An Experiment with My Own Personal Brand Completely Failed, But I’m Okay with It

Figure №1: R.I.P. My dreams.

I apologize in advance for the length of this. But I’m also not really sorry… that’s the level I’m at today.

The three people who listen to the Creator’s Block podcast I co-host with Jessie-Lee Nichols know that, at the end of each show, we share our “Lesson of the Week.” Sometimes it’s tactical, like finding a new tool. Other times it’s super basic — last week, my lesson was that it’s okay to not do work at home.

Totally breaking new ground there with that knowledge bomb, right?

This week was a little different, but first, some background.

The Career Thing Wasn’t Really Doing It for Me

Before I came to work at Quintain Marketing back in 2014, I was fairly uninspired in the career department. Yes, it was exciting to be on the “ground floor” of LivingSocial — before the epic burnout — and I’ve been blessed with some great colleagues and unique work experiences along the way.

For the most part, however, I was more inspired by the networks I was exploring socially online, outside of work, than by what I was getting paid to do for approximately 40 hours each week.

In fact, I’ve been a personal blogger now for… oh my god, I’ve been blogging in some capacity since 2001 — back when my biggest “content strategy” was filling out surveys and sharing them on my LiveJournal.

Yes, LiveJournal.

Which is still a thing, by the way. (And in case you’re wondering, my favorite number is 23, my favorite book is either The White House Mess or Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley.)

Flash-forward to around 2013, I carved out a niche in the Maryland beer space and landed myself a weekly/biweekly-ish beer column in The Capital, under the mantle of Naptown Pint. In fact, that’s how most people over the past three years came to know me in this small, bayside town of Annapolis — either through my column, or through Facebook and Twitter.

But Then Something Weird Happened

About seven months after my column launched, I was abruptly laid off as part of a downsizing initiative at the digital publisher I had been working at for close to a year.

Fuck.

No one likes being laid off, but I also found myself in a really weird spot. I was over 30 years old, and I had tons of experience. But unlike others, I still had no idea what job I wanted. That thought emotionally froze me, like a deer in the headlights:

I didn’t know what job I was supposed to apply for next.

In that moment, I desperately wanted to be like many of my friends, who seemed to have some higher calling as a driver to their decision-making.

See, that’s the problem with being from (and living in) Washington, D.C. Everyone comes there with these goals and ideas — and they usually work at some acronym-based startup or nonprofit or foundation or think tank (if they’re not working for someone in the House or Senate), that reflects, amplifies and nurtures their passions.

More to the point, most of my friends at that point in time fell into one of three categories:

  1. They had their shit together.
  2. They had deluded themselves into thinking they have their shit together.
  3. They didn’t and were just doing a really bang-up job of creating the illusion they had their shit together.

My lack of career goals notwithstanding, there was another elephant in the room compounding my unemployement problem: my personal brand.

When You Create Something You Don’t Want to Give Up

Up until the whole Naptown Pint thing, I would have had no problem drop-kicking any one of my pitiful personal blogs to the curb, had it been considered a liability or an issue by an employer.

Naptown Pint was (and still is) different.

The catch, though, is that I now live in a small town, wherein my personal brand was based around alcohol and drinking at bars around said small town. Not only is this a huge no-no for some businesses, there was no way I was going to be able to turn back the hands of time and make it so prospective employers wouldn’t find it with a quick trip on Google.

More importantly, however, if someone had asked me to give up Naptown Pint for the sake of a job, I wouldn’t have wanted to comply. Up until that point, Naptown Pint was what I was most proud of.

(Maybe that says something about how low my bar is set, but just lie to me if that’s the case. I don’t want to know.)

So, there I was: newly unemployed, concerned that I was unemployable and completely unwilling to give up the thing that was making me potentially unemployable.

I want to break from my story for a moment to interject that I know this is probably the most basic bitch problem on the planet, but I don’t care. I’m going to lean into it, and even admit that I am saying this while drinking a pumpkin spice latte.

Okay, fine. It’s my second pumpkin spice latte of the morning. Whatever. I digress — there is a larger point here, I promise.

The Awkward Lunch

I was given about half a day and an evening to sulk before one of my best friends invited me out to lunch. As much as I wanted to say no, my biggest plans for the day were feeling sorry for myself and watching West Wing re-runs on Netflix.

I relented and put on pants.

Leo has always been there to support me, even in my darkest hours.

It turns out this lunch was not just with her — it was also with the entire Quintain Marketing team (for whom she worked at the time), who were all looking energized, awesome and amazing, after having hosted the Mid-Atlantic Inbound Summit at Metropolitan.

And there I was, looking like a girl who just got dumped, wearing a thinly veiled attempt to make my pajamas look like laundered, normal people clothes.

Talk about a great first impression.

Well, lucky for me, it all turned out okay. The fact that I was a hot mess the first time I met everyone wasn’t a big deal. Also, John and Kathleen (the husband-and-wife owners of Quintain) didn’t think of my personal brand as a hindrance; they thought it was awesome.

Two months later, I joined the team.

When an Unexpected Career and a Side Hustle Collide

I’m not going to take you through my last two years at Quintain Marketing in the same kind of detail, so don’t worry. I promise I’m getting to my point. But in summary, here’s what you need to know:

My column continued to do well. To the point where I started doing some beer events — a panel here, a tasting there.

It was great news, but I had changed.

A couple of years ago, maybe I would have considered parlaying that kind of stuff into a career. Kind of the way every lifestyle blogger was trying to land a book deal in the early 2000s. And tragically some of them still are.

But the flipside was that my job was no longer just a job. I was really happy at Quintain. I was excited about inbound and HubSpot. Most of all, after a hard lesson in learning I was “the right person in the wrong seat on the bus,” John and Kathleen had given me a true gift — the creation of a Content Manager position to call my very own.

I love it. I love every second of it.

Even the painful parts, where I’m creating processes and staying up late at night, feeling like a fraud, because the words for a copy writing project are not flowing with the expected level of ease.

What happens, though, when most people know you for your side hustle, but you also want to be known for what you pour your professional soul into? And, quite frankly, what you really get paid to do?

There Were Two of Me, Which Is Not Good

It wasn’t long before I felt like I was two people.

There was Beer Liz and Marketer Liz, and I didn’t know how to integrate those two beings — or if it was even possible. Especially from a branding perspective. Would all the beer stuff turn off the marketing crowd I was trying to become a part of, and would all of the beer nerds I love and call friends be turned off by my professional side?

It got to the point where I couldn’t even write for myself as Naptown Pint anymore. Eventually my column began to suffer, and I never blogged. But instead of facing it, I ignored it. I didn’t want to face potentially falling into an abyss of depression.

Then life got busy.

Then work got really, really busy.

And in that latter camp, I was thriving. I was building processes and being an agent of change in a way that made me realize that (a) Quintain had become more than a job, it was my home; and (b) I finally found the career path I had been searching for.

Unfortunately, as a result, Naptown Pint — this thing I had worked so hard to cultivate — started to die.

I didn’t know what to do with it. Instead of being something I could look at and be proud of, Naptown Pint morphed into this constant reminder of something I was failing at.

It was soul-crushing, so of course, the intentional ignoring continued, and I distracted myself with a different and unexpected challenge that had emerged:

With my newfound professional fortitude, I wanted to start contributing to and networking within the professional inbound marketing community — but how could I do that with a strong personal brand built around beer? Where would I even start?

After months of vacillating between willful ignorance and angst, I finally stopped moping and feeling sorry for myself — which I sometimes do too much of. I pulled up my big girl pants, and I tried to fix it by putting what I now realize was a band-aid solution in place: I created a new Twitter account that was more content/marketing specific, and broke that off from my beer stuff entirely.

My thought was that both my professional and personal brands were suffering because there was no way to feasibly squish them together in a way that made sense. So the best way to address that was to break them up into separate entities.

That way I could focus on them individually and let them flourish.

Problem solved.

This was about two months ago. And up until this morning, that’s what I was doing.

Breaking Up Was the Wrong Thing to Do

Initially I was totally bought into this Split Liz strategy, in which I had decided that Beer Liz and Marketing Liz obviously couldn’t play nicely together. But over the past couple of weeks, I have been feeling really uncomfortable with my decision.

One of the pieces of feedback I’ve gotten on my column in the past is that I come across as very accessible and real — and that’s why some people choose to read it and sometimes even looked forward to it. It’s probably one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

Unfortunately, by splitting myself off into two “personal” brands, I no longer could embrace that kind of human spontaneity. Everything I wanted to share was immediately stopped short in its tracks by an inner debate about where I should be telling that particular story.

Does this photo go here? Does this thought go there?

It wasn’t working.

After being told my strengths were authenticity and accessibility, I was completely undermining that by putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t just be myself anymore.

I had to be one of two versions of myself. I had to make that choice every time I wanted to share something, because I couldn’t be both.

I hated that more than my original problem.

So Let’s Bring It Back — What Was My Lesson of the Week?

That brings us up to this morning’s Creator’s Block recording, during which I shared the biggest lesson I learned this week:

It was okay to be dimensional, contradictory me.

It was a mistake to try and break Naptown Pint up with Content Manager Liz, because there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t — or couldn’t — be one in the same.

And if I’m being really honest with myself, I wasn’t really suffering from a branding problem, so much as I was learning to be completely comfortable in my own skin and with who I am.

This has never been my strong suit.

It also took me until my early morning drive into the office today to admit to myself that the only thing that prompted me to break the two up in the first place was good, old fashioned fear.

Fear is never a good reason to do (or not do) something.

What’s the Real Story Behind Your Brand?

I will be the first to admit that this post is extremely self-serving and self-focused. I tend to process emotions better when I force myself to write about them, so this narrative is really me having a much-needed “Come to Jesus” conversation with myself about something I was refusing to admit.

That said, the more I kick this story around in my head, the more I realize I also think this is something that anyone to manages or possesses a brand of any kind needs to be considering for themselves.

Here’s what I mean:

In the world of marketing and branding, we all say we want to be “thought leaders” in our respective fields, as much as I still loathe the term.

We want to try the newest tool or implement the hottest strategy. We want to share and be on the edge of what’s next. We want to be innovators. We want to explore uncharted territory. We want to be the pioneers that people look up to. We want to be the experts. We want to be leaders, not followers. We want to be looked toward and applauded for our vision.

We say all of these things, but do we really act on it?

Do we really go out of our comfort zone to be unique? Do we really own what makes each of us (or our companies) different? Do we really go out of our way to say something that challenges the status quo, that would be the differentiator for ourselves that many of us are desperately seeking?

I would throw out the challenge that while some of you do take full ownership of your brand’s potential depth and complexity — and own it in a way that tells a compelling story — many of you still don’t.

Instead, you’re playing it safe.

You play by whatever set of rules you think exist for you. You’re not putting all dimensions of yourself out there, because you’re afraid. Afraid to be different. Afraid to go against the grain. Afraid your efforts at authenticity will backfire. Afraid to embrace your contradictions or admit flaws.

Why take the risk, right?

It’s safer to fit into a predetermined mold and abide by a certain set of tested standards.

To what degree you get a little more honest about your brand is obviously a very personal decision. For example, I wouldn’t expect your stereotypical B2B professional services firm to suddenly start posting unscripted, totally unprofessional stories on Snapchat — because what you do should always align with your audience, as well as your overall business objectives.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get more honest and unscripted about what you do and why you do it.

Why you woke up one day and decided to start a business or launch a blog to either tell your story or help someone else solve their problems.

As for me, I’m going to own the fact that I love what I do as a Content Manager at Quintain. I love being a storyteller for brands, and I enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to innovate the concept of storytelling.

And it took me way too long to realize that it’s also why I created Naptown Pint. I love being the voice for the unearthed stories found in a pint glass — once you scratch beyond the surface of tasting notes.

So while this may be a total failure in personal branding — that will now require some online reshuffling and cleanup, boo — I think I’m okay with it. I’m okay with having a personal brand that functions in two very different ways.

Because that’s who I am.

And being one-dimensional is so fucking boring, anyway.