The SUCCESS Interview: Donny Deutsch on the Inherent Risks of Building a Personal Brand (and Why It’s Worth It Anyway)

Editor’s Note: The SUCCESS Interview tests the foundational principles of this 124-year-old personal and professional development magazine against modern realities. Editor-in-Chief Josh Ellis will sit down with newsmakers, opinion-shapers and undisputed achievers to find out how we can all get ahead in a world changing faster than ever. 

In this edition, Ellis chats with Donny Deutsch, the former CEO and Chairman of Deutsch Inc., marketing mogul, innovative political analyst, and veteran TV personality. A media mainstay for many years, he now hosts the podcast On Brand with Donny Deutsch, where he shares his views on current events through a marketing lens and interviews public figures at the intersection of politics, pop culture and the news.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and space considerations. To view the interview in its entirety, join our social network, Achievers, at Achievers.SUCCESS.com or by downloading the app SUCCESS Achievers Community.

Josh Ellis:  Donny, thanks for joining me. I wanted to talk to you because I think that the idea of a personal brand is becoming more and more important for our readers. The number of solopreneurs continues to grow, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, and given the connected culture we live in today, an online persona means everything to so many of these businesses. Let’s start big picture: What constitutes a personal brand these days as compared to what we used to simply call our reputation?

Donny Deutsch:  Well, first of all, let me establish what I think of as a brand. A brand is a set of values—what a company stands for, what a person stands for, what a religion stands for.

The difference today is the platforms that you share on. It used to be your brand was just, as you said, your reputation. Now it’s the architecture of what you put out there. It’s how you’re seen on various social media platforms, what your Facebook page looks like, your Instagram, your Twitter. Any way that you are projecting out to people beyond who’s in front of you is your brand. 

JE:  It used to be something that I don’t think many people devised consciously. It was just sort of the sum of who you were and how you treated people, and now a personal brand seems to be something more people construct with intention. 

DD:  Yeah. I think back to my early days in advertising; I created a brand for myself. I was known as kind of this brash disruptor in the agency business, and that was done through traditional media, through the advertising press, the general business press and TV appearances, making news that way. 

Now when you look at some of the bigger names in advertising—take a guy like Gary Vaynerchuk; he’s doing it through social media and having a million followers. The game is the same, it’s just the stadiums that have changed. The same rules apply: Have consistency and authenticity in whatever you stand for on each platform or each piece of content.

Obviously, depending on the platform, you have different execution. But it’s kind of like, what is your essence?

JE:  Who are some people in the public eye doing it well?

DD:  You know, a guy that’s done a great job with his personal brand is [Barstool Sports founder] Dave Portnoy. Whether you like him or not, you know what you’re going to get. He’s across all kinds of platforms but still is kind of in your face, bucking convention. It doesn’t matter whether he’s doing a pizza review or whether he’s doing a podcast with an 18-year-old TikTok star. What you see is what you get.

JE:  He’s someone who isn’t trying to appeal to everyone or be liked by everyone. He’s very much aware that he has an audience, and he’s only playing to them. Is that something everyone should aim toward—to find your audience, no matter how niche, and serve only them?

DD: The biggest mistake is to try to be all things to all people. Then you’ll just have a middling response. Part of what makes a brand is having a passionate constituency, even if it’s small.

JE:  You are an example of one way that the landscape has shifted over the years. You were obviously a TV mainstay for many years, but now you have your own podcast—podcasts being just another way that content and branding has been democratized.

DD:  The whole premise is exactly what we’re talking about; today everybody, every institution, every politician, every celebrity, every product, every athlete, every political party and everything is a brand. Every week, the first 15 to 20 minutes of the podcast I do what I call my “Brands of the Week,” like the brands that are shaping the zeitgeist. Who’s up and who’s down? I do everything from politicians, to traditional products, to movements, and everything in between. And then I interview someone about their personal brand—everybody from Michael J. Fox, to Al Franken, Sunny Hostin, Hunter Biden and Kara Swisher—people from all walks of life. It’s been really well received and I have a lot of fun with it.

JE:  One thing that stands out to me there is that not all of those folks’ personal brands are squeaky clean, exactly. Some of them have made mistakes, and they’ve been questioned, doubted and attacked. What do you learn from them?

DD:  The interesting thing is to reference some of the brands and how they’ve evolved. Take Michael J. Fox. Twenty or 30 years ago he was this actor guy—he’s Back to the Future, he’s Family Ties. And now the essence of his brand is that he is the face of Parkinson’s disease and finding a cure. But the consistency in his brand is he’s always been the likeable guy next door. 

So I go back to what I said what makes great brands. Even though Michael J. Fox’s brand has evolved and his mission has changed, the essence is the guy next door that you relate to. That made him powerful as an actor and that makes him powerful as an advocate. 

JE:  One thing I know about personal branding is that it isn’t all that valuable if nobody notices you. So on social media we see people pushing the envelope quite a bit—stirring things up, taking sides of the argument of the day, attracting attention. To the extent that it has to be done, how do you suggest people walk that line?

DD:  It depends what your brand is. I did an interview with the actor Michael Rappaport, who’s very outspoken, a social media disruptor. I describe his brand as an underdog trash-talking the big dogs. He was really going after Donald Trump. He got into these spats with Kevin Durant and Ariana Grande. He’s been taken off Instagram.

It’s OK to be pissing people off if that’s part of the essence of your brand. When you take a guy like Dave Portnoy or like Michael Rappaport, it’s built into their brands: a pugilistic attitude. Their audiences almost want it. It really depends on who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. 

JE:  So much of the division on social media right now is politics. Everything has become political. Even when someone doesn’t want to talk politics, that act of omission and not taking a side is treated as political speech.

DD:  What has happened, particularly since Donald Trump became president, is that politics became a stay-at-home, play-along game. It got very grotesquely simplified to kind of red team and blue team, and you’re on one side of the moral argument or the other. In the Trump era, much more of our own personal brands got defined by our politics. As part of our individual brand wardrobes, our politics became much more front and center. 

How much you want to make politics a part of your brand has to do with a lot of what your economic mission is. If you’re a company, for instance, and you want to have mass appeal, you don’t want to alienate any of your constituents. If you’re Walmart, you want to appeal to everybody.

A little caveat to that: What marketers are learning is that now, particularly among young people—the age 18-to-24 or 18-to-49 demographics—a very big part of their purchasing requirement is they want to know where that company stands on social issues…. So now a company’s views have become a real part of their DNA.

JE:  For all of this discussion about authenticity, so much of what we know about social media is that people tend to share their highlights. I don’t know that anybody is really as interesting, or lives the perfectly curated lifestyle that they portray on Instagram. At the same time, a lot of people are intimidated by social media. Either they think that nobody’s going to care what they post or they think that they’re going to get themselves in trouble. So what do you say to somebody who’s a little hesitant to jump in and market their business or themselves personally?

DD:  No risk, no reward. By the way, if you’re in door-to-door sales and you knock on a door, you might offend somebody. It might be the wrong person. But if you don’t knock on enough doors, you’re not going to do any business. 

So I say get out there. One of my big tenets, I’ve always said, is you have to embrace failure. If you’re running afraid of failure in any of your endeavors, you’re not going to succeed.

That’s in every endeavor in life—the same in dealing with social media and your personal brand. If you’re afraid to put yourself out there, nothing’s going to happen. You can put yourself out there, and sometimes you get your nose pushed back in. But I always say—when it’s a question of do I, or do I not? Do.

JE:  So if people are going to put themselves out there, be authentic and risk their true selves turning off the people who aren’t in their intended audience, what’s the remedy when that eventually happens? For better or worse, everyone is aware of cancel culture. What would the modern public relations textbook approach be if the mob does come for one of us?

DD:  It is an absolute… you just immediately say, “I’m sorry, I made a terrible mistake, and if there’s anything I can do to make it up to you”—not if I offended you or I didn’t mean to. No, “I offended you, and shame on me for doing that, and I will be better in the future.” The playbook is you walk right into it.

JE:  Let me end here. As we’re all becoming, now and in the future, our own personal brands, you seem like someone good to ask this question. You’ve lived in the public eye for a long time, which seems to put a lot of pressure on people. What has the effect on you been over the years? Has it changed you?

DD:  No. I always knew that with the good comes the bad. You can’t be out there and get all the attention that you’re getting without some of the bad things that come with it. 

That’s why I so just malign actors who complain. They will use the press and do interview after interview, and go to their movie premieres and then be upset when the press wants more. No, you don’t get it both ways. If you want the trappings of fame, then what comes with it is the negative, which is the lack of certain privacies and intrusions into your personal life, and that’s it.

Years and years ago, there was something written about my personal life in the paper, and I remember calling my mother, the beautiful Fran Deutsch, and I say, “Mom, you’re going to read something on Page Six of The Post tomorrow. It’s not going to be flattering about me. It’s a little embarrassing.” And she says, “Donny, we’ve learned to take the good with the bad with you.” She got it. All these years she’d been reading these wonderful things, and saw how the press helped our agency and I became a very well-known businessman, and that translated into success. She got it: With that comes, if you [mess] up in your personal life, they’re going to write about it.

That’s why I say to people to be authentic and understand that if you put yourself out there, some [stuff] is going to come with it. But you can’t have it both ways. 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo Courtesy of Donny Deutsch

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