What made you pick up this book? Perhaps you're wondering why your brand should be gay. Or maybe the pink covered book jacket grabbed your attention? Did the idea of uncovering the art and science of creating an authentic brand pique your curiosity? Maybe it's all of the above. Whatever the case, the book made enough of an impression that you picked it up and are now reading these words. What this moment demonstrates is the idea behind what an authentic brand is all about-owning a perception in the marketplace that compels people to take action. In Your Brand Should be Gay (Even if You're Not), Re Perez-seasoned Brand Strategist, keynote speaker, CEO and founder of Branding For The People-uses real-life case studies and behind-the-scenes stories to challenge your understanding of branding, demonstrate the transformational impact of authentic brands, and share his proven branding process that has helped his clients shift from unknown to celebrity-like status. Pre-revenue to multi-millionaire. Ashamed to proud. Outdated to cutting-edge. And, embarrassingly inauthentic to courageously authentic both in life and in business.
The Grey Ceiling
"You know, Re, you just don't have enough gray hair."
I was in my early thirties sitting across from the global Human Resources Director at one of the top global branding firms where I had worked for over three years. I had just asked about a promotion.
I couldn't believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. She continued on to say that even though I was clearly committed, driven, and good at my job, I didn't look old enough. I needed to look a certain age and have a particular stature in order to be seen as credible in the eyes of the C-Suite and Fortune 500 executive clients. Ironically, several of my colleagues were chronologically younger than me, but because they looked older, they had already joined the ranks above me.
I was devastated.
But, in that moment, I learned that perception is everything! No matter how solid one's qualifications or credentials, people's perception matters more.
For context, I was thrilled to be working in the branding industry. And, in particular, this consulting firm, which housed some of the smartest and brightest Brand Strategists and creative professionals in the world. Admittedly though, I also found the work culture toxic and ego-centric. It was about getting ahead, even at the cost of someone else's career. My colleagues focused on winning the "politics" game, not being the most creative or smartest. It was about thriving in a "sink or swim" world (and there were quite a few sharks in the water), rather than in a collaborative, supportive culture.
I was at a crossroads in my career. I wouldn't be able to advance (at least at this company), but I didn't want to abandon the foundation I'd created. I loved every minute of branding. And, I felt I was naturally good at it.
But, as things go, several months later, I got pulled into a meeting. You know, the kind of meeting where they sit you down, close the doors, and tell you (in an emotionless manner) that you're being laid off from your position due to "corporate restructuring."
Essentially, I was fired.
It was the final piece of evidence that confirmed I was doomed to sink at this company, no matter how well I swam. I knew deep in my soul I had a lot more to contribute to a company like this, but I didn't want to play the victim. I decided to move on. In the years following my departure, I landed positions at smaller branding agencies and consulting firms-in roles that would seem like "promotions" or "career advancement." I was offered more money and even assigned high-ranking titles. The only problem: I wasn't fully challenged at these companies or in these positions. Something was still missing.
From Heartbreak to Breakthrough
I was starting to discover that more money and a fancy title were not truly fulfilling. I began a quest to find other ways to feel fulfilled. I considered leaving New York City to live in another country. Maybe that would be my next move? I even thought that finding love and being in a romantic relationship would fill the void I was experiencing.
As it were, both opportunities showed up-simultaneously!
A friend recommended I explore online dating but instead of limiting prospects to New York City, leave the geographic filters to include the rest of the world. After a couple of interactions, I connected with one man over the phone because he lived in South Dakota. In one conversation, we instantaneously fell in love. This attraction was beyond what I had ever experienced before. So, I started to organize my life around starting a life with this man.
Shortly thereafter, one of the top international branding firms asked if I would consider working in Dubai, U.A.E.
My first thought was: "relationship or career?" But, I kept considering the question until I had coached myself to think "relationship and career."
After long-distance dating for only five months, we decided to take the risk and move to Dubai together. We packed up our things, said our goodbyes to our families, and settled into our apartment in Dubai Media City. As luck would have it, the romantic story didn't go as planned. After only one week in Dubai, my partner became cold and distant. He found out that his father was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. The romantic journey we were on suddenly ended. We broke up that week.
Understandably, he needed to go back to the States and be with his dad. I knew it was the right thing for him to do, but still, I was despondent. For some reason, this break up shook me to my core. It took me on a downward spiral of depression and self-doubt. Here I was living in a new country with no family or support structure-just my new work colleagues. I felt suffocated, lost, and heartbroken. I started to question everything: What am I doing out here? What am I really doing with my life? Why do I continue to find myself in a position of unfulfillment and sorrow both in my personal life and professional career?
It was time to make a change. It was time for a transformation. I decided to leave my new job, return to New York City, and take time to heal my broken heart and figure out life. In the subsequent six months, I went on an inward journey to find a deeper purpose in my life, which involved many hours of reading, journaling, yoga, and meditation every day. I even went on a retreat in Sedona, Arizona, which is where I got in touch with spirituality.
Finally, in early December 2010, I had a breakthrough. I got clear on what was next for me: I would create my own branding firm. And, I wanted to help smaller companies that were making a difference and positively impacting people's lives.
This led me to entrepreneurship. In January 2011, I launched Branding For The People.
From Employee to Entrepreneur
I didn't exactly know how to run a business, but I was determined not to be another cog-in-the-wheel employee again. In creating a separation from the Fortune 500 environment, I quickly found myself surrounded by entrepreneurs and small business owners. I started to observe their way of thinking and approach to building businesses-as well as their branding.
I remember thinking that their entire approach to branding couldn't have been more different to that of the Fortune 500 companies I was accustomed to. I couldn't help but negatively critique their lack of a clear message, poorly designed logos, confusing marketing copy, non-functional websites, and even their ink-jet-printed business cards.
I felt compelled to tell them candidly and unabashedly to STOP doing what they're doing because it was just so bad. I offered suggestions on how they could make their branding better, clearer, and more professional. While you'd think most people would get easily hurt or offended, I got a different response. My new entrepreneurial friends were appreciative. It was the first time someone was direct and brutally honest with them, while at the same time able to provide valuable tips and constructive ideas on how to improve.
My biggest takeaway: Entrepreneurs and small businesses "don't know what they didn't know" when it comes to branding. They either didn't know "branding" even existed, or they thought branding was synonymous with marketing or logo design. They couldn't grasp that branding is both an art (design, colors, graphics, imagery, fonts) and science (psychology, sociology, cognitive linguistics). Everything about branding that came so natural to me was completely revolutionary to them. They were astounded by the depth of my training and knowledge in the field. Their acknowledgment of my expertise wasn't what amazed me. Rather, it was the look in their eyes and their physiology shift when they began to see the world differently. It was as if I had given them their first pair of prescription glasses, and they could see clear shapes at a great distance. They began to understand the art and science behind the process. Branding became a "want" they hadn't even known they wanted. Inevitably, they would ask if they could hire me to build their brand.
When I received my first check from a client, I quietly celebrated and told myself: "I'm now in business." Because I now had "proof of concept" that small businesses could benefit from my Fortune 500 background and experience.
My Relationship with Perception
I often get asked the question: "Why are you so passionate about branding?" Most people assumed it was because branding is considered "cool," "creative," and "fun." While all that's true and certainly makes the profession exciting and enjoyable, the answer lies within my deeper relationship with the power of "perception"-because branding is all about creating perception. Whether we're aware of it or not, people form perceptions about us all the time, and to some degree, we all care about how others perceive us.
Like many kids in their formative years of high school, I cared about my classmates' perceptions of me. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be accepted. At the same time, I didn't want to fit in at the expense of being true to myself. But the pressure of wanting to fit in during high school was compounded for me by three layers:
I attended an all-boys Catholic...