The paradox of personal branding (Part 3)


Suggestions on managing and benefiting from your unavoidable Internet footprint.

Previously, I endorsed the idea that everyone today has a personal brand affecting what we say and do. That’s because almost everything we do is public record. I also explained why the ideas of personal branding gurus are mostly nonsense. Finally, here’s how and why you need to manage your personal brand.

Billy Joel Piano Man Brand

Singer songwriter Billy Joel’s first hit gave him a simple and indelible personal brand. He is the Piano Man, but it’s not that clear for the rest of us.

People should worry about being branded on the Internet, but not in way personal branding cheerleaders suggest. Most Internet users care more about personal privacy than being ‘head marketer for the brand called You,’ as best-selling author Tom Peters advises. But, Google, Facebook and lots of other companies need people to gleefully share everything about themselves in cyberspace and they won’t stop asking you to star in your own online show.

The paradox is multidimensional. Peters and others who peddle a yellow brick road to wealth and fame are not necessarily in cahoots with digital marketers who use your unique brand to better sell you their not-so-unique products. But, they operate in the same biosphere and are not at cross purposes.

The whole schtick is based on a false assumption

The personal branding schtick falsely assumes that branding is about enhancing the value of an individual product or person. The opposite is true. In the 19th century (read my post, The world’s first and only generic brand), companies started branding – as in searing symbols with hot irons onto boxes of soap or cows in a herd – to distinguish one group of otherwise indistinguishable products from others. It was and still is more about hiding individuals than distinguishing them.

Tylenol Brand Pain Relief

If you want to be a valuable brand like Extra Strength Tylenol, are you one pill, contents of the bottle or the package?

In the old west, a rancher with a well-respected brand was less likely to have every cow in the herd examined. Nothing has changed. Someone buying a defective iPad will probably forgive Apple because everyone knows it is a great brand. Branding helps us simplify, organize and value things.

It’s better to wear the brand than be the brand

We want and need our personal branding to connect us to known values. In business, the best personal brands to trumpet are the ones we earn or acquire, not our unique qualities. Consider one fictional attorney. What professional introduction would be most beneficial: a) Harvard Law graduate and partner at Baker & McKenzie? b)The only lawyer to climb Mt. Everest?

Celebrities include those whose egos need non-stop public attention and those who recognize fame as an inevitable, mostly bothersome, result of their careers. For both types, ‘stoking the star-maker machinery’* is how they maximize profits. Unless you love looking at yourself in the mirror, please soberly calculate the benefits of broadcasting your personal brand versus the increase in spam, phishing, sales calls, special offers, political messages and other unknown consequences.

Do not believe the brand illusion

Normal people worry more about privacy than promoting themselves. I know this because — in the true spirit of Internet information gathering (quick, anecdotal, untested and without method) — I Googled antithetical terms “personal branding” and “how do I remove my personal information from the Internet?” Unsurprisingly, 3.4 times as many search results (153 million) appeared on getting off the Internet than for learning how to become the next Internet idol (45.3 million).

So here is practical advice for people without delusions of grandeur who want their personal brands to help them succeed in business:

  • Google your name, the names of immediate family members and others close to you at least once a month. You need to know what’s out there about people in your life. If you are in sales, own a small business, are looking for work or negotiating any kind of deal, you should assume that others are doing the same to you. If you find false information, try to get it removed. Doing that is another issue.
Andy Warhol

Artist Andy Warhol predicted personal branding when we said, ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’ He died in 1987 without knowing the extent to which the Internet would fulfill the prophecy.

  • Maintain a meaningful, complete LinkedIn profile. This is the first place everyone’s brand is found and the only social media site a business person needs. Even if you do not want to be endorsed, join groups, post updates or acquire hundreds of connections, your LinkedIn profile is your defining presence.
  • Consider how online affiliations and statements will affect your career. If you own a gun shop, being an NRA member, blogging to support the 2nd Amendment and donating to conservative politicians is a good idea. The results may differ if you are a pediatrician in Connecticut.
  • Don’t post anything you would not say to your boss or a customer. Social media forums are excellent for starting new relationships. But, be careful about kissing up to a potential benefactor. Possibly, the people paying today’s bills are watching.
  • Participate in company and industry communities. The best way people in large organizations can promote their personal brands is by engaging with colleagues on internal forums or in LinkedIn corporate groups. If you are self-employed or work for a smaller company, find industry-specific LinkedIn groups or other forums related to your expertise.
  • Pick your spots and words carefully. It’s tempting to register with every legitimate professional publication, blog or industry community. Spend time reviewing them. Then decide which one or two are best for you and are most likely to connect you with people you need to know.

Personal branding is real and here to stay. But, it is not your friend. Competent, well-funded privacy advocates are doing a lot to curb deceptive Internet marketers who feed our egos in order learn more about us than we want them to know. Ultimately, it is your brand and your responsibility to supervise it.

* from Free Man in Paris ©Joni Mitchell 1974

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