Kaputa, Catherine

Catherine Kaputa
Catherine Kaputa is a twenty-year veteran of branding and advertising—from Madison Avenue, to Wall Street, to the halls of academia, to president of SelfBrand, a New York City-based brand strategy and business coaching company. A frequent speaker and presenter of her "You Are a Brand" workshops, she helps savvy professionals capitalize on the principles of personal branding to achieve their full potential. Kaputa has been a personal brand builder throughout her life. After starting out as a Japanese art historian, she retooled her brand to become a successful advertising executive at Trout & Ries Advertising and at Wells Rich Greene, where she supervised the award-winning "I [red heart] NY" account. She was an SVP at Smith Barney and an adjunct professor at the Stern School of Business, New York University. Learn more at www.urabrand.com.

U R a Brand book cover

tompeters.com asks …

You have a new book, U R a Brand! How Smart People Brand Themselves for Business Success. There is a blurb on the book from Tom [Peters] saying that it “is an excellent and welcome addition to the all too small library on the subject.” I have spoken with a number of authors of Brand You books. What sets your book apart from the others?

CK: Tom led the charge on Brand You-hood with his article in Fast Company magazine. It was a very important article that got a lot of people talking. I think the way my book is different is that I look upon a person as if she or he were a product, as if she or he were a brand to be marketed. I talk about how to develop a differentiating visual identity. I talk about verbal identity, the power of words, and how it applies to people: your delivery style, the words you choose, creating sound bytes that are sticky. I haven’t seen other books with that perspective.

Another fresh aspect of my book is that I outline ten brand positioning strategies that you would use in the commercial world. I give examples of these from the product world and translate that to strategies for individuals. I also address developing a marketing plan, a media plan, and an advertising campaign after you position a brand. I do the people version of that, which is setting goals and developing a strategy and action plan. I cover how you can reposition your brand if the market for what you do blows up, how to build a strong network and visibility tactics.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

CK: I’ve been a brand hopper myself. I started out initially in journalism at Northwestern University but ended up majoring in art history. I worked at the Seattle Art Museum as a curatorial assistant in Japanese art. I got a master’s degree from the University of Washington. I coauthored some books on Asian art while I was there. I went to Harvard and worked on a Ph.D. in Japanese art. I studied in Japan for two years.

When I was almost ready to sign on the dotted line and get my Ph.D., I realized gee, I don’t think that’s me. So I did a major repositioning. I came to New York. I’d always been interested in journalism and advertising. I networked my way into an initial job with Trout and Ries Advertising. I worked there for four years. I moved on to a larger ad agency and then switched over to the client side. All these moves are hard moves because people pigeonhole you. You’re a small agency brand, or a big agency brand, or you’re an agency person and not a client person. So it takes some maneuvering to reposition yourself and establish perceptual links.

Do you find that you pigeonhole yourself?

CK: Yeah, I think you think of yourself in a certain way. A big point I make in the book is that branding is all about other people’s perceptions of you. We’re always making these kinds of judgments. Branding gives you a way to control those perceptions and help forge the kind of perception you want others to have about you. Nobody has total power over that. But it’s an attempt to understand who you are, what you want to communicate, and whether you’re communicating the right things.

I think people visiting our website understand the importance of Brand You. What do you think is the greatest misconception about Brand You in the business world?

CK: I think the biggest misconception is that it’s all a visual thing and that it’s largely phony. Like “dress for success.” That’s only a very small part of it. Brand You is really thinking strategically. It’s thinking about who you are, where you want to go, and what you need to do to get there. What does the market want? How can I respond to those kinds of market needs?

I think a lot of visitors to your website do understand that. I don’t think most people really step back and think about themselves strategically enough. I don’t see a lot of people differentiating themselves. The cardinal rule of branding is to be different. I don’t think that many people dare to do that in any kind of way that helps them succeed.

What’s a good example of someone who has differentiated himself or herself well?

CK: One example I give in the book is a client that was a Wall Street telecom investment banker. She lost her job after 9/11 and was looking for a new one. She couldn’t find one similar to what she had been doing, and was very frustrated.

She had a very unusual background in the sense that she came from an elite family in China who fled during the Maoist revolution. After that her life was a fairy tale until she lost her job. She went to an Ivy League college and later studied in France. She spoke fluent French, English, and Chinese. Yet, here she was competing with other investment bankers in the telecom arena, which was a dead market at the time, and where she had no USP or unique selling proposition. But there was another market, namely China, opening up because of the newly wealthy people there. She re-tooled her brand to build those links that she had left behind from her childhood. She developed a market research study to develop a totally different expertise as a business person doing business with China. She hadn’t thought of that before we started working with her. Though, of course, afterwards it seemed like such an obvious strategy.

People get pigeonholed, as you were saying earlier, by who they think they are, as well as by how other people see them. They don’t step outside themselves and try to look at themselves as if they were a brand or a product. Remove yourself and look at yourself as a product in a dynamic marketplace, a marketplace with strong competitors and changing opportunities and threats.

What’s a good way to do that? I’m sure there are a lot of people reading this who are looking for more clients, or they might be contemplating switching jobs. What’s the best way to go about getting a fresh perspective on yourself?

CK: Start by tuning into the intuitive part of yourself. Observe. What attracts your attention? Who do you think is good? At work, who do you pay attention to? Why are they so powerful to you? What do you really love doing? Pay attention to what people compliment you about. Write those things down and see if there’s a different way of putting them together that might be more powerful for you. Or, if you were to package it a little differently, how would they be appealing to new markets that you see opening up?

Try to tune in. I think people tell you a lot about who you are. In a job interview or when meeting someone, you say to people, “Tell me about yourself.” Most people are very bad at replying to that. I think that’s one thing you have to be good at—describing yourself in a nutshell. In a conversational way, you should be able to define yourself in a meaningful way that’s relevant and interesting. It shouldn’t seem staged.

So you should ask your friends or people you’re working with, “What do you think about me?”

CK: I think that’s a hard way to put it. If somebody is a close friend, saying, “I’m working on a self-branding project for a class I’m taking,” or something like that. “I just want to get your thoughts. Quickly, what comes to mind? Strengths, weaknesses?” Throw it out there in that way. You can get a lot of information. In companies, everybody gets a yearly review. What does your boss compliment you on? There are generally themes when you have different bosses, themes about things that you’re good at. Once you start observing, you’ll find people give a lot of feedback. A lot of companies have a 360 degree review, where you get feedback from a lot of people, often anonymously. That gives you valuable insight too. It’s important to look at all that stuff.

I think that with clients, the way to do it is when you’re in a less formal setting, say over lunch or dinner. Say something like, “I’m looking for ways to zero in and meet your needs better. What could I do that would be better? What am I doing well? How can we strengthen that?” Start a dialogue. Don’t be defensive, just listen. Watch for themes, and examine what those themes mean.

Do you ever work with people who simply want to do better within their current company?

CK: Absolutely. I’ve been hired by companies to work with certain employees that are very talented, but have some areas that are really problematic. They want to keep them, and they want to help them.

Do they bring you in as a Brand You strategist?

CK: Yes. Sometimes when companies bring me in, some people really welcome it; other people are defensive about it because they think, “This means I’m not doing well.” The point I make is that the company wouldn’t be investing in having you work with a business coach unless they felt that you were a valuable employee.

They should be taking it as a compliment.

CK: Of course. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but most people respond defensively or want to ignore negative feedback. You can’t build on your strengths and improve the other areas, unless you look at them. A lot of people want to close it off, they get defensive.

A president of a company once hired me to work with one employee. Among other things, the employee was not returning the calls of the president. People do a lot of self-destructive things.

That seems pretty basic.

CK: The president felt this person was very valuable, did a lot of very good things, but really just couldn’t stand it anymore.

Did you feel that way after working with this person?

CK: Yeah, because when I first started working with him, he didn’t return my phone calls, either! I said, “Wait a second, that’s not the way we’re going to work. There are certain people that you must call back: number one, the president of the company, and number two, your boss.”

Did you ask this person why he didn’t return phone calls? I need to know the answer to this.

CK: There was a conflict with the president. He was good about returning calls to his own boss; it was the president that he had a problem with. The president was very hands-on, and I think this person viewed that as micro-managing.

My response was that this is not a time to be emotional about the president. While you’re at this company, and you choose to work there, as I mention in the book, you should view senior management as a target market. Your key target market is your boss, and your boss’s boss. You have to please both of these people. His immediate boss wanted him to improve because the president was beating up on him too, saying, “What’s going on here?”

Very interesting.

CK: People do things that aren’t necessarily in their own best interest. They keep up the behavior, unless they stop and think, “Why am I doing this? I don’t need to express my dislike of this person by acting out, not returning phone calls.” This person didn’t return my phone calls initially. I just said, “No, I’m going to be working with you for a short period of time, and during that time one of your tasks is to return my phone calls within a certain period of time, as well as those of your boss and the president.” Focusing on a concrete action plan as well as big picture goals are both important.

It sounds as if your work becomes slightly therapeutic at times.

CK: Yeah, a bit.

Let’s talk about your ten strategies.

CK: Sure.

Self Branding Strategies
 1. Be the First
 2. Be the Leader
 3. Take the Anti-leader Position
 4. Own an Attribute
 5. Use a Magic Ingredient or Invent a New Process
 6. Be the Expert
 7. Be Preferred
 8. Set a High Price
 9. Use Your Special Heritage
10. Own a Cause

Strategy #1: Be the First

This is the most powerful strategy because the first brand is generally the market leader. In the product world this means creating a new product, or breaking new ground.

You can see it in the business world too. Michael Dell, for example, created a new market, a new category, as the leading direct marketer of computers. And he has a strong self brand as an innovator. Being the first seems formidable, but is something that anybody could do if you slice up the market narrowly enough. It’s really about dissecting the market in a way that creates a new area where you can be first. It’s certainly easier if you’re an entrepreneur to execute that strategy, although I’ve seen it happen within companies, where somebody created a new kind of product or a new target market.

Strategy #2: Be the Leader

Positioning yourself as the leader has a halo effect. Most people feel that if you’re the leading brand in a category, you must be the best brand. That’s the association in people’s minds. You garner a lot of business because of the perception, the connection people make between something being the leader and being the best. I talk in the book about leaders like Jack Welch and how it’s important to lead with ideas and lead by example.

Strategy #3: Take the Anti-leader Position

For every Microsoft, there’s an Apple. For every General Motors, there’s a VW; a competitor that takes the opposite attitude of the leader. The leader is big, you’re small and nimble, they’re out of touch, you’re cutting edge, they’re bureaucratic, and you’re entrepreneurial.

Americans have an emotional connection with underdogs. It’s a powerful position. Look at Richard Branson. His quirky, anti-leader approach is “We do it differently than the leader does it in this category.”

That brings to mind a commercial from my childhood. Was it Hertz?

CK: It was Avis, a classic anti-leader. “We try harder. We’re number two.” To be honest with you, I usually travel with Avis because that appeals to me. Whether they try harder or not, it really strikes a chord in people, to root for somebody that’s trying to be number one.

Strategy #4: Own an Attribute

This is the most common positioning strategy for brands. When you look at the car category, Mercedes-Benz owns the attribute of prestige, BMW is driving performance, Subaru is ruggedness, and Volvo is safety. Look at your industry or category—what are the important attributes? Who owns what? As a person, look at—who are your key competitors? Who owns what in terms of attributes? Is there an attribute that you can own?

I give some examples in the book of clients that wanted to own an attribute. A client named Benjamin wanted to own the attribute of accountability. He was in a very large, creative company in the entertainment industry. He was a creative business person as were many of his colleagues. He wanted to be known for accountability and follow through, a trait that helped him differentiate himself because not many of his colleagues had that trait.

Strategy #5: Use a Magic Ingredient or Invent a New Process

Many early packaged goods or patent medicines were built on this idea of a “magic ingredient.” Today, people can use this magic ingredient or new process strategy. Obviously, people that are consultants, doctors, researchers, or scientists who use processes can develop new processes. Look at diet doctors like Dr. Arthur Agatston, creator of the South Beach Diet, what they do is create a “new process.”

Of course, once this new process is out there, everybody copies it. But you have an advantage because you are the one associated with the new process.

You can’t take process seriously after the David Mamet movie, The Spanish Prisoner.

CK: Cooks are all about that. In the book, I talk about how chefs used to be work-a-day people until the celebrity chef came along. I marvel at them all now. They’re great self-branders. It’s all based on a process for cooking, or putting things together in a different way, this new process or magic ingredient kind of idea. They look at what other people do, add a little bit of their own style—preferred ingredients and cooking process—and create success. Their personality is part of it as well.

Strategy #6: Be the Expert

A big point of branding is that it’s not smart to be a jack-of-all-trades. You need to be known for something. Be very focused; focus is powerful. This is the strategy that I’ve adopted, which is to be the expert. It’s not just self-branding; it’s really the branding space. The thing that’s different about the way I approach it is that I’m a brand consultant that works with a company’s products and people. Most people just do the people part or they just do a company’s brand strategy.

I was amazed when I read in Barbara Corcoran’s book (Initially published as Use What You’ve Got, and Other Business Lessons I Learned from My Mom with a title change in the paperback edition to If You Don’t Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails: And Other Lessons I Learned from My Mom that she had only sold about 12 properties when she put out The Corcoran Report on real estate in Manhattan. It made the front page of the New York Times business section on Sunday. In New York, the real estate market has always been very secretive. They don’t have an MLS [Multiple Listing Service]. She published, and continues to publish what the average price of an apartment is on the East Side, West Side, Downtown, or Midtown. Suddenly she was the real estate expert in New York, and she’d only sold a dozen properties. Obviously, she’s a self-branding genius to have accomplished what she did, as well as a savvy businessperson.

I recently interviewed the author of Future Shop, a book about the auction culture. He has an interesting section about the secondary market for cars; the used car industry. He mentioned Kelley, who started the Blue Book as a way to help his used car sales. But in time, the Blue Book overtook his used car business. It’s one of those instances of the information surrounding the product and the sales becoming much more valuable than the sales. So I could see a future for Barbara Corcoran where it’s about selling the information and not selling the properties any longer.

CK: Corcoran is doing just that. She sold her real estate company, and she’s starting a production company. The media has a craving for experts on all kinds of topics. PR and media exposure can be a very important angle to the expert strategy. Writing reports, or publishing a book about your area of expertise are both good ways to gain visibility.

Strategy #7: Be Preferred

This is really user positioning. You want to be preferred by a certain target audience and define yourself that way. For example, you become the Wall Street broker or financial consultant who specializes in women, or specializes in advertising people. You then begin to understand your audience very well and develop advice and services tailored to the needs of that specific group. That becomes your value added and your target group will refer you a lot, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Strategy #8: Set a High Price

There are all kinds of stories of the $100 handbag that no one bought, but when it had a $500 price tag on it, it flew out the door. There’s always that perception, that if you’re a $500 an hour consultant, you’re better than a $100 an hour consultant, or why would you charge so much?

A big part of this strategy is that you don’t discount. We all have a desire for luxury goods. People recognize that if they’re paying top price, they’re getting the best. It has a certain cachet.

It’s a built-in self-validation; if I can afford to pay this, I must be fabulous.

CK: Yeah. It’s a powerful strategy to have, particularly if you’re a consultant or in the professions. Pricing yourself at the upper end of the market can be very successful, because a lot of people are attracted to people that charge a lot. Certain executives price themselves in a certain category. If you don’t have that mindset you’re never going to make that kind of salary.

So you’ve really got to stay on your toes with that strategy.

CK: Yeah. Well, look at the salaries of CEOs in this country; they’re enormous. Not everybody feels they’re worth it. That has to be a big part of it, feeling that you’re worth it.

Strategy #9: Use Your Special Heritage

You see this in the product world, emphasizing the heritage of the product. Stolichnaya is an example. With cars, you see the emphasis on where they’re made, such as German heritage. For people, if you have a name like Bush, Kennedy, Rockefeller, or Hilton, you have one up on the rest of us. It can really boost a career. I’ve been in many jobs where I’ve seen nepotism. Look at all the celebrity magazines in this country. People are very attracted to famous family heritages or celebrity status.

There are all kinds of heritage. Certainly, if you have experience working at Procter & Gamble that heritage is a big boost to your personal brand if you continue to work in packaged goods or move to other areas. People will be impressed with the marketing training you had at P&G. If you’re an investment banker, and you worked at Goldman Sachs, people assume you’re the best.

So don’t burn your bridges, because wherever you have been in the past might have some advantage for your future, right?

CK: Exactly. It’s important to think of that when you’re getting a first or second job. If you’re offered a job at one of these top places, it’s very helpful for whatever you do later on to have that as part of your credentials. It will differentiate you and people will make a lot of assumptions. The assumptions may be true or they may not be true.

I went to graduate school at Harvard, because I knew getting a Ph.D. from the University of Washington where I received an M.A. would not help me get many jobs. Being a Japanese art historian in the United States is a very tough career. I knew that I’d have a much better shot at getting a job if I had the Harvard brand. I’m the same person, whether I got the Ph.D. here or there, but the whole outcome of my career and life is day and night.

Plus if you’re in a place like Harvard, you get all these opportunities to work on exhibitions and book projects that lead to connections and experience. Obviously, a big thing I talk about in the book is networks and this advantage of knowing people. In advertising, you develop a media plan; with Brand You, your media plan is the people that you know and come in contact with.

Strategy #10: Own a Cause

I think that a lot of us are driven to do something meaningful and significant. It’s not all about money. Look at Bono, he’s very involved in a cause. I think it’s really helped his brand a lot. He’s a very successful rock musician, but it’s because of his work with his cause that he meets with CEOs and presidents at Davos. It has also made him a much more complicated and interesting person, and more powerful, by owning a cause.

That’s similar to Lance Armstrong and his cancer. There are stories about him not being the nicest person. I think as people we’re more forgiving of someone with less attractive characteristics if we know they’re devoting some real energy to a larger cause.

CK: I think so. Even somebody like Jimmy Carter. He has rehabilitated the way people view him since he was president by his work with Habitat for Humanity and other causes. He got the Nobel Peace Prize. He really had a very poor image when his presidency ended with the whole Iran hostage crisis.

That’s the very classic American dream, the concept of reinvention. Tom [Peters] writes about it a lot; he blogged about it when he saw the movie, Ray, about Ray Charles. There’s a guy who kept reinventing himself. It’s very American, that idea of, “We can be whatever we want.”

CK: I don’t think there’s any country where it could happen as easily as here. I lived in Japan for two years. There you’re siloed like crazy. People thought I came from a good family because I went to Harvard. I would tell the Japanese, “No, my family is pretty simple.” They wouldn’t believe it, because in Japan you have to come from a good family to get into certain universities. America is so fluid and open, and that’s one of the fabulous things about it. I lived in London for a while too, and even there it’s not easy.

I know. I worked in London for three months for a British company. It drove me crazy. They pretend the class system isn’t there, yet all these little things happen with only certain people being invited to events.

CK: I think Americans love this fluidity. Look at the movies we produce—stories with happy endings against all odds. Americans love those kinds of stories. Frankly, a lot of them happen here. That’s what I think makes the country strong and vibrant. Now we’re facing even more global competition. But I have great faith in Americans.

I agree. I get pretty down about it some days, but other times I think there’s a good leavening system at work here.

CK: When I worked in Japan, my friends would say, “My God, it’s hard to compete in this country because they work so hard.” There was a rail strike when I was there. Everybody still went to work, but they had little black bands on their arms. I thought to myself, they’re so loyal; they would do anything for this country. Americans are much more individualistic. I wondered how we could compete. But the strength of the Japanese is also their weakness because they’re so closed and rigid. The longer you’re there you see just how rigid it is.

Now everybody is scared about China and India. That’s formidable competition. But I have a lot of hope that America will become more competitive, and stay strong. I think Americans are very resilient and have the capability to see new opportunities and make changes to respond to them.

In closing, I wanted to let you know that I like the graphic design of the book. I also like your use of Shakespearean quotes throughout. That’s a nice touch.

CK: Thank you. I experimented with quotes from other people, but I thought, this guy is so rich and timeless. In a lot of ways, the book came out very “how-to.”

We’ve always maintained that we need more “how-to-it-ness” with Brand You.

CK: That’s a good point; it was one of the reasons why I wrote it that way. I didn’t think that many books showed you how to do it.

You certainly go into much more detail about concrete steps, what to do, and how to think about it. I think this is very helpful for people.

CK: I’m thrilled that you’re going to put it on Tom’s website, since I admire him so much. And by the way, I think he must be very generous, because I did not know him, so the fact that he looked at my manuscript and wrote a blurb made a big impression on me.

He is that. Well, Catherine, it’s been a pleasure.



Email: catherine_kaputa (at) – yahoo.com