If you’ve read anything about job search in the last few years, you have surely come across the term ‘personal branding’ and some of you may even have worked with a coach to develop your own personal brand.
I’ve watched the trend develop and grow over the last few years as a result of some good marketing and PR, but I’ve remained uncomfortable with the idea and have not been able to recommend it to my clients, even though I think there are some talented and wonderful people working as personal branding coaches.
For a while I wasn’t sure how I felt and even flirted with the concept – after all, providing coaching on developing a personal brand would be a great way to increase revenue. But in the end I just couldn’t do it and I want to explain why, so that you can decide for yourself how you feel.
Do You Have a Personal Brand? Should You?
I have a couple of issues with the concept, which I’ll explain, and then I’d like to talk about my preferred alternative.
1) I don’t think the term is used correctly.
Marketers have many different definitions of ‘brand’ but Seth Godin’s is a nice clean description:
What’s a brand?
I think it is the product of two things:
[Prediction of what to expect] times [emotional power of that expectation].
If I encounter a brand and I don\’t know what it means or does, it has zero power. If I have an expectation of what an organization will do for me, but I don’t care about that, no power.
Therefore, if your name doesn’t conjure up expectation and an emotional response outside of your immediate circle, you don’t have a brand.
Geoff Livingstone of Buzz Bin put this brilliantly in his post “Top 10 Ways to Determine If You Actually Have a Personal Brand” so I won’t belabor the point – I’ll just encourage you to click the link and read what he had to say.
2) I think that there is a real danger when we encourage people to focus on developing a personal brand. Let me give you an example.
Gretchen Glasscock writes:
Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlitt Packard and one of the most visible women in business, knew style was critical. When asked by a young girl how to dress, she declared, “expensive and decisively.” Fiorina dressed, looked, talked, and acted like a leader.
Right – but this is a real problem. Carly Fiorino was a disaster as a CEO. She drove HP into the ground. More recently she turned her talents to being a disaster as a political surrogate by saying, on national TV, that John McCain (her chosen candidate) wasn’t capable of running a company. Hey, she should know!
So is it a good thing that she managed to convey an image of strong leadership, even though she didn’t have the ability to back it up? I don’t think that’s something to be celebrated or copied. I think that if Fiorino had added real value, people might still think of her as the strong and successful leader she aspired to be.
The essence of the problem
For me, there is something a little self-centered about consciously creating and communicating a “brand.” It’s focused on Me, not You (and I would argue that Fiorino shows it may also not be based on reality). As ‘Eyecube’ writes:
… the inward-looking focus on branding yourself is no longer the best way to serve yourself […] the Seth Godins and Chris Brogans have created very strong personal brands by creating real value for thousands of people every day. Their personal brands are focused on helping others, not on promoting themselves.
I don’t think it’s good for the world for all of us to be focused inward. And in the long-term I don’t think it works in terms of career development.
So if not Personal Brand, what?
Instead of worrying about creating and communicating a personal brand, I think we should be focused on adding value – to our families, to our community, to our employers, or to our audience. Here’s an example.
Within the world of political polling, Nate Silver is an overnight sensation. A baseball statistician, he didn’t turn his attention to writing about politics until March 2007 when he started a website to predict primary results. He devised his own methodology and when he turned out to be more accurate than well-respected polling outfits, his site traffic exploded and the media came calling. Towards the end of the general election, you couldn’t turn on a political talk show without seeing Nate. There is no doubt that he now has a strong personal brand – he just signed a $700K book deal – but it wasn’t built on spending hours defining who he is and then putting that out into the world. It was built on adding real value to the political community.
This to me is how true personal brands are created. And by the way, if you truly have a personal brand, other people might even be able to describe it better than you (because you were too busy adding value to sit down and think about it).
The Value of a Value Proposition
All of this is not to say that you shouldn’t communicate what makes you special. As a job seeker, that’s an important part of your marketing. And since we’ve already established that most of us don’t have the luxury of being a true brand (instantly recognizable and creating an emotional response), we have to communicate who we are and what makes us special.
But rather than worrying about a personal brand, I encourage you to focus on your value proposition – meaning how do you add value? This will be important when you write a resume or – if you are a consultant – when you draft your marketing materials. You need to be able to quickly and clearly describe your value to others so that they know whether they should hire you.
For me, the beauty of thinking about marketing yourself in this way is that it is outward facing (how do I add value to the world?) rather than inward facing (what’s fabulous about me?)
I know that many personal brand coaches will feel I have misunderstood. They will say that they encourage clients to develop a personal brand built on a foundation of value-added, and I believe them. But most of the people who hear about the concept will never spend thousands of dollars on a coach. They will simply read an article or a book and then try putting it into practice, often with disastrous results.
In the end, I think that all of us should strive to make a real difference like Nate Silver. If we put our energies into that, the personal brand stuff will take care of itself. Maybe we’ll never have a record contract or a $700K book deal, but we might well become known in our field so that recruiters are constantly calling with opportunities.
What about you? What do you think?