Is Personal Branding Really Impersonal Faking?

Don’t get me wrong: I think the thinking behind it, the advice wrapped around the idea of personal branding, is excellent. I’ve recommended, for example, Dan Schawbel’s personal branding book Me 2.0 and I’m sticking to it. Dan has a great collection of real-world suggestions in that book. But I’m beginning to think I hate the term. And maybe some of what’s behind it.

Last Friday I read Personal Branding is Bullsh*t (cowardly * by me, not her) by Arienne Holland, communications director of Raven Tools. She writes:

A person doesn’t need a brand. A person is a person whether or not there is paperwork filed with the government. A child doesn’t create a personality, she has one.

She also objects to a magazine article recommending personal branding for employees of large companies:

If you want to travel between companies, you don’t need a personal brand, you need skills and character and friends.

This was already on my mind before reading that because of a conversation I’d had a few weeks ago with my daughter Megan, marketing manager at Klout.com. At the time I was talking about some of Dan Schawbel’s recommendations, and Megan shared that she didn’t like the term. She explained that recently in Why I Hate the Term “Personal Branding” on her blog:

“Worse yet, there’s the idea that this is something new. Personal branding is just a new way to talk about reputation. Well, you know what? Reputation is a much better word for that.

Personal branding implies you should be fake to make it (if you disagree, do let me know). Before you tweet, interact, blog, or walk down the street you need to think if it fits with the image you want to portray. Well, you know what, if there’s only one facet to your personality you’re not an excellent brand, you’re boring.”

She’s not objecting to the things we do as personal branding, at least not if it isn’t faked; instead, she is objecting to the term we use to describe it.

There’s a lot that I like about the whole field of personal branding, particularly the emphasis on actual people and authenticity and humans communicating with humans. But I admit, I hadn’t thought of the underlying meaning of the term “brand.” It does carry a sense of artificial to it, doesn’t it? It makes us think of Mad Men, advertising, consumer opinion research, and expensive image advertising like insurance companies and such, on a very large scale.

Are you the same thing as your brand? If so, then what’s the point?

11 thoughts on “Is Personal Branding Really Impersonal Faking?

  1. Tim,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As Megan said, and Anita Caldwell commented on my post, reputation is a better word. I agree. And a reputation — good or bad — is built when humans communicate with humans. The only control you have over your reputation is your behavior. Then other people talk about your behavior, and you can’t control what they’ll say.

    Is it possible that folks who otherwise would have poor or boring reputations are the ones most obsessed with their “personal brands” — with controlling their image in the minds of others?

    Arienne

    1. Thanks Arienne, glad to see you dropped in here, since you (sort of) started it. Megan’s post was about a month ago, and I had left my general agreement with the “reputation, not branding” sentiment in the further recesses of my brain until I saw yours. Nice job. Tim.

  2. I was at a software conference primarily attended by consultants and one of the sessions dealt with personal branding. The concept as presented felt like prostitution. They even used the phrase “pimp yourself.” I much prefer authentic, congruent behavior. Just be real and let your actions speak for themselves. If you try to coax it in a particular direction you’re going to come off as narcissistic at best, or an egomaniac or even worse.

  3. Mr. Berry,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts. And I look forward to checking out Me 2.0. Branding, to my naive ears/eyes, has always been simply a term used to condense other related concepts – reputation, sensibility, a bit of the spirit of one’s business, etc. I like its utility. I don’t “run” with large groups of business people so I may not be as soaked in this word as others.
    I rarely comment on the many blogs I read – but I really like yours. Thanks, Bill

  4. I agree with this assessment! The other thing I see all over the place is the place is the unwillingness to disagree constructively for fear of their faux personal brand. This does not move anything forward with huge returns. You might do it offline, but this does not have the traction that it has online. New follower to your blog, love the willingness to present an opposite POV!

  5. It just seems like a straw man argument. “Personal branding” does not imply that you can control the thoughts of others.

    Personalities are complex, and you have to have an angle. You might be a dentist who’s also really into model trains and old gangster movies. But people don’t pay you for your expertise in model trains and old gangster movies, they pay to you clean their teeth.

    Now, install a model train and some old gangster movie posters in the waiting room of your dentist’s office, and you’ve got yourself a brand. Now you’re the dentist who’s into model trains and gangster movies. Some people won’t get it, but those who do will be your best patients.

    That’s all branding is. Nothing dishonest or inauthentic about it.

  6. Hi Zach. Thanks, you state your dentist case well. My doctor has his own backpacking pictures on his wall, and I use a picture of me up in the Three Sisters Wilderness as part of the theme of this blog. Is that branding, or just being yourself?

    And what if the dentist, the doctor, or I don’t really like that stuff, but decide to present ourselves that way because it’s a business or career advantage. Is that branding too, even though it isn’t just being yourself?

    Is it being yourself when it’s authentic, and personal branding when it isn’t? I don’t know, just asking.

    Tim

  7. Thank you Zach. I thought I was the only one sensing that term “personal branding” had a non-authentic undertone to it. Often I am asked by entrepreneurs “Should I brand my company name or my name” and until now I gave the standard response. Upon reflection, I am going to alter that response.

    ~Anita

  8. Personal Branding is indeed about reputation. I think where it differs is in the focus on introspection. In the corporate environment, branding works when organization begin by taking the time to understand who they truly are and who they will best serve. I think personal branding is asking us to take the time to understand these things about ourselves on a deeper level. Heaven knows we often assume we know who we are only to drift over time and find ourselves lost and going through midlife crisis.

    I believe in branding. I believe in the power it creates in communication. The trouble is that there is a lot of messy junk floating around that really isn’t helping anyone. This is the same reason that “branding” in general has such a bad name to begin with.

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