In 1997, Tom Peters coined the phrase “Me Inc.” This sparked the idea that we should strategically build our own personal brand and hone in on our unique selling proposition (USP). Peters recognized the competitiveness of the marketplace. Since then, online presence has quickly penetrated every person’s life. Social channels consume valuable time, always demanding more content to satisfy the millions of eyeballs. The personal branding concept has grown exponentially.
Almost 3,000 books have been published on the topic of personal branding. A Google search returns over 2.5 billion pages. There is no shortage of resources but, in the grand scheme of things, do you really need a personal brand in the first place?
Shelly Lazarus, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, would argue that a human isn’t a product, so they are therefore not a brand. She has emphatically stated that “I hate it when people talk about personal brand. Those words imply that people need to adopt identities that are artificial and plastic and packaged, when what actually works is authenticity.”
A Slave to Personal Branding
Once you have built your presence on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and your blog, you are obligated to feed the channels with consumable content. Good social presences also engage with other content and solicit likes and comments. We become slaves to the online—curating images, developing witty insights, capturing video expositions and quipping quotable proses. Twitter suggests you create three tweets a day, complete with eye-catching imagery, to engage your audience.
But most people have a real job, and it doesn’t include being a self-publisher. As a brand builder, I used to think building your personal brand was a must. Today, I am not so sure. As the pendulum swings, I am beginning to question the idea of branding an individual. Neatly packaging each of us into a formulaic design, carefully crafting our look and tone of voice, and hunting for the right followers. It’s beginning to feel like a controlled environment, where we must conform to the needs of business, social channels and HR recruiters searching for new human capital. I understand the need for the perfect online resume that highlights our strengths and hides our weaknesses but, as Lazarus says, we aren’t a product.
Do we need to control how we present ourselves online? Absolutely! But do we need to spend important family time to build our personal brand? No.
Life is too short. Life is about living in the real world, not about gathering likes, comments, and shares. Anthropologist Ilana Gershon and author of Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (Or Don’t Find) Work Today, states that personal branding doesn’t actually increase a job seeker’s chances of landing a position.
Humans Aren’t Brands
We are trying to take a complex, multidimensional, living and breathing human (with emotional needs and wants, personality traits, and values to boot) and fit them into a simplified, rigid, one-dimensional product brand. Using regimented branding techniques to enact personal branding doesn’t do any person justice.
Gershon says that people trying to brand themselves “are using techniques designed to associate an object with a personality, techniques that had to be radically simplified to be effective precisely because objects don’t engage in the world in the complex ways that people do.”
And seriously, do we need 7 billion personal brands? We already have too many product brands! Many personal brand experts have taken the traditional product branding discipline and parlayed it into a business of packaging people into brands. This has become one of the biggest self-help topics on the internet, thanks to LinkedIn and bloggers. No surprise, all the social media channels profit from this craze. Sounds more like a money-making scheme than sound advice.
Playing to Our Vanity
The personal brand success metrics are based on the number of followers and likes. The metrics, unsurprisingly, were set by brand marketing experts. Although being liked can contribute to your sense of self-worth, social media following has little impact on career success. “It’s a reward cycle, you get a squirt of dopamine every time you get a like or a positive response on social media,” explains psychologist Emma Kenny. According to the Omnicore Agency, the Facebook “like” button has been pressed over 1.13 trillion times.
Okay. So we are addicted to social media and the desire to be liked. In the real world, networking and human interactions are positive and healthy for our survival as a social animal. Trying to emulate this positive effect on social media isn’t as easy nor as healthy, says Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis, both professors in the science of social norms. In 2017, they studied the relationship between social media use (primarily Facebook) and well-being. They attribute the negative experience of social media to unrealistic curated content from others’ lives, leading to negative self-comparison. Add to this the addictiveness of always interacting; a constant need to be online. They conclude that “online social interactions are no substitute for the real thing.”
Our Digital Footprint
The reality is that we all must present a digital self or resume if we want to work in this digitally transforming world. We can try to ignore the fact that recruiters and employers search online as part of the hiring process but, at the end of the day, if we don’t take control of our digital footprint, others are free to do so. Creating a digital existences of one’s self immediately shifts you from being free-wheeling and shooting from the hip to having to be more strategic, more thoughtful and more vulnerable. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a point of view or a strong conviction, but everything you do and say is on the record for everyone to see and analyse. All of your actions and inactions will define you. Your professional persona quickly becomes your authentic self and vice versa. We are expected to conform to our employers’ values and act as advocates to support our companies’ business goals. Our personal lives are no longer offline or off the record. Over time, it becomes impossible to shift from your professional persona to your personal self without jeopardizing your credibility or your true intent. You are better off to align the professional with the personal self from the start.
Standing Out Beyond a Commodity
Many years ago, most products were undistinguished commodities based on supply and demand, without any intrinsic value. Then came brilliant marketers who took a commodity like water, built a brand story, and got people to spend more money on a litre of water than a litre of gasoline. Will personal branding protect our intrinsic value as we compete for jobs against artificial intelligence? After all, the job market is changing faster than we can enhance our skills and build our resumes. Having a post-secondary degree used to translate into better job prospects, but degrees hold far less weight today.
By 2030, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 30 percent of the world’s human labour will be displaced by intelligent agents and robots. Similarly, Oxford University predicts that 47 percent of total US employment is at risk due to computerization. That could mean over 800 million people requiring rebranding as they attempt to switch job categories. The potential upheaval of the workforce creates a greater urgency to differentiate ourselves from technology (and each other) if we wish to survive. According to a Jobvite survey of recruiters, 95 percent of those polled think that the job market is going to get more competitive, and job seekers that stand out are likely to benefit. Does this mean personal branding may become paramount for our survival and keep us from becoming a human commodity without a job?
The perfect brand is everything a human being isn’t—consistent, predictable, rational, logical, and dependable. Some of the greatest attributes humans have are emotions, feelings, and thoughts. We get bored easily and our moods shift like the unpredictable weather. We grow and learn from our experiences and our values continue to evolve.
Being a brand limits us significantly. We can build different online personas, but these become a challenge to manage over time. The easiest way to build an online brand is to step away from our individual quirks and move towards a business entity, like a consultant with clear attributes and benefits. Your brand may be your name, but it becomes more of a business entity bigger than just you. Better yet, just focus on ensuring your LinkedIn profile is always up-to-date and portrays all of your redeeming qualities.
Life is Short
Indra Gardiner Bowers, CEO of i.d.e.a, says that “Life goes fast and the time you spend cultivating your so-called brand is not going to make you happier, more fulfilled, or more valuable. What will do that is focusing on being a good human being, doing your work well, acting with integrity and truly loving the people in your life who deserve to be loved.”
Be cognizant of the time and effort in continuously feeding the system with your thoughts, comments, sounds, and images. Don’t waste your life curating it. Eric Ruiz, writer and Partner Marketingat Netflix, reminds us that the sum of our tweets, images, and online thoughts are only a small part of our reputation. The most important aspect is the hardwork (actions and decisions) we perform five days (or more) a week. He says “A personal brand is worthless if it’s not backed up.”
To Tom Peter’s credit, the world was very different 20 years ago. Today, search engines like Google allow anyone to find out everything there is to know about you. Where you live, where you work, what you are interested in, what you post, and what you have shown interest in (likes and shares) becomes commonplace knowledge. The moral of this story? It’s important to take control of the image you portray in the digital world, especially in the workplace. Your personal image strategy is an essential career asset, as it functions as your online resume as a living digital record of who you are. Be cognizant of what you post online and think carefully about future audiences for your content, but don’t get so wrapped up in the online world that you forget to participate in the real one. Like most things, balance and common sense is key.