Monday, October 26, 2009

Thoughts on Matthew Fenton's "You're Not a Brand"

I recently read an article related to "personal branding" from Matthew Fenton of Three Deuce Branding in my hometown of Cincinnati. After reading a lot of his other writings, I can see we agree on a lot. However, this article I contend with...

MAY 29, 2009

You're Not a Brand

You're not a brand.

Can we agree on that? It's not a bad thing, and it's not personal. I'm not a brand either.

There's a lot of fuss these days about "personal branding." And though I make my living as a brand consultant, I can sum up my feelings about personal branding in two words: "Mostly bunk." Some of it is tried-and-true concepts with a lazy new label. Some of it is authors trying to sell books. Most of it is flat-out misguided.

Allow me to present five arguments against the notion of personal branding:

The (mis)understanding argument. Branding is frequently misunderstood, so it follows that personal branding would fare no better. Too many people still think branding is only about what you say, not what you do - that it's only about external appearances, not internal truths. According to this definition, if your house has a crumbling foundation, your best move is to paint it.

This point of view results in exactly the wrong branding – and personal branding – techniques. And the people who apply them will tend to become self-promotional drones, more concerned about how they seem to others than who they really are.

The utilitarian argument. Would the world be a better place if we all thought of ourselves as brands and acted accordingly? I meaneveryone. You. Your spouse. Stan from the accounting department. Every single person at every single networking event. Your 13-year-old.

Play that one out in your head. I don't believe that perceiving oneself as a brand – as opposed to, for instance, a person – represents an advance for humanity.

The hierarchy argument. Branding is a subset of life, not the other way around. Put another way, brands can learn more from people than people can learn from brands.

When my clients face a difficult brand decision, I often recommend that one way to solve it is to refer to the rules of good living. However, at no point in my life, when faced with a difficult personal decision, have I asked myself, "What would Target do?" And I loveTarget.

The relationship argument. Brands arose from transactional relationships. Sure, some brands transcend this construct. But that doesn't change the fundamentals. Brands are signifiers within the sphere of commerce. You select and pay for the name you trust, and you expect to get something of equal or greater value in return.

Personal relationships are far richer and more complex, and are based on different motivations. To reduce them to the purely transactional would, at best, reflect a very cynical worldview.

The reality argument. My friend Tricia is funny. I don't think she has a funny brand. And I don't think she's trying to brand herself as funny. I just think she's funny.

I also know a number of professionals who are outstanding at what they do. It might be market research, or agency-client relationships, or personal finance, or lawn care. Whatever it may be, I don't think that's their brand either. I think it's one thing, among many, that makes them who they are.

You don't really think of the people you meet as "brands." Do you?

I've heard the counter-arguments: "I'm in the market for a new job. Aren't branding tactics relevant?" Or, "What about my professional expertise? Isn't that my brand?"

Those arguments are valid, to a point: Specifically, to the point that you equate personal branding with the accentuation of your authentic strengths. Anything beyond that is bullshit, not branding.

I'll be the first to tell you that a brand is only as good as its perceptions in the market. But it would be fallacious logic to suggest that any kind of perception is thus the result of "branding." You may possess expertise, and you may be perceived as such. That doesn't make you a brand.

If you're in the job market, I'd certainly recommend doing some things that great brands do. I'd suggest that you target your search, differentiate yourself, and tell a compelling story. But these aren't good ideas because some brands apply them. They're good ideas because they work.

Also remember that great brands are built through consistency, and in no other way. So if you just start "branding" yourself to find a job – there's that coat of paint again – then I don't like your chances. If you didn't have a network of believers before your job search, it will be tough to create and activate one.

So, I repeat: You're not a brand. You are many, many things, but a brand is not among them. And that's as it should be. Let's spend less time trying to be good brands, and more time trying to be good people. The rest will work itself out.

A version of this post appeared in the Business Courier of Cincinnati on May 29, 2009, in the column "That Branding Thing."


My Response:

I think you would agree that being conscious of your reputation is indisputably a positive thing.

The only pitfall there is to thinking in terms of branding related to yourself is leaning to far over toward the side of perception vs. reality. If you're weighting way more time to working on and thinking about how to project that you have certain skills as opposed to cultivating those skills and strengthening them, you need to swing back the other way. For example, if I spent 20 hours a week for 3 years working on my online presence and 2 hours a week to developing my design sensibilities, I would be a tragedy of a designer and look like a huge smoke-and-mirrors liar when people got to know me and choose to do business with me. But to devote zero time to that is just as bad; just a little extra effort will get you very far.

Keep in mind though there is NO other area of business that can give you the explosive growth that good marketing can, as too can good "personal branding" aka managing your reputation. But if you can't deliver what you're "branding" yourself to be, then you'll also begin to develop a reputation of letting people down too. So, yes, have a strong foundation of integrity, confidence, and all the other alphabet soup of positive traits, but to write off consciously managing your reputation and crafting people's first impressions of you is advice I wouldn't heed.

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