On the dangers of a personal brand

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I’ve been hearing and reading more and more about personal brands again. To level-set, here’s a definition of personal branding from the Personal Branding wiki:

Personal branding describes the process by which individuals and entrepreneurs differentiate themselves and stand out from a crowd by identifying and articulating their unique value proposition, whether professional or personal, and then leveraging it across platforms with a consistent message and image to achieve a specific goal. In this way, individuals can enhance their recognition as experts in their field, establish reputation and credibility, advance their careers, and build self-confidence.

The term has been around since the late 90s, but really picked up steam as individuals began to express themselves and showcase their talent using blogs, podcasts and twitter when social media first emerged as a platform in the mid-2000s. As I remember, it was people in marketing who latched onto the term, not the doers who were happily sharing their work, and their thoughts on that work.

Marketers were terrified of what would happen if normal workers were able to have a voice in discussions about the industry in which their organization played. The personal branding concept became a way to acknowledge that workers were able to talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything, but it gave them a sneaky way of keeping some control. They convinced us that in order to be taken seriously about the topics on which we are the experts we needed to have a personal brand. The people with the most acceptable personal brands were the ones who would get the better jobs, the rock star acolades and all the material gains that go along with that. If your personal brand was not acceptable, not up to snuff, then your ideas would be easily dismissed and ignored.

It was a brilliant marketing ploy. Marketing could still control the ways knowledge workers were beginning to communicate with each other. All they had to do was convince them that if they did not stay on message they would face being irrelevant.

Around the same time marketing was hatching this ploy, others began to see how these social tools could be used to connect people in ways that naturally made sense, and not in ways forced (and blocked) by org charts and PR/marketing message-shaping. One organizational principle that came from this is wirearchy:

a dynamic two-way flow of  power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.

So, here we are 10 years later. Most organizations have social media policies, and marketing owns the task of managing social media. Many of the doers now think they must develop a personal brand in order to be taken seriously as a podcaster or blogger. The personal brand has become the important thing, not connecting into the wirearchy of our respective communities of practice

Eric Wright published a post today where he reframed the definition of personal brand to be all of your online contributions. I understand that is the way he sees this, but unfortunately this is a 10-year old phenomenon on which many a marketer has staked her career. A couple of comments he made reminded me why this concept of a personal brand has always frightened me:

Brand, by definition, talks about “a type of product” among many possible definitions.

If we think of the phrase “selling yourself short”, you have to also agree that the other side is true. Every single day we are selling ourselves, in the best of ways.

MBAs are taught that people are one of the many resources available to a firm to create a product or service that will hopefully bring in a profit.  Resources, even human resources, can have a value assigned to them so that they can be bought, sold, or traded as needed to be profitable.

This is dangerous. It is important to resist the idea that we are a resource.

We are human beings. We are not human resources to be bought and sold. The problem that the firm has now is that the world has changed. In a knowledge society, the means of production is inside the heads of the workers. And for a short time, we (knowledge workers, the doers) had the power to share that knowledge freely with others, because the teams responsible for controlling the firm’s messages (PR and marketing) didn’t understand how to control it. We were able to connect and create, and do good work for the firm at the same time.

We are still able to do that…but we need to be careful that we don’t give up our freedoms for a few shekels. Look back at the definition of personal branding given by the people who have been promoting the concept for a decade. That definition talks about human beings having a unique value proposition, leveraging it across platforms with a consistent message and image to achieve a specific goal. These are all business terms, meant to control messages. How does a human being have a value prop that they can leverage with a consistent message and image? That’s what branding folks in the marketing departments at big organizations do. That’s what Kardashians do.

Human beings are messy. We don’t all think and speak and look the same. And that is what makes the ability to publish a blog post or a podcast so amazing – you can connect with others who may or may not agree with you. You can grow your network by openly connecting with others, to understand them better. If we control our interactions to adhere to a personal brand, we can’t connect. Being connected and networked is how we learn, how we grow.

We live in an era where it’s harder and harder to distinguish real news from fake news. What happens when we have generations of marketers and PR folks who are trained to make everyone adhere to one message, and no one is willing to deviate from it because it may damage their personal brand?

Please remember that we are human beings. Be human, never sell that. Even for a personal brand.

Leaving you with this video of John Trudell, who talks about the importance of being human.

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