what marilyn monroe and peter the great can teach you about being fascinating



There is this idea from the 1990’s that the most powerful brands need to ‘own’ a word.

For example:

Volvo: ‘safety’

BMW: ‘driving’ (or ‘performance’)

Mini Cooper: ‘oddly adorable’ (okay, that’s two words, and that might just be me.)

If you applied this to movie stars:

Marilyn Monroe: ‘sexy’

Clint Eastwood: ‘rugged’

James Dean: ‘rebel’

Meg Ryan: ‘perky’

Now, in 2011, we’re all supposed to be developing our ‘personal brands’ and especially our ‘writer brands’ —

(Stephen King: ‘horror’)

— so does that mean we’re each supposed to ‘own’ a word?

The idea behind this is that a simple, focused message will cut like a blade through the noise and clutter of today’s marketplace and penetrate a person’s mind

(because we’re all numbskulls with the attention spans of gnats and can’t handle complication or ambiguity).

One agency even came up with a phrase for this: one word equity.

And there is power in knowing what you stand for and conveying that in the most vivid and succinct of terms.

I was playing around with this, thinking of people I know and the words they ‘own’ in my mind.

I work out at Pure Barre, which promotes this rather brutal combination of pilates, ballet and yoga. Every time I see the name Rose on the schedule, I have to stand back and think: Just how badly do I want my ass kicked today?

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks this. “I’m glad you’re not teaching this class,” I heard one young woman say to Rose, “because I want to be able to walk tomorrow!”

So Rose’s word would be ‘tough’. That’s her brand. And it’s an effective one: if you’re a Pure Barre regular who wants a challenging workout, you seek out Rose.

But the problem I have with this idea in general is that, in the 1990’s, people engaged with brands differently than they do today. A brand was a message pushed out to the masses, who didn’t have the tools to talk back to it, or examine the truth behind it. Word-of-mouth didn’t travel at the speed of light, and it didn’t hop across geography or social strata like rabbits on steroids.

With the Internet, that’s changed. A brand maybe isn’t a word, or a message, so much as the conversation that grows up around it. You can’t live for very long on the ‘Net if you exist in one-dimensional terms.

It’s not interesting.

And if it’s not interesting, it doesn’t engage you; if it doesn’t engage you, it can’t take on any depth of meaning for you. And if there’s no meaning, there’s no experience; there’s no emotional resonance.

What engages people – mesmerizes them – is creative tension.

That’s where the drama is.

That’s where the questions live that can open up the conversation.

Michael Ellsberg gets at this in his excellent post The Paradoxical Secret of Obsession Worthy Branding. He talks about the importance of creative tension, or paradox:

It is the lifeblood of all great narrative. It’s what keeps you turning the pages. It’s what keeps your butt glued to the theater seat to see how it all ends.

It’s when opposite forces collide that we become spellbound. We need to know what happens next. The human mind doesn’t like an open loop, an unanswered question. It will obsess over it and obsess over it until it can resolve it and pack it away.

But the very characteristic of a paradox is that it won’t resolve.

In his book THE ART OF SEDUCTION, Robert Greene refers to this quality as mystery and places it at the heart of charisma itself:

…a mystery expressed by contradiction. The Charismatic may be both proletarian and aristocratic (Mao Zedong), both cruel and kind (Peter the Great), both excitable and icily detached (Charles de Gaulle), both intimate and distant (Sigmund Freud). Since most people are predictable, the effect of these contradictions is devastatingly charismatic.

…Most of us feel trapped within the limited roles that the world expects us to play. We are instantly attracted to those who are more fluid, more ambiguous, than we are – those who create their own persona.

….Contradiction and paradox make you hard to fathom, add richness to your character, make people talk about you.

The key phrase there being: …make people talk about you.

If we return to the individuals I referenced earlier, we can see how their ‘one word appeal’ is maybe more complex than it seems. Monroe became a legend not just because she was sexy. How many sexy women are in TV, movies, billboards, magazines? How many of them do you go on to remember? Monroe’s sex appeal was swaddled in contradiction. She was childlike and womanly. She was innocent and dirty. She was joyful and sad. She was ditzy and streetsmart. To this day, her memory haunts the culture.

Maybe you should try to ‘own’ two words.

The first word is public. It is the ‘obvious’ word. It’s the word that comes to mind when people think of you (if they think of you); it’s the word you hear people consistently say when they talk about you.

For example: a friend of mine sent me a news story because the headline “made him think” of me (and my blog). The word in the headline was badass.

The second word is private. It is the secret word, it is your word, that crystallizes — for you — some essential truth about who you are. It calls up a feeling in your body that makes you feel most like yourself.

You don’t choose this word. This word has already chosen you. You just have to relax inside yourself and let it surface.

My private word is soulful.

What’s interesting to me is the way that badass plays off soulful and creates a kind of dynamic: tough vs tender, confrontational vs vulnerable, swagger vs yearning.

Somewhere in that dynamic you can probably locate yourself, and maybe that’s the power of it. Maybe that’s why, out of all the words I’ve used, and different taglines I’ve experimented with, ‘badass’ seems to resonate.

Try it as a playful exercise.

Find your secret word, and then think of a word to counter it, to create an ongoing dialogue.

Think of how you – your ‘brand’ – embody both these qualities.

Think of how you use one word as your public ‘face’, while the other casts a shadow play behind it.

follow me on twitter

Aug 12, 2011

7 comments · Add Yours

One of my favourite ever ways to describe myself is “speed-metal Pollyanna”. To me, it describes the mix of cheerfulness and intensity that I bring as my best self.


oh my god I love that. right up there with ‘punk unicorn’


Interesting stuff… Haven’t ever put it together like that. As you already know, Irving H. Podolsky is a brand, beyond being a writing name. He’s got a logo and a look and a concept: He’s your forever-young YOU. Don’t know if this is going to catch on. Just starting out with this. But the secret word…haven’t addressed that yet. I suspect there are many. Tonight I will choose one.



Hey, no ragging on the unicorns, I love weaponized ponies!


I am alarmed – my first thought for a public word is “vibrant,” but the private word to counter that which came to mind is “dead,” and that’s no good, though in the moment felt appropriate.

But that’s approaching the exercise backward, so let’s try again.

The word that I keep coming back to is aware. … then again, my public persona is vibrant in an almost innocent, anything-goes, assertive kind of way, and awareness, to me, is a slower, interior, reserved sort of quality.

Could that be it? Vibrant and aware don’t *sound* like they go together, but under the surface I can see things.


Awesome post, Justine! I’ll have to ask around and find out what one word friends think of when they think of me. As to the private word, inside I’m a biker chic–bold, sexy, smart and always pushing down my ‘behave like a lady’ knee-jerk response to everything to let out the real me. I can’t come up with just one word to be my private word, though.


I can’t help but note that the tagline to this blog is:

“Because YOU’RE a creative badass.”

Great example in action of the idea that a creative work of art or inspiration is about the audience as much as the creator. It’s symbiotic and can even become coterminous.

Reminded me of Simon Sinek’s great TED Talk on leaders inspiring action…he says people don’t stand in line for an iPhone because it’s about Apple…they stand in line because it’s about THEM…their identity, their values.

It’s impossible to say, but maybe when I first clicked over to this site (because it was linked to in the Michael Ellsberg article, The Paradoxical Secret of Obsession Worthy Branding, that Justine mentions in this very post), maybe I wouldn’t have stuck around as long if it said “Hi my name is Justine Musk and I’M a creative badass.” Note the difference. Justine’s identity still gets across in the tagline, but the key use of that word “YOU’RE” instantly makes it more of a community and alerted me to the fact that there is an element of service and the chance for my own edification here. It’s an elegant example of communicating your identity while putting out the call to your tribe in one fluid motion…

…truth be told, though, that first article I read from the Ellsberg link (Part 3 in the “Interestingness” series) was so frigging compelling I probably would have still clicked around this site anyway!

Link to the Ted Talk:


Add your comment