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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Personal Disaster Wash, Rinse, Repeat: Penelope Trunk's Brilliant But Dangerous Personal Brand

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Penelope Trunk has written extensively about her own history of abuse,  institutionalization, depression, getting fired, and more.  But her latest blog went a lot further. In it we read about her experience with domestic violence: how during one of their fights, her husband shoved her to the floor as her six-year-old watched.

 

Penelope Trunk is a hugely successful personal brand. She writes articles about career development mingled with anecdotes about her crazy personal life. Her problems are her props.

 

Yet beneath the surface, underneath all the unpredictability and self-destructiveness and rebuilding, there is a certain consistency. Even manipulation. She knows her audience’s hot buttons, and she pushes them. If it’s Penelope’s blog, you know that one week you will read about her starting a goat cheese company, and the next week about homeschooling her sons, and then the third week about getting shoved to the floor. Her blogs are just – like that. Which is why she gets so many comments, and I think so much press. (Or maybe it’s that her advice is pretty useful.)

 

Penelope Trunk is also, hands-down, the best writer I have ever come across. She has the gift; she is beyond gifted. I don’t know if it’s the Asperger’s Syndrome that makes her as honest, but endearingly puzzled at the things other people take for granted – like social boundaries and inhibitions. It might be the child abuse. Whatever it is, I can’t stop reading.

 

I don’t agree with everything Penelope says; in fact her views, no matter how well-researched, are often infuriating and offensive to me. She tells women not to report sexual harassment, and argues that Veteran’s Day should be “cancelled.”

 

After the Veteran’s Day blog, I decided to stop reading (I work for the federal government and that one particularly got to me; of course I only represent myself here.) But I went back. Because Penelope, unlike most writers, has no veneer. She doesn’t shy away from complexity, she doesn’t exaggerate it. She simply presents it. She lives it. Right in front of you.

 

Penelope Trunk is a brand. But she is very, very messed up as a person. I worry one day they will find her dead. Forgive me for bringing marketing into this conversation, but what makes her so valuable– so relevant for this day and age as we learn our way around social media and how to make money from it – is that she so consistently lives her life on the edge, on the ledge, in front of all of us.

 

Lots of people lack ego. Lots of people do research and share strong, but unpopular opinions. But what makes her so worthwhile, if she could get her act together just a little more – is that she has the personal brand ingredients that few can aspire to:

 

1)   Authenticity and originality

2)   A born entertainer

3)   A moral cause

4)   Focus

5)   Lack of ego

 

Most important, Penelope Trunk is both both unpredictable and utterly consistent.

 

So this is the dilemma: The best brands, using buzz-worthiness as the metric, are people whose lives are perpetually, but predictably, out of control:

 

·      Amy Winehouse

·      Britney Spears

·      Charlie Sheen

·      Elizabeth Taylor

·      Eminem

·      Kim Kardashian

·      Marilyn Monroe

·      Michael Jackson

 

All of these personal brands live (or lived) unpredictable personal lives. And they share them: Penelope Trunk tweeted about her miscarriage, and caused an uproar. The excitement, and the controversy, is why we watch them. And, like Penelope Trunk, when their lives get stable they will be boring, and we will stop.

 

The smartest thing a personal brand (the manager or the person themselves) can do is isolate the internal consistency behind the brand, and then engage in creating an evolving story that hooks the audience on the next installment. A great example of this is Britney Spears, who went from bizarrely shaving her head in 2007 to Femme Fatale this year. A bad one is the painful public breakdown of Charlie Sheen.

 

To brand well, you do have to be healthy. Unpredictable might work for a time, but without any checks and balances, there’s only one way that can end. And while some people might want to go down in the history books as brilliant but tragic, the greater victory is to stay alive – dancing, as they say, on the head of a pin.

 

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