In some ways, it’s fitting that I sit down to write about a brand as an essential quality of an entrepreneur this morning. All across the headlines are blazing the news of the death of Kim Jong Il at the age of 70 years old.
Interesting among the more standard news stories about the Kim’s reign — and the devastation it caused his country and his people — is an article in The Wall Street Journal on the mythic nature of Kim created by his propaganda machine.
According to the article, there are two filters through which Kim was viewed.
To his people, Kim is a “peerless leader, master of all knowledge and gifted athlete”— or at least gives the appearance as so — with huge banners and paintings showing his likeness all over the country of North Korea and carefully constructed photo ops and news stories painting him as such. Newscasters, announcing his death on television, we’re in tears as they reported the news.
To the world, Kim is a brutal dictator with a bizarre love of gray jumpsuits. He oversaw a country that declined from a communist regime over decades into one of the poorest and most brutal dictatorships in the world, imprisoning millions, killing untold numbers of his own people, and pushing scores of North Koreans into abject poverty and starvation.
But these are all perceptions, as no one really “knew” Kim. Very few world leaders actually met with him, and his own people only heard his voice once, in 1992, on a broadcast where he said, “Glory to the people’s heroic military.”
Eventually, however, as it does for everyone, the truth gets out. And that brings me to branding.
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve briefly shared some thoughts on the essential qualities of an entrepreneur, based out of the book, Midas Touch, by Donald Trump and me.
The Importance of Brand for An Entrepreneur
Many people think a brand is what you make, which is not true. What you make is simply a commodity. A brand is what communicates who you are as a person or a company and informs what you make.
A brand is different than a commodity. For instance, Coca-cola is a brand. Store-“brand” soda is a commodity — not a really a brand. Nobody collects Safeway-brand cola merchandise — and no one builds museums to celebrate the history of Kroger soda. They do for Coke though, because it is a brand — and one that people love.
A brand is important for an entrepreneur because it helps people instantly know what you stand for. For me, my brand is taking complex financial information and making it easy and fun to learn. My company represents that brand, and people trust me and my brand. My brand is authentic.
And that’s why today’s news is so interesting, because it communicates a universal truth about branding.
Kim Jong Il had a brand (we all do to a greater or lesser degree, and many refer to is as a reputation). To us, it’s clear that his brand was a brutal dictator. But we don’t really know, yet, what his brand was in his own country. He worked hard to pass himself off as a great man and leader to be revered and who cared for his people and country against a world out to get them. But I’ll wager that most North Koreans don’t buy that brand. Why? Because the reality of their lives as they starve and face persecution don’t measure up to that brand.
His brand is not authentic. It is a veneer held together by fear. Now that he’s dead, it will most likely unravel. News sources are indicating as much, with most world leaders predicting a huge and possibly violent power struggle on the horizon.
That is an important lesson in branding — your brand must be authentic, or you’ll eventually be found out. You can be successful by some measure with a brand that is not authentic, but eventually that lie will be found out and what you’ve built will come crashing down. Rather than shoot for a period of success by creating a false brand, a true entrepreneur seeks to build a legacy by creating a true brand.
And a true brand comes from doing what you love and building a great company that desires to share that love.
For me, I love to see people’s lives changed by financial education, just as my life was.
My company exists for that sole reason, and it’s reflected in my brand. I don’t need a propaganda machine to communicate that. My actions and the products of my company represent that, my employees live that, and my customers attest to that.
If you plan on being an entrepreneur, as I hope many of you are, I would challenge you to begin the process of self-discovery for both you and your company. Who are you, really? What are you passionate about? What defines you and your company?
Once you have discovered the answers to those questions, build your company around them and live them truly. Only then will you have a true and authentic brand, and only then will people look and you and say, “Yes, I know and love that brand.”
Don’t think you can fake it. Because you can’t. Eventually, everyone’s true brand comes out—just as it will for Kim Jong Il in North Korea.