Is “Personal Branding” an oxymoron?

Evidence for and against the term

“Personal branding” isn’t new, pills but it seems to be a term that’s spiking upwards right now, viagra buy 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, malady 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?

Batboy 2
My son "branded" himself as Batman for a Halloween party over the weekend. But was it "personal"?

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:

The Key To Your Personal Brand

“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?

  • Am I being fair to “personal branding”?
  • Should we use the term “personal branding”at all?
  • Is there a better term for the branding of individuals?
  • Am I using too many “quotation marks”?
  • 20 thoughts on “Is “Personal Branding” an oxymoron?”

          1. But isn’t it true that it can be both authentic and well managed and still serve no one but the “branded” person? In that case it’s not a brand to me. It might make the person feel better – like a personal mantra – but until it’s useful to someone else, it’s not a brand.

            It’s like a painter who never shows his work. Until somebody sees it and values it, it isn’t art.

            1. If personal brand means you’re telling me who you are, what you’ve done, and who you know–if it’s a glorified resume–then it can definitely come across as self-absorbed.

              I checked out Dan Schawbel’s site and I have to admit, I don’t get it. I looked at the content there and my question was “Why should I care? What can you do for me? What can we talk about?”

              I suppose if Dan had already pitched me a product or service in another context and I came to his site to look at his credentials, it might be useful. But as a stand-alone, the site doesn’t reach out to me. It doesn’t give the impression that he’s thought about the needs of his audience or how to connect with them.

            2. Interesting comments on Dan’s site.

              Dan, it’s a fair comment. Looking at your home page the word “Dan” appears 12 times. The word “you” appears once – in the very last line. And that is your tag line (which is the key take-away in my corporate branding world). Shouldn’t that be what you *start* with?

              It reminds me of a “tip” I saw on Twitter from a “Personal Branding Expert” who was talking about how to brand yourself in a job interview. She advised that when the interviewer asks you at the end: “do you have any questions for us?” the good personal brander should say, “no but I’d like to take the opportunity to tell you more about me…” Having been an interviewer many times, I can tell you I’d be looking for the “eject” button.

    1. Thanks, this was a very helpful discussion. I can see strong points on both sides, maybe it is another description that conveys your qualities that you bring to the table, that cause people to remember you and pay you.

    2. Great points Dennis,

      # Personal branding often confuses “identity” with “brand

      Sometimes what people say about you “Brand” will be part of your “identity” and forver so that is your ID Ex: Kyane West, Lettermen, etc.

      # Branding is not about you.

      I wouldn’t have 2000+ followers if I weren’t myself.

      # No one can “own” their own brand

      I own everything related to my personal brand and according to the FTC new rules.

      # A brand is a promise.


      # The personal branding movement misses the point. You said “personal branding” is a fancy word for “narcissism” then you mentioned the key to your personal brand explained in Mitch Joel’s quote.

      If someone keep helping people (giver) then narcissism is irrelevant here even if that strength his/her personal branding.

      # Am I being fair to “personal branding”? To some level.

      # Should we use the term “personal branding”? Yes!

      # Is there a better term for the branding of individuals? No, Its just a term at the end.

      # Am I using too many “quotation marks”? In good way.

      Thank You!

    3. Well, IMHO, personal branding is a total myth, perpetrated by people who don’t care or know how to reach beyond their own egos to find real brand strategies for real businesses. Of course it’s easier to package yourself! It’s more fun, too! Which is why kids are really, really good at bragging about themselves. Sitting around, contemplating your own navel is way more convenient than formulating why the world should perceive your brand as “the only solution to their problem.”

      In the grown-up world, though, people hire you for what you do, not who you are.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love social media. Met a lot of fabulous, smart people there. But it’s really nothing more than one more channel through which we interact.

      I get lots of branding business through social and other media. But not because I’m Rob Frankel. It’s because and its divisions create brands that not only “turn users into evangelists,” but create brand strategies that affect the business’s bottom line.

      We do that by making sure the brand strategy sets our clients’ brands as “the only solution to their prospects’ problems.” And it works!

      Rob Frankel
      Author, “The Revenge of Brand X”,
      Branding Consultant,

      1. Identity is a subset of brand. So if you do dumb things that reflect poorly on your judgment, compassion, and other human qualities, it affects both a) how your brand is perceived, and b) your ability to position yourself as trustworthy in the future.

        Of course, what Kanye West did was almost certainly a calculated PR tactic from the “no PR is bad PR” school – a school that is as short-sighted as it is morally bankrupt – and sadly, we’ll see more of the same because it also resulted in short term bumps in sales for both Kanye and Taylor Swift (who is on the same label).

        1. It could be a subset for few more years then our online identity and reputation will be our personal brand because soon we will spend our 24 hours day only on the Internet.

          I don’t see this as a big confusion or negative side of personal branding, if we can educate people about the difference, that’s it.

    4. Well done as pro and con. I agree with most of your points and particularly about getting deeply tangled up in the narcissistic side of the field. That is exactly the problem.

      Personal brand is not about marketing oneself although that might be someones “brand”, good to know, but anyway, it is about being marketed for your brand of, say leadership. Ex/ when a board comes to me and asked us to get the best CEO to take company X from A to B, We ID the culture and other brand attributes and strategy of X. I love when someone comes to mind as the best solution – test in the market and the same solution comes up…great brand and they do OWN the reputation. That is why some people make $ on their name and word. If that person is dead, but left a legacy, I’ll take the product or protege with pleasure.

      The problem is the word brand”ing”. I noticed something a long time ago. You see, I am fortunate to know people who have launched brands we know well. I noticed something early in my career as I study these people and brand. Brand managers don’t say or write branding…they simply don’t…in dialog, on resumes, bios or websites. Marketing and agency people say brand’ing’ and always mean something else. The business dialor difference is remarkable. I think The reason for the popular phrase “false advertising and Marketers are liars is b/c the brand does not deliver and siad people have no idea why. Who delivers the brand…people. Hire brand champions based on shared values. Agency folks about brand should have recruiting divisions LOL.

      Oh yea, personal branding. Many “personal branding experts” have never been involved in strategy and that is why they teach narcissistic techniques for getting followers. Fact: the best personal brands are not pitching themselves at all, others are for them. The “others” have experienced and define the brand.

      I could go on and on. To get my thoughts, two very short posts:
      There is no ‘ing’ in brand:

      and complications of personal brand simplified:

      1. Hmm. That’s a big long Hmmmm.

        I think we can agree that a “personal” brand is just a brand, period. Yes, it happens to be attached to a person, but all the regular business brand rules apply. No special magic. No staring fondly into pond reflections. No getting lost in ourselves. With me so far?

        But the big idea I’m chewing on from your post is this one: should “brand” ever have an “-ing” in the world of whole-brand thinking (business or “personal”)? That is, should we be using it as a verb or just as a noun?

        The advantage is that it makes for a neater split between “brand” and “the act of branding” – and allows us to say more cleanly that a brand is owned by customers.

        But I wonder if it pushes the brand too far away from the control of the “brand manager” – another term I wonder about in your framework. Can there be a “brand manager” since we can’t manage that which we don’t own?

        I’m thinking there’s still an important role for “branding” (the verb) and “brand management” the discipline. But perhaps that’s another post. Anyone else want to weigh in?

    5. Interesting discussion Dennis. I think the batman costume is the perfect example of “brand gone wrong.” Putting on a costume or a facade and pretending to be someone or something isn’t authentic. It’s “pretend.” Branding isn’t something you put on with one group of people and take off with others. Your brand comprises who you are, how you are wired, and embraces your passions and values. There are like attributes that resonate with everyone, no matter who they are or how they know you. My stand-by analogy is that if you believe you are a visionary finance leader but your team sees you as a micro-managing bean counter … who are you really?

      1. Ah finally someone commented on the Bat costume! First of all, isn’t he the cutest kid on the planet (apart from my daughter and my soon-to-be-born third child, who are / will be equally cute)?

        Actually, as someone who believes in play theory, I think a costume is an interesting metaphor for a brand. Not perfect, but interesting. Play with me for a moment on this one.

        Inside a costume, you have your identity – all the nature / nurture stuff that is part of you.

        The costume is the “personality” you adopt to create a character for an “audience” – not to trick the audience, but to play together with them.

        But that’s not to say it’s fake. Any good actor will tell you authenticity is the hardest and most important defining element of a good performance. You have to be true to yourself AND to the persona you are creating.

        You said “your brand comprises who you are, how you are wired, and embraces your passions and values.” But I think that’s all Identity, not brand. Brand includes that stuff, but goes several levels deeper.

        1. Cool convo. Glad to see Cindy. Funny thing happened after the Enron and related ethical issues. CFO’s felt they had to pitch me that they are ethical. The buzz work at the time. After interviewing, some had trouble proving it. marketing did not equal brand.

    6. I’ll give you that your son shares the stage with my daughters and granddaughter as being the cutest kids in the world!

      My belief is that who you are and how you are wired combined with passions and values all drive “how” you do what you do. When you understand those things as well the perception of others, you can move towards deepening and reinforcing your uniqueness (brand) among your target audience. One of the great things about understanding a personal brand is that used well, it can attract the right opportunities and repel those that are not a good fit making the marketing of yourself much easier.

      1. I agree with everything there. All are great qualities for humans or brands. I’m just not sure we need the term “Personal Brand” to teach people to be more honest / attractive / human, when often the same term is used to excuse behaviour that is anything but.

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