I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam.

Truer words have never been spoken, Popeye. And yet, so often we try to reinvent our identities and our brands in response to things happening around us.

In Jon Ronson’s new book, The Psychopath Test, we get to meet Tony. Tony is a guy who tries to avoid doing 5 years hard time for a violent crime by pretending he’s crazy. Apparently Tony is a good actor. Instead of ending up in a cushy hospital, he gets stuck in a mental institution, and 12 years later he’s still trying to convince the doctors that he’s not crazy after all.  But who would believe a crazy person who claims he isn’t crazy?

When you try to convince people you’re something that you really aren’t, you can paint yourself into a corner pretty quickly.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Hans Villarica gives us another example: Paris Hilton. Not exactly a model citizen, unless you want to overlook the drug use, sex tape, DUI, jail time, etc. She made a great deal of money promoting her bad girl image. But now she wants us to see her as a mature, grown-up, level-headed, productive member of society.

And it’s not working.

Because this new identity is not consistent with the brand she spent years building.

That’s not to say rebranding is impossible. Villarica gives us another example of a wild child, Angelina Jolie. Remember the vial of Billy Bob’s blood? Or the accusations of “home-wrecker”? Her once-suspect philanthropy has now become a core part of her brand. But it takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of consistency to adopt a new identity.

The same holds true in the business world.  Examples abound, in companies big and small, in every industry and category.  Particularly when times are changing, it’s tempting to try to change who you are into who you think customers and prospects want you to be.  Last time the economy was booming, Wal-Mart tried going upscale.  Jaguar, on the other hand, spent the last 10 years trying to attract entry level buyers with the X-Type.  Both were blatant brand contradictions.

Some companies can make a transition, either through careful planning or sheer luck, from one identity to another.  But most of us face two options: you either stick with who you are, or you struggle to reinvent yourself (and probably undermine your existing brand in the process).

What about you?  Are you who you are?  Or who you think others want you to be?


Are you Popeye or are you Paris?

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