By Mark Schwed

Coca-Cola has a “brand.” Same goes for the Miami Dolphins, Tom Cruise, the president. And you.

A brand is the essence of you — everything you project to the world around you about who you are, what you stand for, what you’re made of.

What people think of your brand can have a big impact on how far you go in life, influencing everything from how much money you make to whom you marry, even what your kids will achieve.

One nationally recognized expert says parents should begin thinking about their child’s brand from conception. And that if a kid entering college isn’t actively working on his brand, he’ll likely fall behind those kids who are.

To find out more about branding, we talked to Morris Reid, Washington insider, CEO, corporate consultant, and “personal branding expert.” — Mark Schwed

What is a brand in this sense of the word?

Reid says a personal brand is your core — your values, your expertise, the thing that is constant about you and helps people know what differentiates you from others. “When people talk to you about whether you’re trustworthy, charming, whether you make people feel comfortable, those are attributes that brands have. Everyone, every human being, every company, every institution, has a brand. They’re the qualities and attributes that a person identifies with.”

People didn’t talk much about brands a couple of decades ago. Why now?

The proliferation of competition has forced companies, and people, to focus on the brand, Reid says. “It used to be just Coke and Pepsi. Now there’s a myriad of other soft drinks. You have to put time and effort into distinguishing yourself from what your competition is — this is what my brand stands for, this is why you should choose my product over other products and services.” A brand used to be concrete: Coke is red, cold, cola. Now it’s more squishy. For instance, when you think of Nike, do you think sneakers or the slogan, Just do it? It’s why some people buy Nike instead of Adidas — the brand.

What’s the difference between Coke and Pepsi’s brands?

Coke, which is routinely ranked as the most valuable brand in the world, is all about optimism, bringing people together. Think of the commercial, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Pepsi is the up and comer, young, hip, cool. Both use media to shape and reinforce the brand. “I’m not buying Pepsi because my buddy P. Diddy is in the commercials,” Reid says. “But some people are. And what they’re buying is ‘cool, hip, relevant, today.’ “

You believe a kid looking for a job after college needs a brand, right?

“It’s important for a kid going into college to understand what his brand is going to be. When you walk through that door, you’re in research and development mode. You’re creating what your brand will be in four years.” 

Why is that important?

Reid says your brand can make the difference between being perceived as a winner or a slacker — “a kid who wants to get ahead and one who doesn’t. One kid will go get a summer job, have an internship. The other won’t. So if you have two guys, everything being the same — same college, same GPA — it’s those other attributes that are associated with this brand that are going to get him ahead.”

When should you start thinking about your personal brand?

Parents should focus on what they want their children’s brands to be from the moment they decide to have kids. “Which preschool, which grade school do I send him or her to — these all influence the brand,” Reid says. “As you grow older, you are able to make your own decisions. That’s when you really start to develop your brand. At the age of about 9, kids start to make decisions that will affect them: ‘I want to go to Harvard, become a doctor, policeman or fireman.’ They’re starting to have research and development on what they want that brand to be.”

How does a brand work for kids younger than 9?

Reid says even kids on the playground have a brand. If one kid runs faster and jumps higher, other kids will be drawn to him — “to that brand. Your brand starts at that early age. The more you’re aware of it, the more your brand has an impact on the external world. You’re going to be selected more often. Coca-Cola wants you to select their brand. And you want people to select your brand.”

A brand is different from a personality, right?

They can be the difference between night and day. Personality is who you are. Brand is what you’re known for. “Look at the personality of Martha Stewart vs. the brand,” Reid says. “Her personality was cold, distant, rude, mean. The brand was that she was warm, cuddly, she’d chop tomatoes with you. Very different from her personality.” Sometimes, Reid says, the brand can be the opposite of the personality and the brand won’t suffer; in Martha’s case, the brand sold because people believed there was value in it, he says.

What’s the difference between image and brand?

Image is something that can change. The brand doesn’t really change; it’s the collection of values and characteristics — the essence of what a thing is. Reid uses Paris Hilton as an example: Her image is of a ditzy blond. But the “Paris Hilton brand” is “young, hot and sexy, the cutting edge of fashion.” (Of course, she won’t always be young, hot and sexy, but the brand may well remain, even if it’s filled by other attractive young women. Think Brigitte Bardot: She’s still a brand, even if she hasn’t pouted for the camera in years.)

Got an example of branding gone bad?

“Rock Hudson, who was promoting himself as this great hunky romantic movie star when actually he was gay,” Reid says. “You’ve lost credibility, you’ve lied to them, you’ve sold them on getting a Ferrari and you show up with a Yugo.”

Are there other examples?

Reid says Rush Limbaugh, who railed against drug users only to be revealed as a drug user himself, “is the perfect example.” Same goes for Bill O’Reilly (sex harassment scandal), Newt Gingrich (divorcing his cancer-stricken wife) and crusading televangelist Jim Bakker (the fallen founder of PTL). “You can’t be high and mighty and run around with prostitutes.”

Those are all Republicans. Any Democrats have brand trouble?

“The entire Democratic Party,” Reid says.

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