Personal branding: what I learned from an elevator ride with Johnny Cash

Personal Branding hero Johnny Cash
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Personal branding hero Johnny cash

Personal branding hero Johnny cash

Personal branding is one of those things that people talk about a lot, but real concrete examples where it made a difference aren’t always easy to find. It made a big difference to my life once, though: the day I rode on an elevator with Johnny Cash.

I was ten years old and on holiday with my family in Texas, staying in a room near the top of the Loews Anatole in Dallas. My six-year-old brother and I were supposed to meet my father in the lobby, so we left our rooms and climbed into an empty elevator for the twenty-odd floor journey down.

The elevator stopped moments later and an absolutely huge man (or so he seemed to the ten-year-old me, at least) dressed in black head to toe stepped on. He looked down at us and said, ‘Hello boys,’ in a voice so deep and powerful that our manners as properly brought up boys from the American South deserted us completely. We were both scared half to death and stared silently at our shoes.

Yes, it was Johnny Cash who had stepped onto the elevator with us. And yes, Johnny Cash is possibly the most amazing person in the world ever (or so I think, anyway). But he was also a completely intimidating person to ride on an elevator with if you are ten years old. And as he was so much taller than me, that when I did dare look up at him I could only see his face from the bottom of his chin upwards – not the angle he regularly displayed on television and album covers. To frightened to look at my fellow elevator passenger properly, the moment nearly slipped away without me recognizing the great man or having any memory of an encounter with a person who later became a personal hero of mine. But then, Johnny Cash’s personal branding saved the day.

As a ten-year-old there were three things I knew about Johnny Cash: (1) That he sang a song called ‘A Boy Named Sue’ (which is a concept to fascinate any ten-year-old), (2) that my mother was watching a Johnny Cash television special when she went into labour with me, and (3) that he always wore black.

That last fact was just enough for ten-year-old me to make the connection. A light bulb of sorts went off in my head. I was riding on an elevator with greatness. I leaned down and whispered in my brother’s ear, ‘I think that’s Johnny Cash.’

‘Who?’ he said (Johnny Cash’s personal branding was powerful, but not quite powerful enough to reach the six-year-old demographic it seems).

Moments later we reached the lobby and the elevator doors opened onto a sea of screaming fans and exploding flash bulbs. At that moment I didn’t just think this was Johnny Cash, I knew it. And the fact that the moment of recognition happened in that instant when my brother and I were alone with Johnny Cash, even if we were too scared to talk to him, means the world to me today.

Wearing black clothing might seem like a simplistic form of personal branding, but any serious fan of Johnny Cash will know wearing black was much more than just a fashion statement for him. Besides the reasons given in his mid-career ballad Man in Black (see video below), black clothing was a perfect match for Cash’s sombre, preacher-like delivery. He was a deeply thoughtful man, painfully aware of his own frailties and faults. Wearing black, like all great personal branding, was totally consistent with Cash’s character. And what’s more, it made him easy to identify (even if you are a terrified tween, too afraid to look him in the eye).

Even if you’re unlikely to ever frighten children in an elevator with your overpowering physical presence and booming bass voice, there are still lessons you can learn from Johnny Cash’s personal branding:

  1. Make it consistent with who you are. Johnny Cash’s look was so memorable, even to a child, because it was a exact match to her personality. Personal brands that don’t match your personality are confusing to the viewer.
  2. Keep it simple. You want your personal branding to be easily understood by everyone. Don’t confuse an obscure look with a sophisticated one.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be distinctive. It’s easy to confuse personal branding with being fashionable. At no time during Johnny Cash’s career was wearing all black the height of fashion. Cash managed to find a totally unique look that never looked so out of place as to appear eccentric. Not always an easy balance.
  4. If you ever have a boy, name him ‘Bill’ or ‘George,’ or anything but ‘Sue.’

Through pure blind luck I did manage to encounter Johnny Cash two years later on the movie set of Murder in Coweta County. That was in the company of grown-ups, though, and was much less intimidating. I may have even managed to say a word or two to him, I don’t remember. But as he was in costume on set he wasn’t wearing black and maybe for that reason the experience wasn’t etched so clearly on my memory.  Perhaps.

Ned Vaught is the Head Imp at Imp Communications

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