June 7, 2016

Is “Be Yourself” Bad Brand Advice?

Is “Be Yourself” Bad Brand Advice?

Authenticity has become an overused buzzword. No one uses “authenticity” authentically any more. And this weekend, there was a lively debate in the media about its true meaning – and more importantly – about its benefits and potential dangers related to success.


On Sunday, The New York Times published Adam Grant’s editorial, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself” Is Terrible Advice. In it, Grant calls out Brené Brown – America’s #1 vulnerability guru – and her definition of authenticity: “The choice to let our true selves be seen.” Then he rails against Brown’s central tenet, without mincing words when he says, “If I can be authentic for a minute: nobody wants to see your true self.”


Ultimately, Grant’s position is that we’re less successful when we’re more authentic. And he ties authenticity to self-monitoring, or the need to say whatever’s on your mind in any moment.


Brené Brown struck back on LinkedIn with her response. In it, she rails against Grant’s article and the fact that he narrowly – and incorrectly – quotes her definition of authenticity. She says that Grant missed the point, because he altogether misunderstands authenticity, which is, “the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable and set boundaries.” And she further rails against institutions and social constructs that require us to be less than authentic in order to thrive and survive.


I found both articles fascinating. And even more fascinating were the comments. Executives, psychiatrists, philosophers, coaches and so many more wrote thoughtful and though-provoking comments about whether or not it is, as Grant proposes, bad advice to “be yourself.”


Do we stand with more to lose than gain by showing our true selves and our vulnerabilities?


And while an enthralling conversation ensues online (comments are still going strong on both articles), I’d like to turn the discourse slightly here, to talk about the reigning subject of Strategic Juju: branding. In my online course, Unforgettable U and in much of my writing, I talk about the benefits of building authentic brands.


There are lots of elements of a brand that lend themselves to authenticity (or not), but the main ones are:

-Brand values (including the brand’s core reason for existence, or the “why”),

-Brand story (or the owner’s backstory), and

-The brand’s personality (or how it walks and talks in the world).

In my branding program, I encourage business owners to fully – and authentically – develop all of these elements to create a brand that completely engages a target audience: a brand that truly connects.


But just a couple of weeks ago, Katie, a commercial designer who’s developing a brand through Unforgettable U, asked a question that relates to Adam Grant’s position. A question about why brands are NOT authentic. Specifically, she said:

After reading the “About” pages of brands I love, the consumer-driven brands had values that aligned with mine. Then I looked at brands I love that sell to other businesses – which was very different.

Take Pixar, for example. For the consumer, their touch points include their animated films and the iconic Pixar intro (the bouncing lamp). Their brand is playful, fun, creative, and adorable. But when I visited their website (which I’m assuming targets business/professionals), it wasn’t playful or creative. It was static, technical, and not engaging.

Which ultimately led Katie to ask (my words here, not hers), “If I’m selling to other businesses, is it better to shutter my values? Would I be safer, and more successful if I just played it straight?” And this question isn’t just about consumer vs. b2b communications.


The real question becomes: is it advantageous to have authentic brands in some industries (or in some business situations), but not others? Do we limit the success of our brands if we show our true selves?


And my answer is: It depends on how you define success.


Setting aside Brené Brown and Adam Grant for a moment (this is a conversation about branding, here), the reason for developing authentic brands (that openly and outwardly show a company’s true self) is connection.


When we connect, two things happen: 1) We sell products and generate revenue, and 2) we – the humans running the businesses – experience joy. The combination is a stellar one.


Money and joy?! No way!!



And if that’s the one-two punch you’re after in your business life, then an authentic brand is for you.


But here’s the thing about connection: it’s two-sided. We connect with people who feel the same way we do, or who are inspired by our cause or purpose. And the more emotional, deep, or raw our public values are, the greater risk we run of repelling people who don’t share those same values.


When I was a kid, there was a saying: “Never talk religion or politics at the dinner table.” And I would say the same was true for business. These topics are polarizing, and businesses didn’t touch them if they wanted to be safe. Today, lots of businesses make both topics key tenets of their public relations and donations policies.


The truth is this: if you run around with your business heart on your sleeve, there’s a chance you might lose some customers who don’t like what you stand for. (For the record, your values don’t have to be political or religious… I’m just laying out the biggies so we can take a look at them.)


So, with connection in mind, I would suggest that you ask the following questions as you develop your authentic brand:


How important is it to me, and to my sense of personal joy, to be able to show myself completely and authentically within my business environment? The answer will guide you in terms of what markets you serve, what types of employees you hire, and what types of business practices and policies you develop.


Do I have values that are polarizing in today’s social climate, which I cannot live happily without expressing in my daily business life? Work to understand the financial implications of expressing those values – and set clear boundaries for the conversations in which your business will participate.


Does the industry I play in have a certain “protocol” for brand personality? And if I my brand personality refuses to follow that protocol, will I lose business? Do a competitive scan. Do you stand out or fit in based on the way your brand behaves? And what are the implications for your business?


I have strong feelings about authenticity in business. I walked away from a successful executive career in the financial industry because I didn’t fit in. I was tired of being the loose cannon. I could no longer shove myself into a box that was the wrong size. My beef was never that the industry was inauthentic. Just that it wasn’t “my” industry.


When I left, I went half way. I created a consulting firm that served the financial industry. It was a step in the right direction for me. What I needed at the time. But since then, I’ve gone the full distance. Today – I try not to even go to the bank. I’m not “that girl” any more. And I feel free and easy.


Money and joy? No way!



As you develop your authentic brand, you may be faced with the same types of decisions.


Do you want to stay and play, even if it’s not a game you love, because the money is good? And if you do, how long can you lead a company and a brand by being someone you’re not, or never showing who you are? Can you (or should you) hire someone else to lead and create your company culture? Or should you just find another playground?


Share with me in the comments below.

How do you feel about developing an authentic brand? Does it limit your success? Or enhance it?

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19 thoughts on “Is “Be Yourself” Bad Brand Advice?

  1. Derek Young says:

    I read both articles and feel I can see both points of view…..What’s right for a creative more concerned with doing what they love as a profession and less concerned with top line revenue may not be the same for the ‘colder’, more capitalistic entrepreneurs out there.

    To me personally, there are many new companies out there trying to paint an unrealistic picture of their ‘authenticity’. It becomes evident in their engagement (or lack thereof) of their followers that their true authenticity often time comes to the surface.

    1. Julia Hook says:

      Hey, Derek. So, you’re saying that you see folks pretending to be authentic. Or trying to add an element to the brand that’s not really there, to create a connection they can’t sustain? I see that a lot, as well. And I see a lot of brand stories that aren’t really related to business or product connection at all, but rather created to sort of “pull at heart strings.” So, it seems that the key to authenticity is that it actually needs to be authentic? Yes?

  2. Sally says:

    I am just starting out and I find all of this stuff soooo confusing. Too many rules for my liking. You can’t do this, you should do this. How does a newbie know which route to take? I believe in being authentic always, it’s the only way to truly connect with others on a deeper level, but is that good for business? I don’t know, still trying to figure that out.

    1. Julia Hook says:

      Hi, Sally. I can totally relate to the “newbie” comment. But know this — experienced folks are asking the same questions, too. And you’ll be asking them — in relation to your business — forever. What’s best for this brand? How do we connect? How far should we go? How should the brand behave? All of those are questions of brand strategy. And I’m glad to see that you’re considering them. There’s no right answer for the masses. Each of us (and each of our businesses) is wired differently… And what we’re hoping to achieve is different, as well. My best to you and your brand. Stick with it.

  3. Julie says:

    It really does come down to values doesn’t it! And to me the question is … are we willing to compromise them or do we have the courage to honor them. Everyone’s capacity to honor what’s really true for them differs, everyone’s perspective about priorities differs, everyone’s capacity to play a game they either feel good about or feel mediocre about differs, everyone’s tolerance level for standing up naked in front of a crowd differs, everyone decision about what they idolize more differs, everyone’s belief system around money and joy and whether they can exist together, or not, differs (love your reference to that), and everyone’s readiness to show up, and their interpretation about how to do that differs. I find it fascinating that debates like this become the fuel for provoking thought and affecting change.

    One thing I know for sure. It’s that what you stand for and what you teach in your Unforgettable U program Juju, is nothing short of empowering people to get really clear on who they are and what they value (if branding themselves) and finding the most optimal way to connect with their customers! In fact your insistence on it is what makes you great and what makes you the real deal. Authentically so. Thanks for that!

    1. Julia Hook says:

      Thanks so much, Julie. Your comments mean so much. And you’re right — each of us has a different level of desire/will and a different capacity for showing ourselves. I think it’s imperative that it become part of a deliberate strategy (rather than an all-too-unfortunate accident)… this sharing of values. I loved having you in the program — and now having you as my friend!!

  4. I believe in this completely. My photography name is my brand and it has everything to do with what I deal with everyday. And I am not one that is afraid to talk and share because of my desire to help others. My brand is Innervortex. My photography is Innervortex Images. I have bipolar disorder as well as other mental and physical illnesses. I feel that my name correctly portrays who I am and my reasons to put smiles on people’s faces, while educating and supporting. ❤

    1. Julia Hook says:

      What a brave brand you have, Denise. I love that you can live out your own quest for wellness through helping others in theirs. That’s a perfect story of brand connection. Thanks for sharing, because it gives other readers courage to show themselves through their businesses. You’re awesome.

  5. Daniella says:

    I want to read both articles . I truly believe how can we connect with people and our customers if we are not ourselves . If your core values are not aligned with your brand messaging we fail to connect . As an entrepreneur in today’s world we have to follow the Brene path to connection . People see through those that are not themselves .

    1. Julia Hook says:

      Hi, Daniella. Definitely read both articles — and the comments. I found the comments in the string below Brene’s LinkedIn post absolutely compelling. I think you’re right about failing to connect if there’s a disconnect between values and messaging. I know that’s true for every brand I’ve built or worked for. Thanks for jumping in. And I’d love to hear your thoughts after you read the articles.

  6. Julie Butera says:

    I also was brought up you don’t mix religion and politics with business . I’m also finding a shift in that . I find a lot of society going through this inner healing process and are using their heart more to connect and purchase . You have to make that common connection . The question is how far do you go and what route do you take ? You can take a conservative approach in testing the waters of your new market or you can jump in with what you already know , taking no chances at being judged . Some people respect the honesty and individuality of people expressing themselves , their thoughts , views , maybe artistically , expressing it in a way that a person may not agree with you but it will create a memory or maybe the visual aspect is appealing to where minds and pockets open . Again , it’s a chance but perhaps our market is shifting and we’re ready for it . With so many different ethnicities , cultures entering our society , is it risk taking or simply knowing you can be yourself because there’s enough business to go around . Also checking the market of your brand . Is it in demand ? Are you offering something no one else has ? If so , then religious beliefs really don’t matter or political views because you have something people need and isn’t available just anywhere .
    Now these are just my thoughts . Please forgive me if I insulted anyone . I’m learning . I’ve left a business of 30 years to venture into my dream . I found there are certain business that people will judge you harshly on individualism and the extent in which one expresses themselves . Then there are business where because of your field , it reaches so many with mostly the same interests and perhaps all you disagree on is religion . This I find is overlooked more these days as I visit New York and I see covered Muslims doing business with Jews and Christians and vice versa . It just depends on what you need and offering . If you have something I really need , I don’t care who you’re voting for .
    I’m leaning more to the belief that we are turning into a more expressive branding market with less boundaries and people are liking it ! But then again , I come from a city and travel to cities where individualism is respected and looked up to even I notice people are seeking out those unique places that show individualism . Maybe because they are seeking it themselves .

    1. Julia Hook says:

      Julie: you are absolutely correct about the questions, “how far do you go?” and “what route do you take?” My husband and I both own businesses and neither of us have ever included religion or politics in our core business values. Yet neither of us feels stifled our inauthentic. Those things are just not necessary in order for us to express ourselves authentically through our businesses. For some people it’s very different. I don’t think, though, that any of us should assume that expressing our values won’t have implications because the market is big enough for everyone. In the end, we’re all scrambling to get our share. Some brands, through careful strategy and planning (at least that’s what I believe), will get a bigger share… I’m so glad you’re part of this discussion, and love having you here!

  7. cat says:

    This is a great discussion, Juju! The fear stems from whether or not people will embrace us and become customers if we are authentic. As a beginner, finding customers is more important than popularity. Authenticity builds followers but it doesn’t necessarily convert. My advisers in Silicon Valley have all discouraged me from being authentic. They say to tell the truth AFTER the fact of success. And when lots of smart people give you the same feedback to improve and you take it and it works– then you know the world is not ready for the message in your heart. Timing is the most important factor in success. Unfortunately I found that in the beginning, authenticity was disastrous to getting customers no matter how I spun it, even though the quality of my work was just as good if not better. I think it’s easy for anyone to be authentic after they’ve made it.

    1. Julia Hook says:

      Hey, Cat. I love where you’re at with this. Because you’ve thought it through. As you know, I believe that everything about branding and communications is built on strategy. We’re never accidentally authentic, or vice-versa, when it comes to branding. We DECIDE how we’ll show up. I also think that fact that you’re playing the game in Silicon Valley is super interesting. You’ve identified the rules of play in your neighborhood, and you’re working your way through the leagues. Your comment about authenticity after becoming established is also a great point. I’m much more courageous about showing my true self now that I feel completely confident in my offerings, my experience, and my reputation. That’s a great point for folks starting out — maybe planning a reveal over time works in industries that tend to be unforgiving at the outset. Thanks for getting into the discussion. Your input is always smart and right on point.

  8. Nancy Hanson says:

    Hi Juju- Being authentic to your brand, I believe, is important and relevant. As your brand grows and becomes successful – so too does your authenticity. It’s not that it changes rather it matures and transitions to a more comfortable & confident state. As an inexperienced entrepreneur, initially I believe I knew it all and my authenticity was complete. Years passed and reality hit with a realization I knew very little while my authenticity wavered. Today as I stand true to only what I know (not what I think) my brand and authenticity have become stronger and more desirable.

    1. Julia Hook says:

      Hi, Nancy. I love your take on this. We do grow in confidence, especially about where we stand on things, over time. And “comfortable” is a great word to add to the discussion. I feel comfortable in my own shoes these days (after years of going round and round), and it sounds like you do, as well… Thanks for joining in. Love having you here.

  9. Katie says:

    I think there’s a difference between authentic brands and authentic selves. People have characteristics that have qualities on both sides of the same coin. A person with very high standards might be excellent at their job, but they also might not be the best team player. Authentic brands seem to focus on the positive side, while the negative side is censored. I don’t personally think that’s “faking it,” but others may disagree.

    What I find fascinating is the sheer value of just presenting a brand as authentic – whether real or fake – seems to far outweigh the risks of being “found out.” Trump is the best example I can think of, so I’m hoping to side-step the politics. Brand-wise, he speaks his mind, which appears to be authentic. He may say one thing on Monday, and the opposite on Tuesday, but his followers don’t seem to mind. It’s almost like being head over heels in love – you either miss the red flags completely or you excuse them. If that’s the case, does real authenticity matter to customers? Or just the perception of it? I’d say it probably depends on your market.

  10. I love this discussion! There are so many sides to the issue, really. A networking group I’m a part of was just talking about this very topic – how much to share, how “vulnerable” to be. There seemed to be a general misunderstanding that being vulnerable and authentic meant showing yourself to be a train wreck. One woman went so far as to hide her Southern accent because some people made fun of it. In that case, I encouraged her to own and love her accent, because it’s such an integral part of who she is. If she loses a few customers because of such an inconsequential thing, did she really want them for clients anyway? As a coach who specializes in self-worth, I find that my vulnerability builds my credibility. By openly sharing about where I came from in my own journey to rebuild my once-shattered self-esteem, I show people that I know what I’m talking about (I’ve done what I’m teaching them to do), that I have a proven system that works (if I can do it, they can do it, too), and that self-worth isn’t about perfection. So my “authenticity” is directly related to my ability to help people. If I didn’t show my true self, I’d just be another talking head. I guess it depends on what industry you’re in. But personally, I’d rather have ideal clients – even if that means fewer clients – that I can be myself around, than a truckload of clients I have to put on an act for.

  11. Mihai Herman says:

    Julia, I love this article. You have a unique way of delivering the message, your message, while not forcing your beliefs on the readers. Love, love love it!

    Unfortunately, it is true that because authenticity is the new black, as I like to say it, a lot of brand embrace it just because it’s cool without understanding the true meaning or benefits, of it. Authenticity is much more than a brand story and I truly believe we can use authenticity as a tool to niche down.

    For me, money doesn’t matter as long as I feel miserable at my job and thank God, I’ve experienced that a couple of times this year alone to be super sure that this is my journey.

    Keep on rocking it, Julia!

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