Offbeat Regret: The ripples of reactive branding
How mistakes I made 15 years ago have played out
|Ariel Meadow Stallings||Dec 6, 2019|| 5||4|
Let’s start with the superhero origin story for Offbeat Bride, the brand that I’ve worked with for almost 15 years: In 2005, I wrote a book about nontraditional wedding planning. The original title was And The Bride Wore A Hula Hoop.
This title sucked for many reasons, the least of which being how do you shelve that book? I guessed it would be Bride Wore A Hula Hoop, And The, and that sounded sloppy.
In trying to find something better, I called in the help of an old college friend, Megan.
“I wish I could just call it Indie Bride,” I told her, invoking Lori Leibovitch’s then-hugely popular message board because it was the mid-00s and message boards were hugely popular.
“I like how that name has an identity built into the brand — you can say ‘I’m an indie bride!’ and relate to the business as part of your identity. But Indie Bride is taken, so I need something else.”
“Let’s get out the ol’ thesaurus,” Megan said, and starting rattling out synonyms. “Individualist Bride? Uncommon Bride? Idiosyncratic Bride?”
“Naw,” I said. “Too many syllables.”
“Unconventional Bride? Eccentric Bride?”
“Ug, none of them sound right!” I whined.
“Offbeat Bride?” Megan rattled off.
“Ooh,” I said. “I like the alliteration with those Bs: Offbeat Bride. People could say ‘I’m an Offbeat Bride’! That sounds great! I love it!”
And so a book title (and then a brand) was born. That’s the origin story: a 30-year-old and the name of her favorite web forum, crossed with an old friend and a thesaurus.
It wasn’t especially intentional, and I paid the price.
Two little words, so many problems
Offbeat Bride might have been a solid name for a book published in 2006, but man did those two words have so many challenges when it came to a brand.
First, there’s the issue of inclusivity: why’s it gotta be bride? The easy answer was that Seal Press published the book, and they're an enduring feminist publishing house dedicated to books for women. But of course, not all people who read wedding books identify as women, and not all women identify as brides, and I should have used the word wedding instead of bride. Oops. I worked around this issue by asserting that “bride was a state of mind, not a set of genitals…” and sure that’s true, but what an elaborate workaround for a thoughtless bit of branding.
Then there’s that word Offbeat. I was so committed to this word that I replicated it through all the sub-brands that spun out of Offbeat Bride: Offbeat Mama (which became Offbeat Families), Offbeat Home (which became Offbeat Home & Life), the umbrella company Offbeat Empire LLC. I even used it with the non-starter of Offbeat Industry, a 2014 concept that failed to launch.
Offbeat is a reactive word. It positions itself as against something — not on the beat, but off of it. There was the beat everyone else had, and then there was OUR thing, the thing off the beat. The thing away from that mainstream stuff. The other thing. The rebellious thing. The different thing. Our thing.
There’s no denying the power of a reactive brand: if you don’t like the options over there, then your disdain can propel you over here, to OUR THING. We’re different over here. We’re special. We're niche. You’re not like the other brides, you’re a cool bride.
Offbeat Bride built up a massive following in the late ‘00s and early teens, very much because of the reactiveness of the brand. We had a great niche, and our niche was NOT THAT OTHER STUFF.
How reactive branding ripples outward
Branding is a form of spellcasting. The words become a mantra, an invocation that you conjure all day, every day. You say the words, you type the words. You invite your customers to say the words and type the words with you, over and over again. If there’s merch, you wear the invocation on your body.
And when your branding defines what you are through the lens of what you’re NOT, you’re invoking a lot of negativity, reactiveness, and othering. And then the invocation ripples outward ever farther, via the minds and mouths of others.
I loved the Offbeat Bride brand, but as it grew and I watched the spell of the branding work its magic through many years, rippling out through the minds of millions of people, I started to notice some things I didn’t like.
Offbeat Brides were identity-obsessed, and we spent a lot of time agonizing over what each of our wedding choices said about us as people and our values. There was much digital ink spilled on whether folks were “offbeat enough." There was worry about "selling out" if they opted for a wedding package, instead of a DIY wedding with a complex theme. There was a lot of tooth-gnashing over whether you could consider yourself a feminist if you chose to have your father walk you down the aisle. Sometimes, there was so much navel-gazing that we lost the plot.
Offbeat Brides liked to “other” ourselves. When you build a community of folks who identify as outsiders, even within the safe context of that community, we’ll find ways to continue to feel like outsiders. Alienation was our common currency, and finding the “anti-” stance to every statement was part of the game. I wrote about the reverse-discrimination fallacy that I watched play out hundreds of times, and observed how we “othered” ourselves constantly. (I’ve joked in recent years that I might as well have named my business the Enneagram Type 4 Empire.)
Offbeat Brides were extremely trend-conscious… so we could push against the trends. The irony of the brand was that I meant it to support marching to the beat of your own drum, without worrying about current trends. But Offbeat Brides were highly aware of current trends — so that they could react against them! What I'd meant to be “do your own thing!” turned into “do something different,” which can be a stressful endeavor! Offbeat Brides were very conscious of what everyone else was doing so that we could do something else. We even pushed against trends within the offbeat community, essentially folding ourselves into mental pretzels — the last thing I intended!
And that’s how a brand I started to support folks doing whatever they wanted and feeling good about it, turned into a colossal navel-gazing, neurotic, trend-conscious mental pretzel of people worrying about their choices and trying to keep up with the anti-Joneses.
I wanted Offbeat Bride to make wedding planning more relaxed, and at times it felt like I’d inadvertently created a new ladder for folks to climb, making wedding planning even more complicated!
At times, I felt trapped by my brand.
This dead-end was my dead-end
Here’s the most painful truth about these brand issues I didn’t like: they were all perfect reflections of the brand’s founder.
Identity-obsessed, self-othering, and trend-conscious/reactive? You just described me in my 20s and 30s.
This is the hardest part to say: the brand’s challenges were my internal challenges. As above, so below.
The bratty, navel-gazing neuroticism? It me.
The perpetually alienated special snowflake vibe? Uh, yep.
The attitude of “I’m not always sure what I’m for, but I can tell you what I’m against!” reactiveness? Guilty as charged.
My brand was just a reflection of my psyche.
Me and Offbeat Bride were the dad and that kid in that Just Say No PSA:
I’m sorry, Offbeat Bride. You learned it from watching me, ok?
You learned it from watching me.
The new brand: proactive and non-identity focused
Having spent over a decade watching the mistakes of my first book play out through its associated branding, I’ve been much more thoughtful with the spellcasting I’m doing with my next book, and its associated branding.
I’ve written before about how authors have very little control over the name of their books, and the book now called From Shitshow To Afterglow has had a series of titles: Onward, Offbeat Resilience, Shitshow After-Party. I didn’t get too attached to any of them, because I knew the publisher could change the title at any time.
This summer, I spent several months working with a branding and marketing consultant to help me strategize the business venture I’m launching off with this new book, whatever the book might be called.
It was becoming clear that “Shitshow” would likely be in the title, and one of the first branding conversations we had was about how I did not want to use that word in my branding. It’s an excellent title for a book (especially given the “sweary self-help” trend in books these days), but knowing what happened with Offbeat Bride, I was NOT about to get stuck with that word:
Nope, not gonna be The Shitshow Lady. I will not make the same mistake twice. What spell am I casting if I invoke shitshow, shitshow, shitshow all day? Yikes!
The branding consultant I worked with is all about helping clients develop a three-word rebellion, and I spent months grinding on what the phrase might be for my new endeavor.
Everything I came up with was reactionary: NSFW self-dev. Deviant self-development. Self-dev On The Edge. I saw myself making the same mistake I did with Offbeat Bride: the new venture will focus on self-development, but everything I was coming up with to describe that work was reactionary: NSFW as opposed to work-safe. Deviant as opposed to normal. On the edge as opposed to mainstream. BLEH! More of the same!
If I’ve learned anything through my self-development these past few years, it’s that all my specialness, offbeatness, differentness, and alienation were a lie that I told myself and the world to convince myself that I mattered. I’m different, and therefore worthy!
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there’s no salvation in being different… and in fact, when I pride myself on being different, I isolate myself from my fellow humans and the unfolding of the universe.
“Different than” can be the lonely hole you stick yourself in to feel “better than.” But, spoilers: if you’re alone in a hole, are you really better?
I’ve learned that when I feel the most alone is when I’m actually the most connected to everyone. Suffering is the most human experience there is! Me and all my alienation and othering and offbeatness was all a defense mechanism to try to feel better, which ultimately just made me feel separated and alone.
It worked, until it didn’t.
If branding is spellcasting, the spell I want to cast is proactive. Don’t tell me what you’re against (work-safeness! normalness! mainstream! bla bla bla!)… tell me what you’re for.
Don’t talk to me about your reactionary identity, the self-hood defense mechanisms you’ve invented to protect your soft bits… show me the actions you’re taking to expand into your glory.
Don’t tell me about who you’re not… show me what you are, in all your blinding, radiant, growing essentialness!
As fate would have it, at the same time as I was trying to come up with my three-word rebellion, I was also working with my book editor to try to come up with the name for the little workbook sections at the end of every chapter of From Shitshow To Afterglow.
I was brainstorming on both fronts, and it took months of failed tries.
But finally, I got there: the three words that sum up the new brand, the same three words that appear at the end of each chapter of the book:
Find Your Afterglow
There ya go.
That last word ties it to the title of the book, without invoking shitshow. Don’t talk to me about shitshow; let’s talk about that afterglow.
That word tells you that something big just happened, but we’re not here to process what that something was. This focus is very, very intentional.
The last thing I want to do is create a brand that’s focused on the bad shit that happens to people. I don’t want to build a job for myself where I’m listening to people processing their trauma — I don’t have the emotional capacity to hold all that content, and I’m deeply unqualified to help folks fix it! I’m not a therapist, coach, or guru! If folks are mid-crisis, I’m not qualified to help.
I’m here to support the growth that comes after the crisis.
I love that afterglow is a little provocative. As I say in the book, “the afterglow is what happens after life fucks you, hard." Separate from the hint of filth, I also like pleasurable connotations… the situation is glowing, soft, aware, bathed in good feelings. I love the visuals.
I like the sensation the word calls up in your body. If branding is spellcasting, I like what afterglow invokes.
As for the other words, find is a verb instead of a noun. Don’t tell me what you are (“I’m offbeat”); show me actions you’re taking (“I’m finding things!”). And I love that it’s Find Your Afterglow. Your makes it clear that while we’re all seeking, what works for one of us may be quite different than what works for someone else.
My afterglow involved self-reflection, movement, a spiritual awakening, identity stripping, lapdances for god. Yours might include rest, nourishment, swimming, and learning to have more of a sense of self. We’re different people, on different journeys. What matters is that we’re all on the journey with intent.
My job is just to empower folks on their journey. I do this by sharing my own (…hi! 👋) and offering questions and guidance to inspire and energize folks on their journeys.
I’ll be launching findyourafterglow.com next year. (For now, it’s just a redirect to the book’s Amazon page — it’s available for pre-order!)
Find Your Afterglow will not be a blog, because as those of you following this newsletter know, I am TOTALLY OVER IT with free content.
Find Your Afterglow will be a place where I’ll offer online courses, webinars, and indulgent literary talismans in the same vein as PROS BEFORE BROS.
Find Your Afterglow will support and empower folks rebuilding their lives with intent and joy. It’s not about the shitshow… it’s about how you’re gonna glow.
I’m confident that this brand will come with its own challenges and lessons, but at least I’m making new mistakes instead of old ones.
I’m so excited to get started!
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