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Branding can be a shifty enterprise. It deals in abstracts, and it can take decades to unravel whether something was a brilliant idea or just a brilliant pitch—and for the most part, no one can tell the difference.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining someone like Peter Arnell.

He’s been behind some of the more iconic images in recent memory—DKNY’s Houston St mural, ConEdison’s redesigned trucks, and the curvy new Pepsi logo—along with some of the biggest tantrums in the business, but after a disastrous Tropicana redesign, the sharks are circling. And suddenly, people are using the word “huckster” an awful lot…

The freshest example is a recent Newsweek profile that delves into Arnell’s well-developed personal myth, Le Corbusier glasses and all. Starting out as a simple kid from Sheepshead Bay, Arnell talked himself all the way up to the head of multi-million dollar “brand and product invention company,” mostly by virtue of being able to convince anyone of anything. Naturally, he’s made his share of enemies—we’re guessing the steady stream of disgruntled employees and sexual harassment suits didn’t help—and now that he’s looking shaky, they’re coming out in force. And this may be the first time anyone’s wondered if he was putting them on.

The difference between Arnell and the average bloodthirsty company man is the fragile nature of his business. More than any campaign, Arnell is pitching himself, and the minute he looks shaky, the pitch gets a whole lot worse. If you’re making ten grand an hour, eating 20 oranges a day is a sign of genius; otherwise, you’re just a crazy person with orange hands.

If he were a businessman, he could start a new venture and bail himself out with results, but Arnell’s selling intangibles, which makes the path a lot more slippery. And he may have reached the limit of how far a good pitch can take you.

—R.B.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • Russell Brandom