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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