On Branding

People who know me well know how much I love Jacques Pepin. If you do not know, he is a classically trained French chef, who began his apprenticeship in France at the age of 13, who worked in Paris and the was personal chef to three French Presidents, including Charles de Gaulle. Eventually, he would move to the US in 1959, would work at La Pavilion in New York City, and was offered the job as chef to John F. Kennedy when he was President.

Pepin turned him down, and instead went to work designing menus for Howard Johnson’s. which was then the largest chain of sitdown restaurants in the country. Imagine turning down the opportunity to be the White House Chef to work at Applebee’s, say.

When asked in an interview why he turned it down, he said, “Be chef to a President? I had already done that. I wanted to do something new.”

I’ve always admired him for that. To not take himself so seriously. To be willing to put aside the accolades and to be so self-confident that the prestige doesn’t matter to you. To be content to have “done that” and to try something new, something that isn’t what people expect from you.

I have blogged, off and on, for 19 years, for myself and for organizations and companies I ran. Then since 2007 I have been active on Social Media, for the last 5 years or so most heavily on Facebook. And all of those forms of online expression benefit you most when you “brand” yourself. When I started blogging, I ran a small bookstore, and so I wrote mostly about that, and so I was branded as a “bookseller”.

When I moved to North Carolina to start a homeless ministry, I wrote about issues of homelessness and faith and issues like LGBT rights and racism that intersect with homelessness, and became branded as that guy. The last 3-4 years I did that work I had begun to be sought after as a trainer and speaker on those issues, and was pastoring a weekly worshipping community made up of people experiencing homelessness, and someone called me the “pastor of last resort” and I got branded as that.

But even normal people get branded these days. I have a friend that curses like a sailor in person, but she won’t use swear words on Facebook.

“People wouldn’t expect me to do that there”, she told me.

In other words, it would be off-brand.

An early influence on my understanding of ministry was a white Mississippi Baptist preacher named Will Campbell. He was one of those larger than life characters that thrive in the Deep South, a Baptist preacher who smoked cigarettes, drank bourbon and cursed a blue streak. But he also did some of the most important behind the scenes work in the Civil Rights movement, and wrote a book that called out the mainline white church back in the early 1960’s.

In an article about Will in Rolling Stone back in 1990, there is this paragraph:

He does not like to be called the Reverend Campbell because “it sounds condescending and a bit imperialistic. Some people call me a counselor,” Campbell says, “but it’s such an arrogant concept—like I can do something better for you than you can do for yourself. I’m not a reverend, and I’m not a counselor. I’m just a preacher.” Even the word ministry gives him trouble. “I don’t really have a ministry,” he insists. “I have a life.”

Over the last month, I have blogged every day, without a theme. Some days I talked about my struggles with ADHD, and other days I shared a childhood memory or talked about Southern food traditions or shared something that happened to me that day or wrote something somebody found inspirational or just told a funny story.

If I were smart, I would only write 3 times a week about, say, Southern food, and have beautiful images and printable recipes and put together a collection and then a cookbook and start a podcast where I interview other white dudes (because aren’t most podcasts basically white dudes interviewing other white dudes?) about food, and before you know it, I would be a “brand”.

I watched a YouTube video the other day where some influencer was tending to his backyard chickens, and his 10-year-old daughter was with him, and he put the camera in her face and she knew exactly how to mug for the camera. She was being trained to be a brand at 10 years old.

But in a world where everyone is trying to put a label on you and put you in a box, to refuse to stay in their box is a political action. I keep a file open on my computer, and most days I jot things in it. Like a running journal. On January 1 of 2021, I wrote:

I wrote exactly 2 things on my blog last year. Just 2. Part of that is Facebook cannibalized my blog, part of it is that the newsletters took another part of it, but mostly it was that I was unsure what to write about. Branding and all. So to hell with branding. I will write about walks, and spoons, and woodworking, and gardening, and depression, and food, and sermons and all of it.  I don’t have a ministry – I have a life, as Will C said. Publish and be damned.

It took me a while to get there, but this blog is the result of that entry. This blog is intentionally unbrandable, because it is not a brand – it is my life. I am funny, and angry, and sentimental, and Southern, and opinionated about cornbread and beans and a sucker for Christmas and cynical of all of it. This blog is about all of those things, because it is the story of one guy who is trying to live a good life.

To paraphrase Will Campbell, I don’t have a brand. I have a life.