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 13-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 tough 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.