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The "Personal Brand" Myth

Jeremiah Gardner, Gawker Media

The

I was asked recently to do a workshop at a local college on branding. I agreed with the intention of talking about branding as a meta-concept. Little did I know, that the talk was pre-titled as a part of a larger ongoing series... and the title of the talk I was booked to do was, "Creating Your Own Brand." My initial reaction was, admittedly, repulsion.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

The phrase, "personal brand" sends shivers up my spine and almost immediately expels any liquid in my mouth onto the floor. Yet the phrase has traction. Lots and lots of traction. At the time of this writing, there are over 53 million results for a search on "personal branding." Respected institutions like Forbes, Wired, and even Fast Company have weighed in on the subject. So instead of rail against the Man, I decided to actually unpack the concept as best I can.

Are People Brands?

Existentially speaking, absolutely not. But practically, yes, people are technically brands. Before you open up an email and begin listing all the reasons I'm wrong, give me a chance to contextualize my answer.

My definition (as flawed as it may be) of brand is relationship. A brand is how we emotionally and intuitively relate to a specific product, organization, or idea. A brand is pointing to something deep inside of us and lives somewhere in the intersection of intention and reception (and the inverse, reception and intention).

If we apply this thinking about brand to people, then a "personal brand" contextually refers to how we relate to a specific person. Just like we have gut feelings about capital "B" Brands, we also have gut feelings about capital "P" People. It's true that employers, employees, and the people we end up doing business with develop gut feelings about us. Those feelings are shaped in the same intersection of intention and reception that feelings about Brands are.

Although philosophically speaking, people are not brands; functionally we can make the argument that in fact, we each have a brand (or relational story) that is unique to us.

Where It Gets Messy

My own gut reaction to the phrase, "personal brand," is rooted in how we end up talking about shaping our personal brands. Often (and do the reading for yourself) so called "experts" and the like suggest that shaping your personal brand is about segmenting your outward appearance for targeted audiences. In other words, creating personas of yourself that are geared toward a specific audience or potential employer.

This thinking manifests itself in advice like creating a "professional" Facebook profile and a "personal" Facebook profile page, or crafting a witty and half-truth branded answer to the dreaded, "What's your biggest weakness" question.

Let Me Be Frank: This Thinking Is Bullshit

It's bullshit because People relate to other People. People hire People. People want to do business with other People. As Simon Sinek put it, "The goal is to do business with people that believe what you believe." The personal branding myth tells you to become more machine than human, more processed than raw and more fluff than substance. I believe the opposite. We ought to be focused on becoming more human in how we relate to those around us and less machine.

Be More Human

The point in thinking about yourself as a "brand" isn't to create an alter-ego called our "personal brand" that presents a super-human, polished, and robotic persona of the real you. The point is to become authentic in who you are and intentional about how you tell your story. Here's how:

1. Know who you are. What do you value? What do you believe? What are you impassioned about? Why? What are you really good at? What are you really bad at? Be intimately acquainted with your unique story... your why.

2. Tell your story. Find ways to tell your story in meaningful, raw, and human ways. And tell it as best you can right now.

Drinking My Own Kool-Aid

So here's my attempt at sharing my story with you:

Hi, I'm Jeremiah. I was born in the City of Sin, and raised in the City of Angels. I love translating complex products, ideas, and organizations for passionate entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs to help them craft better brands. I'm great at breaking down complex ideas, I'm terrible at negotiation. Actually, terrible doesn't even begin to scratch the surface.

I'm struggling through writing my first book about entrepreneurial brand development titled The Lean Brand. It's gotta be the most challenging thing I've done in my professional career to date but I have a support system that's pushing me through all those tough, long days. I've experienced real failure and real success in my career, learning the whole way. I'm proud of who I am, excited for what the future holds, and glad to have met you.

It's not perfect... but neither am I. Anyone else want to take a shot?

The "Personal Brand" Myth: Becoming More Human and Less Machine | Medium


Jeremiah Gardner was born in the City of Sin and raised in the City of Angels. He helps translate complex ideas and products to real people. Follow Jeremiah on Twitter @jeremiahgardner.

Image remixed from Gergely Attila (Shutterstock).

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