The best brands have fanatical focus and a fuzzy underbelly

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My career is built on branding. The first time I tried it was in beach volleyball. Like many professional sports, the way to make a living is from sponsors. While other people changed partners every week trying to trade up for someone better, I picked someone shorter than I was, so she’d stick with me. Then I focused more energy on branding us as a team to sponsors than I did on winning tournaments. We stood out because other people marketed themselves as individuals, not a team. So let me give a shout out to Dance France, for all the logos they had me splash across my butt: Victory for brand management.

Today, of course, I’m all about brand. I am constantly trying to figure out how to make the Brazen Careerist brand stand for the network instead of for me. It’s sort of a game. And the game feels really fun when I read about other companies playing with their brand, like Under Armour marketing cross-trainers: Fascinating to me.

I also go ballistic about my brand. Like when my volleyball partner dumped me because I didn’t have a killer instinct. I ranted about how winning one more match would not change her life, but having the sponsors that I got her was a big deal. We were in the top five teams in the country when it came to the number of sponsors we had. (She didn’t care.)

And I went ballistic this week when the social media guru we hired used the Brazen Careerist brand name for twitter without considering that I am completely enthralled with twitter and without considering that there would be brand confusion if there is a Brazen Careerist twitter that is not me. I left threatening messages to Ryan on his cell phone during long layovers in faraway airports, trying to regain control of my twitter brand before it imploded.

So, this is all to say that I love a good corporate branding moment. There are lots of ways to enhance your brand. I did a beach volleyball commercial for Budweiser, for example. But I didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy. So I really appreciate times when people manage their brand by being warm and fuzzy, like these:

1. Google’s art contest for kids. The kids riff on the theme “What if?” There are a lot of what if Google made world peace? But there are really cool ones like, “What if everything I drew came to life?”

2.  The Westin Spa in Scottsdale has everyone wear a name tag that has not only their name, but also their passion. I love that this is a nod to the fact that people are not defined completely by their job, but by what excites them in their life.

Each name tag reminded me to see the person, not just the job, by revealing something about them that went beyond the work I saw them doing. Passions I remember: Piano, computers, learning. Passions that people probably edited: Sex, drugs, money. But still, just that there is something else there besides the name, even if it’s G-rated and maybe not true, serves a purpose and makes me like Westin more.

When people ask me to explain what the Brazen Careerist company does, I always have a hard time answering. Bad, right? What CEO doesn’t have a pitch? The answer I usually give is that we help companies connect with young talent. But the pitch I believe most is the one that makes me feel warm and fuzzy: we help amplify the voice of young people online.

I wish I could say that more often without feeling like a cheese ball. In corporate life, it’s always safer to talk about the bottom line, and then, far away from the boardroom, when no one’s looking, you sneak in a nice touch that allows everyone to feel good about what they are doing.

I wish it were the other way around. But someone’s gotta fund those name tags, right?

36 replies
  1. Jonathan S
    Jonathan S says:

    What are you talking about, D? Stop criticizing my girl Penelope, aka Adrian, without giving a legit reason.

  2. Hagar
    Hagar says:

    Its nice to read something here that’s not rat-a-tat-tat advice every now and then. I mean your advice I like, but I also like how you think. I think that knowing how you think about other things makes when you give advice work better, like I believe in it more because I know you more.

  3. Andrea >> Become a consultant
    Andrea >> Become a consultant says:

    I was very confused by the BrazenCareerist on Twitter. It didn’t seem like you writing — it seemed like multiple people. And I then wondered if you were still going to be tweeting. I’m glad you explained.

  4. Charles
    Charles says:

    Good post. A lot to think about. I like the part about the nametags with your passion. I agree being a cheeseball is so undervalued.

    It is also imporant to note that loyalty to sponsors is very important, but one must remember it is a social relationship and all the pleasantries and official facades must be maintained as not to offend both sponsors and your league. This even enters the realm of personal life. Having a relationship end this last season, we both agreed to maintain a "Charles and Diana" façade of a happy couple even as we walked out of hotel rooms after bitter arguments. We made it through the end of the season, and our largest sponsor having figured out what had happened thanked us for not letting this not so nice break-up blow – €“up into negative media for him. (We recently had one athlete mistakenly put on a competitor's t-shirt before a press conference. Point Beer none-the-less. )

    As far as managing one’s personal brand, a thing I have learned amongst the many hats I have worn is that to some degree you must be consistent with the expectations the public views you as. Nothing disappoints them more than to see that you are acting a certain role, even if it is an over the top role that you do not believe anyone could take seriously. If you are a steampunk KGB agent, you are expected to enshrine the values of a steampunk KGB agent. (I suppose it pulls them out of thier normal routine.) The National Park Service drilled this into me when they sent me out to deal with the many faces of the public. It really helps in the long run as those relationships you nurture and the positive reaffirming experiences people remember can help you in the future.

  5. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Penelope, if you want the Brazen Careerist brand to stand for the network rather than yourself, then you should let other people at the company use the Brazen Careerist on Twitter. You know this is true.

  6. kristi
    kristi says:

    Nice post. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on branding since it’s something I muse about often, but have little direct impact on with regard to my employer.

    Btw, I noticed the Brazen Careerist on Twitter and had zero confusion. Maybe the same is true for the majority as well?

  7. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    Possible answer to your question: The Brazen Careerist community is a collection of millenial thought leaders who seek to make a positive impact on the world.

    “Talent = Brand” – Tom Peters

    I think it’s challenging to separate a personal brand from a corporate brand. Penelope has built an incredible strong presence online/offline and although she is an author and blogger, the words come from her. The Brazen community is more about others than herself, and shares her signature “BrazenCareerist” name. This can be challenging, but overtime, I’m sure people will figure it out.

  8. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    @ Penelope:

    Dan Schwabel has a point. The dichotomy between a corporate brand and a product brand – and the set of challenges presented by it – is not as rare as it may seem. You reacted how you did – on seeing BrazenCareerist on Twitter because you feel the soft underbelly; the rest on your team feel the fanatical focus.

    If the brand Brazen Careerist was only about “you”, perhaps it might have been better not to lend it to a collective. But since you have done that already, most will see BC, the company, as a brand extension. And as you know brand extensions can work great or can bomb horribly. Any number of case studies of either kind can be found.

    BTW this is one of the posts in recent times that has made me want to comment (I am a classically trained marketing person who never used the training but retains an unhealthy interest in all things brand). It reflects a thought process which can spur other thoughts. Much as I will never be one to leave pseudonymous comments on your more personal posts, I find them difficult to understand. May be it is just the effect of living in a more phlegmatic culture than the let’s-all-go-to-therapy America (I generalise hugely but this side of the pond, this is a commonly held shorthand about that side of the pond; I belong to neither culture so I can watch both clinically and cite pots and kettles frequently). Long digression. Stopping. Now.

  9. Fitarella
    Fitarella says:

    Funny (well obviously not to you) BC started following me on twitter this week and I thought it was neat. I knew you & the Ryans already had your own, so I automatically assumed that the BC twitter was being used by the collaborative that I thought BC was. In my mind BC = all the bloggers on BC, not BC = Penelope.

    * * * * * *
    The comments here about the twitter situation are so helpful. Thank you. It’s amazing to have a focus group like this, and also, really, a brand management task force, to help figure out the issues.

    I guess we will go back to some form of Brazen Careerist twitter. Stay tuned…


  10. John
    John says:


    God Damnit! You have it together! Take a time out! Look around…Why the hell don’t you check out the Brand & Product Management program at Madison?

  11. Miss Bits
    Miss Bits says:

    “we help amplify the voice of young people online.”

    Do you really think they need your help? I think you have drawn the causal arrow in the wrong direction.

    * * * * * * *

    Well, I think the majority of traffic being shifted around the Internet does not land on the blogs of twentysomething writers. I think mainstream media — online — controls most of the clicks, and the biggest bloggers are mostly older than 30, and if you look at places like Digg, the stuff on the front page is not written my people in their 20s.

    Do you think I’m wrong? Maybe this is not right. I’m open to hearing that… interested to hear what you guys think.


  12. Kimberly Togman
    Kimberly Togman says:

    On branding:I really appreciate your thoughts here(as I do so many of your posts–both thos smug and those smug eliciting). In my coaching practice, I often work with clients to understand and develop their brand, often starting with simple broad questions like ‘what are you known for?’. Followed up by ‘what would you like to be known for?’ It often helps them get closer to the core of their passions in words that sound less daunting. I’m cerainly going to forward the post along to them for support!

    On Twitter:I’ve been a bit neglectful of late and have not been properly following my Tweets. Still, when I saw that Brazen Careerist was following me I paused and wondered if you had chosen to promote that brand and had disappeared as you. Meant to check it out later but now you have saved me that effort. Thanks!

  13. Jessica Bond
    Jessica Bond says:

    Your last comment about the corporate world and sneaking in a nice touch reminds me how fortunate many people are who work in healthcare. In healthcare, we in the business of caring for people. There are many great healthcare organizations that believe that caring about their employees (with many nice touches) least to good patient care.

  14. Beth C
    Beth C says:

    I was just talking to my friend, who is also a big fan of your blog, about how we have no idea about the point behind the Brazen Careerist network. We know what it is but, much like you, couldn’t articulate the value.
    I wholeheartedly agree with you on the incredible importance of brand management. However, if you can’t take it beyond awareness, what’s really the point? Until you can, and I can, easily and clearly define/pitch the purpose of Brazen Careerist, it may be on my radar, but it’s not getting my clicks or money. You’ve got something really innovative and cool here. Don’t focus too much on brand over value that you run the the risk that everyone knows about and yet one cares.

  15. Andrea Lin
    Andrea Lin says:

    I, too, worry about brand thinning for the concept of Brazen Careerist – even before Penelope shows without a doubt what whole mechanisms of what the brand can do.

  16. DennisAOK
    DennisAOK says:

    I just started a business myself, so I thought this was intersting and I’ll keep it in mind. By the way, Penelope, I actually like this site better than your Yahoo columns, where I used to give you three stars. You are very open about your life. I like that.

  17. LK
    LK says:

    I’m a new fan, just started reading your blog b/c a coworker added this to our website’s blogroll ( Sound advice, AND I just realized from this post that you played pro beach. What a hero – I’ve long played 6-person indoors & grass doubles and it’s great to read about the sport in the context of its many business & management lessons you’ve learned.

  18. Brand Fanatic
    Brand Fanatic says:

    Brazen Careerist — it’s like a Huffington Post for Gen-Y career advice.

    * * * * * *

    I like this. Thanks.


  19. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    you should write more about what personal brand really means for ordinary people. I think it is a powerful concept, but for most people, it doesn’t make much sense. Is it reputation? How can you build your brand outside the half-dozen people you work with without appearing to be always looking for a new job? How can a person have a “brand” when their job is fungible? Not everyone can be “the best” and most employers realize it is not about finding the best person, but rather the person who is “good enough” but a great fit. I would love to define and build a brand for myself…but when I do that, I am CEO or CMO material…for most folks, brand is just “great java programmer and team player who can work effectively with biz people” or “straight shooter with upper management potential” ;)

    * * * * * * *
    Well, there are two answers here. The first answer is that you should always be looking for a job because that’s the only way to create financial security in today’s workplace — to be great at finding jobs because you always have your eyes open and you’re always letting people know what your skills are so they think of you if there’s a good match.

    The other answer is that the best way to run a career is to have goals for yourself. I mean, you are doing the job eight hours a day. What do you want to get out of that time besides a paycheck? Once you figure out what your goals are, you will probably need to define yourself — brand yourself – in order to create the most opportunities to meet that goal. I don’t think a real goal is “upper management.” Who cares? That’s not intrinsically rewarding. The goal needs to be something that speaks more to your core needs and your core strengths and your desire to always learn and grow and the need to create stability for your relationships. That’s a tall order. Most people cannot accomplish filling goals like that without defining themselves in the workplace.


  20. Iuliana Calin
    Iuliana Calin says:

    I like it – "we help amplify the voice of young people online". I thought of getting into the industry, Gen Y consulting, to give “young people a voice in the corporate world” and instill change. And it came to me before I read the posting, so I guess I am one of the executives who would feel warm and fuzzy and remember it too, despite its “lack of bottom-line accountability” to use the right corporate jargon.

    And, I can’t speak from a traffic perspective, but perception wise, I’d say your name lends credibility and brings more exposure to the twenty something year old bloggers. This is based on first-hand experience in the corporate world and traditional/online media.

    Lastly though I’d agree with Caitlin, if you want the brand to represent the network you probably need to find a way to open its usage to the members… and it’s tough.

    Great blog, keep doing what you are doing.

  21. Miss Bits
    Miss Bits says:

    Well, I think the majority of traffic being shifted around the Internet does not land on the blogs of twentysomething writers. I think mainstream media – online – controls most of the clicks, and the biggest bloggers are mostly older than 30, and if you look at places like Digg, the stuff on the front page is not written my people in their 20s.

    I think on the internet, as in life, people travel in well-worn circles that they have constructed for themselves. These circles are governed by self-selection and limited knowledge (plus ready availability, convenience, and too often a lack of curiosity). But I would also argue that you find such results: 1)because your recognition criteria are already predisposed to homogeneity (e.g. “mainstream media,” “ad clicks,” and Digg); and 2)because your tastes lead you down certain paths and not others, and these tastes are a reflection of the fact that you are not a teenager or 20-something, and you do not have an expansive definition of what it means to “have your voice heard.” As a 30-something litterati, you encounter others of your kind and assume that there is nothing else out there.

    It is the tremendous arrogance of older people that leads them to believe younger people need their facilitation in either expressing themselves or finding an audience.

  22. Ian
    Ian says:


    In the twitter situation, Ryan is doing this for the Brazen Careerist cause. Isn’t he being like you in your volleyball days?

    I’m seeing an issue has shown up in this situation; After extending your brand, you created 2 Brazen Careerist brands now: One is Penelope & the other is the network/company.

    More techniques or technology for brands distinction will show up as time goes, so this will happen more & more.

    Here are some suggestion:
    – Split the brands (Brazen Careerist for Penelope & Brazen Careerists for the Network)
    – Take yourself out/merge the Brazen Careerist (Brazen Careerist is the company/Network & you are the champion/leader of the network)

    You have to nip the issue in the bud or the brand could be lost in confusion.

  23. Brand Fanatic
    Brand Fanatic says:

    My point about the Huffington Post is that everyone knows that Huffington isn’t the only writer, but she’s the guiding spirit.

  24. Jennifer Lynn
    Jennifer Lynn says:

    I'm a regular reader of the blog, and I don't think the Brazen Careerist brand has been at all clear since the launch of the collective. I'm wondering if you are clear yourself about what you want the relationship between your personal brand and the Brazen Careerist brand to be. If a new reader were to find their way to the BC home page, they would have no clue (without a lot of searching) that it had anything to do with you. Is that a distinction you made on purpose? If not, you might think about incorporating your blog (maybe as a lead) on the BC site and making the “Brazen Careerist” logo on the blog link to the BC site. Right now, it links to your personal blog, and I can't easily get to your blog from the BC site. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a conscious integration or a conscious separation.

    Also, the BC site seems to have a lot of good stuff, but (to me, at least) it's a bit cluttered and confusing. There's no hierarchy of information – the eye bounces around all over the place. Whether the goal of BC is to amplify the voices young people online or to connect companies with young talent, the site's set-up does not tell either of those stories. Neither of these fits seamlessly with the (excellent) tagline "Define your career. Control your life."

    I'm also wondering, on a simplistic level, what BC is. Is it a "blog network," as defined on your blog? Is it a source of business writing geared for 20-somethings? Is it a "portal" of sorts for young professionals to find resources, advice, tools, and conversation about managing their careers? I'm sure you have an answer to that, but I'm not sure it's clear on the site. BC/ the blog are great for people who already know and love the Penelope Trunk brand, but newcomers might not get it. Again, conscientious prioritization of info would help tell the story you want to tell.

  25. Sara
    Sara says:

    @Brand Fanatic – I think there’s a big difference between the Huffington Post and the Brazen Careerist because Ariana’s name is in the title, so it will always be associated with her, however much she is involved.

    @Penelope – I was actually surprised to read the part where you flipped out because you think everyone identifies Brazen Careerist with you personally, because even though I read your blog before you started BC, and had never heard of the Ryans, I associate it now with all three of you (if not also all the many bloggers on the network). If I were them, I would have been kind of insulted by your reaction. I mean, what are they, real Gen-Y members that you just have for show? I don’t think you really think that though, so I don’t know why you would think it’s a bad thing for Brazen Careerist to develop it’s own social media presence.

  26. Risma
    Risma says:

    I agree with Jennifer Lynn. Why isn’t this blog the lead blog on the brazen careerist site? That would be much, much clearer. Were you trying to avoid a “Penelope and friends” thing?

  27. Carol
    Carol says:

    I know your blog says that you write for the young generation of workers. But what is young? I’m 42 and I’ve been working for more than 20 years and I get a lot of great advice from your blogs. Don’t limit yourself to just the younger generation. Us middle-aged farts have a lot to learn too.

  28. Dale
    Dale says:

    Martha Stewart never worries about being too closely identified with her brand, why should you?
    True you may say that you are trying to create something bigger than yourself, but why can’t someone be an icon and create a massive brand, like Hefner did for Playboy or Oprah IS for well… Oprah?
    The young need to be guided, and who better than someone with their best interests are heart? I could go on, but you get my point, right?

  29. Glen
    Glen says:

    I also love the idea about listing the passion on the name tag. On almost every level it’s a real winner!

  30. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    My point about the Huffington Post is that everyone knows that Huffington isn’t the only writer, but she’s the guiding spirit.

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