Un-SQL Friday: Branding – Tough Love Edition


Jen McCown (the wife part of the husband-and-wife MidnightDBA team) declared yesterday to be the first Un-SQL Friday – a day where bloggers talk about anything other than SQL Server.  The topic of the day was branding, and Jen’s post declared me a branding superstar.  (Awk-ward.)

I couldn’t participate right away because I already had a post scheduled for Friday, and I try not to overwhelm you guys with blog posts.  I read the responses unfold, and I’m not going to name names, but I saw a heck of a lot of really, really bad advice – and nobody referenced a book.

Hello, people.  Here comes the tough love.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  In the land of SQL Server, the guy who’s only read a couple of books about it is considered a “branding superstar.”  I’ll be the first to tell you that I suck at branding and marketing, and I’ll tell you that because when it comes to marketing, I don’t consider my competitors to be the SQL Server community.  I consider my competitors to be the marketing community, because my real competitors are big consulting companies that can afford to hire full-time marketing departments.

Breakfast of Champion Consultants
Breakfast of Champion Consultants

When I quit my job in July and joined SQLskills, I stopped getting a paycheck.  Period.  I’m a consulting partner – I have to find clients, do work, and get the clients to pay us.  I thought for sure that I’d be eating ramen noodles for six months while I got my pipeline together, but a funny thing happened on the way to the microwave.  I got email after email that all started with the same few words: “I loved your blog/presentation/webcast on ___, and I was wondering if you could help us with…”

That’s the kind of customer that consulting companies love.  The customer already knows who I am, they know what I do, and they choose to work with me.  No cold calls, no taking the executives out to the golf course, no expensive dinners at steak houses – just instant relationships.  I can only do this because I’ve built a brand over the last few years that companies know they can trust, and that they want to work with by choice.  I could only do that because I learned from people who really understood branding and marketing, because I sure as heck don’t.

There are millions of people out there who do marketing for a living.  There are thousands of people who are amazing marketers, and there are dozens of books about it at your local bookstore.  Stop learning by trial and error and error and error – go pick up one of these books:

You wouldn’t take your car to the dry cleaners to find out what that rattling noise is.  You wouldn’t go to your favorite restaurant to ask how to implement accounting software.  Likewise, don’t take branding advice from people who don’t make a successful living doing branding.  ‘Nuff said.

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • Hello Brent,

    Nice posting 🙂
    For me it’s the same – when I left HP by the end of October I also stopped getting a regular paycheck. But you are right, “it just works” when you have built your own brand in the last years and when a lot of people know you, because of your public engagements from the past.

    By the beginning of October when I decided to leave HP, my future was uncertain and unclear, but today – just a few weeks after my decision – I really like my decision and I really like my life because I can say what I want to do and on what things I want to concentrate on 🙂


  • Brent “I don’t consider my competitors to be the SQL Server community. I consider my competitors to be the marketing community” Very well put!! Thank you, and that explains more than anything else why this community is so much stronger than so many other technical groups out there.

    There are people whose personalities are just more outgoing/appealing/sale-able than others, there are people who are born to be consultants and others who like the security of a pay check, all these things factor into how far one can go with personal branding. The thing i like best about your blogging is that you seem to address almost all of us in some way, in other words it is more inclusive than what most other people address. Thank you and do keep up the good work.

  • Brent, good post, though I don’t think I saw a post that included outright bad advice (though admittedly, I’m a little late to the party so I may have missed a couple). My takeaway from this topic is that randing isn’t a simple recipe – two people doing the same things will rarely see the exact same results. Part of the magic of branding is finding what works for you, which usually involves a mix of best practices (in the loosest sense of the phrase) and personal style. I look at some things that other folks do to build their brand and think, “I’d never do that” because it just doesn’t fit me and wouldn’t be sustainable. Hopefully those who read these branding success stories realize that, in reality, they are highly individualized occurrences and can’t be instantly replicated.

    ~ Tim

    • Tim – yep, there’s lots of potentially successful strategies. However, there are strategies that are also known to be universally unsuccessful, and that’s what’s important to avoid. I see some of those strategies in the tech community, and I think to myself, “Man, it’s going to be years before they realize how damaging that strategy was, and how no company is going to touch that brand with a ten foot pole.” It’s not a matter of offensive content, either, because some companies are attracted to that sort of thing. Rather, it’s a matter of an inconsistent and unidentifiable brand. Companies (vendors and employers) want to choose brands that stand for something specific.

      • Good point Brent. It’s important to be clear and consistent in branding, regardless of whether your brand is jolly, conservative, square, crude, or downright offensive 🙂

  • Brent,

    You make a great point. When we seek out to learn a new technology or new feature of sql we seek the experts and then read everything we can on it. And then we do it over and over and over until we know it front and back. The same applies to other domains and we should seek out the experts advice in marketing too. Thank you for the excellent list of books to followup on. Other books you have recommended in the past have been a great read and I look forward to adding these to my collection.

  • Edwin Sarmiento
    November 20, 2010 12:08 pm

    Love this post Master Brent. Last week at the PASS Summit, during the Birds-of-a-Feather Lunch, I talked about why you need to distinguish yourself from the rest and how personal branding makes a difference in today’s fast changing economy. And while we SQL Server professionals dig our hands day-in and day-out on database issues, nobody will ever know what we do unless we market ourselves properly.

    I so totally recommend the Al Ries book on the Laws of Branding as well as subscribing to Seth Godin’s blog (I just finished reading one of his blog posts)

  • Great post! You should setup a Wall of Shame page with all of those that you have caught plagiarizing. Bio pics and all with a BUSTED stamp across!

  • Hi Brent –

    You did something here that is out of place for your posts. You disagreed with a group of people (those of us who blogged in this “event”), but didn’t say which of those ideas blogged you disagreed with. So you painted the entire group as sucking with our advice, but didn’t actually pick on the specific details. I feel as if your post is not quite finished. What was the advice that you believe is wrong? Is it wrong for everyone, or just consultants? Is it wrong for the technical community or everyone? Is it just wrong in Iowa or on Tuesdays?

    I didn’t name any books because that’s not my branding story, at least not the first one I’d tell. The books you have picked here are good, but they aren’t my story.

    BTW, I think that Secrets of Consulting has a great deal of good content about branding, even if that word isn’t in the title.

    • Karen – I’m sorry if you took it that I was painting your advice as wrong. Anyone who blogged, when you’re reading this, I wasn’t talking about your advice. 😉

      However, I’m not going to publicly bash anybody’s branding advice. I’ve privately contacted the people whose advice I questioned, and we’re working through it that way.

  • That’s better 🙂

    I don’t think that disagreeing with someone has to equate to bashing. In fact, I see constructive disagreement as another type of compliment.

  • Haha. This post (as always) is excellent. I love the way you also give an alternative view to what people would have expected you to say (since many would consider you to be a branding expert). That is what makes you as an individual very special. Anyway enough of the BrentO worship!

    A very large big-up also to Edwin Sarmiento who delivered a rather refreshing discussion over lunch during SQLPASS week along similar lines of “improving social self” as opposed to “improving technical self”. Something I have been trying to do myself with various degrees of success over the last 3 years or so and is always great to hear similar (and opposing) points of view. And btw Edwin, thanks again for that free book. Can’t wait to read it!

  • Inspiring post Brent!

    It’s always great to hear about people doing good in business. They do say that new business is generally 70% referrals and the rest from other marketing means. Blogs and events are a great way for people to refer your brand to others by building familiarity through good honest advice and inspiring articles!


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