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A “Likable” Brand

It’s been almost two years since Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Girls Write Now Awards Speech, and yet in the current political climate it’s getting some much-needed press. Today, I’m sharing it both because I think it’s a valuable lesson, and because I want to drive home an important point: the difference between a person and a brand.

Forget about likability

Here’s a transcript of part of Adichie’s speech: 

“I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it’s also something that’s quite difficult for even older women and self-professed feminists to shrug off, is that idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable.

And I say that’s bullshit.

So what I want to say to young girls is forget about likability. If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, and multifaceted place that there’s somebody who’s going to like you; you don’t need to twist yourself into shapes.”

-  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

But what about my brand?

Some people are naturally great at creating professional brands. For the rest of us, whether we’ve worked freelance or been responsible for an organization’s brand, we invest time and energy into testing the right content to put out into the world, and seeing how it comes across. We want our brands to be likable, and we need them to be likable in order for them to be engaging and ultimately profitable.

For freelancers in particular, the brand and the person can interweave to the point of confusion. People feel like they know you, because you keep a professional blog. They know your voice, and that feels like friendship. In today’s world, it’s vitally important to separate the two in your own mind – regardless of what readers or customers may think.

A brand can be likable both in what it does, and what it omits. A person is multi-faceted, and likability is not a requirement. The difference can be confusing from the outside, but from within, whether by creating a Venn diagram or conducting a card sort to separate the two, they can and should be distinct. Obviously there will be similarities, but just as readers or clients aren’t the same as friends, the brand personality is not the same as the person.

Honesty

My favorite clip from Adichie’s speech was this: “If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likability.” This is important. This is true – for people.

The mantra for people comes from Shakespeare: To thine own self be true.

The mantra for brands comes from Groucho Marx, or George Burns (depending on who you believe): Sincerity is the key to success. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

This isn’t to say that brands should lie, or that humans must always tell the exact truth in every situation. It’s about honesty within itself, and truth, and reality. A brand is not a real person; it is a crafted personality. A human has an inner conscience that she can not lie to without losing herself.

So stop trying to be likable. Build a likable brand for business reasons, and be yourself the rest of the time.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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