By Geoff Livingston and Olivier Blanchard.
The Personal Branding Trap
Everyone in life wants to be loved on a personal basis, and received well professionally. When feelings of inadequacy arise — self esteem — it’s natural to look for solutions to improve a sense of worth. The most disturbing (and the least talked about) aspect of the personal branding movement is the promise that it can increase self worth through the intentional manufacture of an image.
Personal branding remains a popular individual career and online promotion strategy (as evidenced by the top of the Blog Tree by Eloqua and Jess3) in spite of significant criticism from the marketing profession as well as many employers. When a solution for such a soul-touching problem arises, it’s bound to become popular. And in that sense, personal branding is an idea that preys on individual pain and suffering.
Personal brand leaders offer plenty of justifications for their tutelage. They get paid for it, and receive national attention. In this sense, because the theory preys on the weak and is inherently flawed, their actions exploit people who want more in their lives, and want an answer.
This type of exploitation — intentional or as an act of innocent zeal — is no different than the quick road to riches offered by the likes of Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi pyramid scheme. It’s not OK to say, “it’s just a job.” Taking advantage of people in this manner at a minimum lacks mindfulness and its worse can only be described as malevolent.
For a variety of reasons already stated in other blog posts, personal brands provide employers dangers, and offer individuals band-aid solutions for deep problems. Whether it’s personal self esteem or professional reputation, actions demonstrate worth. Mood and worth follow action! One cannot think one’s self into feeling or doing better, they have to act their way into right thinking and feeling.
From a professional standpoint, that means stating what you want, going out and doing whatever it takes to get an opportunity to do that work and learning the craft. Then excel at the craft. Demonstrable experience (and a little luck) builds great careers. Presentation matters, but wearing a tie and understanding the nomenclature of a profession only provides an opportunity. Excellence in action preserves the opportunity and provides new ones.
Everyone wants to feel and do better. In 2011, let the marketplace and individuals turn their focus on substantive solutions that garner great opportunities and real experiences.
The usurpation of the American Dream and other predatory tactics
The concept of “personal branding” finds its roots in the ambitions that fuel the American dream, appealing to the masses of individuals who desperately want to “be somebody” and see in the socialization of media a chance to have their fantasy become a reality.
There once was a time when being somebody meant actually… well, being someone of note. People became well known because of something they did or because of the role they played in their culture. Heroes would enjoyed fame because they saved lives and accomplished feats of bravery. Kings and queens knew fame because their faces were printed on their state’s money and they basically owned everything. Musicians, authors and artists enjoyed fame because of their work. Scientists enjoyed fame because of their contributions to science and human advancement. Movie stars were famous because they were glamorous and often became vessels for cultural archetypes that societies need in order to function properly.
I could go on, but the point is this: Fame and notoriety once were the result of accomplishment and achievement, and for good reason. The same is true today, though a growing movement made up of “personal branding” experts would like to sell you on the notion that you don’t actually have to achieve anything to be famous, even if only a little bit. All you have to do is will yourself there and follow some simple steps – which you will find if you buy their book or attend their seminars.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Polishing your resume, having your shirts and suits tailored and having a professional online presence all matter. And I understand the need for “self help” books as much as the next guy, just so you can feel good about yourself while you clean up your act. But the problem with this “personal branding” thing is that it is essentially a lie.
For one, it promises something it cannot deliver: We are people, not brands. Unless you are Sir Richard Branson, Bill Clinton, Tom Cruise or a celebrity whose image is bankable and worthy of being trademarked, you are not a brand, no matter how many times some consultant tells you that you are. You have no trade dress. You do not have a team of copywriters, attorneys, designers and marketing professionals crafting your every move. Ask yourself this: What are your brand attributes? Can you sell koozies with your face on them? Do you have a tag line? You are a person, not a brand. Be yourself. You can’t be anything else without bending the truth anyway.
If you want to earn respect and notoriety, turn your attention away from yourself. Go cure cancer. Go write the great American novel. Start a charity and work to put roofs over people’s heads. When it comes to building a reputation, the kind of self-serving digital navel-gazing encouraged by personal branding gurus is precisely the opposite of what you should be doing.
Second, if you aren’t that smart, interesting or even knowledgeable about your topic, all the blog posts, tweets, Facebook updates and YouTube videos in the world, all of the speaking gigs at conferences and events, and all the self-published e-books won’t change the fact that you aren’t that smart, interesting or knowledgeable. Lousy content doesn’t magically turn into gold just because you have built a “personal brand.” Along the same vein, calling yourself an “award-winning expert” if you in fact are not doesn’t actually make you an award-winning expert, no matter how much your personal branding guru insists that it does.
Third, the “personal branding” industry preys on the desperate and the gullible. It is no surprise that it shifted into high gear as soon as millions of people in the US started losing their jobs. What really fuels personal branding isn’t ego or vanity. The real culprits are necessity and despair. Why do people really fall for personal branding schemes? Is it because they are happily employed? Is it because they are happy with their careers or their bank account? Do you think that Steve Jobs and James Cameron worry about their personal brands? No. But Jack, a down the street neighbor who lost his job 14 months ago does. He buys all the books, attends all the seminars, takes all the online courses. There is no telling how many thousands of dollars he has spent on personal branding “thought leadership,” consulting and advice since then. Like snake oil to the ailing, personal branding promises career improvement and better opportunities to the disappointed and disenfranchised. In this, the personal branding industry reveals its true predatory nature.
If you need a better website, build a better website. If you need help cleaning up your CV, get help. If you have a book in you, write it. If you want to make a difference in the world, not just get praised for a lot of talk, go make yourself helpful. If you want to be known as an expert in your field, don’t just talk about it – go be the best in that particular field. It really isn’t brain surgery. But if your strategy for getting ahead is to build a personal brand based on the teachings of some “expert” in… well, nothing, perhaps you should consider the benefit of adding this tag line to your personal brand: “Part owner of the Brooklyn Bridge.” Now wouldn’t that be an achievement.
That is all.