Donald Glover and the Problem of Brand Management

Donald Glover

We’re all stuck here
I’m afraid I’m here for nothing
I’m afraid of the future
I’m scared I’ll never reach my potential

Donald Glover epitomizes overachievement. While still a student at NYU – an RA, no less – he managed to parlay a spec script he’d written for The Simpsons into a gig as a staff writer for 30 Rock. Over the first three seasons, he penned some of Tracy Jordan’s most iconic lines. Not one to get too comfortable with short-term success, he gave up his Emmy-winning writing job, packed his bags and moved to Los Angeles. At that point Glover quickly earned the role of Troy Barnes on Community, a role written for a white actor. “When you think of the former high school football star, you think 6-foot-2, white, meathead as the model for that kind of character. Since I’m not 6-foot-2 or white, I just thought about what I could bring to it,” Glover explained to NY Daily News. “I thought about Smash Williams from Friday Night Lights, like the cocky quarterback, and played around with that.” Building up his reputation for versatility, Glover adopted the moniker Childish Gambino (taken from a Wu Tang Clan name generator) and started recording hip hop albums. Rather than just repackaging his comedic stylings in song form, Glover, says Grantland writer Steven Hyden, revealed “a more ambitious and sneakily serious artistic temperament… positioning himself as a hip-hop outsider critical of materialism and machismo.” His most recent album, “Because the Internet” – about how living in an electronically connected world has left so many people feeling alienated from one another – was released last week. Donald Glover’s career arc has been nothing short meteoric.

But we see meteorites most clearly when they are burning up. In October, Glover hand wrote seven notes on Residence Inn stationary and shared them with the world via Instagram. “I am afraid of the future,” he wrote, the first line of several dozen exclamations of occupational, existential, and relational angst. “I’m afraid my parents won’t live long enough to see my kids. I’m scared my girl will get pregnant at not the exact time we want…. I’m afraid this is all an accident.” Hyden described it like this: “The missives were crafted with the naked intimacy of a tortured journal entry and the slickness of an artful ad campaign. Glover printed out his thoughts cathartically in all caps and with self-conscious melodrama, alluding cryptically to a personal battle with … the collective burden of miscellaneous fears and insecurities that many humans wrestle with every day.”

The thematic parallels between his outburst and his album, Because the Internet, beg a question. Were these notes designed to stir up controversy before its release? Or were they the real, unfiltered anxieties of a man most of us only know through his performances? In the aftermath of his Instagramming, Glover tweeted, “I keep hearing that I’m ‘troubled’ or ‘depressed.’ I just thought that was something most people were experiencing.” He told People magazine, “If I’m depressed, everybody’s depressed. I don’t think those feelings are that different from what everybody’s feeling. Most people just don’t tell everybody. I was just tired of telling people I was tired. It felt like every day someone would ask, ‘What’s wrong. Are you OK?’ And I would say, ‘I’m tired, I’m tired.’” It could be that Glover the overachiever is dabbling in brand management; it could also be that Glover the man has some major insecurities and, like most of us, had a day where he could not keep them to himself. Glover told the New Musical Express, “I don’t see why being insecure is such a bad thing – some of the worst people in the world were very secure with who they were.” We may never know the truth of the matter. But Glover’s outburst underscores the schism between who we are and who we present to the world. It helps us understand the tension between a man and his brand.

I feel like I’m letting everyone down
I’m afraid people hate who I really am
I’m afraid I hate who I really am
I’m afraid this doesn’t matter at all

Writers Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell often exchange e-mails and publish their conversations as a record of what two lay philosophers talk about. In one such exchange, they discussed at length Lebron James and his decision to sign with Miami in 2010. Before long, the conversation turned to brand management. Says Gladwell, “At the very top of the pyramid athletes make as much — and in many cases much more — from their endorsements as they do from their actual playing. Tiger Woods made just over $2 million from golf in 2011 and $60 million on the outside. LeBron made $14 million on the court, and twice that off the court…. People like that are in this strange position in which their virtual selves — their brands — are more valuable than their actual selves.” Suddenly athletes in particular and celebrities in general find themselves having to make decisions based not on what’s good for them personally but what’s good for the brand. Gladwell continues, “And what’s the brand? It’s this abstract thing managed and created by some guy in New York with whom his ‘fans’ might actually be more familiar than he is.”

There is an error in Gladwell’s thought process: the difference between a regular person and a celebrity is not that celebrities deal with this disparity while ordinary folk do not – we are all valued in one way for the service we provide and valued in another way for who we are as people. We are all building brands, just like Lebron James, and just like Donald Glover. Mark Zuckerberg agrees. “Think about what people are doing on Facebook today,” he says. “They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. They’re connecting with the audience that they want to connect to.” The key differences are scrutiny and amplitude. Lebron’s teammate Shane Battier put it like this. “(Lebron) sneezes and it’s a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over, and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience.” The rest of us don’t face the same scrutiny – I have sneezed twice this morning without so much as a “Gesundheit” to be heard – nor do we deal with the same kind of financial stakes. But we have all become image crafters and brand managers.

I think the problem here is not so much that we are marketing our brands. The problem I see is that the more we do this, the fewer people there are that seem to know who we really are. Fewer people can differentiate between the producer and the product. And it is having a major impact on intimacy and interpersonal relationships. Brad Meltzer once wrote, “There’s nothing more intimate in life than simply being understood. And understanding someone else.” But how can we offer this understanding when there is a disconnect between who we are and who we tell people we are? How can we ever know someone else if they are doing the same? “Most people are other people,” Oscar Wilde said. “Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” That was true a hundred years ago. How much more true is it today? Dating coach David Wygant describes the Internet as the number one intimacy killer in the world. But it is not the Internet per se that is killing our intimacy. It is that we use the Internet as one more barrier, one more checkpoint, one more obstacle between who we are and who we want people to think we are. “I only want to do things where there’s a connection to other people,” Donald Glover told Time magazine. “I feel like sometimes we lose that because the Internet makes it hard to do.”

I’m afraid this is all an accident
I’m afraid I’ll regret this
I’m afraid she’s still in love with that dude.
I’m afraid there’s someone better for you. Or me.

Like the lovable Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock, Donald Glover comes from Stone Mountain, Georgia. Stone Mountain, as described by the Village Voice, “sits in the shadow of a large relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved in the side of the mountain of the same name. It is the place where the Ku Klux Klan was rebooted in 1915—and Martin Luther King references it in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” Living in a city with such an intense racial history had an impact on Glover. “Growing up in the South, people didn’t like me because I was black. And it took on this thing: I’m gonna be me so much, and be so likeable, that I will change their minds. And I know now that that’s impossible. But I had to try.” On top of that, Glover’s parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses – he had to hide his appetite for television from them since he was not allowed to watch it – in addition to being foster parents, which forced him “to do anything to get his parents’ attention—puppet shows, plays, skateboarding.” Still just a child, Glover was already hard at work on his brand.

There is a great irony of all this personal brand management. We do it because we are insecure. We say to ourselves, “People won’t like me if they know who I really am.” So we create a fake version of ourselves, which in turn makes it impossible for someone to love us. So when you see a crack in someone’s interpersonal façade, take note and learn a little something about that person. Affirm them for their genuine self. When someone you know seems a little bit melancholy or a little bit melodramatic, maybe cut them a little slack. Maybe they are trying to market their CD. Or maybe they are trying to set their brand aside for a little while and show you who they really are. After all, what’s so bad about being insecure? As Donald Glover puts it, “Hitler was very secure in who he was – he was also a huge asshole and one of the worst people ever. This is who I am, and I’m insecure.”

Note: The italicized verses are a three-stanza poem I “wrote” by remixing sentences from Glover’s Instagram letters.

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2 thoughts on “Donald Glover and the Problem of Brand Management

  1. I loved this and I love the way you write. I read Donald Glover’s Instagram thing and I felt it was so refreshing and I wanted to write about it but you made the points I wanted to make and many more points that I never thought of. And you made them so well. I like the post on Confidence too. I like the “dying away” idea as well. Basically, I’m a huge fan.

    • Wow, thank you for the high praise! I appreciate your feedback.
      And yeah, I remember seeing those Instagram notes and thinking, “He’s not supposed to say that!” Naturally it was something I had to explore further.

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