Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Why Personal Branding...isn't

One of the things I love about Twitter is that it lets you jump in and out of its members' collective consciousness. At any time of the day or night, you can witness or participate in a limitless number of conversations on any number of topics. There are moms who blog, academics who teach, hacks who pitch and probably millions more.

It being the global conversation pit, Twitter is open and online 24/7, welcoming anyone's input without fear or censorship or distortion. It really is the ultimate in free expression, which makes it so interesting. On Twitter, you are who you are, unplugged and unfiltered. I think that's really cool.

Lately, though, I noticed something disturbing.

I'm a branding guy. I spend a lot of time debunking myths and realigning expectations of what branding is and what branding is not. It being the buzzword of the new millennium, the word branding has become subverted by just about anyone associated with design, advertising, public relations, identity and just about anything else that will get a vendor's foot in the door. I've actually seen printers try to pass themselves off as having "branding capabilities."

Okay, I can deal with all that. After all, when the design, advertising, public relations, identity guys -- and printers -- are finished and haven't improved the client's business, my phone still rings. In fact, the only issue that irritates me about the co-opting of the word branding is the phrase personal branding. But not for the reasons you may think.

If you're a student of history and know anything about marketing, you also know that somewhere along the line -- generally around the 1960's, when mass media firmly sank its teeth into the insecurities of the public -- advertising radically changed. Prior to that time, ads mainly leveraged consumers wants and needs. They needed it. Advertisers sold it to them.

About the time color television appeared, the main thrust of advertising changed from we have what you want to you're not good enough unless you buy what we're selling. In a heartbeat, the media presented men, women, boys and girls with images of perfection to which no consumer could possibly live up. Cosmetics, clothing, cars, wine, food -- you name it, and unless you owned it, you couldn't be as good as the guy next door because he was buying even more of it.

It's been three or four decades since that time. Enough for several generations to grow up thinking they just aren't good enough being themselves. And if you look closely, that's where you'll find the origins of "personal branding."

The grave of personal branding's great grandaddy is located near the drug culture of the 1960's, when Dr. Timothy Leary challenged kids to "turn on, tune in, drop out." Leary wasn't actually advocating dropping out of society, by the way. He was advocating more people reject society's dictates and look within themselves to define who and what they were without some media-driven commercial lens distorting their view. In the 1970's and 1980's, people were taking fewer drugs, but buying lots more books. How To Be Your Own Best Friend; I'm Okay, You're Okay and a host of "self-help" titles fed a hungry public answers to the one question that had been hammered into them (and by now, their parents) since birth: "Why am I not good enough?" The books, for the most part, did little more than give their readers permission to be themselves. Millions of titles -- all variations on the same theme -- continue to sell.

With the new millennium, the spin is now called personal branding, but there's really nothing "branding" about it. If you believe as I do, that branding is about getting people to perceive you as the only solution to their problem, you might also consider the fact that of the six billion humans on the planet, no two of them are identical. In other words, there's no need for "personal branding," because every person is already unique.

Your looks are unique. Your opinions and talents and abilities are unique. And given the chance, your character is unique. It's just that things like character development and critical thinking have gone by the way side, in favor of more expedient solutions that Tweet round the globe in a nanosecond.

Here's a newsflash: You can't download character with a mouse click. You can't buy personality with a credit card. It takes time and introspection -- both of which are free.

Hey, if you believe in personal branding for people, pets or interstellar alien life forms, knock yourself out. It's not my purpose to discredit your views. What I'm on about is the tragic circumstance in which generations of people live and grow with such low self-esteem as to feel the need to adopt a personal branding program to define and project their own self-worth. People seem to have forgotten that great men and women all began as ordinary men and women, just like you and me, who were raised to be the best person they could be, believing in their own value regardless of anyone else's assessment.

Heck, George Washington didn't need a personal brand and he managed to do pretty well. I'm betting your father, great-grandmother or uncle Phil did, too. Yet Twitter is abuzz with lots of people who seem to feel the need for their own "personal brand".

Doesn't anyone just look in the mirror any more?