Do You Make this Common Branding Error?

“Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again. ”
–Vincent Van Gogh

With all the talk I’ve been doing lately about branding you’d think my own branding strategy was perfect. Not so. I thought I’d poke fun at myself and tell you about a branding error I make, especially since it’s a common one you might make as well.

In a comment on my last post, 4 Simple Ways to Grow Your Brand, Dr. Pete said

Steven: I’m a bit slow on the uptake and just put 2 and 2 together (well, 3 and 7, actually); you’re “vangogh99″ from SEOmoz aren’t you?

Dr. Pete really isn’t slow. The truth is I’ve made a fairly common error in branding. I’m Steven Bradley here and vangogh99 at SEOmoz and vangogh at Webmaster-Talk. I may be any one of the three depending on where you encounter me.

I know all three are me, but is there any reason to expect that someone who sees vangogh also realizes he’s the same person as Steven Bradley? (did I just talk about myself int he third person? Remind me never to do that again.). Add in a company name that uses none of my alter egos and it’s enough to even lose me sometimes. A better much approach from the perspective of branding and mindshare would have been to use the same name in all places where I maintain a public persona.

Something tells me I’m not alone given all the unusual names I come across in social circles online.

We’re all dividing our branding efforts. vangogh has mindshare in forums. vangogh99 has mindshare on social media sites. Steven Bradley has mindshare here and in comments around the blogoshpere. How much would I have if I used the same name everywhere? (I did it again. I talked about myself in the third person. You were supposed to remind me not to.)

Unifying Divergent Brands

All is not lost. It’s extra work, but all those different names can be brought together. If you ever notice the author credit I use here you’ll notice the (aka vangogh) after my name. It was an early attempt to bring two of my personas together. The unification could certainly be more effective.

Notice too the Van Gogh self portrait at the top of this post. That image has traveled with me as an avatar wherever the usernames vangogh or vangogh99 happen to be. Adding the image next to my name as post author would be a more effective way to bring the names together here.

A little over a month ago I mentioned using MyBlogLog as a branding tool. Because the vangogh avatar is the one I use on MyBlogLog and because there are blogs that will display your MyBlogLog avatar next to your comments, it can also help unite the different names I use online.

I could go further by leaving blog comments as Steven Bradley (vangogh) instead of Steven Bradley.

When someone sees one of the names the task is to make them think of the others and to do that I need to either present them together or as often as possible to present them in combination with something that remains consistent such as the avatar. If I do it all well enough one day you might visit a museum, see a Vincent Van Gogh painting and think of me. Now that would be mindshare, though I don’t expect to ever compete with one of the most famous artists who ever lived.

The Power of a Logo in Branding

Most people see a logo as the brand. A logo is a symbol representing a brand, but it is not the brand. You brand is the sum of associations, both good and bad, that someone has about you. A good logo can quickly recall those associations without mention of your name. That’s the power of a logo in branding. Create a unique and distinctive logo and display it next to your name enough times and it will become a visual cue to your brand.

The example I commonly use is Nike and the swoosh. A couple of years ago I noticed Nike hardly if ever used their name in a commercial. A typical Nike commercial simply displays the swoosh at the end. We’ve all seen it so many times that it’s enough to tell us who’s behind the commercial. The Nike swoosh is a very powerful abstract brush stroke. Think of how much is communicated anytime you see it.

The ideal way to tie together your different usernames is through your logo since it also ties you into your site and business, but to a lesser degree any consistent icon can work. For me the Van Gogh avatar is probably fine. It might even help to ride the back of Van Gogh the artist since the man and the image are already familiar to many. It’s possible that associations you have about Van Gogh the artist get transferred to me through the self portrait image.

How many different ways can you be identified online? Do you have a way to bring those names together? Does a consistent cue to your brand travel with you online?

“If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”
Mary Pickford

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. Forrest would you believe I was thinking about you while writing this post? You’re one person I knew used his name in most places and didn’t have all the usernames to deal with. You might want to add your last name to blog comments, though Forrest isn’t really the most common name so it should stand on its own.

    The only reason I end up with the 99 at the end of vangogh is when someone else beat me to it. It happens on a lot of social media sites and it’s usually annoying because the vangogh username is often inactive.

  2. I’ve never had enough creativity to come up with a truly good name, so I just use my own. It varies a bit: sometimes just my first name, like in a blog post, but occasionally my full name when someone else beat me to the punch.

  3. Steve,

    Don’t talk about yourself in the third person. Just wanted to remind you.

    You know, this never occurred to me until you mentioned it. I have a couple of screennames, and I also write under my own name on the blogs. Granted this is for the company for which I work, so it might not matter as much. It certainly is something to think about for my personal stuff. Most of my online presence right now is in service of the companies for which I work.

  4. Thanks for the reminder Kristine. I can’t stand when people refer to themselves in the third person. It’s so pretentious. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any other choice for this post. I felt a little like I had multiple personalities writing it.

    I thought about you too writing this. Your avatar kept popping into my mind while writing the section on unifying your personas. If you want to keep the personas separate it makes sense to use different names. There’s no need to brand yourself and the company you work for together unless you want to. If you wanted to have your company associated with your personal brand it makes sense, but otherwise you’re probably best to keep the two separate.

  5. I’m glad to hear that I’m inspirational :) Personal branding really is tricky. My advisor in school always used to push being consistent, so that people could easily find and associate my name on papers, interviews, etc. That’s great for academia, but being “Dr. Peter J. Meyers” is a bit over the top on an online forum. I used to always be “crumplezone” in college; ok for BattleNet, but not quite the image I want as a 30-something professional. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of Pete’s and even quite a few Peter Meyers out there. I finally settled on “Dr. Pete” (which, for some reason, clients sometimes call me) as being slightly unique but not too pretentious.

    Of course, even once you settle on something, there are the technical challenges. What if a site has a letter limit, or doesn’t allow punctuation, or always displays in lowercase? What if you start to get popular and people beat you to the punch, using your handle to boost their own status? The scale/dollars may be different, but personal branding is just as complex as corporate branding, in many respects.

  6. Ironically there’s another photographer named Forrest Croce; I kid you not. He’s on the other end of the age spectrum, though, and probably doesn’t read any blogs. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s something of an accomplishment for my first name to bring up my blog on the first page; my main site is on page 4. Between wikipedia and Mr Gump, I’m glad people can find me if they see one of my photos somewhere else with my name on them.

  7. Steven,

    It is sort of funny that you mention using the same user name across different platforms as a branding tool. I did not discover how helpful this can be until someone asked me the same question you were asked. I used three different user names khalid, khalidh and khalidhajsaleh in the forms and blogs I am on.

    And just to make matters a little worse, I discovered that I misspelled my user name on a forum I was on for couple of months. So, I had to deal with people knowing me as kahlid, yet a forth user name. Oh, the confusion.

    What is worse is that some people whom I know for sometime now insist on using khalidh (with the “h” at the end) for my first name. Go figure, that is what happens when you have a little strange name.

    My solution at this point is to start using my pic as an avatar.

  8. @Pete – Inspire me you did. I realized when you made your comment that there was no reason you should have known. This post was going to be written anyway, but it took a different shape based on your comment.

    It can be difficult. Your full name is a little over the top, though maybe not on LinkedIn. I run into the problem of their being a lot of vangogh fans. Most of the time someone has beaten me to the name. Now I sign up for things quick even if I don’t plan on using the site for awhile.

    @Forrest – I wouldn’t have thought there would be another you. especially one that’s an artist. I only rank #2 for ‘Steven Bradley’ There’s an professor who’s school page is #1 and likely will be for awhile. I have 4 of the top 5 spots and 7 of the top 16 at the moment.

    @Khalid – That is funny, particularly the misspelling. You don’t think it’s going to be a big deal, but then you realize there’s no reason anyone should know that all three Khalid’s are really on and the same.

    The avatar is the way I’m going to go too. It’s recognizable and the visual is more impactful than the name until your name gains mindshare. My only debate is whether to switch the image to a real one of my. It’s probably best to use my real picture, but I generally don’t like how I look in pictures.

  9. Funny David. And true. And sadly I’m sure I’ve made an ass of myself here and there before and will continue to do so again. Maybe we all need to keep one extra username around just in case.

  10. I don’t know, I sometimes feel like most of my comments kind of fade into a nice polite plain vanilla wonder bread blandness. An occasional bit of public embarrassment might be beneficial to brand awareness.

  11. I hear you David. Kind of like any attention is still good since it’s bringing you some attention. I have a hunch a lot of my own comments tend to fade into the background as well, since I’m generally not the most controversial figure.

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