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.

Deconstructing Name Dropping

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Tell me someone on the social web who doesn’t name drop. The whole currency of the social web lies in referencing and mentioning people by name. Name dropping builds perceived value and equity. It’s at the heart of today’s influence measures right or wrong (see write up of Klout), and drives “weblebrity.” So we should look at it.

Is simply associating yourself with someone — even if it’s a fly by — an accurate measure of ability? I think even posing this question is absurd, but it seems to be the way of things right now. People go to conferences, tag each other and check-in with posts, mention casual lunches, and even business deals. Some do it with sincerity (happy to see you!), and some do it in an effort to gain street cred. (I just checked in at Facebook HQ!).

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Let’s be clear, just because you see someone associated with another via a tag or a reference, doesn’t mean there’s a relationship. Nor does it mean that the person who does it should receive credibility. Just because a post is retweeted 20 times doesn’t mean it’s been read or that the ideas are valid (I can back this with data).

When I was on a vacation a year and a half ago, a Twitter follower spotted me at JFK airport between legs of a flight. A brief, pleasant interchange occurred. The tweet was up in five minutes. My wife was mortified!

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Anyone who has attended SxSW knows this event takes name dropping to epic proportions. I personally dread seeing my name come across the Twitter stream. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a real famous person like Mark Zuckerberg at such an event. Really, SxSW embodies all that is wrong with the social web culture, from frat boy parties to vanity contests for the most name drops. At the same time, it is such a powerful networking opportunity, one would be a fool not to go and talk to people in person.

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To me there’s no way to resolve the name dropping issue. It’s so hardwired into everything we do online. Perhaps, in parallel to old school name dropping, to not ever tag anyone would simply mean to live in an online hermitage.

At the same time, I think personally we should devalue name references as a valid measure of influence and stance. At the minimum, I hope after reading this post we’ll take conference tweets and casual mentions with a lot less excitement. And casually mention people with a lot less frequency.

P.S. To be clear, the JFK incident was a rare one. When I walk around in my home town of Alexandria, Virgina — a very blue blooded city — I am sure almost no one wonders who that nerdherder living on the wrong side of the tracks is. They are much more interested to see if the Ragin’ Cajun is in town for a real celebrity citing.

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.

Linkbait and Monopoly: Responding to Your Criticism

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What’s good for the goose is good for the gander as they say. In that spirit, I have received and listened to several complaints from readers, friends and spectators over the past few days.

Some of the criticism was fine — everyone’s entitled to their opinion — but seemed to be a defense of ideas that were being questioned. And as such, the Teflon Revolution post written with Ike Pigott serves as my answer. But other criticism merits a deeper inventory and either a response or an amends. So dear reader, here are my responses:

Linkbait and Gearing Up

I respect Ed Shahzade a lot, and committed to him that I would consider his criticisms. The ones I’d like to address directly are in the above tweet.

The gearing up one is easy. The first and most well-read punk social media post — the one that really started this conversation, IMO — was published just before my daughter’s early arrival. Mindless and Elite was an extension of that concept using specific ideas from individuals who have top ranked blogs. I have blogged again on the topic since and am going to continue (more on this coming). So I would argue that I had the most welcome interruption possible, not that it was a vain attempt to jump start traffic.

In that original post, it concluded with, “P.S. This post will not accept trackbacks. Keep the SEO.” None of the ensuing posts (see the Punk category) had that denotation, and all of them accepted trackbacks. So I can see why Ed might feel that way. I have turned off trackbacks and added a writer’s note to both the Mindless and Teflon posts indicating that links and SEO were not my intent.

Now as a blogger, you can usually tell when a post has fire to it. From this post forward any “punk” post I write will have a disclaimer declaring that trackbacks are turned off, and to encourage bloggers not to link to the posts, but to consider them in the context of their own efforts. Further, I have changed the settings on the blog to only allow comments for one week on any post. Point being, the circus is not welcome here for very long.

Monopoly and Spin

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So am I spinning as a differentiator? If not, what am I doing? There is a strategy, and it’s very simple: Shake up — even disrupt — the current online communications idea market, inject new ideas, and inspire a return to core community values. These posts are thinking challenges.

When I was researching and writing Welcome to the Fifth Estate, I found myself constantly stumbling on bubble gum, meme oriented social media theory espoused by the most well read communications and marketing bloggers. Conversation seemed enforced, stiff and frankly wrong. Some of it may be intent or more likely, we are simply a market and a group of thinkers that are too comfortable with a successful formula.

So my intent is to do the following:

1) Break the monopoly: An unintentional monopolistic stranglehold is in place from the industry’s top voices that ignores and does not allow for criticism and dissent, and worse, the injection of new ideas and approaches (unless it comes from them of course).

Many of these people have called me friend in the past. They may not choose to anymore. That is fine. The principle that idea markets need to be open comes first. I hope we will see a renaissance in conversations between all industry bloggers, but if not, I hope to support a smaller faction of less well known voices that do engage in healthy discourse.

2) Provoke new thinking: We have become formulaic in our thinking about social media, and it is often thoughtless in the sense that it revolves around getting the most views, impressions, etc. instead of building real relationships. This industry is dangerously close to losing its best potential — fostering great relationships between people in and out of communities, organizations and companies. Instead, it is becoming its worst nightmare — a creator of shallow “value propositions” or a thinly veiled spam machine to achieve “Return on Attention.” In that sense, most of the posts I read remind me of Monopoly! Better buy Boardwalk first!

Dissent is often expressed as a list of wrongs. These lists are amusing, full of vitriol and fun. They have been published for years, here’s one I wrote in 2008. They haven’t worked very well as a mechanism for change.

So these new “punk” posts are directly trying to infuse ideas into the challenges, and provoke new thinking. Malcolm McClaren, the punk ethos of challenging discourse, moving conversations off Twitter and open fan pages and on to blogs again and groups, etc., are all examples of this.

Regardless of the above motives, some people will always accuse me of spinning this for market leadership. That’s fine. I am actively conversing with others who feel the same everyday. In that spirit, I will explore with others the possibility of moving the punk conversation off of this blog in 2011, and into a newer wider platform that is clearly not a personal blog. :) In the interim, perhaps it’s time to add a roundup post to the repertoire to highlight some of these other great minds.

Ugly Discourse

“When liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it is hard to shake hands with her,” Oscar Wilde.

Some people misconstrued the intent of the Mindless post to be a hatchet job on the persons cited. It’s not my intent to “take out” people. Far from it, this was about the above goals. If they embrace a more vigorous discourse, I would be thrilled. If they don’t, I’ll still foster that discourse with other people.

That being said, sometimes feelings are hurt, names get tossed about like kindling, and discourse becomes ugly. Right or wrong, when it became clear that many of you were perceiving the ongoing conversation to be a blood feud, I stopped immediately.

We Livingstons are a mouthy bunch. Bred in this environment, I have learned interesting ways to make my voice heard, some of which I am constantly trying to remove from my behavior patterns. Maybe Darwin should step in, I don’t know. Regardless, I speak about my beliefs and do so with passion. The topic in its own right is very challenging. Both my personality and the general conversational thrust will always rub some folks the wrong way.

This is an unfortunate truth of the forthcoming conversation. Ideas need to be challenged and as such ideas are usually attributed to a blogger. That means criticism will occur, and as a result, some egos will be offended.

For every Sam Adams we need a Thomas Jefferson, and while I have achieved neither of these great men’s heroics, I hope our Thomas Jefferson arrives soon. Until then and in that spirit, I will endeavor to be mindful about people’s feelings when discussing their ideas. When there is a rising cry of foul play, I will listen and, when appropriate, try to address these situations.

To demonstrate my sincerity in this matter I am donating $100 to Civilination. This 501(c)(3) believes that free speech is enhanced through civil dialog and a rational exchange of information and ideas. By fostering an online culture in which individuals can fully engage and contribute without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment, or lies, the core ideals of democracy are upheld.

Thank you for your feedback.

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.

Advice, Politics and Parenting

Soleil Sleeps

I thought about writing a post mortem election post on what the Democrats could have done better with their online communications campaign (starting with their relentless spamming of my email address in spite of several opt-out requests). Then I decided not to. After my Mashable post on the two party’s approaches, did I really need to offer this unsolicited criticism? No one at the Democrats is asking for my advice.

As a new parent, I am getting quite a bit of advice right now. Some of it is paid (pediatrician, lactatian, etc.), some of it is requested advice from friends who have been there, and most of it is unsolicited from family, friends, and online community members.

Don’t get me wrong. I generally hear people out. It’s important for people to share their experiences, and really, parenting is such a great life journey, it’s hard not to… I understand that.

That doesn’t mean listening to everyone makes sense. There are no absolutes. Especially when someone has no experience in a situation — like me and politics. I have never run a political campaign, I only get online communications as a generalist. While I certainly have some experiences to share (and I kept it to SM experience only in my Mashable post), who am I to tell Tim Kaine and company how to run an election? Opinions like this are a dime a dozen on Twitter.

Experience-based advice is better. But, it’s important to note, no singular experience is 100% right. For example, everyone told me a baby couldn’t turn itself sleeping on its back until it was roughly three months old; that babies enjoyed sleeping on their backs. Soleil turned herself on day two and hasn’t stopped since (no arm swaddling for her). Like her daddy, she likes sleeping on her side.

Point being, advice — particularly when it is an unsolicited unexperienced absolutism — rarely has value, nor is it usually welcome. Further, when we do have experience, isn’t it best to couch it as just that? Something like, “Hey, this is just my experience.”

This is what’s wrong with online communications today, the amount of pontificators offering absolutist advice. That’s why I wrote last week’s punk social media post, which pointed out a general groundswell of discontent with social media “rules” today. We have a lot to add when it’s a shared knowledge, it goes off the rails when it becomes an enforced dictate.

What if we are right? This seems like an obvious question at this point. The answer: “You can lead the horse to the water…” Some people learn by their own experiences. After we offer our experiences, isn’t it best to let them do just that? And cheer them on if they find a different way? Or allow them to fail gracefully without rubbing it in?

Just some thoughts on advice. And until someone at the DNC asks me, I’ll let the Democrats judge their own results (but I would be delighted not to be included in their email lists anymore).