The problem with personal branding

One of the problems with personal branding is that we tell people that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. We scare people with stories about college students posting inappropriate pictures, employees complaining about their bosses, and search engines remembering everything. Then we tell people that they need to be on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter and their own blog if they’re going to have a chance in today’s job market.

And we wonder why people don’t make the most of these tools.

I think the cautionary tales we tell people are interesting. We tell people to remember that search engines have a long memory, so you shouldn’t post complaints about your work or drunken pictures of you at parties. I think that’s focusing on the surface and not the roots. It’s not about keeping rants offline. It’s about getting better at focusing on the good stuff and taking responsibility for shaping your life.

Here’s the difference:

Personal branding tip: Don’t gripe about your work on your blog.

Life tip: Figure out how to make your work better so that you don’t want to gripe all the time. Accept that there will be times when you want to gripe and being frustrated is part of learning. Focus on the positive.


I think people are getting stuck, not because the tools are hard to use, but because people don’t know what to share. We can talk about how personal branding and social networking are great ways to build your reputation and demonstrate your expertise, but many people don’t feel like they’re experts.

I care about this because thanks to connection and opportunity compounding, the gap between the people who get it and the people who don’t get it will get wider and wider unless we do something.

In my case, that something includes demonstrating that you don’t have to be an expert to create value. That you can admit you don’t know something and you want to learn. That you can make mistakes and deal with your weaknesses. That you can build on your strengths and interests, and that the path from mediocre to good is worthwhile. That you don’t have to have a “voice” right away and you don’t have to sound like a polished writer. That you can be human.

When we tell companies to be human, we don’t mean that companies should use toilet humor or lie. We mean the best part of being human – connecting authentically, being real. We should encourage people to be human, too. I don’t want people to think that they need to be these polished and carefully-controlled brands. (Particularly considering we’re telling companies that they don’t control their messages!) I want people to find and share their best – as well as the seeds of what could be great. I want to build a world where people don’t have to worry about the rough, unfinished parts of themselves. I want to build a world where people can learn out in the open if they want to.

I think under-sharing is more of a problem than over-sharing. Yes, it’s a good idea to think before you post, and there are plenty of examples of failure. There’s that occasional exhibitionistic streak—the rebel in us that likes to shock others—that we need to rein in. But the bigger and more interesting challenge is that people don’t know what would be good to share, what other people might find useful.

Sure, thinking about personal brands can help you figure out what you know that other people might find useful. Truth is, practically anything can help someone out there. I’m often surprised by what people pick up from what I do – even little things like the way I use [  ] and [X] and [-] in my weekly review. So there’s a ton of things you can share, and the fun challenge is prioritizing so that you can get more valuable things out first. When you think that way – starting from a position of abundance and opportunity, rather than from a position of fear and anxiety – things get much easier.

So: Stop worrying about personal branding. Focus on what matters. Share. Create value. Don’t worry about whether you’re on all the right social networks and you have a complete profile with lots of recommendations. Start figuring out who you are, what you know and do, why it matters, what you can share, and how you can share it. Don’t worry about whether you look good. Focus on how you can help others. Everything else flows from that.

4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Thank you for discussing both sides of the personal branding coin, Sacha.

    Many people reject the concept of P.B. because they think it’s a shallow, manipulative tactic to get others to think highly of them.

    What those people don’t realize is that personal branding actually means digging deep, making positive life choices and becoming the extraordinary person that each of us has the potential to be.

    However, that’s hard work. It’s much easier dismiss personal branding as an overused, meaningless, marketing buzzword that should be applied to corporate advertising and not humans.

    But, the people who are willing to do the work, will surely reap the rewards.

  • Raymond Zeitler

    It’s not just griping about work on a blog that’s the problem. People who hire can be spooked by political points of view, movie, book and music preferences, and even the blogs that you follow.

    My approach is to maintain an anonymous blog in which to fully express myself. My LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, which are not anonymous, are merely bland facades for the purposes of professionalism and political correctness, so as not to offend family and friends.

    The merging of web services makes this difficult. For example, I need to use my GMail account to log into my anonymous blog on Blogspot because they are both Google services. The GMail account features my first and last name. So I can’t use the Blogspot profile feature at all.

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  • There’s nothing wrong with personal branding – if taking the positive sense of this term.
    Personal branding is how you want others to see you, but this must be done authenticly
    If you are true with yourself, and keeping your authentic self-confidence – you’ll have no problem to show weakness or ask a question.

  • I like how Bernie Michalik thinks about it. He pointed out the difference between personal branding and identity. I like working on my identity a whole lot more than working on my “brand.” =)

  • I agree that making a “personal brand” seems quite stressful. As I student in Advertising my profs constantly remind us how IMPORTANT it is to make a brand identity; have a voice, a community, to specialize in an area(s)…. It’s stressful. On the other hand, I love spending time on this subject because it helps me realize who I am today and how I want to develop in the future.

    Thanks for the insight. I feel a little ease now hearing that someone else feels the pressure.

  • Y’all should check out Maureen Johnson’s excellent rant on this: we’re not brands, we’re people. =)

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