If you do a Google search on “personal brand” you get about 98,500,000 results! It’s been written about in a positive light in Forbes Magazine and a host of other legitimate media sources. Everybody you talk to will bring up personal brand in one conversation or another, it’s the talk of the town. PWC (Price Waterhouse Cooper) has a 42 page workbook designed to help their employees build their personal brand (If personal brand is still important to you after reading this blog post, you have to check out the PWC guide, it’s really quite excellent).
But what if personal brand isn’t really that important? What if personal brand is actually harming your career aspirations and personal goals? What if personal branding is the 2017 version of “The Secret,” important to everybody for a time until in retrospect it all seems kind of silly and out of fashion?
One of my evening rituals (for better or for worse) is flipping through FlipBook. One of its charms is that it knows my interests and gives me a lot of good reading to help my mind declutter from a busy day. But one night I ran into an article that wouldn’t let me sleep, in fact, it would keep me up for a few hours wrestling with the pros and cons of an idea that I’ve been pretty supportive of: Personal brand.
The article, written by Bryan Clark, featured an interview with Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. In the article she speaks plainly about the fact that in her opinion people don’t need a personal brand:
“If you think you are building your personal brand, please don’t. You don’t have a brand. Crest has a brand. Perrier has a brand. When I hear anyone talk about building their personal brands, I know that’s not right.
The reason it’s not right is that products are marketed. “This is sparkling water, it is one of my favorites. It is put in a bottle that I really like with packaging I really like.” But people are not that simple. We’re not packaged. And when we are packaged, we are ineffective and inauthentic. I don’t have a brand, but I do have a voice.
It is a voice that I used to help build a company. It is a voice that spoke out on women. It is a voice that sometimes gets things wrong. And it’s a voice I now use to talk about grief and try to break some of the isolation I felt. If you think you are building a personal brand, you will not have the career you want because you will not be authentic. Don’t package yourself. Just speak and speak honestly, with some data behind you.” (source)
How can personal brand not be important in the age of social and Buyer 2.0? I personally get asked all the time to help professionals with their personal branding. I know, I know! Many of my colleagues reading this will instantly say that she’s being ridiculous, that she is simply part of the old guard and not embracing the new. I had my armor up as soon as I started reading the article.
Once I settled down and stopped cursing at Sheryl’s words under my breath I spent the next few hours deconstructing her words, fighting back and forth with myself over whether or not they had merit or if she was simply stirring up the muck. I had some thoughts like these:
“I’m not a tube of toothpaste.”
“I’m not for sale.”
“I’m nuanced with strengths and flaws.”
And about another 2 hours worth of thoughts had me thinking perhaps personal brand is a limiting ideology, that it may in fact do more harm than good. In the morning I didn’t feel very rested and couldn’t get the idea of personal brand out of my head. If I’m honest with myself, I think that I might agree with Sheryl Sandberg. Here are 3 reasons my position may be shifting:
Personal Brands Can Be Limiting: A good example in my space of how brands can limit us involves sales professionals in the office equipment channel. Many end-user customers actually call them “Copier Reps.” In my years of doing ride alongs with office equipment sales specialists in my role as an MPS specialist I was tasked with helping them to sell solutions. Often when I would ask questions like “are you interested in looking at a document management solution?” or “have you heard of rules-based or “follow-me” printing?” the response from the customer would be “yes, we’re in talks with a few companies on those topics right now.” The sales rep’s jaw would drop every time and they would ask “we sell all those things! Why didn’t you talk to me?” The answer from the customer: “We didn’t know. We thought you just sold copiers.” Their personal brands actually limited their sales potential!
Personal Brands Can Be Inaccurate: In order to create a brand we have to ask some hard questions about what our strengths and weaknesses are. Just like eye witnesses at a crime scene we often have a much different impression of our capabilities than others might have of us. In an effort to create our own brand we might create one that doesn’t reflect what we’re actually really good at. If we are inaccurate in the creation of our personal brand it brings us back to point number one: We limit ourselves by focusing on the wrong things. Some of the best bosses I’ve ever had were much better at evaluating my strengths than I am of myself.
There have been occasions where the role I was hired to fulfill, the one my personal brand said I was good at, were changed. Much of my career was in direct sales and that’s what I thought I was really good at. Afterall, I hit quotas, made great money, and progressed through the ranks. But I was actually much better at something else and never knew it until my boss gave me a new role: Business Development & Marketing. He saw that I wasn’t only good in those areas, but GREAT. He saw something in my personal brand that needed adjusting in a big way. Thank goodness, because the last few years of my career have been the most rewarding ever. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees because we’re too close to it.
Personal Brand Can Impede Growth: The example that I gave above about moving from sales into business development and marketing would never have happened if I was too proud or tied to my perceived personal brand. In order to advance professionally, either in title or level of responsibility, one must constantly change and learn. The danger of a personal brand is that our vision may be so narrow that we fail to look for opportunities to expand our abilities and horizons. Toothpaste will never become a 2017 Corvette Stingray, and the Corvette will never become a space shuttle. What they are, their “brand”, forever seals their fate to be what they already are.
Some brands are extremely nuanced and not constraining at all. In fact, I would say they are “unbranded.” For example, when you think of the “GE” brand, what do you imagine? Perhaps lightbulbs? What about finance? Equipment? Transportation? Technology? GE is all of these things and a whole lot more. Maybe my new thing will be “personal UN-branding”. I help people to un-brand all the time if I’m honest with myself. As an example, when I’m helping people to improve their profiles on LinkedIn the first thing I do is get them to change their “Headline.” Usually people just put their job position. By way of example, my headline used to be “VP of Business Development at Print Audit.” Now it reads “2017 ENX "Difference Maker", helping organizations become more visible, effective & profitable in the age of Buyer 2.0.” People will have plenty of time to discover where I work and what my official role is, my “brand”, if you will, when they scroll through my LinkedIn profile or see my email signature.
I still believe in social selling and building an online presence. I still believe in the power of using content to drive value to customers. I still believe that we could all do a better job of increasing our value by being a stronger part of the conversation. I still believe that the way we sell and the way we market ourselves is forever changed thanks to the changing and evolving ways in which we all communicate. I guess I’m just going to have to spend more time thinking about the concept of personal branding. Thanks for the homework and restless night Sheryl Sandberg. Just when I thought I had it all figured out…
Anybody that knows me well knows that I am often branded as “The MPS Wolverine.” I’m rather fond of it actually. Speaking of Wolverine: For a powerful look at the potentially binding chains of personal brand check out this clip of Laura’s Eulogy for Wolverine in the film “Logan” (spoiler alert!):
Now it’s your turn! Do you still believe in personal brand? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Does the definition even matter? Leave your comments and be part of the conversation!