Personal Branding vs. Self-Awareness


Recently, I've been thinking about personal branding and finding myself disagreeing with the idea that it's something with which we should all be concerned.

While I was reviewing "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Personal Branding," I read this quote in a section detailing the personal brand extensions achieved by Madonna:

"And then in 2008, when she was turning 50 and her career was perhaps waning, she thrust herself back into the headlines by having what was described as an "affair of the heart" with baseball superstar Alex Rodriquez, about 20 years her junior, which lead to both of their divorces."

The implication that a person would have an affair and divorce in order to relaunch a waning career embodies most of the reasons why I can't think of personal branding as a priority.

Don't get me wrong: I agree that as human beings, we're naturally concerned with the way others see us, particularly in a professional sense, as those perceptions affect our ability to earn an income while doing something we love. But there's a line between self-awareness and commoditizing ourselves in order to achieve "success." I think the difference between the two is probably self-respect.

What is a Brand?

A brand is a concept that's developed to simply and clearly communicate a product's benefits to a target market. Today's generally held wisdom advocates that everyone should be actively working on building their personal brand.

This premise assumes that everyone's competing in a cluttered market where prospects have little time. So we need to be known not by a complex set of attributes — versatility, dedication, the ability to turn jobs around quickly and on budget, knowledge, expertise or talent — but by a unique selling proposition. Some personal branding pundits indicate that we should distill ourselves into a few sentences that clearly identify our point of differentiation and brand values. This is so that should we meet a prospect while networking, we can deliver a killer description of ourselves that resonates with them and causes us to be "top of mind" when they next need a person with our capabilities.

What is Success?

I disagree with this view, because I see the distillation of myself into a few key sentences as a kind of commoditization. While I appreciate that it's good to be clear about your capabilities, skills and experience when you're pitching for work, I see straight-up branding — presenting myself as embodying a few crucial brand values formulated to resonate with a prospect — as a denial of the complexities that peoples' personalities naturally entail. The kinds of complexities that make people, and life, enjoyable. To me, denying or ignoring those complexities is also something of a dishonesty, or at least a disservice, to both myself and my client.

For me, success is doing something enjoyable with people I enjoy being with. I want to know more than their elevator pitch — I want to understand their complexities and paradoxes, and I want them to respect mine. My most successful client relationships have entailed a similar level of honesty on the client's part.

I see success as being appreciated for who I am and what I can do, so I balk at the idea of avoiding saying or doing certain things because they might erode the integrity of my personal brand.

What Does Personal Branding Mean?

We're not all Madonna, and not all of us take personal branding to the point that we're willing to divorce our partners in order to relaunch ourselves into the public eye. That said, it's fair to say personal branding can lead to certain kinds of behavior:

  • broadcasting certain news about yourself in order to "generate interest" in your brand, or keep it "top of mind," rather than because you're excited about it and want to share that excitement with others
  • having to reconcile with yourself over something you did and enjoyed, or something you want to do, that doesn't fit with your personal brand
  • maintaining certain contacts and avoiding others on the basis of whether or not they support or agree with your personal brand
  • trying to make your private life entirely coherent with your professional persona
  • seeing each day as an opportunity to build your personal brand, your friends as potential brand evangelists, your activities and relationships as tools by which you can either support or erode your brand
  • trying to alter your personality or philosophy to make your personal brand more consistent

What's the Alternative?

I'm not sold on the concept of personal branding — I prefer the less catchy idea of self-awareness. Instead of brand values, I think of basic human qualities like honesty and integrity, and being proactive. Instead of planning a personal brand extension, I like to ponder the question, "This is cool, but what will I do next?" and to follow my heart (rather than my brand strategy) in making a choice. I realize that this attitude may be seen as ignorant or homely or naive, but so far, for me, it's created the kind of success I want.