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The Myth of the Personal Brand

Jul 21, 2010 , ,

Today’s post is by Aaron Templer, branding dude and all-around enlightened soul. You can follow him on Twitter @AaronTempler and check out his site here.

If I told you my car was actually a bike with an engine and more room to carry stuff, you’d say Get bent. It’s a car.

If a company told you their shoes were just like feet only without all the moving parts and no ability to connect directly to your brain, you’d call them out on the social web as fraudulent ninnies.

There’s similarity in the movement creating backlash against personal branding that asks, “Why are we told that we can (and should) bundle all the complexities, unpredictability and beautiful self-expression that is Me into a nice little package to sell to employers or clients?”

“I am not a brand!” spiel the brand agnostics. Don’t commoditize me.

The trouble with taking a side on this issue is, of course, that no one can agree on what the hell branding really is anyway. (This coming from someone who considers himself a branding consultant with processes, models and ways to approach the subject that are constructed with all kinds of stuff inspired from across the branding milieu.)

I’m dead serious. Think you can define branding? Give it shot in the comments and I can find some really smart people who will disagree with you.

By all appearances, the discussion of personal branding – and the hoards of people who claim to help us do it – is fueled by the social web. Before everyone had a voice, branding was largely the domain of ad people in turtlenecks desperately grasping to their relevance as the value of traditional advertising went the way of the Slip-n-Slide.

Now, we all have a role. Or at least we can. And because we saw the opportunity to promote ourselves, reputations and work – and started to realize that it isn’t that easy – we started asking questions about the process to make it all more effective. We started discussions, upturned a few rocks and out scurried the Branding People.

They told us all our activities on the social web need to be consistent. Integrated. That everything – actions, words, Twitter home pages – should look, feel and sound the same. (Sometimes they’d tell us that actions and promises need to integrate as well, but not very often ‘cause they can’t make any money from that ‘cause in the end, that ain’t up to them it’s up to the client so my hands are clean.) They’ve called similar stuff branding for years and demonstrated its value by way of racked-up billable hours doing it for everything from beer cans to investment schemes. So why wouldn’t it apply to this new world? If it works for a beer can, why not you?

You see arguments for the power of personal branding in the expected places – usually from those who charge people to brand them – and the not-so typical places. But what better place than the Redhead’s domain to poke some holes in this notion? After all, the Redhead has been heralded as one of the most “kick ass” personal brands around.

But does the Redhead actually brand herself? Or is she simply demonstrating the value she provides through her work, while at the same time recognizing that today’s world demands that she break down the Business Walls of Bullshit to expose an actual person with whom to build trust?

If it’s the later, then branding hardly describes it. Or if you think it does, then we really need a new word for it.

Some would argue (I did once, actually) that people aren’t brands. We’re too weird. Too human

I’ve put it this way before: people aren’t “experiences.” We experience. People aren’t work. We work. And people aren’t results. People aren’t products. People aren’t services. We make, deliver, and yes, brand those things.

So, Redhead legions. What do you think?

49 comments
The Redhead
The Redhead

Okay - solid. But just because it's got a name doesn't mean that people know how to use it. It's not a Sham-wow. It's marketing strategy, knowhaddimean Vern?

Thebrandbutton
Thebrandbutton

I think if Personal Brand is used superficially like an Amani Suit to suggest, qualify or imply things that are aspirational or untrue then whats the point - BUT if Personal Brand and the process of thinking about it, writing about it and putting into play helps one under-confident, creative and interesting person to celebrate their uniqueness in an authentic and appropriate way then awesome, fabulous and long may Personal Brand be in our vocab and experiences. Let's face it Erika people have been doing ths stuff since time began its not a fashion its now got a name and isn't restricted to a select few. Paul Goring The Brand Button - thebrandbutton.com (UK)

Jamie Lynn Morgan
Jamie Lynn Morgan

I think people have been trying to define what "it" is for years. You can call it branding, or whatever buzz word they come up with next, but in the end: Are they buying?I liked this paragraph, because it sums up what I have always believed<<< "But does the Redhead actually brand herself? Or is she simply demonstrating the value she provides through her work, while at the same time recognizing that today’s world demands that she break down the Business Walls of Bullshit to expose an actual person with whom to build trust?">>>We shop at a particular store because the clerk remembers our name, we frequently eat at a restaurant for the service even though the food is mediocre, and we buy from you as long as you don't make us feel like showering afterwards. My father taught me a valuable lesson growing up. Relationships are king. He sold mining equipment for a living and they were by far not the only game in town, but what the others didn't have is my father. He went out of his way to make his customers feel important.Having a "brand" doesn't mean anything if people don't want to have anything to do with it.

Hells Canyon Visitor
Hells Canyon Visitor

Personal branding. I just couldn't get there. After months of struggle, I decided to let my work, and not a shiny, hyped up image, speak for who I am to anyone who cared to listen.Was I crazy for deciding to disregard the huge numbers of very smart people telling me that I would never be successful until I could distill myself to a point that a brand stamp could be applied to my personality? Maybe, but I do crazy pretty well. Then, Shannon Paul posted these thoughts: http://veryofficialblog.com/2010/01/14/having-a...I wasn't crazy at all.

Zeke Weeks
Zeke Weeks

The points made in this post have been coming back to me without relent for the last couple of days now. I think the most important thing about personal branding is that the "personal" part be the keyword; companies are intangible entities, and as such, you can get a bunch of executives together and make decisions about what a company's identity, brand and culture will be. People have real personalities instead.Since the first online newsgroups hit the scene, the social web has introduced this new online component to our identities. Like a musical instrument, a pen, or a printing press, the internet-connected world has latched onto these new ways with which to express themselves – and that expression directly influences the audience's perception of that individual. This happens whether or not you give a damn about "personal branding strategy." It happens if you're a casual Facebook user, a mommy/daddy blogger, a participant in a niche forum, or a professional that takes the time to consciously think about their personal brand. (I guess the exception to this is 4chan, whose nature is defined by its participants' anonymity.)I think much like traditional marketing, it's important to keep your strategies in perspective. You should be dedicated primarily with the stuff you want to share with others first, be it your art, your thoughts, or your résumé. Personal branding strategies won't change who you actually are, but they can help you use different communications media in ways that more effectively express your identity. My "personal brand" is just others' perceptions of me, but the hope is that personal branding strategy will give people online as robust and accurate an understanding of me as those encountering me in real life.

DarkTouch
DarkTouch

Are you using 'branding' as a noun or a verb here? Arguably the verb form "I'm branding my product" would be the attempt to control who people think you are. On the other hand, the noun form "Hey, look at my new branding." would be solely about what others perceive as it has been set free from the development nest and is now its own entity.

ianbruce
ianbruce

Of course people are brands. You think Angelina Jolie, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and the like don't think very hard about their own selves in the same way marketing types think about Nike, Apple, or Pepsi? Hey, even dead people are brands -- Marilyn Monroe?As you say, the problem is we don't know what "brand" really means. And I see exactly the same problem emerging with oft used, never defined terms in social media like "buzz". http://ianbruce.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-is-bu...

aarontempler
aarontempler

Carrie - what about who *you* think you are? Traditional branding tries to close the gap between perceived and actual reputation. Does that apply?

Carrie Ballard
Carrie Ballard

Your personal brand is who people think you are. Really.

DarkTouch
DarkTouch

I'm seeing a lot of specialist language in this discussion. As a generalist/outside observer, 'Branding' to me still means putting up a consistent logo, a motto, and some trade dress. With that in mind, "Personal Branding" could very well mean using the same picture in Facebook and Twitter or using the same login for a message board as with your personal domain.

hskoppek
hskoppek

Like this discussion so much, I might as well pull an all-nighter. Dennis, allow me to beg-to-agree as well as beg-to-differ. Because you qualified that a GOOD brand is a neutral "third space", I am with you on this one.I also agree that branding has a value, not only because you can charge for it. Any individual can provide service-with-a-smile at no extra cost to anybody. My customer experience is personal and that is what I value. The service you provide is personal (anybody other than you would deliver a different service) and when companies meet to shape their expectations, whose expectations are they shaping? If we agree, that branding may not be the appropriate term, is it possible that that what we are talking about is only possible, because we are becoming more personal, more authentic, more who we are? My stress is on 'becoming' because a personal b-r-a-n-d is by nature dynamic. We evolve (hopefully). I do not expect that people must always play the same role to be authentic. The beauty about people is that they are many different things and these too may change. Mayby in business brand is a thing and result. In human terms b-r-a-n-d is a continuously evolving story: Be Real And Not Deceptive.I liked your blog btw.

hskoppek
hskoppek

I'm with Mary on this one. Your words: "actions, reputations, and values integrated with communications" and Mary's: "intentions, passions, a great set of values, and fabulous execution" - what's the difference. . . . and don't give me this "expressions of humanity" !?! I have crawled around on this planet for over 55 years and not met humanity yet.

hskoppek
hskoppek

surely it would have been a purple cow ;)

hskoppek
hskoppek

This is one of the most interesting threads on 'branding' I've come across. Thank you all to the lively discussion so far. Just a quick stop with Aaron. As things are, I can go along with you that a "distinction between branding on an enterprise or product/service level and the complexities that make us human" maybe necessary. If (what we mean by brand) "isn't big enough to contain the beauty of the human experience or vastness of our multitudes" then we do indeed need another terminology. For lack of another word, I would still argue that the personal and business brands are in effect the same, i.e. a "reflection of actions, reputations, and values integrated with communications . . .". The difference for me is that a personal brand is (as a rule) more authentic. The business brand, while also represented by a person (or persons) gets distorted by the "corporate wall". By this I mean that the same people promote a brand image to the outside, which are based on other values (money, power, greed, etc.) than those which they seek for themselves (love, solidarity, justice, etc.) As far as I am concerned this corporate wall has led to some schizophrenia from which our economy and businesses are suffering. Call it what you will, but I perceive meaningful and holistic attempts of people to establish their personal brands. If this means to become more authentic and holistic and balanced, all the power to them. If not, they'll just put apply a branding iron on themselves - and that hurts (and stinks). Given the fast developing transparency in the marketplace based on social media, I believe that branding in the traditional sense is on its way out and businesses trying to cling on to this approach as well, unless, of course, the people in these companies also attempt to be more real, authentic, themselves and humane. I also believe that this requires people to communicate as open and honestly (without being disrespectful) as possible, which I consider a major cornerstone of a positive personal brand.

aarontempler
aarontempler

How true, Brett. Seth Godin has made a career out of just that kind of thinking.

Brett Henley
Brett Henley

Amen Mary ... authenticity is not such a novel idea, nor is finding YOUR people and focusing energies on offering substance and value that directly impacts, improves, etc.

Brett Henley
Brett Henley

Quite welcome Aaron, and I appreciate the response.It's interesting to think of how much time we (and I guess I'm referring to the collective masses) wade through a whole host of static to try and differentiate on a personal level. Seems all of that time swimming in information overload and hoping that your people respond could be time devoted to finding a true niche that speaks to your individuality.

Christian
Christian

you have to be careful with branding; damaged goods :)

aarontempler
aarontempler

Could be, Ken. Good question. Brand and Branding, though, have come to include the promotion of a personality, or the facilitation of conversations around a personality. Both noun and verb - which is why I think the notion is ill-defined at times. But that might be splitting hairs. It's such an organic notion, brand. Totally out of any semblance of control that it makes it difficult to define and work with.I guess the thrust of my point is that people contain multitudes. And you can brand that, yes. But there's something life-affirming in self expression and the way humans connect that calling it branding dishonors the exercise in a way. Know what I mean?

aarontempler
aarontempler

Thanks, Leon. You bring up good points, like: There are things associated with branding that, I think, are better aligned with other disciplines of business. Positioning, for instance, isn't branding. A brand needs a differentiated position, certainly, but if you align "a carefully defined, narrow target market" directly with branding at the exclusion of other considerations, you might miss important aspects of positioning that branding doesn't bring to the table.Thanks again, Leon.

aarontempler
aarontempler

OK, but you'll still have to buy it breakfast and pay for a cab.

aarontempler
aarontempler

Nice to see your typeface Neil. Thanks for chiming in.You're right on many levels - not the least of which is how close we are on the issue in general. And yes - in an effort to make a compelling post I painted with a broad brush. Hopefully the non-hucksters will know who they are. (Hucksters probably won't, or they wouldn't be hucksters.)Anyone reading this should connect with Neil on Twitter (@neilmckenzphoto). He's the real deal.

aarontempler
aarontempler

Thanks for the kind words, Penelope. And the well thought expansion of what could be considered a pot shot. I'm straddling the fence on this issue, truth be told (which I'm sure drives Erika nuts). Ultimately I'm struggling with people not making a distinction between branding on an enterprise or product/service level and the complexities that make us human. I think the how people "connect with you on a meaningful level" is very different from how an enterprise/product/service does. Check out Dennis' comment below. He puts in very well IMO.Thanks again!

aarontempler
aarontempler

Thanks, Roger. Made me smile. You're probably right: should have said define *personal* branding.I think you know this, but the smart people I might find to disagree with your definition are those who have expanded brand and branding into areas of business operations and reputation building that align values, actions, and experience with marks and communications. Alas, you're right: a brand is what we make of it. Stephen King of the WPP Group said "Brands are built the way birds build nests—by the scraps and twigs we chance upon."

aarontempler
aarontempler

Oops - liked this when I didn't actually men to.Bee, I think the argument against person branding is precisely the opposite of withering branding back to logos, slogans, and knick knacks. It's simply suggesting that a brand - even if you holistically describe it as actions, reputations, and values integrated with communications and marketing - isn't big enough to contain the beauty of the human experience or vastness of our multitudes. Walt Whitman is rolling over in his grave at the notion.

Leon Noone
Leon Noone

G'day Aaron,Well said . Dare I say that i've read a whole lot of nonsense about branding on the web. Much of it sounds like barely concealed ego-tripping to me. And as for personal branding.........!A carefully defined, narrow target market and a crystal clear business focus will beat the pants off branding every time. Erika is the bitch-slap lady; the kick-ass woman. And it wouldn't matter if her name was "Fatima O'Neill."It's not the brand or the name, although some work better than others. "The Shawshank Redemption" was never going to break box-office records. What really matters is what the brand means to the prospect or customer in the customer's terms. Work that out first. Then decide what name you want to give to what you do. And be first in your category.I've said enough. I'm just a business person who's learnt a few thing over the years.Whatever you do, make sure you have fun.RegardsLeon

The Redhead
The Redhead

Bee - Are you saying that...uh...I have to THINK and actually strategize in order to achieve an effective branding strategy? Damn. That means I'm going to have to integrate it with a comprehensive marketing plan as well, doesn't it.Shit, shit, shit.;-)

The Redhead
The Redhead

"If you've got the right intentions and are engaged with the people you really want to connect with, your brand comes to life in that moment."And if you've got it wrong, you know that crickets are a death march. Right on, Mary :)

The Redhead
The Redhead

And without reputation, what do we have? We'd be subject to the words left about us in bathroom wall scrawls.While I'm not that kinda girl, I *could* be if it weren't for a certain style and personality of content for which I've come to be known.

The Redhead
The Redhead

Perhaps for many people "personal brand" is synonymous with "personality?"Great question posed, Ken.

The Redhead
The Redhead

Thanks Roger - I'm glad my guest bloggers incite conversation and debate :)I was soooo going to make the post image a picture of a branded cow. Damn me for thinking twice!

The Redhead
The Redhead

Penelope - Thanks for stopping by and welcome to RedheadWriting. I agree that Aaron created a great blend of thought provocation and snark (would I have anything else as a guest spot on the blog?).On my side, I don't think personal branding is stupid, but I do agree that it's likely associated with the rise of the solopreneur and the change in the employment landscape. Businesses are no longer conglomerations - they're your next door neighbor. If somehow I've come to have a personal brand, I hope it's as you stated: having "enough self-knowledge to connect with a broad range of people in a meaningful way." Damn if that's all I ever wanted to do: connect.:)

The Redhead
The Redhead

Neil - great point regarding the cow's backside. We "do" marketing and the brand process, while integral, is a PART of the process. Crap - if it becomes any more than a PART, lemme know. I need to change gigs in that case! Thanks for stopping by today.

The Redhead
The Redhead

Oh heavens. I don't want to screw it. Maybe dry hump it a little. ;-)

Roger Paige
Roger Paige

Aaron, your question was ~ Think you can define branding?Yes, as a matter of fact I can. A mark made by burning or otherwise, to indicate kind, grade, make, ownership, etc.It is one of many definitions within the dictionary. It does in fact accurately answer the question. So start looking for a smart person.Truth be told, I'm being a smart ass and your question should have been ~ Think you can define personal branding?It's honestly a great article and IMHO branding can go both ways. Much the same as the big Donald Trump is branded by the common people as money, and the local crack whore is branded by the common people as syphilis. It is what you make it.Keep the kick ass guests writers coming Erika.

Ken Brand
Ken Brand

I don't know if I agree, because I think being "weird" is a brand. Maybe in biz, the word is "Brand", and with us humans, it's called "personality"?Nice piece, made me think.

Mary Alice Gilbert
Mary Alice Gilbert

Right on! I used to say, "marketing is a process, not an event." The same could be said for "branding," especially personal branding. Your brand is what someone experiences of you at any given moment. If you've got the right intentions and are engaged with the people you really want to connect with, your brand comes to life in that moment. The only way to control it is to have intentions, passions, a great set of values, and fabulous execution of whatever it is you say you do.

Brett Henley
Brett Henley

Definitions FTW!I generally try to avoid words that end in "ize," such as commoditize, productize, imagize, brand -ize, epicize, etc.And integrating the integration so we can experiencize the integrated self integration ... well it's truly self-brandizing at its best.In all seriousness though, I think you've hit the nail on the proverbial head on how difficult it is to sell personal branding as being legitimate and not find yourself spinning in circles.Me thinks people should just stay human and leave the giant curtain behind ... but what's a ninja really know?

Neil McKenzie
Neil McKenzie

Aaron, Interesting article. I could go either side of the personal brand issue but probably lean more to the side that says personal brand exists. I think a lot of the arguement is based on semantics and lack of an accepted definition. Some people equate personal brand with reputation - I think it is much more. Brand is a thing, something you develop by your actions and described by others like your customers, coworkers, friends and others around you. Your brand may be defined by people you don't even know although they may know or think they know you. The rise of "personal brand" is probably closely related to the rise in unemployment and a need for people to differentiate themselves - people are much more than the position they hold or the details in a resume. When I meet people for the first time I don't ask them what they do but rather ask "What's your story?". Your personal brand is your story. Yes there are a lot of hucksters out there in the personal brand arena but they are not all bad - I have seen many success stories using the personal brand concept. Thanks again and one last comment. Brand is a thing and result, branding is what you do the the backside of a cow. You don't do branding, you do marketing, you provide a great product or service, you treat people with respect, you develop a reputation etc. - maybe we aren't that far apart on personal branding at all.

Penelope
Penelope

I think it's really easy to talk about how vacuous personal branding is. But it's really hard to have enough self-knowledge to connect with a broad range of people in a meaningful way. I think blogging, or going to dinner parties, or hanging out in someone's cubicle is about sharing ideas as a way to share yourself. Show people what you're thinking and how you think so they can connect with you on a meaningful level. It's really easy to say personal branding is stupid. It's really hard to go through life honestly enough to collect the self-knowledge that allows you to connect. And it's way more fun to watch someone's ideas unfold and someone's self-knowledge accumulate than it is to watch someone take pot shots at an idea so amorphous as personal branding. That said, here is a magic post: the ideas unfolding and the pot shots all at once. It works. Nice post. Penelope

Bee
Bee

What? Is that really what 'branding' has been withered down to? I thought we evolved past the mantra of branding purely as logos, slogans and those little knick knacks with URLs and word marks plastered all over them like over a decade ago. Yes, it's about consistency but no, that does not translate to monotony and 'same old same old'. Branding—as many designers, advertisers and anyone else in the industry understand it to mean nowadays—is about the experience. Consistent, structured, sporadic or otherwise. It's what connects the end user, consumer or client to the product, service or, in this case, individual. It's really as simple a definition as that. No matter how 'human' we (or our business) inherently are (is), the fact of the matter is, if you're trying to sell anything to anybody, you are, in essence, creating some kind of brand. And effective branding, sorry to say, requires intelligence and hard work.

Dennis &quot;DenVan&quot; VanStaalduinen
Dennis &quot;DenVan&quot; VanStaalduinen

What? More than one definition of branding?!? "Personal branding" an amorphous blob of contradictory messages and self-help practitioners whom one suspects couldn't help themselves out of a paper bag?!?! Say it ain't so!Well, you can add me to the Personal Branding deniers. I argue here www.begtodiffer.com/2010/04/my-double-life that if branding has any value at all (and it better, I charge people for it too), it's because it is IMPERSONAL. That is, to me a good brand is a neutral "third space" where companies can meet their customers and try to shape their expectations. Thanks to Aaron and the Redhead(tm) for a good read.

Norcross
Norcross

Branding = reputation. Seems that anything over and above that is just a way to sell something. With the social web (and web in general, for that matter) it's much easier for your personal reputation to spread.

Aaron Templer
Aaron Templer

Dennis, really dug that post and I've subscribed to your blog. Beg To Differ, The Big Differ -- what a cool idea. And I must say, your third space thought... where companies can meet their customers and try to shape their expectations... that is really, really good stuff. Thanks!

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