Evidence for and against the term
“Personal branding” isn’t new, but it seems to be a term that’s spiking upwards right now, pushed by an enthusiastic tribe of “personal brand experts” who are starting to throw their weight around – particularly in Social Media. They dominate every Twitter search on “branding” for example. But for me, as a brand guy, a #brandchat conversation last week and blog posts by Mitch Joel and Rob Frankel set me to wondering: Is a “personal brand” even possible?
The case for “personal branding” (i.e. it’s not an oxymoron)
- Brands are important: I’ve built my career around the idea that the concept of a “brand” is a powerful tool to build relationships between people, products, companies, services, government programs, charities, and various combinations of all of the above. So when I hear someone – anyone – reinforcing the importance of brand-oriented thinking, part of me yells out an involuntary “Amen, preach it brother!”
- Persons can have brands: individuals can and do become incredibly powerful brands – and many of them consciously cultivate these brands in much the same way a smart company manages their brand portfolio. No one can ignore the phenomenal impact of the Obama, Oprah, or even the Glenn Beck brand – although impact may be the only thing those particular brands have in common.
- Tom Peters: I was inspired by a ground-breaking article in Fast Company from 1997 called “The Brand Called You” in which Peters says:
It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.
- The rise of Social Media: this development more than any other is what is driving the growth of the “personal branding” industry. Just look at the Personal Branding Rock Star Apparent Dan Schwabel’s Web site, blog, or Twitter stream: your Social Media “footprint” is mostly what he’s talking about. And indeed, now that our thoughts, deeds, and misdeeds can be broadcast to the world with the click of a button, we all need to be aware of how our online actions affect our perception by employers, business colleagues, and potential customers.
- My own work: I myself have done almost a dozen seminars on branding for individuals at universities, professional organizations, and networking groups. My first such presentation was at a “Company of Friends” meeting in 2001 (selected slides below), in which I encouraged attendees to look at their careers, areas of expertise, and public communications through the lens of branding. I even wore a T-Shirt with “I AM BRAND” on it and encouraged them to repeat that phrase in their heads.
So let me be clear: I’m not against “Persons” “Branding”
To sum up, before I get to the negative stuff: the intersection of “Branding” + “Individuals” is a powerful connection that I strongly believe in and promote.
Clear? Got that? Cool. Let’s move on.
The case against “personal branding” (i.e. it is an oxymoron)
- Personal branding often confuses “identity” with “brand”. These are different things. Identity is the part of your brand that you control – that is, your name, what you say about yourself, how you look, etc.; but your brand is much bigger, and includes a lot of stuff that you don’t control – most importantly what other people say about you.
- Branding is not about you. It doesn’t matter what you are trying to promote, your brand is only as good as what it does for human beings – that is, how useful your brand is to human beings as a way of finding, understanding, and referring others to something they value.
- No one can “own” their own brand. Here’s my definition of brand for the record – one which I’ve honed and refined over 15 years of building practical brand strategy for companies big and small. Note as you read that “brand” can not be created ex nihilo (from nothing), nor can it be owned by the same people who own the “product”:
- A brand is the whole set of ideas, words, images, and expectations that humans* associate with a product**.
(* “humans” means multiple customers / influencers / observers.)
(**”product” can mean a corporation, commodity, service, concept, or individual)
- Or, a shorter definition: “a brand is a promise.” And a really strong brand is a promise kept consistently, and reinforced publicly, over time. This is where the “personal” part starts to break down: it implies private, non-public, just between me, myself, and I. Say “personal promise” to yourself. Sounds wrong doesn’t it? That’s because a promise is only meaningful if it is made to someone.
- At its worst, the personal branding movement misses the point. Far too often, even most of the time from what I’ve seen, “personal branding” is a fancy word for “narcissism”. It’s a cover for the selfishness, greediness, and egomania that are temptations for all of us – and should never, never be celebrated or recommended. That is, bad personal branding is about introspection or “self-help” – or making your life better, not about making the lives of your fellow humans better.
So can “personal branding” be redeemed?
Personally, I’m going to avoid the term as much as I can. It’s just too distracting for my corporate clients if I get too deeply tangled up in the narcissistic side of the field.
But there are people out there on the Light Side of the Force. And on that note, I’m going to leave the last word to Mitch Joel from Six Pixels of Separation:
“If there’s one lesson/opportunity when it comes to developing your personal brand, it is to make everything about the people you are connecting to and not about yourself.” (underline added by me)
– Mitch Joel
So what do you think?