Thursday, August 13, 2009

Authenticity v Commercialism

I met a former colleague from my marketing reporter days for lunch in the city today, a strong entrepreneurial woman I trust and admire. If you were wondering, I wore new black backless platforms with a bow. Very uncomfortable. Unlikely to be worn again, always a bummer realization on the first wear.

Anyway, we were talking about what we've been up to, the real estate and really expensive jeans she has been marketing via her small agency, the various endeavors I am endeavoring to at some point complete. I told her of my Gold Star Project and wanted her input on how I might possibly turn it in to something that might pay for at least a new pair of more comfortable shoes.

"Could you sell the star, could it say something?" she asked.

"No, see, that's the problem," I said. "I haven't even wanted to hand out cards because the stars are given out to people just for trying, at a real moment when I recognize their efforts, and I don't want them to distrust that the moment was real. Then, it loses its meaning. That's what the blog is all about."

"Well, then, maybe you come up with a more commercial idea and you can still do the blog authentically on its own..." she suggested.

That was it. She nailed it. This was my big problem: I wanted to marry authenticity and commercialism, to "monetize" something meaningful to me. I didn't want it to have to be either or, I wanted it to be both, all in one.

I wrote for years about companies trying to do just that, food companies that sprouted up with a real mission and meaning. They would gather a small fan base, then a bit bigger one that got recognized by a competitive corporate giant and then they'd be snapped up, if they were lucky. Then, usually, came the downward spiral of consumer trust. If, of course, the homegrown brand ever made the mistake of letting on that they too were part of the "commercial" world, if they copped to actually, gasp, being a business in the business of making money.

Despite living in a Capitalist society we are sadly unable to truly trust anything that tries to part us from our cash. It is a problem, one I am trying to reconcile as I look to build my own brand and give it at once both meaning and monetary value. People have told me for going on two years that I am brave for trying. They say it kindly I think, but in their eyes there is something else. Skepticism, or maybe just plain disbelief in the possibility that I might succeed. Or maybe that is my own fear being reflected in their eyes.

I addressed this fear recently when a woman I knew working next to me on her computer in a cafe, a woman who gets paid for working in a cafe, suggested my various beginning attempts were brave.

"Yes, I said, "but if I don't actually do something that makes money soon, 'bravery' will look like 'failure.'"

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