Nonprofit Periscope

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Personal branding: why I won’t be converted

with 12 comments

I didn’t plan on getting tangled up in a blogosphere debate over personal branding (catch up on the action at Rosetta’s blog and Allison’s and mine), but I’m glad I did.  And I’m glad I’m playing defense in a debate dominated by pro-branders.  Many sing the praises of personal branding, and few ask critical questions about it.

My recent concession on personal branding was too meek.  Here’s what I meant: personal branding is a waste of my time. 

Other Brazen Careerists and bloggers are speaking out against it too.  Carlos Miceli says to hell with personal branding.  Andrew Swenson says we’re not thinking critically about it.   Justin Wise isn’t convinced that marketing a person like a brand is a good idea.  And Boon Chew one-ups us all by not even talking about personal branding, but backing off from cyberspace and living in the real world.

I have no beef with the personal brands of my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or fellow bloggers.  You are rad.  You wow me every day, as you did even before you had brands.  (Because there was such a time.  This is not an organic concept.  Someone made it up and then it caught fire.)

My problem, however, is that personal branding is like religious evangelism: if you don’t buy into it, you’re going to hell.  Or so the evangelists say.  I can write all day about how personal branding is made up, a waste of time, pure jargon, neo-narcissism, etc.  But if I do, pro-branders will reply: You have a brand whether you like it or not.  All you can do is control it. 

Which leads me to wonder: if I don’t want to have a brand, why do others want me to?  Why, in other words, is it so extremely important to pro-branders that everyone acknowledge personal branding as real?  Why not let bygones be byones—or just atheists?

My hunch is that, like religious evangelists who believe nonbelievers are going to hell,  pro-branders believe the unbranded will suffer professional decay, and wish to save them from that fate by preaching the gospel of personal branding.  The intention is admirable.  But just as I don’t believe in hell, I don’t believe that a torturous ruin awaits me if I neglect my online persona.  Real life is not about cyberspace.  Yes, what I do online often touches my job, at least on the fringes.  But what I do offline is more important.

I admit: if I have a personal brand, it’s my own fault.  It means I’ve spent too much time thinking about how others see me.  I don’t want to be that self-conscious.  I don’t want to limit myself to how I want to be seen.  I don’t want to live or die by whether I’ve impressed or disappointed someone.  If I can create an entire persona around how much I worry what other people think of me, I’m wasting my time.

Note that I didn’t say “you,” or even the vague third-person “one.”  If you want a personal brand, that’s your business.  Just don’t insist I have one.  Let me be a nonbeliever.  I’ll be okay.

Call me cynical, but I suspect personal branding is a fad.


Written by eclawson

December 31, 2009 at 4:21 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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12 Responses

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  1. Really enjoyed this post Elizabeth, very thoughtful. For me, the most important point you make is that spending time “branding” yourself is a waste of time. I think everyone does have a brand but it isn’t something we need to spend so much time crafting. If we approach all interactions (off or online) genuinely, then we’ll be seen as we are and thats what is important.

    Patrick Sallee

    January 1, 2010 at 3:38 PM

    • You’re right that the time spent cultivating one’s brand is part of the problem. I see that cultivation as being in direct competition with genuine interaction. What are we trying to edit away? However, I still disagree that everyone has a brand. Instead, branding is in the eye of the beholder.


      January 4, 2010 at 8:24 PM

  2. Elizabeth, your personal brand is about how others experience you, especially as it relates to your business persona. Whether you try to determine what it will be, it is already in play. It relates to your level of professionalism, credibility, appearance when doing business, responsiveness, etc. So whether you dislike the term or not, it’s part of your reputation.

    Elaine Fogel

    January 2, 2010 at 6:01 PM

    • Elaine- I think your explanation of branding is a good clear one (which is hard to find), and it’s a concept I do understand. As I mentioned to Justin, though, I see personal branding as a lens one uses to make sense of people who are relative strangers, despite the fact that we may interact with them every day. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it have a brand?


      January 4, 2010 at 8:27 PM

  3. Elizabeth, I agree with you about personal branding. Not to be too meta, but I think a lot on the emphasis on personal branding is to *build* the brand of personal branding.

    In other words, by pushing “personal branding” as a thing, it allows people to both identify with eachother and differentiate themselves from others (“I *do* personal branding”). In other words, there is no reason to say “I have a personal brand” if nobody knows what a personal brand is or why it’s important to have one. So you have to push it. Hard.

    Nothing I’ve seen about personal branding has convinced me that it’s anything different than managing your reputation which has been on the books since at least Dale Carnegie in the 1930s (“How to win friends and influence others”). It’s just wrapped up in the language of marketing and branding.

    That all being said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with analyzing your reputation or artifacts within any framework (branding or social positioning or power or whatever). My bother is mostly with the type of thing that Andrew Swenson says most eloquently: “By leveraging fear as a rhetorical device, the experts are able to position themselves as benevolent guides who will help prevent your personal brand from such tarnishing.”

    Which makes me think of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bait and Switch”. My annoyance isn’t with Personal Branding itself, it’s with the promotion of it as a self-help professional panacea.


    January 3, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    • Spot on, Ben. You said it better than I could. I agree that there’s some fearmongering going on. And I can see how personal branding has evolved from Carnegie’s concepts. Many good points- thanks for clarifying my own thinking!


      January 4, 2010 at 8:29 PM

  4. You can take away the word “personal brand” but you can’t take away the experience people have of interacting with you. So, what I take away from this post is that you are thoughtful, a risky thinker, and a good writer.

    You can call it something besides personal brand, but when I think of you, I will think of this. And, if you have any sense of using a network to create stability in your life and your career, you will want to be able to tell people who you are, so that they know who you are and can help you get where you want to go.

    If you don’t like the idea of personal brand, don’t blog about it. Just be yourself and make sure people know who you are.



    Penelope Trunk

    January 4, 2010 at 9:00 AM

    • Hey Elizabeth!

      Penelope has a good point. That’s what I was getting at in the article I posted … It’s like, a rose by any other name is still a rose, right?

      I wonder if the same concept applies to personal branding?

      A personal brand, by any other name, is still a personal brand. Bottom line, the stuff you do as Elizabeth Clawson is identifiable as your stuff. Wouldn’t that “stuff” be your personal brand?

      I’m not completely comfortable with the idea, but there’s merit to the concept. Bottom line, I’m on the fence.


      Justin Wise

      January 4, 2010 at 6:36 PM

      • Good point. So if we called it something different, would it rankle me less? Probably. But would it be a better concept? Hard to say. Could another term downplay the marketing connotation that risks reducing human beings to commodities? Some will say that’s exactly what we are, especially job-seekers during a recession. I just wonder if branding is the easy way out- a shortcut to understanding someone we’ll probably never know on a more genuine level. Think about it- do you think of your closest friends as themselves first, or as brands?


        January 4, 2010 at 8:40 PM

    • Thanks for your comment, Penelope. You and Elaine are right that terminology aside, people are going to a) perceive others in specific ways and b) apply labels to those perceptions, all rolled up in a neat package of reputation. And it’s true that the term “branding” and its marketing parallels irritate me more than the concept. I think it’s important, though, to blog my qualms with personal branding, because the existing discussion is dominated by those who buy into it. If we’re going to have a conversation, let’s have one that acknowledges the shortcomings, as Justin did so eloquently. The comments on my post have done an admirable job of that so far, and I’m thrilled at the opinions being shared.


      January 4, 2010 at 8:35 PM

  5. I think there’s a stigma about the term, “branding.” I can boil the entire thing down to one concept. As an individual, it’s important to be a “mensch” in your lifetime. (That’s Yiddish for being a decent human being.) In our tradition, when one gets buried, we don’t focus on wealth, fame, notoriety, or accomplishments. We state whether someone had a “shem tov” – a good name. That’s what personal branding is.

    Elaine Fogel

    January 5, 2010 at 1:32 PM

  6. Social media allows users to display their talents, skills, experience, and thoughts to the world. The main idea is if someone is interested in you or your thoughts they can easily contact you. They may contact you and boost your ego, want to be your friend, or want to purchase your product or services. It can really help your career.

    Cambridge Who's Who

    January 21, 2010 at 7:51 AM

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