Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post about some friends of mine – close friends whom I respect and admire – who fell into a hole when they received a damning review of their services on Yelp by a very powerful client. The hole they fell into was one of inactivity and fear.
But it was more than that – they fell into a hole of self-denial. And they created that hole when they allowed their business to be defined –in their own minds – by the opinion of someone else.
A full year later, they’re just beginning to crawl out of that hole. And they’re squinting in the bright light of the gorgeous day that’s before them.
In my first post, I talked about the inactivity. About HOW to get up and begin again when we feel bruised or crushed, when we feel overwhelmed by the size of our to-do lists, or underwhelmed by our own performances.
The answer to inactivity is relatively simple. It’s activity. Of any kind. In order to move forward, we need momentum. And we gain momentum when we’re in motion. You can read about that here.
I received an unusually large number of responses to that blog post. I had lots of readers come forward and say that similar things had happened to them – that they’d felt just the way these two talented gentlemen felt when they were attacked with criticism that was brutal at best, and destructive at worst.
And I think there are other elements of this story – this whole situation – that are ripe for discussion.
Perhaps the biggest issue here is how we allow ourselves, and our businesses, to be defined.
I’m a brand strategist. And in branding, it’s the definition of oneself (and of one’s business) that’s the absolute crux of the matter. Our brands are reflections of how we see ourselves. Our brands are expressions of who we are, who we want to be, and what we stand for. Our brands stand in for us when we can’t be there.
Our brands inform our actions – not the other way around.
This week I had a very thoughtful question from one of the students in Unforgettable U, my online branding program. She said:
“Juju, don’t our customers, to some extent, determine our brands? Isn’t it the customers’ perceptions of us that actually create the brand?”
My response, in a word: Nope.
And for the rest of this piece, I want to expand on that response, because each and every day I meet entrepreneurs who feel that they are defined by forces outside of themselves – by forces outside of their businesses.
There are two kinds of brands: personal brands and businesses brands. For many of us, those two brands are inextricably tied. We ARE our businesses. And whether you’re branding yourself or your company (or both), the truths I’m about to share apply equally.
We are NOT defined by the opinions of others.
I don’t mince words, and this topic really does call for a rather crass expression that I’ve found to be true throughout my life and career: Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.
Opinions are not facts. The very definition of opinion is: “A view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.”
Unless you’re a contestant on American Idol, you choose whether or not to empower the judgments put upon you by others. Even customers. Judgments of others do not define you. YOU define you. Yet every day I see business owners emotionally slayed by haters, by critics, by people who feel compelled to comment, destructively, on a product or service.
The customer is not always right.
Here’s the hard truth: if you own a business, you’re going to encounter opinions. And if you have an Internet-based business, you’re going to encounter opinions from individuals emboldened by anonymity.
The power of those opinions is determined by your reactions to them.
“But wait a minute, Juju,” you say, “what about social proof? What if other people believe these bad reviews? Won’t my reputation suffer?”
And in my next post, I’ll get to what you can DO about negative reviews or public posts from critics — to control the power they have over potential customers and others who read them. But right here, right now, I’m talking about how you define yourself. How you brand yourself. How you internalize these judgments and make them true. How these opinions have power over YOU.
This is a hard life lesson – because it’s one that’s wrought with uncomfortable experience. But this is truth. YOU give power to the opinions of others through your reactions to those opinions.
I had the wonderful luck to hear a two-hour speech from the late, great Debbie Ford some years ago. And she said something that had a profound effect on me: The reason we so greatly fear the negative opinions of others, is that we, in some way, believe those things about ourselves. We are not afraid of what the neighbor thinks of us. We’re afraid of what WE think of us.
The moment you take ownership of another’s view of you, you give up your power.
A brand is not something that happens to you. A brand is something you control.
You are not a victim; in fact, you are quite the opposite.
If you’re a business owner, you’re a frickin’ warrior. It takes great big glorious guts to go out into the world and open a business – to put yourself out there to be accepted or rejected.
You are NOT defined by the opinions of others – even your customers – unless you allow yourself to be.
We are NOT defined by single actions or experiences.
Early in my career, I was a marketing executive at a financial institution. It was the glory days of lending, and we did a marketing campaign where we pre-approved tens of thousands of people for auto loans. The certificates were for $25,000 loans. Customers could take these certificates straight to the dealers and buy cars. There were explicit instructions right on the certificates; the dealers were promised payment. They didn’t even have to run credit. And what’s more, they landed in customers’ mailboxes on a Friday evening.
Back in those days (and I do date myself, here) huge digital files were stored on magnetic tape. And we were required to create one tape with the names of people who had been approved, and a second tape of people who were NOT approved, in order to comply with Truth in Lending regulations. We delivered both tapes directly to a mail house that processed the certificates.
Guess who allowed the tapes to be mixed up?
Guess who sent tens of thousands of pre-approvals – each for $25,000 — to individuals who had just filed bankruptcy or who had no credit whatsoever?
This girl right here.
I tell you this story, because it was a moment of truth for me. It was a moment when I came to a crossroads. I could have defined myself by the mistake, and crawled directly into a hole. Or, I could have defined myself by my abilities to react to the mistake – by my problem-solving skills, grace under fire, humility and ownership of my actions, and my ability to maintain a sense of humor when all else seemed lost. I chose the latter. And when I did, I gave my superiors an opportunity to choose the latter, as well.
I will tell you this: a shit-show ensued. We had to retract the certificates. We had to call attorneys. We had to beg dealers on Monday to take cars back that they had sold over the weekend. It was ugly. People were furious. It seemed to last forever.
I had to protect both the institution’s brand, and my own, in the days and weeks that followed. And that meant not allowing either brand to be defined by an error.
It’s been 25 years since that happened. I can still taste the realization of the mistake, like metal in my mouth. I can still feel my stomach rise into my chest. But when, just the other day, I reminded my old boss of the entire debacle, she said, “Oh, yeah… I forgot all about that.”
We are NOT defined by single actions or experiences in our lives or our businesses.
Life is long. And if we’re fortunate, the lives of our businesses are long. Each day we make decisions, facilitate transactions, encounter opportunities, and mop up messes.
If you allow a single moment, relationship, action, or situation to define you or your business, then you give up your power and your glory. For it’s the cumulative sum of all of your experiences – how you show up to the world day-in and day-out, year over year – that becomes your brand.
Don’t give that away. You worked too hard to earn it.
We are NOT defined by the competition.
Oh, this one is difficult for business owners. But it’s not a declaration. It’s an imperative.
We cannot allow the actions of others to determine our actions. And we cannot allow the operations, successes, failures, strategies, tactics, or brands of our competitors to define our brands.
We cannot knee-jerk.
We cannot react.
We cannot one-up, lie down, give in, or pony up in response to a competitor.
Your brand is not about the competition.
Your brand is about YOU.
Do you need to know what the competition is doing? You betcha.
Because, a brand exists in RELATION to its competition. You compete for the hard-earned dollars of the same consumers your competitors are courting.
But you are NOT defined by the competition.
And if you lose sight of that – if you concede your power to others in the marketplace whom you feel are stronger or more relevant or more worthy than you – then you will be controlled by the whims and fancies of players whose strategies you neither truly know nor understand, others who may or may not be winning on any given day. You will ascribe to them far more power than they actually have. And you will give up your own power.
And if your business takes action based on anger or frustration or indignation toward a competitor or player in the market whom you believe has treated you unfairly, you will damage your brand… not theirs.
To run a business – or to manage your own personal brand – you will need your power. You will need it every day.
Watch. Listen. Learn.
And remain true to who YOU are, in spite of what THEY do.
You are NOT defined by the competition.
WHAT DEFINES YOU?
So, if we’re not defined by the opinions of others, and we’re not defined by single actions or experiences, and we’re not defined by the competition – how ARE we defined?
In branding, we define ourselves – and our businesses – on our own terms.
We decide who we are.
We tell the world who we are.
We control who we are.
You cannot brand something you are not. If I could have branded myself as a straight-haired, long-legged, acoustic guitar player with a voice like Tennessee whiskey, I would have likely done so long ago.
You must brand who you ARE. Your company must brand what it IS.
And no one knows who you are better than you.
I invite you to think about this… long and hard.
I urge you to develop your brand systematically and with great care:
To learn the difference between the individual opinions of customers or critics, and the hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations of your target market.
To understand the difference between single actions, and the systems you build into your business that determine your daily behavior and its alignment with your brand.
And to distinguish the difference between taking a position in relation to the competition, and carelessly reacting to how the competition operates.
If you’re in a hole because you’ve allowed something outside yourself – or outside your business – to define you, then I invite you to crawl out of the hole. I’m offering you my hand.
I invite you to turn your face to the light of day, and re-define yourself and your business.
On your terms.
With your words.
With your vision and your values and your hope for the future.
With your talents, your collective experience, your knowledge, and your passion.
I invite YOU to brand YOU.
And when I get lost in things outside myself – which I often do – I remind myself of the wise words of Deepak Chopra: “What other people think of me is none of my business.”
In my next post, I’ll talk about how to react to criticism, online reviews, social media comments and posts and more.
For now, share with me one word that defines you or your business. On your terms.