Listen to this blog post as a podcast:
My very smart friend Mark W. Schaefer is working on a new book called The Content Code. It will be out in April. Watch for it! As part of his book research, Mark asked me about how I have built for myself a “super brand” where people trust or want to consume what I create, without having to sample it first, and whether anyone could create a “super brand” if they chose to do so.
Here’s what I wrote back to Mark:
Every time I publish a blog post, dozens of people tweet it instantly using some sort of automation protocol. It is gratifying to be so trusted as an information provider that this group believes it is in their best interests to automatically redistribute what I write. But I also find it frightening, and it’s not something I would ever do myself.
While I certainly try to create content that passes the Mom Test every time I open the laptop to write, I know that some content is better than other content, the same way that not every batch of pulled pork is your tastiest, and not every workout achieves a personal best. By automatically sharing all of my content, this group of people is indirectly saying that my C game is still meritorious. That’s amazing to me, especially considering my attitudes could change, I could just be wrong (happens all the time), my blog could be hacked, and any number of other calamities could occur that would cause something I publish to be far below an acceptable standard.
But that’s the power of content curation as a brand-builder. These people build their brands partially by sharing my stuff, and I build my brand partially because they are sharing my stuff (and I, in turn, am sharing stuff created by other people). It’s a super brand powered by a curation circle, and as someone who has greatly benefitted from that trend I certainly will not indict it universally.
Super Brands Exist in Every Discipline
This is similar to how some authors, and actors, and musicians become super brands that benefit from their long-term consistency. If a new Radiohead album comes out (regardless of what head-scratching distribution vehicle they employ) I’m buying it, period. I’ll see every Jennifer Lawrence movie. And every David Fincher film. I’ll read every Bill Bryson book. And every Mark Schaefer book, for that matter. What we see in social media is just a smaller and less consequential version of this dynamic, accompanied by greatly reduced economic stakes, since social content and social sharing requires investment of trust capital, rather than the actual currency used to purchase movie tickets, digital downloads, or books.
Can Anyone Create a Super Brand?
But I believe your central question here is one of nature versus nurture. Can any person with smarts, relevant expertise, and an unyielding commitment create for themselves a super brand: the type of relationships that would cause other people to automatically share their work? I think the answer is yes and no.
I fully believe that just about anybody can achieve a level of success by creating and sharing consistently good content about topics people care about, while also being wise and diligent about content amplification and promotion. From scratch, you can make someone good at content. We do it all the time as consultants at Convince & Convert. However, can you take the same person under the same conditions and make them great at content, to the degree that they have what you call a “super brand?” I don’t think so, or at least I’ve never been able to do it for anyone other than myself.
I think this is because content-driven success is the same as music, or art, or acting, or comedy, or golf, or just about any other endeavor where you are mostly competing as an individual. Competency can be learned. But the distance from competency to whatever you want to call the next level (super brand, in this case) is actually further than the distance from zero to competency. You can pick up golf for the first time at the age of 45, put a ton of time and effort and money into it, and learn how to be a decent golfer. You can learn to play piano credibly. You can learn to paint. You can become a strong content creator that’s a trusted information resource. But, can you just set your mind to it and end up as a professional golfer (even a far-flung satellite tour)? Unlikely. Can you just decide to play piano and end up as a professional piano player? Unlikely.
The Role of the “It” Factor
At some point, an aptitude layer, or the “it factor” kicks in, and that’s what allow people to move from very good to the next level. That aptitude layer is what builds super brands. Gary Vaynerchuk is a VERY smart guy. But most of the time he’s not saying anything different about business and social media than anyone else is saying. But, he has a style and a delivery and a personality that set him apart. In short, he has charisma that most people don’t have. And it matters.
Is Jennifer Lawrence the very best actress of her generation? She’s good, probably not the best. But, she is extremely likable in a way that most people (especially celebs) are not. It sets her apart, and it matters. Am I any smarter than most people creating marketing content and dispensing business advice for a living? No. But, I’m a better writer than average, I’m a better headline writer than most, I’m a better speaker than some, I’m consistent like rain in Seattle, and for reasons I don’t fully understand people tend to like and want to support me.
Recently, someone I trust made a comment on a Facebook post that said she didn’t know anybody in business that didn’t have something nice to say about me. That’s incredibly humbling, and that “approachable Midwesterner who looks like Drew Carey” vibe I have sets me apart, and it matters. Incidentally, I realized about six months ago how much of a differentiator that really is, and that’s when I decided to start doubling down on it with the JayToday videos. (note: JayToday is my thrice-weekly, 3-minute video podcast)
Figure Out Where Your Version of “It” Resonates
You can learn to be good. “It” determines if you’ll transcend that. And of course, your “it” is totally circumstantial and occupationally specific. Would Jennifer Lawrence be the most likable college administrator allowing her to reach the heights of that profession? I doubt it. Would I be successful in music, the way your son is? (note: Mark’s son is the lead figure in the very popular indie rock band Royal Bangs) Probably not, because my “aw shucks” thing that works in business, wouldn’t be a cool enough vibe to translate to “it” in that world.
So, the key to building a super brand with content isn’t necessarily having the “it” factor, because I think everyone probably has “it” in some way. The key instead is to figure out in which world or subculture your version of “it” is valued, and ply your trade there. Why does Gary do so well among entrepreneurs? They see themselves in him. Find the place where who you are and how you communicate and comport yourself represents something approaching the ideal for that subculture. That’s the place where your own version of “it” will take you from competent to super brand.