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?


Blogger Ola Rynge said...

Hi Rob,

thank you for an insightful post, pinpointing one of the greatest problem with the common view of personal brands. I agree with you that the marketing process for brands online has went crazy lately, focusing mainly on spreading the word of one’s existence.

My work on personal branding is based on identifying the core values and strengths of persons and making sure that they are communicating the strengths and living by the core values. With this approach on personal branding you will develop yourself, being more self confident and understand why you act in a certain way when facing a certain situation.
Unfortunately, the preparation part is often forgotten in the blog posts and discussion about social media and twitter. When talking personal branding, the quality of relations is the core, not the quantity.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Rob Frankel said...

Isn't that the point? Shouldn't self-actualization and development be the result of good parenting and self-growth? Character development and self- knowledge are the products of time, introspection and maturation, not a seminar or guidebook.

A healthy self-image can't be purchased with a credit card. Each person has to learn life's lessons and integrate them into his/her own circumstances. It's those trials that define us as the people we are.

Paying someone else to provide expedient answers as to how one should manage his/her percpetions seems akin to getting your burger free if it takes longer than 30 seconds from the time you order.

Again, it's more of the consumer culture, trying to convince people that they can buy their way out of their problems rather than thinking them through.

IMHO, the bitter reality is that people can neither run away from their real life experiences that form them, nor can they fulfill the artificial criteria that a "personal brand" creates for them.

In the immortal words of Popeye the Sailor, "I am what I am." :D

1:43 PM  
Blogger Erica Fredman said...

Rob, I completely agree. You can't "be empowered" by anyone other than yourself. External validation can be purchased, but immediately that renders it valueless.

When someone you respect and admire praises you, you might "feel empowered" but it's because you the weight *you* place on their comments - not because they spoke.

Personal branding is what you do every day of your life.


Erica Friedman
Yurikon LLC
Intelligent Business Promotion

3:22 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Loved this post, Rob!

The Virtual Assistance profession suffers from this as well. Outsiders, exploiters and others who aren't Virtual Assistants have coopted our terminology and bastardized it. It creates confusion and misunderstanding in our marketplace to the point that clients don't know what a Virtual Assistant truly is (an administrative expert who works in ongoing, continuous relationship with clients).

With personal branding, how I've seen this used on the Internet is in the context of encouraging folks to put their personal identity (name, face) on the face of the business. Given that the term "personal branding" is a misnomer, what kind of alternative word or phrase do you suggest people use so that it isnt' confused with what true branding really means?

3:14 PM  
Blogger Rob Frankel said...

I don't suggest any term at all, because people should be branding their businesses, not themselves.

From what I can tell, this whole movement is just another fad filled with air, foisted on innocent victims who actually believe their personal identities and self-image can be purchased or downloaded.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

I don't necessarily see it as a fad. For example, your business and brand is very identifiable with your face and image. You even use your name for RobFrankel.com.

People do business with, establish rapport, make personal connections and relationship with other people, not nameless, faceless voids.

This is what they are intending when they talk about personal branding. But so as not to confuse people that that is not exactly what branding is about, how about coming up with another term? That was my thinking anyway. It would provide a solution in addition to raising the awareness.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Rob Frankel said...

Again, it's the business that gets branded, not the person. People have to see that distinction.

My brand's identity is Rob Frankel. But I don't get hired for who I am. I get hired for what I do.

It's just tragic that so many people are raised without healthy self-images that they substitute a business tactic for what should be a natural human development.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

I absolutely agree. Creating an identity is not the same thing as branding. That was exactly my point.

So perhaps that's the answer I was getting at... tell people not to call it "personal branding" because branding is not what that is. It's creating an identity for the business and a personal face for people to connect with--which isn't the same thing as branding.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

While there is a lot of merit in what you're saying here (and you're absolutely right on the misuse of branding as a buzzword), I have to wonder if it's truly tragic that people are substituting personal branding for personal identity.

That is, is this a genuine inability to grasp something meaningful, or merely a mindset which uses available tools to find a different path to the same end?

Richard Feynman wrote about "cargo cult science," which copies the trappings of success instead of replicating the hard work and time needed to attain that success. If this is the situation here, then you're absolutely right. But on the other hand, what if they don't want to be enlightened or become better people? What if they just want a polished website, a catchy slogan, and a decent promo pic? In other words, what if they really just want the trappings?

11:35 AM  
Blogger Rob Frankel said...

If they don't want to become enlightened or better people, then sadly, my point is proven.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Rob,

Thanks for pointing this out to me on today's #brandchat. It sums up my discomfort with the "personal branding" schtick nicely. Bravo for tying its roots back to the self-help craze of the 60's - although I'd trace it farther back to the Romantic Individualism of the 19th century and all the dark ugly movements that spawned in the 20th.

As I mentioned in the chat, to me, the reason "brands" exist is that they are by definition impersonal. Individuals can cultivate brands around themselves, but these brands are only as valuable as other people make them by valuing them.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Paul Copcutt said...

Rob - this is a great discussion, enjoing it and your comments yesterday on #brandchat.

If as you suggest this eminates from the 60's or Dennis suggests even earlier, is the issue more with the term or the fact that it is attaching itself to your craft of branding rather than the validity of the approach?

After all we used to meet with people make connections and introductions, because that is what you did to make business go around. Now we call it networking and we have guru's for that.

Or companies many years ago used to spend a lot of time 1:1 persuading people that their product was the best and only solution to their problem. Now we call it branding and we have gurus for that too! ;-)

So what is so worng with helping someone recognise what they are good at, help them with that realization and self actualization so that they are being and feeling better ,calling it personal branding and having people do that too?

10:36 AM  
Blogger Rob Frankel said...

Well, first off, this whole "guru" business is somewhat pathetic. As the post points out, it's gone away from helping people over the rough spots to a full-blown undermining of self-reliance. A point-and-click world where individuals have come to expect nothing from themselves because they think gurus know more.

Truth is that, at least in my experience, most gurus know less than their customers.

I've got no problem with people representing their company's brand, but people themselves are not "branded." People hire you for what you produce, not for who you are. Just try getting any business to hire you because "you're a nice guy."

At least that's my take on it.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Performance Works said...

Hi Rob.
Thanks for mentioning your post at BrandChat. I really enjoyed both the message and intensity. To me, you're clarity and consistency come in part from exposing your starting point, that "branding is about getting people to perceive you as the only solution to their problem." From there, there's nothing I'd quibble with.

The challenge is I start from a slightly different definition, that brand defines the promise of how you will behave--even when that behavior is hard. And that other Marketing tactics match that brand with the audience need to ensure "you're the only solution to their problem."

For companies, our difference is simple semantics with little practical importance. I'm just noting it because it provides meaning to "Personal Branding." It's the same as so many of us being told as children, "act as if your actions might be on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow." Few of those parents knew how close to reality that warning might be in the internet age!

Thanks again for the post and the lead to it. I look forward to connecting again.

Ken Rosen
Performance Works, www.PerTalks.com

10:37 AM  

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