How Branding Is Like Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking

Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 11.44.08 PMAny one of you who has described St. John’s to someone who isn’t a part of the College has been asked this question: “So what are you going to do with that kind of education?” The answer that the College’s communications (brochures, pamphlets, etc.) seems to give is: “Anything.” Since this answer doesn’t really give me an idea about what kind of careers to look into, or about how to convince a potential employer that I’ve been practicing something other than shooting the philosophical shit for four years, I find it to be somewhat unsatisfying.

Recently, however, I’ve found a profession in which the whole of my St. John’s skill-set is put to use. That profession is identity consulting, and I’ve written this article to try and show how the work done in identity consulting is analogous to what we do at St. John’s. Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll have a better idea of what skills you’re practicing at St. John’s, and how to talk about them in terms of doing real and helpful things.

 When we read a book, we are the listeners, and the author is the speaker. One of the broadest and most fundamental questions we can ask is: “What is this writer saying?” This question is sometimes posed as: “What is this author doing?” Ideally, we try to answer these questions by using textual evidence.

I like to think of this process in terms of Aristotle’s Categories and the word “genus”. When we ask the questions above, we are looking for something – an idea, an attitude, an identity – that unifies the various expressions of a text under one general heading. That is, we are looking for the genus – whatever it is that the author is saying, doing, pointing to – that contains all the species, or specific expressions, of the text. This paradigm might sound contrived at first, but consider this: the genus we’re looking for can be thought of as literally generating all of the specific expressions we find in the text. It’s a combination of the author’s attitude, perspective, and point, and the text is a communication of it. Even if you think that a text can or should ultimately lead us beyond what the author was trying to say, finding the general in a host of specifics is what constitutes that process of discovery.

We can use the same concept of finding the general in the specific to describe what we do when we listen to someone speak. One of the most helpful things you can do in class is distill someone’s long and complicated expression into a clear and concise sentence, and this requires the same skills as figuring out what an author is saying. It’s about finding what’s essential and articulating it.

This introduces the other side of reading and listening: writing and speaking. This is where one has to do a little bit of reverse-engineering. From reading and listening, you know what makes it hard to understand what someone is saying: emphasizing things that are beside the point, presenting things in an illogical order, and using too many words (I edited that from “using unnecessary amounts of verbiage”) are just a few. Your listener is trying to find what’s essential about what you’re saying; avoid including things that don’t make your point. It should go without saying that this is the way good essays are written: with a clear point and concise illustrations.

Perhaps we should take a moment to clarify what we mean by “good essays”; and, what is almost the same, good seminars. A good essay is clear and compelling: the reader gets the point and is affected by it. Similarly, a good seminar is one that has a distinct and engaging focus. Everyone is involved in the same discussion, and everyone is interested. There is a common goal. Both good essays and good seminars rely on the skill of finding and describing the general in the specific, the essential part of each expression. Having an articulation of this essential truth or question is what allows them to be focused, clear, and compelling.

Essentially, this is just another example of the power of unity. Even when a group of people have a common goal, the inability to pin it down can ruin the enterprise. When you help them articulate a common, clear, and compelling goal, you turn their unfocused and ineffective efforts into decisive and potent action. Moreover, you revolutionize their ability to get others involved.

This is exactly the kind of work that identity consultants — like Siegelvision — do every day. Just as a Johnnie tries to find and describe the essential truth of a Program text or classroom contribution, Siegelvision looks at every aspect of an organization to determine and define its core identity. This is why they don’t like using the term “branding” — identity shapes brand, but isn’t contained in it. Here’s a passage written by the founder of Siegelvision, Alan Siegel, describing the difference:  “To me a brand is associated with a product, and a corporation is more than a product. There is the Xerox machine, a brand. Yet Xerox is an employer; Xerox is a member of a community; it’s much more than a brand. The bigger element of Xerox is their identity – who they are, what they stand for, and why I should do business with them. People are looking to companies to see if they’re socially responsible, a good place to work, a good investment. In my opinion, to use ‘brand’ for a company is inappropriate. Identity is a better term.” Siegelvision’s real work isn’t to re-define an organization, but to help it define and communicate what it already is. Ideally, their work focuses the message and action of the client organization, which in turn invigorates their product and helps them effectively engage the public.

What excites me about branding is that I’ve found a career so closely matched to the style and method of my St. John’s education. Not only has this discovery given me hope for my employment prospects, it’s helped me articulate what I am learning how to do at St. John’s. I want to close by emphasizing that even if you don’t plan on pursuing a career in identity consulting, you can still put the skills I’ve described to use. The ability to find what is essential and articulate it clearly and powerfully is of universal utility. In science, it’s used to unite diverse phenomena under a single law; in political movements and community organizing, it’s used to give people a common purpose. I could say more — I’ve found it in everything from Montaigne to Aristotle — but I’ll leave it at that for now. I hope I’ve given you some insights into what we’re learning at St. John’s, and what companies like Siegelvision really do; and who knows, maybe next time someone asks you what you plan on doing with your St. John’s education, you’ll be able to give them a more compelling answer than, “Anything.”

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