Geoff Livingston's recent poll on the Livingston blog is a testament to this fact. Almost 60 percent of survey participants could be classified as undecided. And why wouldn't they be? For every post about how to build a personal brand, there are three more that make fun of personal branding.
Why is personal branding such a complex topic?
For starters, branding is a complex topic. When it comes to organizations, people frequently confuse identity with branding. It seems to take a long time before they understand that a logo is not a brand. Logos are merely representations of the brand relationship between the people and organization. Basically, when people see the logo, marketers want those people to attach the context of a fulfilled brand promise to it.
It’s easier to understand than it sounds. Before the BP logo was covered in oil, the BP sun thingy was meant to symbolize its commitment to clean alternative energy.
This brand promise has since imploded because the relationship cannot sustain the weight of reality. Green is great, except when it's blackish brown and covering animals.
Before you can understand personal branding, you have to understand organizational branding. Ironically, most personal branding coaches teach organizational branding and pass it off as personal branding. So you might know more than you think.
The downside is they lied. Personal branding doesn’t work like organizational branding. Personal branding is trickier because it can’t do what organizations do. Organizations get to “make up” their original brand promise out of thin air. People don’t.
Whatever came before you has already established the foundation. You’ve been working on it since the day you were born, with people reinforcing it along the way.
This can be good or bad for you. (I think it's bad, but that's another story.) But regardless of whether you think it's good or bad, it lays the ground work. And that makes changing yourself a bit more complex than buying new sunglasses.
Sure, some personal branding folks often suggest you chop all that baggage off (which isn’t impossible) and then pick one of a handful of models to reinvent yourself. Let's look at the three most common.
1. Be who you are (assuming you know who you are).
2. Be who you want to be (assuming you know what that is).
3. Be what will get you ahead in your career (a very popular premise).
On their own, none of these ideas really "work." They don't work because, generally, people are trying to build their personal brands around outcomes they want (much like companies do). That's not about who you are or what you are. That's about what you want.
Considering three common models for personal branding.
1. Transparency. That one is easy to dismiss. Just ask Tony Hayward what he thinks about it. Or Mel Gibson? Or Tom Cruise? I’m a truth nut, but let’s face facts: transparency can be stupid.
2. Vision. It sounds really good, but it doesn’t consider that most people don't work to be "who" they want to be. They work for "what" they want to be. And that means bending to the audience's will much like some organizations try to do. The real problem with number two is that "who you are" and "what you are" might not be the same thing. A little transparency, much like the aforementioned, will crash all your hard work down.
3. Act The Part. Right. Ask Howard Stern about that one. He often found himself caught between the person he plays on the radio and who he was at home. Those lines blurred, even in public. Take a look on Letterman, 1987; 1993; 2009.
4. Reputation. I didn't list it before because it's not a personal branding model. It is, however, an alternative. This concept tosses out personal branding and attempts to focus on reputation. Simply put, reputation is based on not what you project, but what you do. It has some merit, but advocates neglect that reputation is easily distorted.
People are too complex for personal branding.
The book I've been working on for some time is about this very subject so I tend not to write about it too much here. But given the confusion being created in social media (a place where some people try to reinvent themselves based on social media advice), I thought I'd toss out two ideas. The one above and the one below.
Most people are not cognitively trained to accept how complex other people are.
We tend to remember about others what we share about ourselves — tiny slivers. I was reminded of this simple fact when I shared my A7X review. One of my cousins said she would have never guessed I like metal. (I like many things, across all spectrums, from classical to hip hop.) Another friend said the same. But another, who doesn't know me as well, was not surprised.
So, only two-thirds ever got some unspoken memo. What does that mean?
It's subtle, but it means two-thirds have a slightly changed perception about me, maybe favorably because they like A7X too. For a bigger audience, an equal number of tiny positive, negative, or neutral reactions. And that's just about music.
Let's say we add any number of more personal topics (religion, politics, economics, philanthropy) or minute-by-minute details (ranging from whether I go to the gym or if I accept an invitation to speak in Asia). All the while, keep in mind that masses of people will only remember one or two details (positively or negatively) about you.
So what do you get? A crapshoot. Even if you pick what you share carefully, most people will only remember what fits with a central theme that they create for themselves. You cannot control it. It is what it is.
Political candidates know this all too well. If one of them says they like A7X, people might accept it. But if the other one says the same thing, people might reject it. But more than that, it isn't limited to public figures. It could be anyone. Imagine knowing a few more details (likes and dislikes) about an elementary school teacher. Parents might not be too comfortable learning about a hidden piercing or radical political viewpoint or some other "weirdness."
There's the rub.
If we accept personal branding or reputation is more than identity (styles, clothing, etc.), then the only choice is to find common ground between who you are and what you are and what you are doing and where you are doing it while maintaining authenticity at the same time, assuming you don’t work for a company that is fundamentally different from you.
Do you know what? That's not personal branding or reputation at all. It's something else.
It's called character. And it cannot be taught as much as it can be learned. And, if you ask me, people ought to pay much more attention to that than the labels others might thrust upon them. Branding is better left on the doorstep of organizations.