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Personal Branding is Out. Reputation Building is In.


Personal branding has become a hot topic over the last few years. Seems everyone has one, or wants one, or feels as though they should have one, even if they’re not sure what it is.

I’ll be honest, I’ve long been a naysayer when it comes to personal branding. But today I came across this post by Harry Urschel called “The Reality of Personal Branding” and it helped clarify my thinking on the issue. Harry says this about personal branding:

It’s a trendy way to think of “Reputation” – Your reputation has always been critical in your career as in your life. People get to know you and make judgments… are you honest, competent, inept, trendy, old-fashioned, high-maintenance, easy-going, a blowhard, humble, an expert in your field or industry, foolish, a techie, a technological troglodyte, a hard worker, reliable, loyal, political, or any number of other traits?

All of these traits and more form an impression in people’s minds about you… thus establishing a “Brand”.

7-UP is the Un-Cola… just as Bob Smith might be the Go-To Guy for any PC problems in his neighborhood. Both have a Brand.

Don’t get caught up in trendy language. I personally don’t care for the “Brand” label. However, your Reputation can precede you into any meeting or new introduction. Build your Reputation carefully!

I totally agree – but I go further. For me the notion of personal branding is a real problem. I know many talented and well-meaning people who work as personal branding coaches and I know they add value to their clients’ lives in many cases, but I think they also do unwitting damage on a larger scale.

I see three main problems with the personal branding trend.

Personal branding encourages us to think about ourselves too much

If you think about developing a brand, you are thinking about how you should package and present yourself. If you think about developing a reputation, you’re thinking about how you should act.

To me that’s a vial distinction. One is inward-looking and self-centered, the other is outward-facing and more likely to be focused on the needs of others.

No one seriously believes they can build a reputation for something without putting any work in, but I think many people see developing a personal brand as an exercise in packaging.

We are not products, we are people.

We are highly complex, highly contradictory beings and the idea that we can summarize ourselves in one or two “personal brand” sentences is nonsense. There are aspects of my life where I am very confident and take charge of situations (for example, when working with a client on his resume), and there are other aspects of my life where I am much less sure and act completely differently (when taking classes in a subject I find challenging for example). I am happy to have a reputation as a creative resume writer, author and industry thought leader. But I do not want that to be my “personal brand” because I don’t want to be pigeon-holed and defined as just that.

In this era of social media and web transparency, I simply don’t believe anyone should present themselves as though they were as simple and easy-to-understand as a packet of soap powder.

Personal branding can mess with our decision-making

I think having a “personal brand” can lead to inauthentic behavior when the “branded” person is faced with the need to take action. A client recently told me that he turned down an interesting promotion because he didn’t feel it aligned with his personal brand. He had been unhappy at work for some time and the promotion would have taken him in a new career direction. While it intrigued him, he felt that all the work he had been doing to “build his brand” would be lost when he made that sideways move. But he wasn’t happy! That makes no sense.

Personal branding is too open to misinterpretation

I know that well-meaning, talented personal branding coaches would say that my client misunderstood what personal branding was all about, and that he should have gone for the opportunity if it excited him.

That’s always the defense when criticisms like this are raised. Personal branding advocates say “that person just didn’t understand” and “if he had worked with a certified coach he would have been fine.”

But that’s my point. Most people never work with a certified coach. They simply read about personal branding online or in a book, and then try to apply those principles in their own lives. But personal branding is a concept that is way too open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It’s much less catchy and much less commercially viable to talk about building a strong reputation in your industry, field or area of expertise, but in the end I think it’s where we in the careers field need to be taking the discussion.

With many of our comments, thoughts and ideas documented online forever (and apparently reviewed by the government!) none of us can avoid thinking about the reputation we build both on-and offline. For me the unnecessary straight-jacket of “personal branding” just makes it much harder to do this while remaining true to the authentic, complex, contradictory, fascinating beings that we all are.

But this is just my opinion on a touchy subject. I’d love to know yours, whether you agree or disagree. So leave a comment below, or click here to shoot me an email.

photo credit: jakedobkin via photopin cc

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About the Author

Louise Fletcher

Louise co-founded Blue Sky in 2002 after a career as an HR executive. Her industry experience includes music, video games, fashion and advertising. She lived and worked in the US for many years, but moved back to her native UK in 2012, where she now lives in the Yorkshire countryside. In addition to her full-time role with Blue Sky, she's a professional artist, so you can imagine why she couldn't answer the 'what do you do with your free time' question! Contact Louise by email.

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7 comments on “Personal Branding is Out. Reputation Building is In.”

  1. Holly says:

    This post describes exactly how I have felt for years. I wanted to avoid the “straight-jacket” of professional branding with my own résumé clients, but it was the industry standard. People expected to have their executive résumé writer help them establish their brand. Once that happened, many felt it was too specific. The whole concept felt inauthentic and trendy to me – here today, gone tomorrow. In my opinion it limited my clients, not clearly defined them. Yes, an employer does need to know what sets a candidate apart from everyone else. The fact is, what sets us apart should be a broad and dynamic picture of our greatest qualities, skills, and experiences.

    When I left résumé writing, my well-established professional brand became my worst enemy. I created a monster! I was so good at my own professional branding that I started to believe I couldn’t change careers – even if that was what I truly wanted. This is a slippery slope, to be sure.

    The idea of reputation versus branding makes a lot of sense. Yes!! Excellent post.

  2. louise says:

    I love the description “a broad and dynamic picture of our qualities, skills and experiences.”

    We never talk about personal branding with our clients – instead we focus on developing messaging around the value they add. I don’t think people are stuck on the phrase ‘personal brand’ as much as they just want to know that there’s a strategy behind how they are being presented on paper.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I am just one such personal brand expert (though don’t pitch myself as a coach) working in the UK, where personal branding is in its infancy – hence why I wrote my book Personal Branding for Brits. I actually agree with a lot of what you’ve said – that essentially your brand is your reputation – and that people should see themselves as more than just a packaged good.

    Where I think branding really helps though is getting people to consciously think about what they’re putting across in the first place. Not necessarily to manipulate it (authenticity is king at all times) but to realise how they might be shooting themselves in the foot with little things.

    A perfect example is LinkedIn profile photos. I’ve lost count of how many clever, professional people I know who are depicting themselves as slack, unprofessional people because they’ve used a snap of them on holiday instead of one taken by a photographer that actually says something about who they are.

  4. That’s a great point Jennifer – another bugbear of mine is email addresses. Sometimes it’s amazing to see what people will use as an email address on a resume or online profile.

    I think the issue with the term ‘personal brand’ is that it carries connotations that go far beyond the sensible advice most personal branding experts give out.

    Representing yourself properly online is vital and more people need to understand how important it is. The open question for me is whether the term ‘personal brand’ actually does more damage than good.

    Of course ‘representing yourself properly online’ isn’t anywhere near as catchy as ‘personal branding’ and therefore I totally see why the term personal brand has become so prevalent. I wish I had a catchy alternative but that’s never been my strong point!

  5. Logitrain says:

    Hi Louise Fletcher,
    yeah you have amazingly explain personal branding and reputation i totally agreed, and yes shameless marketing is becoming trend while people ignored other aspects when doing personal branding and shameless marketing!

  6. Jake says:

    I agree with much of what you are saying. I think the idea of “personal brand” can sometimes drive people to try to be something that you are not, or misrepresent yourself. The real key IMO is authenticity and integrity. those are 2 keys to building a lasting reputation, which in turn becomes your “brand.” Don’t over-think it.

  7. Jake, I so agree – authenticity and integrity. To those I would add value. If you are adding value, you will naturally develop a good reputation and the ‘brand’ will take care of itself.

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