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On Pom Wondeful, Morgan Spurlock, and My Brand

Call me behind the times, but I’d never seriously considered cultivating my brand. It took 17 years working in print media and an assignment covering Morgan Spurlock’s “Greatest Movie Ever Sold” to figure it out.

On Pom Wondeful, Morgan Spurlock, and My Brand
[Photo: Flickr user Fruitnet.com]

Call me behind the times, but I’d never seriously considered
cultivating my brand. 

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That is, until I went freelance, in December 2008. Of
course, by “went freelance,” I mean I was fired. But I landed on my feet. I started writing for the New York Times and doing celebrity Q&A’s for Time magazine. I became a contributing editor at The Advocate and got a teaching gig at UCLA Extension. Suddenly, instead of being “an editor at Entertainment Weekly,” I became “Ari Karpel, who writes for the New York Times” and “Ari Karpel, who writes for Cosmopolitan” (don’t judge — a boy’s got to pay his rent!). Though the publication names would shift, there was one constant: Ari Karpel. It became clear that I was trading onmy name, my reputation. It helped tremendously that I had cobranded with publications that lent me credibility, but it was time to think about what I lent them.

That’s about the time I reconnected with Rick Tetzeli, who’d laid me off from EW. He’s now executive editor of Fast Company. He hired me to co-write
(with him) the magazine’s feature story on Morgan Spurlock’s new meta-documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, about product placement and marketing in entertainment. 

The first thing I did was call up Howard Bragman. The
veteran Hollywood publicist shapes his clients’ brands while simultaneously
advancing his own. The title of his 2008 book, “Where’s My Fifteen Minutes? Get
Your Company, Your Cause, or Yourself the Recognition You Deserve,” echoes the
name of his firm, Fifteen Minutes. A frequently called upon TV talking head, Bragman
is openly gay and has engineered the comings out of such stars as Meredith
Baxter and NBA player John Amaechi. He has also sparked criticism by
representing Isaiah Washington when the actor was accused of having used a
homophobic slur against his Grey’s
Anatomy
costar T.R. Knight; and Doug Manchester after it was revealed that
the hotelier had given significant funds to support California’s Proposition 8,
charged with defeating gay marriage. “I didn’t sell out. I didn’t work against
my basic interests,” argues Bragman, who sees such moves as suiting his brand,
which he describes as ’empathetic, perceptive and accessible.’ “They made
mistakes and apologized and made amends. We’re imperfect beings, we all make
mistakes.”

Bragman’s tightrope walk reminded me of Spurlock’s. In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, the
filmmaker criticizes product placement as he revels in it and benefits from it.
It’s a conflict that most people in business deal with these days. Our culture
is riddled with cognitive dissonance: We advance your own objectives, or those
or our company, while trying not to trample the objectives of others or sacrifice
our personal integrity.

But I put aside such deep thoughts while I focused on … me! Since
Tetzeli had encouraged me to follow the spirit of the film and push the boundaries
of normal magazine writing, I opted against interviewing the branding folks Spurlock
had worked with in the film; instead, I asked them to assess my brand. To my surprise, Lindsay Zaltman
— managing director of Olson Zaltman, the Pittsburgh-based branding outfit that
had pegged Spurlock as “Mindful/Playful”–jumped at the chance to fly a team to
New York, where I was working for a few days, to conduct a two-hour branding
intake. No doubt, he had been enticed by the power of the Fast Company brand; he’d never heard of me.

“It’s like therapy,” Spurlock told me, explaining his own
experience with Olson Zaltman. “You’re in there and they dissect you, why you
make the choices you make, why you process information in a certain way, and
then they come back with, ‘Here’s who you are in its barest form,’ and that was
remarkable.” He felt that the experience helped him articulate a clear message
about what the film would be, marking the turning point when a series of
rejections by potential sponsors started to become yeses. Olson Zaltman had declared
Spurlock’s brand affinity with JetBlue and Mini Cooper, and both companies ended
up sponsoring his film. So I became curious which brands they would say I have
affinity with. Perhaps my beloved NPR? Or maybe some other high-end, thoughtful
entities, like Whole Foods or HBO? The mind reeled.

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My assignment was to come armed with photographs that
express who I am. I chose one of the Verrazano Bridge, an awe-inspiring
metaphor for my desire to connect to people; a picture of performance artist
Marina Abramovic recalled an experience I had with her that validated ideas in
my head. My love of food and silliness was captured by Cookie Monster, and a
shot of a kitchen let me talk about how I love to cook and entertain, bringing
people together for meals. Finally, a photograph of a path through autumn trees
illustrated my desire for perspective by getting out into nature and being able
to recognize the absurdity of interviewing celebrities for a living.

Zaltman’s colleague Nick Kimminau asked probing questions, amplifying
metaphors I’d referenced and steering them back my way for self-reflection.
(“You mentioned that cooking feeds you. What does it feed in you?”) Having done
plenty of therapy myself (hey, I’m a gay Jew from the east coast — it’s
endemic!), I wasn’t rocked emotionally. Still, one intriguing exercise led me
to concoct a tale involving Karate Kid star
Ralph Macchio, former vice president Dick Cheney and Oscar nominee Tilda
Swinton, representing respectively my best, worst and most balanced qualities, in
a Central Park cagefight (don’t ask). By the end of the session, Zaltman and Kimminau’s
life-coaching-meets-ad-agency approach provided a great distillation of things I
already thought about myself: I have an almost obsessive need for authenticity,
a yearning to connect to people, a desire for validation through my writing, and
an acute appreciation of the absurd.

A week later, they reported back to me with the Ari Karpel Brand.
Drum roll, please! I’m “A Connector to Authenticity.” The rundown wasn’t too
different from what they’d mirrored back to me on the spot, and when they got
to my brand affinities, I was ready to hear “Oprah!” or “BMW!” Boy, was I in
for a surprise. The five brands that Olson Zaltman determined “Ari Karpel” has
affinity with are: Harley-Davidson, Yogi Berra, Southwest Airlines, Twitter and
Cisco.

Huh?!

Twitter, I can see–the social media tool is all about
connections. But Harley-Davidson? Turns out my connection to the motorcycle
brand has less to do with its outlaw image than with Harley riders’
descriptions of their experiences gaining perspective on life while riding.
“We’ve done studies for Harley before,” says Zaltman. “It’s about being in the
moment–almost what cooking does for you.” And Cisco? Olson Zaltman has also
worked with the communications technology company, which has adopted the
tagline “The Human Network.” “It’s about facilitating authentic connections in the
marketplace,” explains Zaltman. As for Yogi Berra, Zaltman says, “He was
extremely real, and he liked to play around with words, like you do.”

Zaltman advises that teaming brands, even like-minded ones,
is complicated, and one must consider both a brand’s essence as well as how most
consumers perceive it. In other words, an Ari Karpel partnership with
Harley-Davidson would probably not come across well enough to work. “It’s not
always black and white,” he says. “Your brand qualities are both things that
are important to you and they’re also ways that other people connect to you; it
goes in two directions.”

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One insight Zaltman had offered about my brand struck me as
truly valuable: Only by connecting with myself can I connect to other people
and, in turn, the audience for my writing, he said. It reminded me of a story I
wrote for the Hollywood
Reporter
last year, in which I laid out how movie stars must know their
brands, and stick to them, to remain successful. Of course, with an established
personal brand like, say, Meryl Streep, a branding team can interview people
who have seen her movies just as they can interview users of a product. But in
branding an unknown individual, like me, they must rely solely on that person. Therefore,
this brand assessment is really about how I want to be seen. It’s what’s
important to me, what’s at my core. It’s my brand aspiration.

So, how will I leverage my newly articulated “Connector to
Authenticity” brand? I love nothing more than sitting down with someone and
talking, trying to find the real person behind what’s often a well-honed brand
veneer. I already do that when I moderate panels at film festivals, when I
teach and especially when I interview people for magazines and newspapers — as
in this video sit-down with Mike
Tyson
and this Advocate cover story on Sean
Hayes
. I think that’s when my core brand values of authenticity,
connection, validation and perspective come through.

Promoting myself isn’t the most natural thing for me, but
it’s a necessary component in this economic climate, and I have a plan for
world domination! Or at least a public radio interview show. First, though,
I’ll start with a blog. For two years, I’ve intended to launch
TheModernMensch.com — a blog about media, politics, entertainment and a bit of
my own life, as seen through the lens of striving to be a good person — but
I’ve been too focused on doing work that will actually pay my rent. (“Mensch”
is a Yiddish word for, essentially, “good person.”) I think that amidst our
culture’s noise about making money, getting attention, even building our
brands, we’ve lost sight of being good people. The world’s a complicated place;
being a good person should be simple. It’s good for everyone around you, and it’s good for you.

Take my experience: When I was laid off two years ago, I
didn’t bad-mouth my boss, I simply accepted my fate with dignity, brushed
myself off and moved on. And look where it got me: I just co-wrote a Fast Company story with the guy who let me go, and at the end of the piece, the
magazine names me “The Greatest Writer Ever.” That’s got to be good for my
brand.

You can follow Ari Karpel on Twitter @AriKarpel, and check out his soon-to-launch blog, TheModernMensch.com.

Read More: Super Sell Out: Morgan Spurlock’s “Greatest Movie Ever Sold” Bows at SXSW

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.

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