Today, I spoke with Andy Nulman, who is the author of Pow! Right Between the Eyes: Profiting From the Power of Surprise.  In this interview, Andy explains why surprise is essential to establishing a personal brand, why standing out matters, the process of brand building, staying relevant to the times and much more.

How important is surprise in establishing a personal brand?

Important? Come on Dan, it’s imperative! Especially these days, when so many people are fighting for the same “Personal Brand.” A year ago, you could’ve established yourself, and made quite the name for yourself, as “The Twitter Expert.” Today, there’s 100,000 “Twitter Experts.” That distinction alone has ceased to be enough. What makes you stand out from the rest?

This is when Surprise really comes into play. Incremental differences won’t cut it anymore. My book’s definition of surprise is: the constant expansion of the boundaries of delightful extremes. In a world of standards, sameness, cookie-cutters and monotony, it’s the extreme that stops people in their tracks. It doesn’t have to be huge, just come across as hugely different.

Lemme show you what I mean. There’s a real estate brokerage in my home town run by a long-haired woman, and she only hires other long-haired women as agents. Their lawn signs feature ¾-length photos of each agent, hair a-flowing. As elementary as this sounds, their tresses are what impresses, and it’s so against-the-grain in the conservative field of selling property. In a sea of sameness in the real estate biz, this woman’s agency “shocks the system,” to use the parlance of Pow!, and thus stands out big-time.

Chess master Garry Kasparov put it another way: “Ultimately, what separates a winner from a loser is the willingness to do the unthinkable. Intelligence without audaciousness is not enough.” Surprise is that audaciousness and delivers that distinction.

Okay, but this reminds me a lot of what Seth Godin had to say way back in “The Purple Cow.”

True, but the important difference is that it’s not enough to just stand out once. Any one surprise doesn’t last, no matter how loud the Pow!, its effect is ephemeral. It’s like a firecracker; you can’t get a bang out of the same one twice.

To truly pay dividends, surprise must thrive as a continuum. That’s why instead of being creative or different one time, true surprise requires “shocking the system,” and finding new extremes, on a constant basis. The driving factor of successful surprise is a flow, not the spectacular one-off. Surprise isn’t just a shock, it’s an addiction to them. As a concept, it keeps on demanding. But the rewards are well worth the effort.

What this means in a personal branding sense is that once you’ve established your brand, in the back of your mind you should be immediately thinking about how to adapt, refine or change it. It sounds counter-intuitive, but cutting people’s ennui off at the pass will ensure your personal brand’s survival. Just ask people like Madonna, David Bowie or Sean (Puff Daddy, P.Diddy, etc.) Combs, who are always reinventing and renewing themselves. Like bread, personal brands get stale fast.

So, in the case of the long-haired real estate brokerage, pretty soon the “hair thing” is going to become—pardon the pun—old hat. What’s their next act that will shock the system and bring them attention?

Building a brand is a long, arduous process. It sounds somewhat counter-intuitive to think of changing it once you’ve spent so much time and energy creating it.

It is. With all due respect to Al Ries and Jack Trout, who espoused the importance of “owning a word” with legendary books like “Positioning,” I think you have to “own” many words over the lifespan of your personal brand, because the definition and the meaning of these words change over time. Even personal branding means something different today than it did when Tom Peters coined the phrase.

Take a look at me. I used to be “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Guy” when I was a music journalist for Circus Magazine and Variety. Running the Just For Laughs Festival, I became “The Comedy Guy.” Leaving that for the tech world, I was known as “The Mobile Guy.” These days, I seem to be all about surprise, but the most important lesson is that I have to change that up too. Being known as “The Surprise Guy” is limiting if that is what is always expected of you. The paradox is that a surprise stops being one once expected. It’s more exciting to think “What’s next from this guy?” vs. “Oh jeez, five years later and he’s still trotting out that surprise stuff again…”

Your personal brand is not a tattoo; it’s a messaged t-shirt you can change when it starts getting too comfortable.”

What’s the time frame on this changeover?

Three years, seven months and 22 days.  Seriously, it’s a judgement call that has to predict when your “audience” tires of you as you are now, and a leap of faith to act upon it with change well in advance of that date. It’s risky, and the change unceremoniously boots you out of your comfort zone.  But it’s a fickle world out there. The information explosion, where everybody knows everything, has made people mercilessly restless. Either you change before they want you to, or you’re nostalgia.

Well, I guess we all have some work to do. So, Mr. Surprise, what’s next for YOUR personal brand?

Well, I can’t divulge it fully, but suffice to say it will bring together two things I love—speaking and rock ‘n’ roll. There are so many business people with messages out there, but these messages are usually delivered in a similar manner—stage pacing backed by giant-screen PowerPoint to break it down to its most basic.

I’m working on a full-fledged show that incorporates my usual message, but with a soundtrack, lighting and special effects. Think Tom Peters backed by Kiss. I guess I’m going back to being “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Guy”…but this time, being the guy on stage and not the one sitting in the audience with a notebook.

Andy Nulman has been leading major media projects for over three decades. A dynamic public speaker/showman, motivating and challenging Fortune 500 companies the likes of GM, Eveready/Energizer, 3M and Wal-Mart, Andy has written two best-selling books, “How To Do The Impossible” and “I Almost Killed George Burns,” and the latest, “Pow! Right Between The Eyes.” Other accomplishments include being named one of the “Top 40 Under 40” business leaders by the Financial Post in 1997, being voted one of the Top 100 Montrealers of the 20th Century by the Montreal Gazette in 2000, and being honored as a distinguished recipient of the McGill Management Achievement Award in 2004.  In his spare time, Andy is also an inventive stage director, half-decent snowboarder, hot-and-cold hockey goalie and, of course, prolific blogger on the art of Surprise in marketing.