Personal Branding Preys on Self Esteem Needs

A point/counterpoint post by Geoff Livingston and Olivier Blanchard, respectively. Cross posted on The BrandBuilder Blog.

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Everyone in life wants to be loved on a personal basis, and received well professionally. When feelings of inadequacy arise — self esteem — it’s natural to look for solutions to improve a sense of worth. The most disturbing (and the least talked about) aspect of the personal branding movement is the promise that it can increase self worth through the intentional manufacture of an image.

Personal branding remains a popular individual career and online promotion strategy (as evidenced by the top of the Blog Tree by Eloqua and Jess3) in spite of significant criticism from the marketing profession as well as many employers. When a solution for such a soul-touching problem arises, it’s bound to become popular. And in that sense, personal branding is an idea that preys on individual pain and suffering.

Personal brand leaders offer plenty of justifications for their tutelage. They get paid for it, and receive national attention. In this sense, because the theory preys on the weak and is inherently flawed, their actions exploit people who want more in their lives, and want an answer.

This type of exploitation — intentional or as an act of innocent zeal — is no different than the quick road to riches offered by the likes of Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi pyramid scheme. It’s not OK to say, “it’s just a job.” Taking advantage of people in this manner at a minimum lacks mindfulness and its worse can only be described as malevolent.

For a variety of reasons already stated in other blog posts, personal brands provide employers dangers, and offer individuals band-aid solutions for deep problems. Whether it’s personal self esteem or professional reputation, actions demonstrate worth. Mood and worth follow action! One cannot think one’s self into feeling or doing better, they have to act their way into right thinking and feeling.

From a professional standpoint, that means stating what you want, going out and doing whatever it takes to get an opportunity to do that work and learning the craft. Then excel at the craft. Demonstrable experience (and a little luck) builds great careers. Presentation matters, but wearing a tie and understanding the nomenclature of a profession only provides an opportunity. Excellence in action preserves the opportunity and provides new ones.

Everyone wants to feel and do better. In 2011, let the marketplace and individuals turn its/their focus on substantive solutions that garner great opportunities and real experiences.

The Brandbuilder Sounds Off on Three Personal Brand Weaknesses

by Olivier

Me

The concept of “personal branding” finds its roots in the ambitions that fuel the American dream, appealing to the masses of individuals who desperately want to “be somebody” and see in the socialization of media a chance to have their fantasy become a reality.

There once was a time when being somebody meant actually… well, being someone of note. People became well known because of something they did or because of the role they played in their culture. Heroes could enjoyed fame because they saved lives and accomplished feats of bravery. Kings and queens knew fame because their faces were printed on their state’s money and they basically owned everything. Musicians, authors and artists enjoyed fame because of their work. Scientists enjoyed fame because of their contributions to science and human advancement. Movie stars were famous because they were glamorous and often became vessels for cultural archetypes that societies need in order to function properly.

I could go on, but the point is this: Fame and notoriety once were the result of accomplishment and achievement, and for good reason. The same is true today, though a growing movement made up of “personal branding” experts would like to sell you on the notion that you don’t actually have to achieve anything to be famous, even if only a little bit. All you have to do is will yourself there and follow some simple steps – which you will find if you buy their book or attend their seminars.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Polishing your resume, having your shirts and suits tailored and having a professional online presence all matter. And I understand the need for “self help” books as much as the next guy, just so you can feel good about yourself while you clean up your act. But the problem with this “personal branding” thing is that it is essentially a lie.

For one, it promises something it cannot deliver: We are people, not brands. Unless you are Sir Richard Branson, Bill Clinton or Tom Cruise, you are not a brand, no matter how many times some consultant tells you that you are. You are not trademarked. You have no trade dress. You do not have a team of copywriters, attorneys, designers and marketing professionals crafting your every move. Ask yourself this: What are your brand attributes? Can you sell koozies with your face on them? Do you have a tag line? You are a person, not a brand. Be yourself. You can’t be anything else without bending the truth anyway.

If you want to earn respect and notoriety, turn your attention away from yourself. Go cure cancer. Go write the great American novel. Start a charity and work to put roofs over people’s heads. When it comes to building a reputation, the kind of self-serving digital navel-gazing encouraged by personal branding gurus is precisely the opposite of what you should be doing.

Second, if you aren’t that smart, interesting or even knowledgeable about your topic, all the blog posts, tweets, Facebook updates and YouTube videos in the world, all of the speaking gigs at conferences and events, and all the self-published e-books won’t change the fact that you aren’t that smart, interesting or knowledgeable. Lousy content doesn’t magically turn into gold just because you have built a “personal brand.” Along the same vein, calling yourself an “award-winning expert” if you in fact are not doesn’t actually make you an award-winning expert, no matter how much your personal branding guru insists that it does.

Third, the “personal branding” industry preys on the desperate and the gullible. It is no surprise that it shifted into high gear as soon as millions of people in the US started losing their jobs. What really fuels personal branding isn’t ego or vanity. The real culprits are necessity and despair. Why do people really fall for personal branding schemes? Is it because they are happily employed? Is it because they are happy with their careers or their bank account? Do you think that Steve Jobs and James Cameron worry about their personal brands? No. But Jack, a down the street neighbor who lost his job 14 months ago does. He buys all the books, attends all the seminars, takes all the online courses. There is no telling how many thousands of dollars he has spent on personal branding “thought leadership,” consulting and advice since then. Like snake oil to the ailing, personal branding promises career improvement and better opportunities to the disappointed and disenfranchised. In this, the personal branding industry reveals its true predatory nature.

If you need a better website, build a better website. If you need help cleaning up your CV, get help. If you have a book in you, write it. If you want to make a difference in the world, not just get praised for it, go make yourself helpful. If you want to be known as an expert in your field, don’t just talk about it – go be the best in that particular field. It really isn’t brain surgery. But if your strategy for getting ahead is to build a personal brand based on the teachings of some “expert” in… well, nothing, perhaps you should consider the benefit of adding this tag line to your personal brand: “Part owner of the Brooklyn Bridge.” Now wouldn’t that be an achievement.

That is all.

Trackbacks on this post are turned off. This post does not seek to generate in-bound links, instead it will hopefully inspire people to consider the ideas discussed in the context of their own efforts. Special thanks to Rich Becker for inspiring this post.

15 Replies to “Personal Branding Preys on Self Esteem Needs”

  1. you can look back in history to the roots of all that is evil about such things.

    People should read the book “sane society” by Erich Fromm, published in the 1950’s it talks about the “marketing character”. More recently check out the writings of Oliver James “affluenza” and “status anxiety” by alain do botton.

    I think the main challenge is in the last paragraph. if an individuals is suffering from low self esteem ,low self worth, anxiety, fear, and a myriad of other issues (and all these are on the rise – despite the self help movement) then telling someone to go and do x,y or z, still wont help i’m afraid. People always want the easy option (just look at the numbers of ppl who pop a pill or go under the knife to lose weight, rather than the harder (yet more likely to succeed route) of getting of one’s arse and working said arse!

    if ppl can being to understand that their is no growth in comfort and that challenges and thigns being difficult to do are actually a good thing, then perhaps, just perhaps, the world may become a slightly better place and with a whole lot less personal branding.

  2. Thank you for insightful post. With social media marketing, companies are realizing challenges of personal brands. Problem is that person who is strongly associated with company builds reputation and leaves. For example, Forrester with Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owang. To this end, firms need to have corporate guidelines to consistently apply across organization what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of representing the company and the individual.

    That said, I think that all of us at some level worry about our personal brand, regardless of whether we’re trying to get a job, influence our boss, attract a spouse or get elected to public office. The difference is which aspects of our actions and personality we want to promote.

    Happy marketing,
    Heidi Cohen

    1. I think it’s great to worry about your reputation. You are only as good as your word. That’s why personal branding is a bad reputation builder. You are sure to contradict your brand promise at some point due the nature of being human.

  3. Kudos guys… If the ‘personal brand’ followers put half the time they put into ‘personal branding exercises’ into simply doing more to become experts in their field, we’d all be better off because of it.

    I’ll admit that at one point a post made me think “Am I doing enough to promote this personal brand of mine?!?” …then I started to review the expert’s steps to a better personal brand and I realized how much fluff was there rather than substance.

    Again, kudos.

  4. Ok, forgive me – but which one of you jumped the shark and which one fed the unicorns? It looks like you’ve taken the bad side of something that can be positive and thrown the baby out with the bathwater, the kitchen sink, and Arthur Fonzarelli.

    What you’re taking out of the term “personal branding” is completely different from what I’ve see in the term, but this has got to be something more than a semantics lesson.

    What about “personal branding” being more about defining myself as the person who does this, who does it well, who embodies the positives you list above? Why is that NOT “personal branding” as you’ve posted here?

    I’m just not following. And it made my head hurt. Crossposting to Olivier’s post, too – since y’all did it and it won’t hurt your brands either.

    1. This is actually a question of words. What you call brand is actually reputation.

      One of the linked posts above is to a post on my old blog called “Brand and Reputation are not synonymous.” it discusses what these words actually mean from a marketing perspective. If one cares not for a blogger’s opinion, any good dictionary should clearly parse the words.

  5. Geoff,

    Provocative and thoughtful post, as always.

    I think you’re correct in targeting that “aspect of the personal branding movement … [that promises] … it can increase self worth through the intentional manufacture of an image.” People who do that are deservedly called charlatans. Of course, there are also people who want what they perceive as the easy path to “fame and fortune,” allowing a kind of pathetic symbiosis.

    Certainly there are charlatans in every industry. Yet, there are lots of career coaches out here who use approaches geared to helping people focus on what it is that they do best so that they can go do it. And, frankly, there are lots of people who lack focus, and need to gain it before going on to deliver the “Demonstrable experience … [that] …builds great careers.”

    Ultimately, I think you really tapped the crux of the issue in “Brand and Reputation Are Not Synonymous” (http://bit.ly/113uwi) where you said:

    “Reputations are always grounded in results, good or bad. A strong personal brand can be from reputation, but this must be the focus and foundation point. A personal brand founded on continuing results can sustain all sorts of trials and tribulations.”

    I agree.

    Thanks for pushing the thinking on this. I think we’re all better for it.

    Happy Holidays!

  6. Geoff and Oliver, thanks as always for the insights. Your posts remind me of the beginning of a movie called Ladybugs, where Rodney Dangerfield is at a self-help seminar learning to be all glass-half-full, and five minutes later is flipping off the guy driving next to him :).

    We talked a lot about personal branding on #pr20chat last night and I’d say one of the biggest issues with this topic is one of the same ones I see with social media — how people speak about and define the term. It’s obvious from reading your post what personal branding means to you. But for others, the term means following their passions, adding value and building relationships, which inevitably will lead to an overall boost in reputation, even though that’s probably not why they did it.

    Several people last night said reputation is ok, but personal brand is not. Maybe we should call semantics on the terms people use and judge more by their actions than their words. If you aren’t doing the work but pontificate about it regularly, sooner or later you will become transparent. And if you are doing the work, building relationships and trying to change the world the right way, sooner or later you will get the credit.

    I don’t really care what people call it. I know someone who adds value when I see him/her. The same can be said for BS. Cheers!

  7. Walter and Justin: Thank you for the well thought-out responses. I definitely don’t want to demean the value of a good career coach. I have found such folks and mentors to be useful in my own time.

    The individual movement behind the term personal brand has jumped the shark, IMO. I mean, when people try to redefine words that are clearly defined already to create their new idea, a problem that seems to generally follow this sector — e.g. friends, influence, etc., then you have a problem that is irresolvable. Why? A well know word is hijacked for inappropriate marketing. And that is the basis of this ongoing, and over trodden debate.

  8. Geoff,

    My apologies for not thanking you for the nod earlier. Personal branding has become increasingly concerning for me in that I think it too often prompts people to build personas out of playing cards. They seem to want to look at everything except themselves.

    I cannot recall where I heard this lately, but the path to an enlightened or progressive person doesn’t begin with what he wants to reflect on the outside but rather considering what he wants on the inside and reflecting that outward. It’s a bit less tangible than dress, which ought to do no more than demonstrate our willingness to meet the group we wish to associate with halfway.

    My compliments for you keeping this issue alive. Unless people do, it’s too easy to fall into the blind acceptance of labels, scores, and other such nonsense. They detract from what really matters, which is the measure of the character and willingness to produce outcomes that materialize in somehow being a beneficial presence.

    Yeah, I still have head cold. Heh.

    Best,
    Rich

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