Today, my friends, I will endeavor to explain why I don’t spend any time thinking about my personal brand, and I never have.
This is, apparently, an odd position to take, given that I’ve been an independent consultant for over a quarter of a century. You’d think personal branding was invented for a guy like me! But as you’ll see, I have my reasons.
And I’m aware that even raising this argument may qualify as an unforced error. When I’ve debated the idea of personal branding in the past – say, in a comment thread on Twitter – the intensity of the replies has been surprising.
You know how some people adopt a weirdly aggressive tone when defending Elon Musk? Some people also do that when I say that I don’t believe people are brands, or that personal branding is not for me. The responses have ranged from condescending to vitriolic.
My intent here is not to cost myself some readership. My intent is to explain why I believe my limited time and energy are best directed to matters other than my “personal brand.” Maybe you’ll agree, maybe not. Either way, I’d love to know what you think.
Here are the four main reasons I opt out of personal branding:
1. I’ve yet to hear a satisfying definition of “personal branding.”
Try this exercise: When someone promotes the idea of personal branding, ask them to define their terms.1
You’re liable to hear something like “everything that makes you who you are, that’s your brand!” Wow, useful.
In a similar vein, here’s an excerpt from a Medium article about personal branding that has 4,100 claps as of this writing:
“Just by being born and existing, you have a personal brand because people have opinions about you.”
Yikes! Do you see the implication here? BABIES ARE BRANDS NOW. We may wish to tap the brakes and ask ourselves if this is the kind of world we want to inhabit and encourage. (We’ll come back to this.)
Meanwhile, speaking only for myself, I don’t accept that “being alive” and “being a brand” are equivalent conditions.
In other cases, “personal branding” is used as a kind of proxy for “reputation” or “image.” So let’s turn to that.2
2. I can build a reputation without thinking of myself as a brand.
It’s important to note that the idea of personal branding didn’t take off until fairly recently, as the Google Ngram below makes clear. The credit – or blame, if you prefer – can be traced to a Tom Peters article, “The Brand Called You,” in Fast Company magazine, August 1997.
Of course, this means that people managed their reputations, images and careers for many, many years before anyone called it “personal branding.” Stalin did that shit, and so did Gandhi.
How did we survive without this vital tool before 1997? Well, we had psychology.
Some imprecise but portable definitions from the field of psychology3:
Identity = How I see myself
Image = How others see me
My identity, of course, is influenced by how I believe others see me. But I’ll never know for sure.
I can act to influence my reputation, as we all do. Specifically, as an independent consultant, I can strive to establish authority and credibility among people who can hire me. I don’t need to think of myself as a “brand” to do that.
3. In practice, personal branding often places emphasis in the wrong areas.
I don’t want to surround myself with people with good brands. I want to surround myself with people of good character.
And my professional reputation will largely flow from my character. Am I reliable? Professional? Easy to work with? Am I doing the hard work of developing deep expertise? Am I committed not just to “doing gigs,” but to creating real change? Do I keep my promises?
But too often, branding – including personal branding – is viewed as a coat of paint on a house with a shaky foundation. By now, we’ve all known someone who emphasizes outward appearances at the expense of true mastery. (A percentage of social media falls into this category.)
I don’t want to end up on the wrong side of that line. “Slightly famous but unlikely to be rehired or referred” is not my ministry.
4. I don’t see how thinking of myself as a “brand” serves me or the world at large.
As we saw earlier, one line of thinking says that everyone is a brand now. I’ll ask again: Is this really where we want to be?
Do you want to live in a world where everyone sees themselves as “brands” and conducts themselves accordingly? Every single person with a LinkedIn profile, junior high school athletes, your physician, your 6-year-old child… everyone?
It’s easy enough to know where to draw the line, even as a guy who does business under my own name. I have a positioning statement for each of my two businesses. I don’t have a positioning statement for Matthew Fenton, the husband, son, brother, friend and human.
And I’m not saying image doesn’t matter. On the contrary, I care a lot about my reputation. I’ve worked hard to earn it, and I intend to protect it.
Right about here is where some people say, “Aha! So you are concerned about your personal brand!” No, I’m concerned with my professional reputation, and they’re not the same.
And I don’t see how shifting my attention to my “brand” improves my life or the world at large.
So I’m opting out.
1 Another fun question: “Why is it important for you to advance the argument that people are brands?”
2 If the definition of “personal branding” is hard to land on, it’s not entirely the fault of its proponents. We, as a society, have apparently agreed that the word “brand” now applies to just about everything – political parties, religions, celebrities, and so on. Since the definition of “branding” keeps getting fuzzier, it follows that the definition of “personal branding” won’t fare any better.
3 It’s no surprise that terms like “identity” and “image” feature prominently in modern-day brand management, which largely stands upon the shoulders of the field of psychology.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
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