Is Personal Branding Just Bullshit?
Recent comments about personal branding from one of my favorite podcasters got my questioning my previous writing on the subject of personal brands.
I’ve written about personal brands before. A few times, in fact. In 2016, Debbie Millman gave a Creative Live course entitled “A Brand Called You.” I’m one of over 51,000 people who’ve taken that course. It changed the way I present myself to the world.
What’s Wrong With Personal Branding
Debbie made four arguments against the idea of personal brands. First, brands are something we create for things. Second, the idea of a personal brand is an oxymoron. Third, personal brands can limit your growth. Finally, developing your character is more important than developing your brand.
These points perfectly sum up the best criticisms I’ve heard about personal branding. So, it’s worth looking at them in a little more detail.
Brands Are Complex Creations
Think of any famous brand – Apple, Coke, Nike – and there will be an army of marketing people whose job it is to safeguard the “brand architecture”. This means saying no, over and over again, to many requests to use the logo or associate the brand with all sorts of “opportunities”.
The NASA brand handbook is a remarkable example of this. It shows how the famous NASA logo will be displayed on everything from business cards to space shuttles and every variation of vehicle, equipment, or stationery in between.
Corporate brands can do this because they serve a very limited set of objectives. Coke isn’t trying to have a well-rounded life. It’s a soft drink. Coke exists to deliver a return on investment to the brand’s shareholders.
The tools of branding (and marketing, more generally) help companies communicate what a product promises and how it will deliver on that promise. Competing for attention and loyalty in a society where people have many different tastes and points of view is hard. Doing this coherently, in many markets, with thousands of employees and millions of consumers, is staggeringly difficult.
That’s why the companies with the strongest brands have a marketing department that doesn’t just “make ads”, but also thinks about branding and marketing at all levels – especially in the development and design of new products and services.
Bringing Your Brand To Life
Whenever you set a goal for yourself, you’re trying to will a fictional version of yourself into existence. You have a “this is me now” moment, when you shift some part of who you are. You change career, or take up a serious hobby, or relocate, or alter some other fundamental part of your identity.
The concept of a personal brand is one way to articulate this.
You’re obviously not like a bottle of Coke. But you still have a message. You make promises. And you want to be noticed for the ways you’re different and unique.
Just like editorial calendars or kanban boards or other things we borrow from the business world, branding is a toolset we can apply to the extent that it’s useful for us.
Let me say that again: branding is just a tool.
Personal Brands Are Oxymorons
As a kid, I was fascinated by family crests. Being an immigrant kid growing up with a third culture, I was always wanting to better understand the stories my parents told about who we were and where we came from. I thought surely we must have had a family crest once upon a time. Then I saw an ad in a comic for a company that would send you your family crest. So I got a postal order. A couple of months later, it turned up – a few photocopied sheets of paper in a blue plastic folder. The image and text felt so generic. No one in the family wanted to keep it.
But crests were a thing. As were family seals.
In Japan, they still are. The Hanko, or personal stamp, is required for a lot of official documents. And many families still cherish their Mon, which is like a family crest. The widely recognized Mitsubishi logo, the three points, is derived from the Mon of two families involved in founding the original company.
People don’t just identify with symbols. They use symbols to define themselves in striking and non-negotiable ways. Think about tattoos.
Your Fashion Is Your Brand
The clothes you wear might be a less indelible version of it, but nonetheless a powerful marker of how you define yourself and perform your role in society (as you understand it). This is true whether or not you think of yourself as “into fashion”, and, if anything, it will become more important as you age.
Personal branding means being intentional about self-presentation. It’s part of a larger decision to design your identity rather than just accept the roles and fashions and social norms that have been handed to you.
Sure, your clothes don’t say everything about you. There used to a be a cliche that you could know everything about a man by looking at his shoes and his watch. That feels laughable.
And yet, your clothes say something. So does the way you use email. Or the kinds of meetings you host. Or the story you tell about the life you’ve lived.
You can choose to improvise your way through all of those. Or you can choose to bring some coherence to them. To make them reflect a core set of values you aspire to.
Thought of like this, which I’ll admit uses the word “brand” more metaphorically and less literally, a personal brand is not an obvious oxymoron. Rather, it’s a set of choices.
Personal Brands Are Cages
Yes, Debbie is right. A personal brand can be limiting. This is true of any identity you draw for yourself or any set of beliefs you have about who you are and what you do.
This can also be true of goals you set for yourself. Every goal you’re working towards right now was set by yourself sometime in the past.
“The trouble with setting goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want.”
– Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments
We change, we evolve, we grow. We also contradict ourselves and act inconsistently. Sometimes, we’re hypocritical. Mostly, we’re just trying to work things out as we go.
And yet we want to be “true to ourselves”. We hope our values shine through in what we do. We want to be admired, respected, or in some other way well regarded. Most of all, we want to be loved.
Somehow, we have to try and tell our story.
Character Is More Important
Unlike today, the ʼ90s and early 2000s were a time when ethical issues didn’t dominate the daily news cycle. Sure, there were controversies. But the so-called “Culture Wars” were only of interest to people with the most extreme religious and political views. Companies tried to avoid wading into moral issues. Politics didn’t dominate every conversation.
It’s in this context that the idea of a personal brand evolved. This was a context where you had to curate how you presented yourself carefully, so as not to “give people a reason to dislike you”. The corporate world, and much of the creative world as well, was apolitical. Say too much about your beliefs and you risked being labelled moralistic or judgmental. Best to “stick to business”.
We’ve now come to prize authenticity far more. We openly celebrate our identity, our history and other aspects of what makes us unique.
We’ve come to expect something similar from brands as well. Apple, for example, devotes almost as much attention to its commitment to diversity and sustainability as it does to showing off how amazing its devices are. Those ethical commitments contribute as much to making the products cool as the tech does.
Ethics are no longer avoided. They’re embraced.
Considering this, Debbie is right to say working on your character is more important than working on your brand. I agree. But it’s not an either/or decision because the world has changed since Tom Peters first wrote about personal brands back in 1997.
Personal Branding 3.0
I’d like to bring this back to the problem that initially inspired me to consider creating a personal brand: the anxiety that comes with trying to introduce yourself and your work. This anxiety is, of course, amplified for those of us who “make things for the internet” because of all the ways we can be misunderstood.
Personal branding is a tool to make handling the “so, what do you do?” question a little easier. It helps us address the “trust equation.”
Perhaps the language of personal brand isn’t quite it. “Artistry” feels better to me. But, for many people, that’s not “relatable”. “Identity” is another contender. But that now feels reserved for specific aspects of who we are.
Bringing a robust set of tools to the question of defining what we believe, how we articulate our beliefs and explain what we do, and how we approach our communications, all feels like a good idea. Maybe personal branding is a good way to describe this. Or perhaps we need a new word. I’m not sure.
Whatever we call it, we still need something like that.