My Problem with Personal Branding

Beard Branding

Personal Branding is misleading.  It is deceiving.  It focuses on creating awareness of your self and manipulating the perception that others have of you in order to make it seem as valuable as possible, regardless of whether or not you are in fact, valuable.

A harsh exaggeration? Perhaps…but while this may not be how everyone approaches personal branding, but by the Beard of Brogan! some certainly do.

Alliterative “Anchorman” references aside, lets look at Chris Brogan.  Now lets look at his goatee.  It’s magnificent isn’t it? It radiates success.  It’s obviously where he derives his power.

Therefore, if you were to grow out a goatee similar to that of Chris Brogan’s, you would obviously be perceived to have the same amount of value that he does. Correct?

Ridiculous.  That thought is completely preposterous but scarily relevant.  People think that if they fit the look of a social media expert (there isn’t one), slap “social media expert” on their bio, start regurgitating the things they read on other professionals’ blog on their own blog, communities and message boards, that they’ll have created a powerful personal brand and will be successful.

It gets even scarier when other companies or community members actually buy into that crap.

Personal branding is important.  It’s important to be consistently recognizable on platforms across the board.  It’s valuable to be recognized for your talents.  Your reputation is a vital aspect of your career.

My problem with personal branding is what many have made it into.  A shortcut.  A manipulative success tactic.  A way to make yourself look more valuable than you actually are.

Dan Schawbel, in a LinkedIn discussion on personal branding, said that “[your personal brand] should be determined by you before you even participate in a community.”  I think describing personal brands in this manner is dangerous, because it assumes you can choose your personal brand, rather than earn it.

The key to Personal Branding isn’t what you say about yourself.  If you provide value in your words and actions, and make it very easy for others to recognize that value, across the board of tools, communities and anywhere else you are present, you will have established a strong personal brand.

It’s not the beard that makes Chris recognizable, its Chris that makes the beard recognizable.

Ultimately, your actions will determine how your personal brand is viewed by your community.  To determine your personal brand before you participate in a community is to assume you can manipulate the community’s perception of you to be something other than a representation of your actions.  If you provide value, isn’t your only goal with personal branding to make your community aware of your actions?

It’s not your personal brand that makes you valuable. It’s you that makes your personal brand valuable.

Important Disclosure: yes I have a similar facial hair situation to Chris Brogan right now…but he obviously copied me…and I’m obviously just trying to get onto Stuart Foster’s next beard post.

39 thoughts on “My Problem with Personal Branding

  1. David,

    As always, I enjoyed your post. However, I do have to say that I agree with Dan Schawbel more than you on the planning aspect of personal branding. Personal branding and corporate branding are very similar. Businesses put much thought into what they want their brand to mean. Individuals should do the same. If an individual does not have a plan at the beginning, they could easily set themselves up for disaster.

    The great part about social media is that it truly separates the authentic from the posers. If a person miss-brands themselves, they will be exposed faster than a RT of a Mashable post. Accurate personal branding therefore leads to community approval. If a person wants control over their own personal brand, they must plan. The plan makes the man, not the goatee!



    1. Very good points Miguel.

      I think the key that you hit on is “accurate”. The best personal branders will be able to align their personal brand with their talents. They know the kind of value they can provide, and plan to develop the personal brand that best suits those talents. THAT is the way to do it. Then as you grow, you can adapt and build your brand according to how you and your goals change.

      I just don’t think that’s how many people look at it when they’re “planning their personal brand”. They look at it as what they can make themselves look like they can do, not what they can do and how they should build a brand off that.

  2. You want to project the true authentic you before people are able to label you. That way, the more you get yourself out there with your own branding, the more people will come to you for that value/service and you will get the 3rd party endorsements to bring it to life.

  3. Ugh. People that plan out their personal brand beforehand are manipulative and the exact stereotype PR professionals have been trying to battle – “spin doctors.”

    Personal brand should be how others perceive you – and you work to that point by interaction, having your name out there, etc. Getting your name out there shouldn’t be done by shameless self promotion – but by commenting on other’s blogs, e-mailing them to meet for coffee, or even just chatting with them by phone. Name recognition should be an automatic trait, not something that is force fed and planned out.

    1. Exactly how I feel Lauren. You should absolutely strive to have a strong personal brand…but it’s about how you achieve that standard that defines your value, or your lack thereof.

  4. Should I disagree with you for the sake of disagreeing?

    Problem is, I don’t disagree. I feel like the thought put into developing a personal brand is more about wanting to become something than it is about who you actually are.

    Yes, you should try and be consistent in your, beliefs, behaviors, and remarks, but I’m not sure you can avoid being contrived once you’ve decided on your particular brand. Isn’t that just narrowing you down a little too much?

    In my own instance, I believe my community has helped me develop into someone I want to be, and with their help I’ve been able to narrow down the fine points of Brand Me. Even still, I’m not about to paste a mission statement on my wall and call it a day, and I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I’ll want to do that.

    People change. We learn and we grow. As we learn, we figure out more and more what we like and don’t like, what we want to say and what we want to keep to ourselves, and we show the world that we’re human.

    1. Wow I love that Teresa.

      Great point about how we grow and change. Putting a mission statement, or labeling ourselves under a specific brand will only hold us back from exploring new things and embracing change. Could it be that to predetermine your personal brand is not only wrong, but an injustice to yourself?

      Completely agree. My community have helped me develop into who I am as a professional. My “personal brand” will always be changing based on the community I am involved in and the changes I encounter as a professional.

      Right on.

      1. That’s a great way to put it, David: We’re doing an injustice to ourselves. And really, I feel like we’d be doing our entire community an injustice, too, by forcing ourselves into a box.

        I am so happy with where I’ve come in my life and know for a fact that I wouldn’t have met the people I have or been given the opportunities I’ve been given if I’d come out swinging with some sort of predetermined message.

        Ok, off my soapbox I go. Fantastic topic, and post. 🙂

  5. I agree with you (sorry!) I’ve always heard that you should be “authentic” in your personal brand…but if you’re planning beforehand, doesn’t that cancel out the authenticity? For example, you can’t (or shouldn’t) plan to be passionate about social media. However if you show that you are through your interactions with people, it will become part of your personal brand.

  6. Interesting distinctions here, David! What makes a personal brand so different from a product brand is that people go out and “behave,” while a product has a static, predictable quality. Company brands are somewhere in between – service delivery can vary over time in a way that toothpaste doesn’t.

    Enter social media. If you haven’t been spot on in defining what your product, company or personal brand is, your community will call you out.

    “It’s you that makes your personal brand valuable.” Your comunity is not about to let you manipulate them, so why not ask them where you provide value? Then figure out where you want to grow and improve – and be realistic about where you won’t.


  7. David — really love this post. Nicely written.

    I don’t have any issues with individuals putting thought into what they would like their “personal brand” to be, but ultimately, your brand is going to be decided by how others perceive you and more importantly, the quality of work you perform on a daily basis.


  8. “A manipulative success tactic,” pretty much sums it up for me. And I’ll add that I like Lauren’s comment in that personal brands should be what OTHERS think of you.

    As I mentioned on Stuart Foster’s blog this morning, I don’t even like when guys that are really smart and actually at the front of their field saying, “Oh I’m not very smart, I just work hard…”

    That’s not true. You’re obviously smart enough to manipulate your brand in a way that dictates you’re this super humble person feigning like you’re a “everyday person” so that you’ll resonate with that “kind of consumer/reader.” Frankly, it’s bullshit. Let’s all just be ourselves (whatever that is) and see what happens, no?


  9. David–Nice post, straight and to the point.

    People by nature put thought into how they want to be perceived. You choose what clothes you wear in the morning by what your schedule dictates for the day (you wouldn’t wear shorts and a t-shirt to an investors mtg) because you want to be perceived in a professional manner.

    In this case, we have the ability to ‘brand’ and label ourselves. But, as you said, there are plenty of scam artists, but you generally can sort them out rather quickly.

    But, we as people are just as guilty as we perpetually buy into this.

    I see this happen all the time, working in soccer. A guy comes over to the states with an English accent, starts talking about Manchester United, Chelsea, moving players, and clubs hand over money like it was going out of style.

    And 7 times out of 10, the guy is a fraud and get some easy $$ for false promises.

    As long as people believe what someone is saying, there will continue to be fake social media experts, or whatever is the desired title for the day.


    1. It does seem to be inherent in humans to want to change who they are to appeal to whatever community they are attempting to become a part of. Honestly, that’s okay…to a point.

  10. Why did branding ever get into this issue in the first place?
    My point is that in so many issues regarding value, credibility, authority, competency, meaning, authenticity and community – branding always pops-up and gets everybody confused.

    My personal problem about personal branding is branding. As a marketing term (because we are talking about marketing) branding is a misunderstood and over emphasized concept that tends to get everyone taking silly and focussed on aesthetics. Brandtalk today adds more to the confusion than in helping people identify competent professionals to help them solve their issues.

  11. Branding is the public face of decisions you make in private.

    You can “plan” all you want, but you’re judged on actions. You can say you’re the “Ultimate Super Duper Dude at Such and Such” but if you’re a sheister, you’ll be found out and subsequently known as a sheister, regardless of how you portray yourself.

    How’s your calculated brand working out for you now?

  12. Personal branding is really about “character”, which is why fancy clothes and cheap wallpaper can’t hide the fact that underneath you’ll find a lot of lonely people.

    The epic brands that work, especially the personal brands we fall for are a celebration of who someone is (even when slightly caricatured into a public persona).

    Any subject can be examined through the lens of branding (people, places, products, etc…), which is why it does matter so much in the conversation about authenticity, realness, and meaning. Brands by definition are value neutral, until we attach and project our own stories onto those brands.

    I have an article in Storytelling Magazine that explores this topic further: Brand Storytelling and the Search for Authenticity and Meaning.

    Michael Margolis

  13. Thinking about how others perceive us and being ourselves is a dichotomy that is tough to deal with, because we all want to be seen in a positive light, as a person who is competent, confident, and capable of completing difficult tasks and excelling in our professions.

    But, as humans, we are bound to make mistakes or behave in manners that will appear as being unfavorable to our personal selves and damaging to the “personal brands” that others have perceived of us.

    It is what happens at these negative moments (how we rebound and learn) that will show others the true personality, leading them to make their perceptions about the type of person they are observing.

    If you have the ability to learn from your mistakes, and demonstrate real emotion and empathy to your consumers, then you are a human who has the ability to represent and manage a brand, not act like one.


  14. But what about the bald personal branding successes? Darren Rowse, Shoemoney, Loren Feldman, Mitch Joel, Seth Godin, and the list goes on. Clearly, both my powers of persuasion and earning potential are directly and negatively correlated with how much hair I have on my head. Indeed, Chris Brogan may be the very exception that proves the rule!

    1. All kidding aside I think one can and should shape their intentions and make serious commitments to acting in alignment with the best possible moral and ethical positions.I think if you can do that you get to have a personal brand

  15. Got here via Chris Brogan’s tweet.

    A brand needs a branding strategy which serves to enhance its experiential and emotional/ psychological attributes. Extending this to a person as a brand, all of a human being’s behaviours must serve to enhance the emotional and experiential attributes of that being, right? This is where the trouble begins.

    Humans are flawed and suffer from cognitive dissonance and behavioural inconsistencies. But their self-perception is flawless. And their expectations of self ambitious. Some even learn to disguise flaws and present them as strengths. Remember those cheesy interview questions about “your main weakness” to which respondents say “I work too hard and too much” or “I am a perfectionist”?

    So unless there is a deliberate design to project a consistently flawless image, personal brands will remain flawed, may not impress everyone and definitely not impress everyone all the time. There they clash with both the perception and the expectation of self, leading to “corrective” or deliberative action.

    But if you are confident as a professional and a person, and if you are who you really are, then you are the same as your brand. Without any deliberative action. So what if you rub some people up the wrong way? Doesn’t Chris Brogan do that? Why should others be afraid?

  16. There is a famous saying in advertising: “nothing kills a bad product quicker than good advertising”

    I think this applies here. To me, Personal Branding describes the tactics you can use to get your name and work out there to the right people. I agree with you that personal branding has taken on a sleazy connotation, but I think the people who use it in a sleazy way are easy to spot, and easier to ignore.

    For talented, sincere and genuine individuals, personal branding (or whatever you want to call it) means more meaningful connections. For people who truly have nothing to offer, the better you build your personal brand, the faster you will be discovered as a hack.

  17. David

    Great thought provoking post. I have to disagree with Dan Schawbel as yes you can plan and determine what you want your personal brand to be but it will ultimatley be determined on how you are perceived. It first starts with being labeled as good and then with consistent results or in a bloggers case putting up value driven content with feed the personal brand. Trying to push a personal brand upon people will leave you talking to yourself.

    If pitcher has an ERA of 7.52, 44 walks, 56 hits and only 20 strike outs we would not be saying he is a good pitcher but if he has a 2.53 ERA, 20 walks, 30 hits and 56 strike outs he is consistently showing that he is a good pitcher.

    Personal branding is earned – either positive or negative.

  18. Everyone already has their own “personal brand”- It’s just important to realize it- what makes you, you- and remain consistent.

    People(not all, but the ones who matter)can see through the BS, so if you have manipulated your “brand” into something you’re not,you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb- maybe even become a punch line of PR/SM jokes.

    Best point in my opinion is about providing value.

    Thanks for the post David.

  19. Getting mad at someone for putting up a pretty face, whether they can back it up or not, is like yelling at a nice logo. Let consumers decide. I could care less about all the “social media experts” or sharks in any industry. Most people hire on recommendation. Those that do not will learn their lesson when they hire someone without a track record.

    Branding is a piece of business. Most of us buy things every day based on them “looking” legit or having a better first impression of many kinds.

    No I do not support people selling themselves falsely, but saying you don’t like that is like saying you don’t like people that steal money from you.

    Taking an active roll in how your personal brand is perceived by others is smart business.

    Lying about your capabilities is dishonest.

  20. Chris Brogan is an interesting example as I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with him based on two very different perspectives, as a writer and as a marketer.

    As a writer, I think he’s exemplary and referenced him positively in my post earlier today on how writers can go about building a platform. Poking around his archives was illuminating as you can see his transition from an ordinary blogger in 2004, to someone who clearly found his passion and hit his stride in 2006, to the well-oiled machine of 2009.

    As a marketer, though, I think he’s a dangerous example because developing a personal brand is very different from developing an organizational brand and he’s admitted frequently that he has no real experience with the latter; his support of ethically questionable activities like sponsored posts is but one example of the difference.

    Geoff Livingston’s post yesterday, “Brand and Reputation Are Not Synonymous”, touched on this a bit, and he’s had several other good posts on the subject that I wholeheartedly agree with:

    As you said, and I agree, “Ultimately, your actions will determine how your personal brand is viewed by your community.” Fauxthenticity will only work for so long before you’re exposed; better to follow your passions and be yourself, and let the reputation you actually earn be your brand.

  21. David,

    Your post and the comments that it has generated are a great contribution to the growning understanding that “personal branding”, while sensible and strategic in small doses done well, can be harmful to people and communities.

    It’s interesting to see the number of commenters who mention having written about this issue themselves, and I’ll chime in here with a post of my own on “Don’t let personal branding stifle your authentic voice”.

    One of the big problems that I see with the personal branding conversation is that we aren’t hearing enough about the alternative approaches to creating a sound, authentic professional reputation using social media AND our track record of actions and relationships.

    I’m totally with patrickdh (above) in the concern that marketing language is overflowing into places where it is not helpful and instead is damaging. Too much emphasis on ‘marketing’ and not enough on ‘being’…
    thanks for continuing this conversation!

  22. Good points, but not at all different from any sort of branding. What you say about yourself, or your company, is completely meaningless. I forget who it was (Godin?) who said that the airlines’ brands are ‘shitty customer service,’ no matter what they might say in their ads.

    If someone’s banking on people believing in them because they say you should, irrespective of their actual work, then they’re screwed.

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