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Branding, my ass! (Un-SQL Friday 001)

Here is my contribution to my blog party, Un-SQL Friday 001: Branding.  Join in the fun, won’t you?

I have a theory that for any given concept, there is a spectrum of possible concentrations of that topic. It applies to skills (e.g., some folks are wildly talented musicians, some are decent, and some can’t carry a tune in a bucket), political opinions, food preferences, personality traits, abilities, and just about everything else.

The Gamma Ray End of the Branding Spectrum: Mega Brands

On the Branding spectrum, mega-companies like Coca-Cola and Microsoft are WAY on the Branding-saturated end.  Note that “brand” is not equal to product. Brand is the unified face of the company: the name, the logo, slogan, website, output, involvement in the community, tone of customer interaction (sales, customer service, training, promotions and giveaways, etc).  Trust me, the big guys have TEAMS of people dedicated to nothing but the way the company is seen, and they should.  They know that brand can label the company as archaic, or edgy, or fun, or whatever, and either attract or repel customers.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about the far and middle ends of the scale: the branding of self. 

The Low Frequency End of the Branding Spectrum: Individual Brands

A person gets a degree, a cert, a job, a career – he’s just himself, not a brand.  The self-help guys might tell you differently, but I think a real brand takes conscious thought.  So then, there’s us. We put together a website, threw out some videos and blogs.  We started up a weekly webshow and hopped on Twitter. Now people actually recognize us: “Hey, the MidnightDBAs!”  Sure, we thought about the name, and we’ve brainstormed on looks and logos, but it’s only recently that we’ve begun thinking purposefully (or at least consciously) about branding.

The REASON we’ve been thinking about branding is that in a very short space of time – about the last two weeks – the subject has come up roughly twelve gazilliondy times, often with MidnightDBA as the focus.  One friend in the industry was startlingly enthusiastic about us – he’d clearly spent some time thinking it over – and cheerfully named us the Howard Stern of the SQL community.  Others have called us famous, others experts…and these are people who haven’t worked with us.  How would they know about our level of expertise, even considering the IT videos?  Still others have warned us about being too….gee, what’s a good word to sum it up?  You could go with “unprofessional”, “crude”, or “aggressive”, and I suppose any of those could fit. I could say more about that last, but I’ve read Sean’s blog on the topic, and he covers it VERY well.

Then there’s the question of direction.  We’re not selling anything, so why bother with branding at all?  Before we start answering any of these questions, let’s take a look at some of the different brands in the SQL community.

SQL Brand Superstars

Take the queen bee of branding, Brent Ozar (blog, twitter).  The man is a SQL Server MVP (and now MCM) working for SQLSkills, and he has twice as many Twitter followers as the company owners.  He has no handle, no avatar…he’s him. And he’s turned himself into a brand with the clever application of lots and lots of public exposure (no no, not THAT kind), cool self-advertisement, humor, and helpfulness.  He had a metric ass-ton of help in this arena from Quest Software while he was with them – I haven’t asked, but it appeared that he was largely paid to be Quest’s cool front-man on the intertubez (a good strategy on THEIR part, and one we’ll talk more about in a minute).  But you’ve got to give it to the guy: Brent has thought hard about branding, and as a result he’s a celebrity in the SQL circles. It appears that he’s done quite well by it.

Now, take that same paragraph and substitute “Buck Woody” (blog, twitter) for Brent’s name, and you’ve got essentially the same story of individual branding. There are other examples, but we should move on.

Just to the right of the Individual Name brand on our spectrum is the Moniker brand. Thus enters the mother hen of branding, Jorge “SQLChicken” Segarra (blog, twitter).  Jorge appeared out of nowhere about a year ago, around about the time that I too leapt feet-first into blogging, and he’s been everywhere ever since.  He picked a clever handle (how much more catchy does it get than “SQLChicken”??) and a fabulous avatar. He started up the free, collaborative SQL University and got some of the best names (including mine) on the roster. He’s Mister Twitter.  You’d have to ask him what it’s gotten him, but from here, I see a catchy, fun brand and a guy with a big following and a brand-new job at PragmaticWorks.

Note: You want to know how well these guys have set up their online presence? I didn’t have to look up any of the links for their blogs or Twitter accounts. THAT, my friends, is good branding.

Corporate and Community: Put Your Hands Together

And companies are starting to cash in on guys with individual brands.  Quest had Ozar, Confio got Thomas LaRock (blog, twitter) – the SQL Rockstar, another excellent moniker.  It’s a fantastic strategy to put cool people in the front line of your organization, both online and in person. It makes people want to hang out with you, and talk up the product.  And these companies have it right, too, that their guys are more than willing/able to talk product, but that’s not their job.  Apart from their tech duties, their job is to be part of the SQL community and be a cool face for a cool company.

What does it mean to the kitty?

Enough with examples.  What does it gain us to have a brand?  I’ll start by arguing that consciously thinking about how people see you is a good thing. You want people to like you and be into whatever it is you do.  People who like you and respect what you do give you jobs, invite you to insider events, agree to favors. 

But, there isn’t necessarily a standard one-size-fits-all branding model.  Think about how you see Buck Woody, Adam Machanic (blog, Twitter), Joe Celko.  They’re really good guys who know their stuff, but I wouldn’t bet the house on getting a thank you letter post-interview. The boilerplate “wear a tie, don’t swear, send a thank you letter” isn’t a bad place to start if you haven’t felt your way in the world yet, but it’s clearly not where your dear MidnightDBAs have landed.  And where we’ve landed is good.

What we’ve done is to build up a repository of material for our own reference, practice in teaching and speaking, and a demonstrable track record of helping others in the community. The way we’ve done it –  which includes our name, our media, our attitude, our language, our subject matter – is the brand, and that’s gotten us a contingent of loyal, funny followers; friends in high and low places; and special opportunities with people and companies that appreciate blunt honesty.

There’s a ton more on my mind about this, but I think a thousand words is good for today.

Happy days,
Jen McCown

For more about all we’ve done online and IRL, see my About page and Sean’s Stuff I’m Doing page.


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