From time to time, I’m asked for advice on the topic of personal branding. And, here’s the thing, I don’t really have any. Developing a brand for a company, a product or a service is worlds apart from creating a brand for a person, if the latter is even possible. I believe that it really isn’t, beyond some self-conscious attempts to emphasize certain positive qualities and minimize certain negative ones. There are some parallels to be sure, but, ultimately, I believe personal branding is a narrow contrivance.
First of all, in most cases, personal branding is career-centric. The vast majority of what is written about personal branding is in employment context, and often with a focus on job hunting. There are a billion bytes of advice on how to present yourself as a certain “brand” of executive or manager: A “thinker,” a “problem solver,” maybe a “strategist steeped in strategery.” But, beyond our work lives, we are also parents, spouses, teammates and neighbors, to name a few. Should we create a conscious brand for each of those roles, too? Are we to become a collection of different brands that we step in and out of from moment to moment? Even within the vocational setting, a “professional brand” could easily label a person with a focal point they might regret within a short time, as in, “You know, Sandra really is a detail-oriented person, but can she think strategically?”
This is not an indictment of pursuing self-improvement. But those efforts should be authentic attempts to develop strengths or minimize weaknesses, just as it is in the world of branding products and companies. A brand built around innovation has to deliver on the concept with every aspect of its brand experience. Companies with strong brands build intricate systems and philosophies to make sure that they can deliver a consistent experience. Some days, I’m lucky if I can even get to work without cursing a driver in front of me. (I should be better about that. I’m working on it. You get the point.)
But, if a person adopts a particular personal brand in order to improve their chances of getting a job or promotion, can they really deliver that brand day after day, year after year? Or was it a calculated representation that won’t last? That’s a real key to the concept of brand. Brands are built over time, not overnight. A person who affects a “personal brand” to win a job will soon be unmasked, if they can’t sustain it. I once interviewed a person for an executive position in the company where I worked, and asked several questions about how he would build a good relationship between his department and mine. He presented himself as a master of collaboration. We would be one happy family. Soon after he was hired, it became clear that the opposite was true. When I read back to him my notes from his interview, his response was, “Geez, I just said that stuff to get hired.”
Needless to say, this person did not last long, and it’s fair to point out that he had an issue with character that goes well beyond a personal brand. But it shows the weakness of using personal branding as a short-term employment solution when branding is a long-term commitment to an idea and an experience. Someone could claim what this person did in a blog post on Careerealism.com: “Master organizer with an eye for detail, meticulously create and execute special events. You name it, and I will plan it with confidence and enthusiasm.” But can this person do it for the next two years? Or is it just what he thinks they wanted to hear?
Put another way, changing brands and changing people is a very difficult process. It takes many positive experiences in a row to convince anyone that your brand is what you say it is. Branding yourself is something that is much harder than it sounds, and can result in a person who is not really the authentic you. So, when it comes to the concept of “personal branding,” I have three words of advice: just be yourself. Plus, be nice to people. Like the driver in front of you on your way to work. Didn’t I say I was working on it?
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal, the Reading Eagle and Lehigh Valley Business.