What’s your 3-second brand?

A new year is coming up. Perhaps you want to try to get very well known for something this year — write a book, give speeches, become a thought leader. When people think about you, what will they think? What’s your personal brand?

You may want to think very long and hard about that, and develop a whole architecture that makes up the elements of your brand and reveals the dimensions of your expertise.

Unfortunately for you, the attention span of your audience is three seconds. If they think of you at all, they will think of you in shorthand. They’ll put you in a box. If that box is well defined, it can do you some good. If there is no box, you pretty much don’t exist.

My box, as defined by this blog and my book, is, for better or worse, “bullshit.” If you think for more than three seconds, I might make the impression “bullshit, as in bad writing.” It’s a nice clear positioning that has a few drawbacks, but at least I occupy some space in a lot of people’s heads. If I meet someone new, they’re as likely as not to say to me, “Oh yeah, you’re the bullshit guy.” And I am grateful for the fact that they may actually know who I am, even though in fact, I am a lot more than “the bullshit guy.”

Authors and “thought leaders” all have a brand like this, if they are at all successful.

Thomas L. Friedman is “The World is Flat”

Scott Stratten is “Unmarketing” (and Unselling)

Malcolm Gladwell is (still) “The Tipping Point”

Gary Vaynerchuk is hustle.

Brené Brown is empathy.

Michael Krigsman is CXO Talk.

Lee Odden is the influencers expert.

Some of these brands are oversimplified or far out of date (The Tipping Point was published in 2000). They grossly, vastly oversimplify the work these authors and thinkers have done. And yet, once established, such brands are difficult to dislodge.

It’s also possible to shift such a brand, but it takes years.

Between 1998 and 2007 I was TV analyst guy. From 2008 to 2012 or so I was the Groundswell guy. My ability to shift to “Without Bullshit” in 2015/2016 is, in retrospect, sort of a miracle. Even now, a full decade after cowriting a bestselling book, I’m more likely to find new people who know me from Groundswell than from Without Bullshit.

Charlene Li is right now shifting from social media expert to disruption expert. She’s smart enough, but it will take a concerted effort spanning years of branding and speeches to make that shift.

If you’re hoping to stake out territory in people’s minds in 2020, you need to be thinking about what that territory will be. It has to be very simple and clear, and you have to hammer on it consistently. And you had better enjoy it, whatever it is, because if you succeed, you’re going to have to live with it for quite a while.

The 3-second brand and politics

Think back on the presidents of the last 80 years. Who are they? Here are my impressions of their 3-second brands.

  • FDR: New Deal.
  • Truman: The buck stops here.
  • Eisenhower: Military-industrial complex.
  • JFK: Ask not what your country can do for you.
  • LBJ: Vietnam
  • Nixon: I am not a crook.
  • Ford: Stumbling down stairs.
  • Carter: Malaise
  • Reagan: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
  • George H.W. Bush: Read my lips, no new taxes. (He went back on this and didn’t win a second term.)
  • Bill Clinton: I feel your pain.
  • George W. Bush: War on terror.
  • Barack Obama: Hope and change.
  • Donald Trump: Make America Great Again

These are completely unfair. But when you only have three seconds, you only get to make a single, very brief impression. Nixon went to China, but what we remember is that he resigned. Clinton got impeached for lying about a blow job and was very smart, but it was his outsized personality that made the impression. And Trump is a lot of things, including a liar, but his slogan is a consistent reflection of what he wants you to think about him.

What did Hillary Clinton stand for?

I don’t remember. It kept changing. She mostly stood for “I am not Trump.” Her inability to brand herself well, combined with Trump’s ability to brand her as “Crooked Hillary,” had a lot to do with the outcome of the election.

What’s the 3-second brand of the current Democratic candidates for President? Completely tip-of-my-brain impressions:

  • Joe Biden: A continuation of Obama.
  • Bernie Sanders: Socialist.
  • Elizabeth Warren: I have plan for that.
  • Pete Buttigieg: Gay, smart, young, centrist (a bit muddy, that).
  • Michael Bloomberg: Billionaire.
  • Amy Klobuchar: Midwestern.
  • Andrew Yang: Technology-driven solutions.
  • Cory Booker: ?
  • Tulsi Gabbard: Crypto-Trumpist.
  • Tom Steyer: Billionaire.
  • Julian Castro: ?

It’s not a coincidence that Biden, Sanders, and Warren have strong 3-second brands and are leading. And it’s also the case that everyone who has a muddy brand is behind. Yang is way beyond what you would expect for someone with no government experience because of the clarity and differentiation of his brand. Conversely, Buttigieg is pretty smart, but needs a clearer image — if he doesn’t map out a brand, others will brand him in a way that doesn’t benefit him (you know, like wine caves).

Politics is a lot more complex than 3-second brands. But Trump has an advantage: we all know who he is.

Do people know who you are?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Re Buttigieg, I agree with you he needs to nail his brand – it needs to be less about him and more about us if his brand claims thus far are going to stand. Side note, I also perceive “gay” is the least prominent of those four brand attributes you list, but that’s just me.

      1. Indeed. Just saw this in Pete’s Twitter feed – maybe this is the start of a 3-second brand he’s trying out! Not electrifying yet. See last sentence:

        When I ask folks to picture the day after this president leaves office, when the sun rises and our task of rebuilding this country begins, I’m not thinking about Washington.

        I’m thinking about Nicholas, Angela, Patrick, and Anu.

        I’m thinking about you.