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The Problem with Personal Branding


The last time I wrote a post about the concept of personal branding, I received several comments from people who disagreed with my point of view. Some commenters assured me that personal branding isn’t about making up an image, but is about communicating who you authentically are. And I think communicating who you authentically are is really important too, so it seems we’re in agreement about that. But still, day-after-day I see examples of people distorting that idea in the name of personal branding. Take this post, titled ‘Personal Branding is for Everyone:’

Personal branding is for your mom – who wants to find a new job, and she is really talented at arranging flowers, but has never worked in a flower shop. If they could only see her designs, they would hire her instantly.

OK, so far so good. Mom needs to communicate her value proposition (that she’s great at arranging flowers) so she can get hired. If you want to call that personal branding, that’s fine with me.

But then we get to this:

Personal branding is for the band at the local dive bar who plays every Thursday night. Their music is amazing, but when looking at them on the stage, all the guys wear totally different clothes. They don’t seem to match in any way – they seem like they were pulled out from bands they were kicked out of. They don’t even have a website, or a Myspace, no one knows about them. And you don’t want to tell anyone about them because you are embarrassed by their appearance.

OK. Changing the way they look to fit some music industry idea of a ‘brand’ is not about authenticity It’s about manufacturing something that doesn’t exist. If their music is so fantastic, then get them the website and the MySpace page and forget about changing the way they look. The way they look is who they are! (Just ask Fall Out Boy if a makeover is necessary to success). If you want to change that, don’t call it personal branding – call it ‘image-making.’

I don’t mean to single out this particular writer, but this is the common misconception that bothers me about personal branding as a concept. Too many people hear those words and, instead of hearing ‘communicate what makes you unique and valuable,’ they hear ‘create an image you think will sell.’

One is authentic and one isn’t. One results in genuine success based on who you really are, and one results (maybe) in fleeting success for the period during which you manage to maintain the facade.

At this time of all times, when so many companies are struggling just to stay afloat, can we put the emphasis on adding value rather than ‘personal branding?’ Words matter and this is a term that doesn’t confuse anyone. It’s also the right focus, because a person who communicates an authentic message about how she is uniquely able to add value will succeed, even in a down market.

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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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17 comments on “The Problem with Personal Branding”

  1. Great job at getting to the heart of what personal branding *is* and *is not*. Creating an image for yourself may be important as far as “looking the part”, but your personal brand is all about what you can deliver!

  2. Dan Schawbel says:

    I would just like to clarify a few things. One, personal branding is about adding value to your customers, to your management or to investors. It’s about becoming known for skills/talents and becoming a leader in your niche. Everyone has a personal brand and you don’t have to be in a rock band to get that kind of visibility anymore. It’s up to you if you want to misrepresent yourself and “not be authentic,” but you’re still a brand.

    You’re a brand for two main reasons. 1) You’re always getting judged based on impressions and 2) You always have to sell yourself to employers, your teachers, your friends, etc.

    The whole point of building your personal brand (getting more people to know you in our industry) is to add more value to people’s lives. Personal branding is as much about promoting and serving others as it is about self-promotion.

  3. Dan Schawbel says:

    The more people that know you and you have relationships with, the more valuable you are as an employee. With a stronger network, comes better productivity and a superior bottom-line for your company.

  4. Dina Harding says:

    Louise, Excellent post with nice clarity! Value & authenticity are focal points that every person needs to recognize as important. ~DH

  5. Louise says:

    Thanks Dina and Jennifer.

    Dan, I think the fact that you have to clarify the phrase is my biggest problem with it. I know what coaches mean when they talk about personal branding. But incidents like the one I quoted prove that lots of people DON’T understand … they see “personal branding” as “personal image making.”

    If we instead talked about building a reputation instead if building a personal brand, I think everyone would understand what we meant – for the rock band, it would mean putting out great music and putting on great shows (not what they wear). For the individual building a career, it would mean adding value, always doing great work and going over and above to help other people.

    Adding value and building a reputation don’t sound as “sexy” or easy to understand as “personal branding,” but I think they are more helpful and less confusing. And I think that in these times anything we can do to communicate clearly in order to help people succeed is worth doing.

  6. Louise,
    Just a quick note to say I really enjoyed your blog posting today, “The Problem With Personal Branding.” It is quite an authentic post.

    By drilling down to a client’s value or even ‘unique value’ as it relates to a target audience’s needs, I believe we can communicate an authentic, sustainable message (i.e., as you inferred, then the individual doesn’t have to maintain a facade to be something they’re not).

    Though I must admit having knit the ‘branding’ word into my own conversations and articles in the past, I prefer the word ‘value.’ It is direct and authentic; thus, I honor my own tagline,Value Into Words and resist branding my website with the personal branding lingo.

  7. A very thoughtful post, thank YOU !!

    May I offer, relative to your closing comment / question, that both companies and individuals should INDEED be focused on VALUE, especially today, and for the foreseeable future.

    Branding is a marketing process ( applicable to; companies, products, services, and now individuals ) that is essential to scaling; awareness building, interest generation, facilitating trial sales, and driving repeat sales. Even stay-at-home Moms can be called upon to raise funds for school functions, etc…, and there are equally valuable social analogies where money may not exist, but forms of identity, power and value are integral to the outcome.

    In closing, and unfortunately, the Personal Branding topic is saturated with commentary ( because people can ) that isn’t really valuable, or operational in terms of highlighting the essential components of brand building, and the steps one must take to actually build a brand. And I don’t mean get a logo, buy a new dress / suit, or get matching outfits !!!

    For those willing to spend some time learning, and in doing so gain some insight into how to separate the Personal Branding “wheat” from the “chaff” – I would recommend they spend some time reviewing David Aaker’s ( Building Strong Brands ) for starters.

  8. Hi Louise,

    I’m sorry to hear that my blog post pushed so many buttons on your own personal interpretation of personal branding.

    I am not sure if you have read some of my other posts about personal branding, including my post that I have entitled “Authentic Branding”. You can read it here:

    http://heidiohlander.com/2009/01/authentic-branding/

    On my site I talk about the importance of being authentic. All of these books on personal branding, many want you to “craft an image” in order to please others offends me.

    In the case of the dive bar band example, I have had personal experience working with bands. My husband is a musician, and ran a record label for 10 years. There is so much more I could say about Dive Bar Band, but mostly I was trying to convey the image is that they didn’t know what to do with themselves, so they all got lazy, and wore clothes that did not reflect who they truly were.

    I didn’t want Dive Bar Band to “change who they were” so they could be marketable to a potential record agent. All I was conveying is that they were aimless. They wanted to be discovered but they themselves have not found their true selves yet.

    If they did some soul searching and found their Authentic Selves, and then used the principles of Personal Branding to convey their message, I and other fans of Dive Bar Band would be more enthusiastic to promote their music through word of mouth.

    As for Fall Out Boy? Oh, please. They are carefully crafted and slickly marketed.

    ~ Heidi

    1. Louise says:

      Hi Heidi,

      No need to apologize. You didn’t push any buttons – just helped me put something into words that I have been wanting to say for a while. And as I said, I wasn’t trying to single you out, but I also didn’t want to steal your idea without linking to you or crediting you for the thoughts that inspired my post.

      I love your other post and plan to highlight it (and your comment) in a follow-up blog post.

      For me this is a serious issue because I feel the term ‘personal branding’ is used because it’s a good hook for marketers and media, not because it’s the most helpful terminology to each individual. ‘How can you add value?’ is hard to misunderstand – but it doesn’t make for high book sales or speaking fees. Since I’m not interested in those things, I prefer to be a voice in the wilderness questioning the phraseology that I feel is leading people astray,

      I don’t disagree about Fall Out Boy’s marketing – I simply used them as an example because they don’t look as though they belong in the same band and so they supported my point.

  9. Danny Iny says:

    Great post, Louise – I agree 1,000%. Nice work!

  10. Coach V says:

    Louise,
    I think this is a great post on a timely topic, especially in light of the current career market. I agree that there is much confusion on personal branding and sort of the hip “buzz word” of the day. There is still much confusion on the distinction between corporate branding and personal branding. A corporate brand is generally a manufactured image represented by a marekting theme or an icon (think Coca-Cola) and while to some extent, people can “manufacture” an image, I think most of us would agree that eventually, “the real you” always shows up eventually. This leads me to the issue of authenticity. While authenticity is a key characteristic of building a personal brand, I think the element that is missing in this discussion thus far is that WE do not create our brand. We operate how we operate and others define our brand by our consistency, value, professionalism, expertise etc. The best way to determine your brand is to ask others! The feedback you recieve will give you an idea of the gap between how you WANT to show up and how you actually DO. Regardless of how polished one’s shoes are or how impeccably dressed one is, it is ultimately WHO you are that will create your brand.

  11. Hi Louise:

    Thanks for the post. This is what I have been trying to convey since I started my resume business a few years ago. My tag line is Adding Value to Your Resume and my pitch has been I show how you can Add Value to a potential employer so they can hire you.

    I showed this to a Personal Branding expert in the industry who said this is not enough – you need to “Brand” your clients and then went on to try to sell me their approach to branding. This did not seem “authentic” to me – and I continue on my approach just to show how my clients Add Value.

    Thanks!

  12. Hi nice post, i have come across your site once before when searching for something so i was just wondering something. I love your theme, would it happen to be a free one i can download, or is it a custom one you had made? In a few weeks i will be launching my own site, i’m not great with designs but i really like the style of your site so it would be cool if i could find (or pay for) something with a similar look. 🙂 Thanks!

  13. Louise says:

    Hi Kathey, thanks for the compliments on the site – I actually had this site designed, so you won’t be able to find anything just like it but we based it on this:
    http://themetation.com/2008/06/05/blue-blog/?cp=2

    Hope that helps.

  14. QuestingElf says:

    I have to wonder about something in this 21st Century where personal branding is touted as the key to my next job. Whatever happened to the notion of having one personality at work and another at home?

    I loved seeing the word facade. It reiterates to me just how false the whole world of work has become. Interviews are overly choreographed affairs to begin with, thou shalt not speak ill of any supervisor. Resumes also tend to show only your good points, never any weaknesses. If you happen to be asked about a weakness at an interview, take a shortcoming and present it as a strength (e.g., “I get impatient with coworkers who aren’t as fast.”)

    To me the personal branding through blogging, LinkedIn, and countless other Web 2.0 creations is nothing more than doing Seth Godin’s “Marketers are all Liars” to the Nth degree. You will create the online personas that make you attractive to everybody else. You’ll call it personal branding to make you appear authentic.

    Sorry, I don’t buy it. That doesn’t mean I’m immune to pushing the cold lies. If that’s what it takes to get hired today, yes, I’ll update my skills and prove I can falsify truthfully like the rest of them!

  15. Cathy says:

    I love this discussion. I’m a career counsellor and over the years have gotten more and more frustrated with advice that tells us to “brand” ourselves if we want to find a job. And I’ve seen how this demoralizes and discourages otherwise confident and talented people who are looking for work.

    I agree with all the comments about how an attempt to create a brand encourages inauthenticity. When we think of brands, we think of well-crafted images, based on focus group data and what a company wants us to know (and perhaps misdirecting us from what it doesn’t want us to know). So I think we often approach brands with caution – we know this image might not be the whole picture.

    But when we are job searching, we don’t want the other people and employers who we are meeting to think that they are meeting our brand image – we want them to know they are meeting the real us. It seems to me, the more we have people creating their own “brands” the more suspicion we will all approach other people with. This can’t be good for job searching, which is based on making real connections with other people.

    Thanks,
    Cathy

    Transform Your Job Search
    http://www.careerconsiderations.ca/blog

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