Monday, April 23

Branding: Why I Stopped Worrying About Being Batman

There has been plenty of buzz-up over Peter Shankman's declaration that people have one brand — not personal or professional (hat tip: Olivier Blanchard). And while this verdict has garnered some attention because Shankman is well followed, the epiphany isn't so special.

It has always been true, even if "brand" is the wrong word. He's talking about character.

"Every single day, someone directs me to their LinkedIn profile to learn more about them. You know what I do when they do that?" Shankman says. "I go right to Facebook and search on their name there. Why? Because I know they're on their best behavior on LinkedIn, but on Facebook, they're going to be 'real.' Guess what? I'm not the only person who thinks this way."

In his example, he's right. People share different things in different places.

So unless you are a superhero — Superman, Batman, Spiderman,  Iron Man, and the like — there is no division between your personal and professional lives. In fact, superheroes aren't so good at having two either. Even people who swap their public personas with secret identities by finding the closest phone booth or sliding down a bat pole, tend to struggle in attempting to juggle multiple personalities.

But that is not to say Shankman is right. He is presenting a conversation starter, not a conclusion.

People ought to give up on brands. People ought to give up on judgments. 

As a society, we set different behavioral boundaries in different places: Someone might behave differently in church than they would at the local pub. It's a mistake to think just because you are exposed to someone at only one location or the other somehow means they are pulling a fast one.

On the contrary, the fact that they exhibit appropriate behaviors in two different environments is admirable. It demonstrates how they can adapt to a variety of social settings. In fact, if people acted the same in church as they did in a pub, you might be more concerned about them.

The same can be said about social networks too. People act differently on Facebook and LinkedIn because each community has different behavioral expectations. And, for many people who work in communication-related fields, we probably have a lot more than merely two. Everyone does, really.

Given that, the opposite of what Shankman is getting at bears truth too. People who are able to encapsulate their entirety into a single "brand" that consists of readily available attributes would be remarkably 1-dimensional and probably boring. At minimum, they are most likely faking it.

Let's face it. If you can fit everything about yourself within the confines of an elevator speech that people can actually remember, then you have a bigger problem than figuring out what to write down on the cocktail napkin so you can commit it to memory. Well-rounded people are not organizations where a mission, vision, and voice encompasses an agreed upon direction for every facet of operations.

In fact, this chronic need to ferret out the "truth about people," as Shankman suggests, says more about those lurkers than it could ever say about the people they investigate. Short of discovering someone is ethically and morally dysfunctional or engaged in something illegal, why can't we learn to accept what people want to share with us?

How I learned to stop worrying about my brand like Batman.

When I was just beginning my career, long before social media, I was especially concerned about my professional brand. I would literally adopt a different demeanor, dress, and attitude to exhibit a certain sense of serious professionalism to offset my youthful age, a barrier for many overly judgmental prospects.

While it worked well enough, there was some consequence. Being overtly aware of everything you say, do, and share (as a by-product of what you project) can be stifling. It also creates the propensity for fear and doubt because purposely exhibiting certain qualities also means chronically keeping score.

Isn't that the fundamental reason most people are afraid to speak in public? They are too worried about what other people might think of them. Did they like what I said? Do they see me as an expert? Do they agree with my conclusions? And so on and so forth.

It was too maddening to maintain. So, I gave it up. Instead, I decided to adopt a basic principle. I care what people think, but I don't care what they might think of me. Why should I? I'm a complex person.

People are too complex for a single brand. Get over it.

I like Mozart as much as metal (as well as alternative, punk, country, rap, hip hop, folk, etc.). I am both fiscally conservative and socially committed. I have faith, but don't measure others against my beliefs. I enjoy clinical books that some people call boorish and contemporary books that others call controversial. I wear a suit when the occasion calls for one, and Doc Martens when it does not.

I could fill a million file cabinets with contradictory likes and another million with things that I haven't made up my mind about. And I certainly don't want to share them all with everyone or, in some cases, with anyone. So what?

If someone is going to imagine a "brand" about me, it will likely depend upon the setting where they meet me offline. So why ought it be any different online? When I eventually decided to make a public page beyond my personal account on Facebook a few weeks ago, it had nothing to do with branding or ego and everything to do with privacy and context.

In other words, while some subjects cross over, others do not. People who want to read about communication-related topics are a little less interested in commentaries about music, literature, and movies. People who want to contact me for a job don't really need to know that I went to a musical production a few nights ago. People whom I have a conversation on Twitter don't need to be part of the conversations I have with select friends and family (and don't really want to be, either).

Sure, Shankman is right that the boundaries between personal and professional sometimes blur, but the course correction doesn't need to be a burden to the individual so much. It needs to burden society.

Just because information exists doesn't mean we need to rifle through it all like an investigative reporter, looking for way to add up the labels and deliver a judgement. If we do need to do that, then it might say more about our own characters than anything we can uncover.
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