pen strokes, take liberties, and, ultimately, show very little reverence for the act of signing our names. Chicken scratch predominates—and not even chicken scratch that vaguely resembles one’s name or is repeatable. For many, writing a signature has become an exercise in flick-of-the-wrist renderings that in no way relate to or reflect the letters that are grouped to form our names.

I predict that in the near future, signatures will become logos, a digital design that has imprints that cannot be replicable but have a rare and identifiable mark to oneself. We will mark formal documents with a personal brand instead of a signature. You can almost see this develop into a modern day signet, a stamped logo mark that defines who we are.

Personal branding is not a new concept. Some self-help gurus have asked for you to look deep inside yourself and understand your personal “brand.” In the marketing world, a company deploys a series of logos or wordmarks and “tactics” like articles in newspapers, social media communication and advertising created to evoke people’s emotional connection with a company or product. I like to think of it as a radio tower, sending waves to those who listen.

But what if we took ourselves as seriously as companies do to manage their brands? What if we acted as our own personal marketing mangers and were strategic about the way we communicated out to the world? What if instead of posting that picture of a “kegger” on Facebook and retweeting Kim Kardashian’s quibble, we were to create a social media plan and strategy for ourselves. Branding and marketing agencies think very strategically about what type of content is being delivered to the general public. As a brand manager we write content out to help the companies reflect a smart and thoughtful connection to the outside world.

Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR’s On the Media, says we are in the “golden age of content.” Content is generated constantly, by bloggers, news outlets, Twitter tweets, and visual images. Some people say there’s too much. As a branding professional, I don’t think the world has too much content. I think the world needs better content.

We need to think of our personal brand in ways us marketing professionals deliver to companies. And hey, if the Supreme Court defined corporations as “persons” and companies manage and build brands, we the people must step up our game and manage our own brands. Companies pay us to manage the way they speak to the outside world. Every Facebook and Twitter post is there for a reason. Facebook is getting decidedly older. Older generations are logging on to watch over their kids, and the kids are logging off to join Instagram or whatever new social channel is available. Marketing professionals can provide social media strategies to families, write content for them in a thoughtful and sensitive way, and teach Grandma how to tweet.

Regular Joe’s and Joette’s like us should take our personal brands as seriously as companies do. All the stuff we read from others might get a little better, and maybe we will have a better connection to others if we thoughtfully manage our own personal brands. But for now, I guess I’ll sign my life away, to those who want it.