When You Feel Like A Brand, Not A Name
The first time I ever heard the word “brand” it was on a cattle ranch on the outskirts on Medora, North Dakota. I was about eight-years-old and way too excited to spend a week in 103 degree heat, looking for buffalo, shooting BB guns, and learning how to herd cows into what I would later figure out were trailers that lead them to the auction house.
One of the days when we were out “working” (I say that loosely as we were children and really just along for the ride so the adults could make sure we weren’t getting bitten by a rattlesnake or something) was branding day. The year or so old calves were herded into shoots and marked with the ranch symbol on their back flank with a branding iron. It was a slightly traumatic, seeing the utter panic wash over an animal’s face, and a little difficult for my eight-year-old brain to fully comprehend.
That symbol, that one little scar on their side, represents where they belong.
These days when we think “brand” we think companies. We think, “Just Do It” for Nike, and “Breakfast of Champions” for Wheaties. We think of the iconic Apple on the back of our cell phones and the gold archways along every freeway telling us to pullover just for the dollar menu. We think of billion dollar industries and technology and growth that’s happening of every second of every day.
We don’t always think people. And I’m not talking about how One Direction is a brand because they have an entire aisle of school supplies dedicated to them at every Kmart across America, or how Taylor Swift made the jump from country to pop, or how Jennifer Garner supports Neutrogena and that makes her a brand representative.
I’m talking about the actress who has been deemed too pretty to be funny, or the actor who’s considered too short to be desirable. I’m talking about the poet who wrote a series of heartbreaking love poems, but now when she’s happy people say she isn’t relatable. I’m talking about the website known for salacious sex stories and pictures of girls in bikinis publishing and honest story about rape and having the comments section fill up with, “What the fuck is this doing here?” It’s your type, your “thing”; it is who you are.
I’m wondering where the line of my brand ends, and I begin.
The first article/column/listicle/whatever-you-need-to-call-it-to-be-comfortabe piece that I posted online was a piece titled “25 Realizations You Have When You Turn 25”. It’s a light, semi-fluffy listicle about how I can’t drink the same way I drank when I was 21, how I discovered my lactose sensitivity, and how I still need to call my mom with major financial decisions. It was the first time I put myself out there for strangers to decide who the person behind the words they were reading actually is.
And I continued it. I wrote about the times I was still wasted from the night before and the bizarre things that had happened to me during sex. I entitled things called “How To Know You’re The Hot Mess Friend” and “Dumbest Things You Spend Money On When You’re Drunk” and wrote more about the bad dates than the dates where we couldn’t stop talking for six hours and I couldn’t wait for him to kiss me. I painted a picture of the worst version of myself; a person still rooted in honesty, but in no way an accurate representation of who I am every day.
And it worked. It took off. I took off, on a small scale all things considering but still. Viral pieces happened and emails asking me to write on other platforms came into my inbox and I squealed each and every time out of sheer excitement and disbelief that people think I’m funny and, even crazier, that they want to pay me to be funny.
But then I’d suggest a piece about my struggles with bipolar disorder and they’d pass, asking for something about blowjobs. I’d throw out a piece about the one actually athletic thing I’m into and get told it was too niche and to do something more like what I’d already done. And I’m happy to do it; that’s how the industry works. But it doesn’t make it not weird to only portray one side of you. I get called a “disaster”, a “slut”, or someone will say “Obviously this is why you’re single” in the comments because this is all they know of me and can only form an opinion based off of that. And while I get it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t bite.
It’s a hard concept to explain and to understand because my brand is me. It’s Kendra. It’s not a character. When I talk about a guy wanting me to pretend to be an alien during sex (yes, it happened) it’s a real story. But I tell it an exaggerated manner because at the end of the day: it is my job to entertain the reader. It’s more fun to read about the time when I stood on a cab during Seattle Pride and made it rain on a bunch of twinks in Speedos. No one wants to read how I went home last night to do laundry and put new sheets on my bed and drank lemonade.
My brand has painted me to be a sporadic, pessimistic, surly, perpetually single hot mess of a human being. And to a certain extent, that is a part of me. I’ve always prided myself on standing by my work and things that I’ve said while also knowing when to say, “I could have executed that better.” But the part of me that writes “How To Sneak Out Of His Apartment” isn’t the only part of me that exists. It isn’t the whole Kendra.
A good friend of mine is a fairly well known writer who’s brand, and don’t worry we joke about this all the time, is being heartbroken. I asked her the other day if she thinks people expect her to be sad and without missing a beat she said:
When she writes things about being happy no one listens, when she writes about crying herself to sleep on the bathroom floor it goes viral. She talked about how the biggest secret she has in her back pocket is that the majority of her relationships are actually happy and healthy. We accept that this is our weird little life in an online world we never knew we’d be a part of; but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting sometimes when we feel like 10,000 people per day believe in a version of us that they don’t fully understand.
Guess what? I write about Tinder but I haven’t used it in almost 6 months. But it’s a hot topic, a “buzz word”, and a really accessible reference to use when I’m writing about dating as a 20-something. I write about going on terrible dates and being one because I have been a truly horrendous date in the past; while reality is that I haven’t really been dating much because my last relationship ended pretty terribly and since I’m not totally over it I know it wouldn’t be fair to another person to embark in something I’m not prepared for. As a reader you have gotten 600–900 words of me; you don’t know everything.
But then I take a step back and remember that I did this. I chose to put myself out there, I chose to write this way. No one held a gun to my head, no one forced me. I chose to present the messier parts of myself, the parts that some people would try to sweep under the rug because but I put out I believe in owning your mistakes and using laughter as medicine. The only person I have to blame for putting this part of myself out there…is me.
Are our brands our own worst enemy? I was sitting across the table from a guy I’m sort of seeing, sipping water because I don’t feel like drinking, and I hated myself because the thought did cross my mind: I can’t write about any of this. I’m worried that in my own pursuit of career by Internet I’m putting the brakes on my own personal growth.
Everyone wants us to be sad, so do we seek out situations that bring that out of us? Do we continue to hang on to the past that hurt us because it represents the person that people want to see, want to read? What happens if I do decide to be monogamous when I’ve built a brand on being a serial dater? What do we do when the person we’ve evolved into doesn’t represent the content our brand is begging us to put out there?
I think back to those cows that summer in North Dakota. They were permanently stuck with a backwards ‘R’ and a weird squiggle on their hip because that’s just the way it is. Is this brand, this me something I’m going to have to keep up for the rest of my career? Am I allowed to branch out? Allowed to evolve? Or will there constantly be people telling me when I write something contradictory to the piece I published a day before that I’m all over the place, that I don’t make sense.
I’m starting to become weirdly jealous of anonymous personas; able to tell people anything they want even if it’s so far from the truth. Their brand doesn’t have anything to do with their real life because their real life has nothing to do with the internet. They don’t have anyone to answer to, no Google search or tagged Instagrams to keep them honest. Any speculation about their personal life is exactly that: speculation. Because if you can’t put a name or a face to a project there’s no one to really point the finger at, and no one to really drag.
However, I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of how I’ve grown and continue to grow as a writer. I’m proud that my name is attached and people can email me and ask me questions about my work, or how to write, or where I get inspiration from. I’m proud that I’m accessible. And I’m proud that no matter what name you call me, no matter what venom you spit in comments, no matter what you say behind my back, this is something that I’ve built completely and totally on my own and that fact is something you can never take away from me.
Some days the Kendra brand and the Kendra behind the laptop are completely harmonious and understand each other, some days they don’t. But at the end of every day, even when I don’t want to write about how I got the scar on my arm from a night of crazy partying, I’m really glad I get to.
And besides, no one wants to publish a book from someone with a series of numbers in or an inside joke containing underscores as their “name”.