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History of a branding rockstar

In an extract from his book, Brandiing, WooThemes co-founder Adii Pienaar tells the story of how he built his personal brand and how it helped him succeed

This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 2 of Brandiing by Adii Pienaar. Use the code NETBRANDIING to get a 25 per cent discount

1985: Adriaan Was Born

No book - even non-fiction ones - can ever be complete without telling a couple of interesting stories. I’ll be telling a lot of them in during the course of this book. But for this chapter, I think it’s best that we start with this one...

This particular story began on the 7th day of January in 1985 when I was born and when I was officially named Adriaan Pienaar by my parents.

(At the bright side, thank goodness they spared me multiple names!)

My dad was called Adriaan Pienaar. My grandfather was named Adriaan Pienaar. And so, it made sense for them to name me Adriaan Pienaar as well, right? To illustrate the significance of this name, I even named my own son Adriaan Pienaar when he was born in November 2011.

As you can see, the name doesn’t look very English - that’s because it’s not. (It’s Afrikaans, which is a mix of Dutch & Flemish). Also, if you’re trying to pronounce it right now, I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong. (Don’t feel bad, though. You’re in good company!)

I was born into a middle-class family. I had a pretty average generic birth name. Looking back at my childhood and at my baby photos, didn’t ever see the proverbial “silver spoon” in my mouth.

I tell this story because it’s significant how insignificant my birth name and my economic status are in my professional brand.

The reason that our story starts there is because years later, I made my first ever branding decision based on the fact that:

  • I didn’t have a very English-sounding name;
  • A lot of people struggled to pronounce my name correctly; and,
  • Even when I’m speaking English, I still find myself struggling to pronounce my birth name correctly!
2004: The Start of a Journey - Adii Was Born

Let’s fast forward to 2004 where I’ve just enrolled at university with a Major in Financial Accounting (eventually, this became Chartered Accountant instead).

My choice of Major was squarely influenced by my ambition to climb the corporate ladder as quickly, as traditional and as conveniently as I could. I figured out that being a Chartered Accountant was the best way to do this.

However, I quickly realized that this path to climbing the corporate ladder was a boring and dull path. Naturally, I didn’t want to subject myself to years of eternal boredom and disinterest.
So, instead of being in class, I spent more time pursuing different side-projects. (I call them that because I wouldn’t really classify them as businesses.)

These side-projects led me to decide to establish my own blog, back in late 2006. Back then, I wanted to be just as cool as all of the other cool kids, so setting up my own blog was in order. Take note that during this time, blogging was fairly new even though most of the early adopters were already getting the hang of it.

Since most early adopters already owned blogs, by using my own drive and curiosity - I realized that I wanted to be unique. I wanted to stand out. Just owning my own blog wouldn’t be enough!

I also wanted to create my own blog.

I took the initiative to research all about this. My research about blogging platforms eventually led me to WordPress, which then led me to experimentation by taking apart the free templates that were available at that time.

Coincidentally, I created my very first blog shortly thereafter. I titled it “The Cool Crowd”, which was very loosely mirrored on the success of a site called “The Cool Hunter” during that time.

Well, do you know the saying, “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery”? How I wish this was the case for “The Cool Crowd”! Unfortunately, the contrary happened: my blog never got the traction it needed and so I laid it to rest.

Looking at the bright side of things, though, I was able to learn two life-changing lessons from this short adventure:

  • I could actually design, develop and implement a WordPress-powered blog; and
  • Other people needed help in doing these to the point that they would be willing to pay (handsomely!) just to get help. Meaning, I could actually charge other people for my services!

Well, would you look at that? A closed door suddenly opened up for me.

And so, a new adventure began.

Of course, with new opportunities come new responsibilities. Suddenly, I needed a personal portfolio to showcase my work and a personal blog to talk about the work I was doing. Ideally, I wanted to combine the both of them.

I had 3 problems, though:

  • I didn’t know what to call the website;
  • I didn’t know what to call myself; and,
  • I didn’t know what to call the domain name.

Now, I don’t really remember what instigated this particular train of thought, but considering that I was thinking about names, I started to think about my very non-English birth name. I thought that this wouldn’t suffice because others wouldn’t be able to pronounce or even remember it!

As for using a company name, I didn’t think that it was applicable, too. The business was just me so it wouldn’t make much sense to use a company name.

At that time, all I had were memories of a few of my high school friends calling me “Adii” (“ay-dee”). They were English-speaking and this nickname seemed to work for them so I figured that this would work for my target audience as well!

Now, because my friends never wrote down “Adii” as they only said it, I also needed to figure out how to spell this new-found nickname.

I bench-marked my spelling from Nintendo. Since this was the time when Nintendo had just brought out the Wii, I weighed up the pros and cons of using the double “ii” in my nickname’s spelling.

The pros overpowered the cons.

Thus, Adii was officially born.

Freelancing and strategizing

During those early days, I can still remember being very arrogant and almost pompous in the way that I was portraying myself online. The header design of all my early blog designs included something like this: “Adii - Freelancer & Strategist”.

If only they knew...

However, business was absolutely flourishing during that time! I gained a lot of traction on my blog (where I was writing regularly) and I continued to get more and better-paying clients.
I can still remember the feeling of standing out from the crowd and breaking new ground during those days. In hindsight, these emotions may have been loftier than reality but I still savored these feelings nonetheless.

With all of this momentum, I soon realized that I was getting the most attention from WordPress. WordPress was where I could have more clients to provide consulting services to. So, I doubled down on this platform by releasing free WordPress themes via my blog and charging more for consulting work.

As a result, the momentum continued to grow, so I doubled-down once again and focused on who I was, precisely.

After much thought and consideration, I decided to take the leap and change my branding approach. I modified the header designs on my blog to include the words: “Adii - WordPress Rockstar”.

A Rockstar is Born

Around this time, the word “rockstar” was used (abused?) as a way to describe someone who was really good at something. I’d say that “rockstar” rivaled the current use of “ninja” in very much the same vein.

Using “rockstar” worked extremely well because it resonated with my audience, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Calling myself a rockstar - while not playing any kind of music instrument or being part of a band - was deemed to be arrogant by quite a few people within my audience. The fact that I was out-going, incredibly opinionated and aggressive during any online arguments probably didn’t do this perception any favors either.

The fact is, though, this controversy (at least in my very small corner of the internet) had people talking about me. It got me the attention that I used to make more money.

Considering that my “doubling-down” strategy had worked so well twice before, I soon made an even more controversial decision: I dropped the “WordPress” from my title and became Adii Rockstar.

This was the digital equivalent of legally having your birth name changed in your country’s birth records. Take note that I didn’t even go with something traditional like “John Smith” - I just smashed “Rockstar” on my name and went from there.

This set off some kind of viral loop: calling myself Adii Rockstar created more controversy, which I embraced, so I’d perpetuated this notion that I was arrogant. Being perceived as arrogant worked for me because I had more attention, more clients and ultimately, more money. Because this was such an effective strategy, I just rinsed and repeated this whole process.

From this real-life experience, I bet you can already realize the importance of incorporating your unique personality into your professional brand.

It’s critical for you to do this to personalize your brand and connect intimately with your customers. To illustrate:

  • If I hadn’t utilized my unique personality during my brand-building, I really doubt that I would have enough motivation to keep going.
  • If I hadn’t related my personality into my brand, I really doubt that people would have paid attention to me.
  • If I hadn’t re-packaged my name as an expert in my business’s industry, I really doubt that people would have trusted me enough to do business with me.

Do you know what the best part of incorporating my name into my brand was? Nobody even bothered to ask about my real last name!

The WooThemes Era

During this time, I had also co-founded WooThemes with my business partners and I had basically consolidated all of my own professional activities under that umbrella. The need for a personal brand name and the utilization of the “Adii Rockstar” moniker weren’t really there anymore.

Throughout those first couple of years with WooThemes, I was constantly amazed at how the name “Adii Rockstar” just stuck and worked. My moniker was spreading like a really, good, gossipy rumor: it kept people talking and it just wouldn’t go away!

It was only during this specific period where I actually realized that all of I’ve done were branding exercises. I was subconsciously building an effective brand, who knew?

This experience led me to discover that: Hindsight is an exact science.

Years later, I felt that my reputation had grown to the extent that I could migrate back to using my real name, but with a twist: Adii Pienaar. Yes, the “Adii” stuck both offline and online, but I’m now a “retired” rockstar so I don’t use this anymore.

Why does this matter though?

The telling of my history matters because it is through my real-life branding experience that I was able to experiment and discover effective branding concepts:

  • In this story and throughout my whole journey, I learnt a lot about how people reacted to brands.
  • More importantly, I learnt how to use branding to work for me.
  • I learned that branding can be utilized in such a way that you are building sustainable and long-term relationships with the people within your audience or customer base.
  • At that time, calling myself “Adii Rockstar” was a very superficial decision, but it worked! So, I learned that incorporating your unique personality into your professional brand is an effective strategy. People are attracted to brands with personalities.
  • I developed my hindsight in a way that it has uncovered many valuable experiences and lessons in turning my unique journey into something more generic, repeatable and scale-able.
  • Most of all, my history matters because it is through this very history that I am able to formulate the most cost-effective, most realistic and most do-able branding concepts that you’ll be able to find in this book.

Also, you know what they say: no book is quite a book without a good story. :)

This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 2 of Brandiing by Adii Pienaar. Use the code NETBRANDIING to get a 25 per cent discount

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