My wife, Lynn, and I sat at our desks. Outside the late-morning sun was trying to break through thick gray clouds. It was frosty cold, but we had the windows cracked open. Earlier that day a light rain had released smells of wet earth and a faint hint of the decomposing persimmons that lay thick around the bare-leafed tree in our backyard, a few of the remaining fruits still clinging to its branches.
“I had coffee with Nancy earlier this morning,” Lynn said.
“That’s nice,” I said, hoping that if I sounded busy enough I might avoid further conversation.
We’ve known Nancy for years but I’m always a bit leery when her name comes up. Don’t get me wrong — in general I like her. She is a financially successful woman in her mid-60s. She is smart, generous and has a distinct style that somehow always makes me think of the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Exactly what she does for a living is not clear, but she is the most technically savvy person I know. She was the first to tell us about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Periscope and a host of other social-media apps before even our 20-something children had heard of them. But she can be also aggressive when it comes to politics, and I was afraid she might actually be a supporter of one of the candidates I found over the top.
“She said something that was so strange,” my wife said.
I tried to bite my tongue, but it just slipped out. “Did it have to do with Trump?” I asked.
“Trump?” my wife said and then laughed. “Oh, God, no.”
My shoulders relaxed.
“But what she said was equally baffling,” Lynn said and then paused before she continued. “She said she was finding it difficult to manage the expectations of her online-brand image.”
“You mean her company’s brand?” I asked, confused.
“No,” Lynn said. “She meant her own personal brand. Like the ‘Nancy’ brand.”
I turned. I wanted to see if Lynn was joking.
“Is Nancy some sort of movie star?” I asked.
“No, but she has a huge following on social media, and she said that her follower numbers are stagnating. She even hinted she is getting fewer likes on many of her posts. She’s really feeling the pressure.”
“How can a person be a brand?” I asked. “I always thought brands were for products or companies.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” Lynn said. “But Nancy explained how each of us is now actually our own brand except that no one buys anything directly from us. It’s only our influence that is of value. For example if you eat at a certain restaurant or wear certain clothes, your social media followers might do the same. Apparently people can actually make money from advertisers if their following is big enough.”
“Sounds crazy,” I said. “I hardly believe that all those people posting cute videos of pets on Facebook are worried about making money or enhancing their brand image.”
“Maybe, but according to Nancy, because normal commercials are becoming less and less effective, things are changing and changing fast.”
Outside the sun still hadn’t broken through the clouds and the air streaming through the windows had grown even colder.
“Isn’t what Nancy’s calling brand actually just another word for what we used to call ‘reputation’?” I asked.
“No,” Lynn said. “Reputation is built on what you’ve actually done, but brand is something you manufacture. It’s kind of like everyone has their own public-relations campaign going on all the time.”
“Sounds horrible. Like being in a perpetual popularity contest,” I said.
“I know,” Lynn said. “Like everyone is walking on thin ice. But what if she is right?”
Before I could respond, our dog, Sam, came noisily into the room and maneuvered to a small patch of sunlight on the floor where he plopped down and started to chew contentedly on a plastic-toy bone. There are no nutrients in these things but he chews on them until they’re gnawed down to nubs, at which point we pry them away from him and replace it with a shiny new version of the same thing.
“Well if she’s right then I really need to start working harder on my own brand,” I said.
Lynn laughed. “Probably too late for you,” she said, and then more seriously. “But it got me thinking. If what Nancy said is true, then does it mean all these people posting things are actually working unpaid for the benefit and profit of all those app companies?”
I had never thought of that before, and it took me a minute to catch on. Sam paused his chewing for a moment and glanced at us before going back to noisily gnawing on his bone.
“You mean if people didn’t post their amazingly creative and personal stuff on Facebook, then Facebook wouldn’t be worth a dime?” I finally asked.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” she said.
“You make a very good point,” I said. “Did you mention your insight to Nancy?”
“I did, but I don’t think she heard me. She was too busy posting a selfie of her with that cute new barista at the coffee shop.”
“Is that consistent with her brand image?” I asked.
“Funny. I thought the same thing,” Lynn said. “But when I asked her about it she said she actually has a few different online-brand images, one of which is hip and youngish.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
Lynn shook her head and then we both looked down at Sam. He’d propped the worn-down plastic toy between his paws and was licking it, his expression one of persistence.
“Almost time for a new dog toy,” she said.
“Yep,” I said as I reached out to give him a scratch. Anticipating what was coming next, he immediately rolled over and impatiently waited for a belly rub.
“Maybe Sam needs a new brand image, too,” I said.
“Stop,” Lynn said, her expression serious. “What if everyone just continues to give their work away for free with only a few making massive profit from all their efforts?”
I shook my head and she turned to gaze outside. The sun broke through the clouds, making the frost on the persimmons sparkle like glitter.
“In this light the persimmons look like some sort of homemade Christmas ornaments,” she said.
“Do you want to take a photo and post it?” I asked.
She shook her head slowly. “How about we just enjoy this view together,” she said.
I nodded but she couldn’t see me anymore. She was daydreaming, off in some distant place where I imagined the sound of Sam chewing on his plastic toy had become the crunch of heavy footsteps on ice, each step forward carrying with it the unlikely hope of gaining more solid ground ahead.
Originally published in the Napa Register, December 14, 2015