You’re Not a Brand

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You’re not a brand.

Can we agree on that? It’s not a bad thing, and it’s not personal. I’m not a brand either.

There’s a lot of fuss these days about “personal branding.” And though I make my living as a brand strategy consultant, I can sum up my feelings about personal branding in two words: “Mostly bunk.”

Some of it is tried-and-true concepts with a lazy new label. Some of it is authors trying to sell books. Most of it is flat-out misguided.

Allow me to present five arguments against the notion of personal branding:

The (mis)understanding argument.

Branding is frequently misunderstood, so it follows that personal branding would fare no better.

Too many people still think branding is only about what you say, not what you do. That it’s only about external appearances, not internal truths. According to this definition, if your house has a crumbling foundation, your best move is to paint it.

This point of view results in exactly the wrong branding – and personal branding – techniques. And the people who apply them will tend to become self-promotional drones, more concerned about how they seem to others than who they really are.

The utilitarian argument.

Would the world be a better place if we all thought of ourselves as brands and acted accordingly?

I mean everyone. You. Your spouse. Stan from the accounting department. Every single person at every single networking event. Your 7-year-old.

Play that one out in your head. I don’t believe that perceiving oneself as a brand – as opposed to, for instance, a person – represents an advance for humanity.

The hierarchy argument.

Branding is a subset of life, not the other way around. Put another way, brands can learn more from people than people can learn from brands.

When my clients face a difficult brand decision, I often recommend that one way to solve it is to refer to the rules of good living.

However, at no point in my life, when faced with a difficult personal decision, have I asked myself, “What would Target do?” And I love Target.

The relationship argument.

Brands arose from transactional relationships. Sure, a few brands transcend this construct. But that doesn’t change the fundamentals. Brands are signifiers within the sphere of commerce. You select and pay for the name you trust, and you expect to get something of equal or greater value in return.

Personal relationships are far richer and more complex, and are based on rather different motivations. To reduce them to the purely transactional would, at best, reflect a very cynical worldview.

The reality argument.

My friend Tricia is funny. I don’t think she has a funny brand. And I don’t think she’s trying to brand herself as funny. I just think she’s funny.

I also know a number of professionals who are outstanding at what they do. It might be market research, or personal finance, or lawn care. Whatever it is, I don’t think that’s their brand either. I think it’s one thing, among many, that makes them who they are.

You don’t really think of the people you meet as “brands.” Do you?

I’ve heard the counter-arguments: “I’m in the market for a new job. Aren’t branding tactics relevant?” Or, “What about my professional expertise? Isn’t that my brand?”

Those arguments are valid, to a point: Specifically, to the point that you equate personal branding with the accentuation of your true strengths. Anything beyond that is bullshit, not branding.

I’ll be the first to tell you that a brand is a set of perceptions. But it’s bad logic to suggest that any kind of perception is thus the result of “branding.” You may possess expertise, and you may be perceived as such. That doesn’t make you a brand.

If you’re in the job market, I’d certainly recommend doing some things that great brands do. I’d suggest that you target your search, differentiate yourself, and tell a compelling story. But these aren’t good ideas because some brands apply them. They’re good ideas because they work.

Also remember that great brands are built through consistency, and in no other way. So if you just start “branding” yourself to find a job – there’s that coat of paint again – then I don’t like your chances. If you didn’t have a network of believers before your job search, it will be difficult to create and activate one.

So, I repeat: You’re not a brand. You are many things, but a brand is not among them. And that’s as it should be.

Let’s spend less time trying to be good brands, and more time trying to be good people. The rest will work itself out.

A version of this post appeared in the Business Courier of Cincinnati on May 29, 2009, in the column “That Branding Thing.”

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2009 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

25 Replies to “You’re Not a Brand”

  1. I really liked what you wrote about personal branding. I find that the personal brand concept has been hijacked and distorted to it’s detriment by people who have missed the point of branding. Such as HR types, recruiters, head hunters and others of that sorry ilk who want to reduce everything down to a cop-out meta-tag. They truly don’t understand what branding is and like people, brands are all very individual with distinct dna and the more they are pigeon-holed into a non-custom fit scenario, the less value they deliver or appear to have.

  2. I never bought this brand thing. Refused to teach it at my last marketing workshop at Jefferson Medical School for the Philly Wellness event on May 2.I teach 7 people at a time to take logical, step by step actions to reach their clients, customers and goals. Creative marketing works without hype and nonsense.

  3. Wow, that’s a great commentary on brand. I’ve always wrestled with brand and branding because when companies come to me and ask me to brand them, they don’t understand why I want to get to know them better. To understand their culture and what people outside of themselves think of them.Or they want their brand to be cooler or more hip or do this and that, but they don’t want to adjust their culture to be that.Personal branding or “being yourself” is something a lot of people talk about as well as myself and when I talk about it, I just want people to understand that they have a lot more power than they used to. Back in the day, a single individual would have to work very hard to be heard but now it’s very easy to be heard (whether good or bad) and you must be aware that when you talk online it reflects on you. It lives with you. It follows you around.So if you do not think of yourself like a brand (and you don’t worry about what you say or do or the effects it may have like brands do), then don’t be surprised when people think you are someone very different than who you think you are.Personal branding to me is just being aware of who you are and being authentic with it.

  4. Simple stuff really we just need to focus on core value, what’s inside, what’s real rather than fluff, virtual, icing & spin!!!! After all when we sit down to the meal we need real nourishment not hot air??? Thanks for the post Pemo Theodore

  5. Interesting article. I agree that personal branding has been misunderstood and poorly implemented by many “experts” and job seekers out there.I believe that personal branding is the way that you differentiate yourself from others, both in your job search and in your workplace. Your personal brand should represent your authentic and transparent self. However, each person is unique and should find the unique, professional and memorable reason(s) (i.e. personal brand) to pitch to interviewers and employers and to leverage in his/her current jobs that effectively translates his/her value.I don’t think we are brands in the traditional sense of product and service marketing, but I do think that we all have unique personal brands that distinguish us on a more micro-level in our day-to-day lives. Personal branding online should, if anything, simply support and back up what you present in your actions to others.

  6. Thanks, one and all, for the thoughtful comments on this post.There are some interesting comments on the nature of personal branding, and it would appear that those of us in this forum agree that, if the phrase “personal branding” must be used, then it should be tied to authenticity. I still question, however, whether “personal branding” is the right term to use, given the arguments I presented in the original post. It seems to me like it’s a convenient, “on-trend” label, but I’ve seen very little in the literature that indicates anything new that branding brings to the realm of personal development. I mean, accenting one’s strengths, or differentiating in one’s job search is advice that’s decades-old, right?I’d be happy if the phrase “personal branding” went away forever.

  7. You had seven agrees on your blog-post, Matthew — sorry, but I disagree with your points. Describing (and crafting) a “brand” is about revealing accessible truths — about identity, personality, style, actions and behaviors. Whether it’s a collection of people working as a company, or a single person, branding helps others make selective choice in a very crowded marketplace That’s the idea.In a limited timeframe, with limited resources and limited information, how do I choose wisely with so many choices available to me?Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Mr. T, Rod Serling, Elvis, Elvis Costello, Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra, Donald Trump, Wolf Blitzer, Sean Hannity, Barack Obama, JayZ, The Bee Gees, Courtney Love, Sharon Stone, Newt Gingrinch, The Dixie Chicks, Malcolm Gladwell. These people and anyone you can name are all “brands”. Why? Because they have recognizable traits, styles, patterns and features — archetypal and/or otherwise — that we individually and collectively label, respond to and interact with. Choose/don’t choose, like/don’t like.A brand is shorthand. It’s a fast means to recognize and categorize patterns, and understand how to label and “file” an entity. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re reacting to people as brands — categorizing and interacting with them with certain expectations, watching and waiting for patterns — in the same basic ways you’re reacting to companies. Brands are conscious, or seek to be so — to more effectively, more truthfully and more simply interact.Your clients are reacting to you as a “brand”, too. They’re selecting you and paying for your services (or not) because of the actions you’re repeating and the patterns you manifest — consciously or unconsciously — and which they like or dislilke, trust or are confused by.As novelist Philip Dick (“Minority Report”) once said, reality is that which when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Brands — and people as brands — are a major and consensual reality on the planet. You can choose to ignore the effects of such reality. But you can’t choose to ignore the impact of that ignoring. Especially as competition for mindshare, awareness and dollars increases.The assertion that human beings make decisions “rationally” and without emotional and psychic undercurrents totally misunderstands our brain and CNS and how we function in the world, especially based on thousands of years of evolution. Brands help us make decisions and interact given limited information, time and resources. And the idea that “individuals are a sort of brand” is merely a natural outcropping and extension of corporate branding.

  8. I agree that people need to stop treating themselves as a brand.My thoughts about people that apply “personal branding” techniques often come across as very fake and kind of dorky.Act like a person, because people relate to that better.

  9. Great points. And, let’s face it: most branding is fairly arbitrary. There’s nothing inherently athletic about a Nike T-shirt (or more athletic than the same T-shirt from Target), but Nike’s marketing and branding has given it athletic connotations. For people, your “branding” (if you want to call it that) has to be consistent with who you really are. Even with celebrities with well-managed brands, aren’t we disappointed when we find out that the “sweet little old grandmother” is actually a bossy diva with a Napoleon complex? If I’m hiring someone, I’d rather hire someone who really is hard-working and honest, not someone who has crafted a “personal brand” of being hard-working and honest.

  10. Sorry, I can’t disagree with you more. And frankly, I’m very confused, because YOU–Matthew–are so clearly “branded” via your blog and your business.Should everyone be a brand? No, of course not. My mother isn’t, my brother isn’t. My wife isn’t either. But then, none of them need to be for business. But for people who want to get ahead in a career, branding is a way to help them think about , realize and materialize their key differentiators. And this IS important to stand out in a crowd.Are there other ways to do this–to accomplish the same task? Yes. But the foundations of brand strategy provide an easy and accessible way, and a proven one–so why not use it?I wrote a series of posts over at right Brain/Left Brain Marketing that discussed marketing as “expectation”. It’s a simple way to think about brand. I also used this framework to present personal branding to a group of executive women in Japan. It was well received. Take a look. it changes the minds of some of the people who posted here.Cheers,Barry

  11. I very much agree! By my definition, a brand is the human elements of a non-human entity — like a corporation, or a can of soda. Luckily, humans already have human traits.Instead of calling ourselves brands, we’re allowed to use words like reputation, personality, persona, style, etc., without perverting too many metaphors along the way.So what about Britney Spears, Richard Branson, and other folks who are consistently bought and sold? We’ll, in this case they’re more like products.

  12. Well i prefer to agree with Paul van Winkle. Just was checking on wikipedia as well and it clearly states “A brand is a collection of experiences and associations connected with a service, a person or any other entity”. Its as simple as that. I think Paul has explained it enough for you, if you still don’t get it, get back to college. I suggest you research it out better before writing a blog post.

  13. I think in a world where people clearly struggle to separate who they are from what they do, personal branding further blurs the lines.If people continue to mingle the two, they will continue to be miserable, depressed and forlorn.Many people have a set of skills that make them good at what they do – but that doesn’t necessarily make them GOOD people.I think Matthew’s point was to get back to focusing on being GOOD people instead of “branding” yourself to be something more than you really are.And, if your personal brand leads you away from being good – then drop the personal branding stuff and get back on the right track – or better align your personal brand to truth.I once heard a speaker talk about how we’re really good at bending truth around our lives. Instead, I think we would all benefit if people did a better job of bending their lives around truth.

  14. I really appreciate your comment Kari. It is important to differentiate between what we do & who we are. It is also necessary to have substance, otherwise we end up living in brand heaven where anything is possible but in actuality probably not. This is proving to be an interesting & thought provoking conversation thank you everyone.

  15. This has been quite the topic of discussion lately, and I’m enjoying the conversation on both sides.Here are some additional thoughts in response to recent comments:First, let’s note that brands and people have been defined very differently for years. Brands exist within the sphere of commerce, and people are, well, people. The notion of equating people with brands is relatively recent: According to most, we can blame a 1997 Tom Peters article. Thus, the onus is on the personal branding proponents (PBPs, I call ’em) to demonstrate conclusively that people are brands. Of course, the PBPs have an impossible task.Paul Van Winkle believes that “people as brands are a major and consensual reality on the planet.” I disagree – we can’t even find consensus in these online forums, and we’re biased as hell. Even if such consensus did exist, it’s hardly an argument for the validity of the personal branding (or any) concept.It doesn’t help that the PBPs can’t agree among themselves. Ries & Trout say SOME people are brands. Mr. Van Winkle, in his comment, indicates that ALL people are brands (“These poeple and anyone you can name are all brands.”). Barry Vucsko, in his comment, suggests that businesspeople are brands but homemakers (for example) are not. So who’s right? My answer: None of the above.Most PBPs seem to think that, because there are (sometimes!) similarities in the way that we perceive people and brands, they can be considered to be one and the same. There are a number of issues with this argument:1) Brands and people serve very different roles in our lives. Therefore, the perceptual framework we bring to each, by definition, must also differ.2) Yes, we sometimes categorize people on first impressions, limited information, etc., just as we do with brands (and sometimes we don’t). No, it does not follow that “people = brands.” That’s bad logic. That’s like saying that because my sofa is green, and celery is green, then my sofa must be celery, and I’ll just ignore the obvious differences between the two.3) To boil down all perceptions to “branding” is erroneous and dangerous. Human perception predates the idea of branding, and to suddenly label anything that is perceived as a “brand” misuses the language and gives brands way too much credit. Am I now to believe that Vonnegut was not an author, but a brand? And that “Player Piano,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and “Timequake” are not books Vonnegut authored, but brands unto themselves? Should we applaud the sky for so successfully “owning” blue within its visual brand identity system? Seriously, where does this line of thinking end?No, people are not brands. People are people, and brands are brands. They occasionally have things in common, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same. Using the word “brand” to simultaneously replace disparate concepts like “celebrity,” “self-image,” “fame,” “career management,” “expertise,” “reputation” and “personal presentation” undermines clarity and does more harm than good.But instead of asking whether people ARE brands, let’s ask a better, deeper question: SHOULD people be brands? Reflect on that. I think the answer is clearly “no,” and so the case for personal branding falls apart pretty quickly.Finally, I doubt we’ll be having this conversation in 5 years, as “personal branding” probably will have been supplanted by that time by some other buzzword.Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments and a very engaging discussion!

  16. I’d argue that the psychological mechanism that makes brands “work” borrows from the way we relate to other people. In a sense, brands are a human “face” on complex organizations, services, products etc. that lets us humans relate to them (emotionally and rationally).So yeah, I think brands should learn more from people than people need to learn from brands.

  17. Matthew, in your commments you’ve done what branding — personal and corporate — actively seeks to reduce: you’ve misinterpretted and distorted messages (mine, others) and in the process appear confused, and seem to be searching. Thank you, you helped make my point for me. Terrific, a bonus.First, I never said “ALL” people are brands. What I said (and meant) was that to the degree people or corporations can and do actively clarify and communicate their messages using languages, imagery, syntaxes, presences and means that others can more immediately get and respond to, they’re “branding” — which has a predictible result (clarity, and sometimes loyalty, out of confusion). And we say they’re then taking on describable, consensual and repeatable characteristics of what we refer to as “brands”.As far as “consensus”, may we define the word? Consensus doesn’t mean “ALL”. And I never used it to mean all. It means overriding. As in, influential to many, due to its potency. So I’m sorry, yes, branding personally and otherwise IS a part of consensus reality. Disagreeing with and arguing against that reality is incongruent, confused. EX: Just because you or I don’t know about or agree with Islam, Jainism, Christianity or any other religion doesn’t mean it doesn’t maintain a consensus and an influence. Such organized and grouped messages in fact become “consensual”; millions of people on the planet prove that by their patterned relation to those thoughtforms.Forgive me – but this argument you’re making sounds like you’re rather searching (insistingly) for your own personal identity — and arguing against having it handed to you by peers, parents and paying clients. I admire that. But personal individuation processes shouldn’t be confused with how the public collective both percieves and influences our relationships, business and otherwise.If we’re conscious of the processes and principles of branding — and identity manifestation (ego, archetype, shadows, personas, individuation….) we can take an active, positive and conscious role in their derivation. Otherwise, our brands personally and otherwise will be what others say it is.

  18. Paul –Wow. We’ve never met, but that hasn’t stopped you from making some clumsy claims about my motivations in presenting this argument. If we agree on nothing else, let’s agree on this: Ad hominem attacks don’t move any conversation forward.But since you’ve raised the issue, consider: Making this case is costing me real money. I could leverage my experience and launch a “personal branding” practice – instant income stream! But I won’t be doing that, because I believe the concept to be inherently flawed. On to more substantive matters.Regarding “consensus” – I never claimed consensus meant “all” either. Allow me to repeat:”We can’t even find consensus in these online forums, and we’re biased as hell. Even if such consensus did exist, it’s hardly an argument for the validity of the personal branding (or any) concept.”I was simply saying that, even in our often-insular business world, there’s not consensus around the meaning, application or utility of personal branding. (Google it.) I’ve seen no proof that the concept is, as you claim, “overriding.”You further write: “…branding personally and otherwise IS a part of consensus reality. Disagreeing with and arguing against that reality is incongruent, confused.” I never argued against the “reality” of personal branding, and I don’t know where you got the idea that I did. I’m simply arguing against its merit. Racism clearly fits your definition of a “consensus reality” – it’s a “thoughtform” that influences many and probably has more adherents globally than Jainism. Is it “incongruent, confused” to disagree with racism? Because I’m prepared to argue against the merit of that concept too.I agree that “personal individuation processes shouldn’t be confused with how the public collective perceives and influences our relationships, business and otherwise.” However, I think labeling that entire bundle as “branding” is inaccurate and serves to confuse, not simplify.This appears to be our primary point of disagreement. I hold that we humans don’t respond to other people as “brands.” We respond to people, brands and everything else in the manner in which humans respond to things. Referring to the whole process of self-image, transmission, reception, processing, etc., as “branding” only muddies the waters. Every perception we have does not imply branding, nor does the introduction of “branding” enhance the conversation. More precise words exist – why not use those?Finally, you say:”If we’re conscious of the processes and principles of branding… we can take an active, positive and conscious role in their derivation. Otherwise, our brands personally and otherwise will be what others say it is.”But there’s no “otherwise,” Paul. I think you’d agree that a corporate brand is not what the brand manager thinks it is or tries to make it. It’s what consumers believe it to be.Transfer that notion to the personal realm, and you portend a scary world. Personal branding implies, and occasionally states overtly, that what matters is not what we are; it’s what other people think we are. And so the philosophical framework shifts from living one’s life well, on its own merits, to living a life to please and/or manipulate others. Packaging replaces substance. That’s a step backwards for the greater whole. And it’s no way to live a life.I won’t argue that there are aspects of branding that may be useful in managing one’s career – specifically those, as I said in my original post, focused on the accentuation of authentic strengths. Nor will I argue that one would do well to be mindful of matters of personal presentation, identity manifestation, etc. – but those are hardly notions for which branding should receive credit. I remain convinced that “personal branding” is lazy, buzz-driven language, and that the idea of “people as brands” is potentially dangerous.Thanks again for your comments.

  19. Kari McNamara (who commented above) and I have continued the personal branding discussion via email, and I felt compelled to share her words. She writes:”To distill a complex person down to a simple set of ‘reasons to buy’ would be like reducing a Van Gogh to a paint-by-numbers piece. You’ll never get the depth, the quality or the beauty – and who wants to live with paint-by-numbers people? If that’s where the world is headed, I’ll take an express pass in the other direction, thank you very much.”Kari, well put. Again, I say: Let’s spend less time trying to be good brands, and more time trying to be good people.

  20. Interesting viewpoints from all. Even though I have written that we as individuals do represent ourselves in the minds of others in ways which are not unlike brands, including our personal social interaction, professional performance and electronic social networking, I do submit the following response extracted and modified from a comment which I made elsewhere: It seems we have been working for decades to get folks to stop branding other people. I learned very early that people are more comfortable with others when they can categorize individuals and file them under limited generalizations such as “jock”, “bookworm”, “slacker”, “fox”, “hick” or worse. This may give them a sense of personal empowerment over people that may result from some unconscious belief in sympathetic magic or something primitive. (If you can give something a name you can control it?) Then they seem to get frustrated and uncomfortable with people who cross the lines in their little filing system and who cannot be easily categorized. Like a rurally raised intellectual athlete who enjoys painting and gardening? Even executives sometimes tend to quickly categorize others in this way – – perhaps for some sense of efficiency ; and some don’t like it when people reach beyond the limitations of their given job title. I won’t go into the processes or intent of restructuring and doling out new position titles which end in “specialist”. Alvin Toffler addressed that rather well. What I will observe is that when the “s” word emerges widespread in application, so it seems does decline in demand for the prefixed skill sets. Are we doing ourselves any service by living within perceptual limitations or standards that make others more comfortable or which enforce within their minds that we are not the person to go to for a particular need? Maybe, . . . .

  21. I think you would agree that being conscious of your reputation is indisputably a positive thing. The only pitfall there is to thinking in terms of branding related to yourself is leaning to far over toward the side of perception vs. reality. If you’re weighting way more time to working on and thinking about how to project that you have certain skills as opposed to cultivating those skills and strengthening them, you need to swing back the other way. For example, if I spent 20 hours a week for 3 years working on my online presence and 2 hours a week to developing my design sensibilities, I would be a tragedy of a designer and look like a huge smoke-and-mirrors liar when people got to know me and choose to do business with me. But to devote zero time to that is just as bad; just a little extra effort will get you very far. Keep in mind though there is NO other area of business that can give you the explosive growth that good marketing can, as too can good “personal branding” aka managing your reputation. But if you can’t deliver what you’re “branding” yourself to be, then you’ll also begin to develop a reputation of letting people down too. So, yes, have a strong foundation of integrity, confidence, and all the other alphabet soup of positive traits, but to write off consciously managing your reputation and crafting people’s first impressions of you is advice I wouldn’t heed.

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