In today’s hyper-connected, no-barrier-to-enty, Consumer-generated-content world it’s hard to escape the cult of Personal Branding. Everyone has a website, blog, Twitter account and Facebook page and they aren’t afraid to use them. But it seems to me we’ve reached an inflection point, and what was once smart move now feels self-congratulatory and driven more by ego than producing value.
I think we as marketers, strategists, consultants and social media participants need to re-think what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. What’s the purpose of having 15,000 people following you on Twitter? To help clarify my thoughts on this issue, I went back to article that really launched one of the most influential magazines of the 1990s:
Fast Company, Tom Peters and You!
Back in 1997 Fast Company changed the way business people thought about themselves, business, branding and marketing with the “Brand Called You” cover story by marketing guru Tom Peters. The article is worth reading again, some 12 years later. In going over it again myself I got the feeling that, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, the original intent had lost some of its clarity.
“Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.” – David Ogilvy
With the advent of social media platforms like MySpace and YouTube, content sharing sites like Digg and microblogging tools like Twitter, people have taken personal brands to mean “look at me,” and when enough people did, presto!, you had yourself a personal brand. But that’s a gross misrepresentation of what Peters was saying, or at least what he meant. His idea of a personal brand was one that provided value. Unique value that set you apart from others. Yes, you can get 23 million people to hear your pleas on behalf of Britney Spears, but I’m not sure what value (beyond comedic) you’re bringing to the table.
The “Brand Called You”-era is dead.
Should you have personality, a distinct P.O.V. on issues and are qualities like honesty, integrity and hard work still important? Absolutely, in fact those qualities and attributes will always be (and have always been) valuable. But the inward-looking focus on branding yourself is no longer the best way to serve yourself.
Here’s what Geoff Livingston said back in November of 2008:
There is a big difference between reputation and personal brands. Reputation is built upon past experiences — good or bad, a real track record. Personal branding is often an ego-based image based on communications. A personal brand can demonstrate a person is there, but it’s often shallow and can be contrived. It’s just like a sport stripe on a car, nice but no engine, no guts, no substance.
It’s become a lot easier to create a personal brand. Gather up 3,000 Twitter followers (by any means necessary); create a Facebook page and start blogging. In three months you just created your personal brand. But, as Geoff put it, that’s just a racing stripe. Of course the very best of breed, the Seth Godins and Chris Brogans have created very strong personal brands by creating real value for thousands of people every day. Their personal brands are focused on helping others, not on promoting themselves.
The Brand Called Me, Me, Me!
I’m tired of seeing social media bloggers focusing inward. Whether it’s a laundry list of the latest appearances, self-referential links to previous entries in the blog, or thought leadership that feeds an overinflated ego, their sites become a great monument to…themselves.
That’s the trap of the current ‘Personal Brand’ or “Brand Called You’ thinking. How can I get more attention for myself, my blog, my Twitter feed. There are just very few people who provide value for the eyeballs and minds they are furiously trying to gather. I think most people engaged in conspicuous personal branding are missing another key element: It’s hard for other people to become engaged in your efforts. What’s in it for me when you get your 2,000 Twitter follower? The answer: not much.
Becoming a brand manager by being a… brand manager
Here’s Tom Peters from that Fast Company feature:
To start thinking like your own favorite brand manager, ask yourself the same question the brand managers at Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop ask themselves: What is it that my product or service does that makes it different?
This is something I think a lot of people misinterpreted or maybe just simply missed an opportunity. Today, thinking of yourself as a brand is like swimming in an ocean full of sharks all fighting over the same seal. That’s a blood red ocean. I think there is still an opportunity to have a Blue Ocean Strategy. By creating a brand that lives outside yourself.
Here’s another excerpt:
One key to growing your power is to recognize the simple fact that we now live in a project world. Almost all work today is organized into bite-sized packets called projects. A project-based world is ideal for growing your brand: projects exist around deliverables, they create measurables, and they leave you with braggables. If you’re not spending at least 70% of your time working on projects, creating projects, or organizing your (apparently mundane) tasks into projects, you are sadly living in the past. Today you have to think, breathe, act, and work in projects.
Now that’s an idea I can get behind. But instead of making your personal brand your project, why not make creating an actual brand your project? Rather than trying to impress your boss, colleagues and peers by having an awesome LinkedIn account, why not create something external and tangible. I’ve referenced Seth Godin as someone who has gone about creating a personal brand the right way, but he’s also created things like Squidoo and Triiibes, brands in and of themselves that live without and beyond his participation, yet are unmistably his creation.
Putting My Branding Where My Mouth Is
I’ve put a lot of work into creating Eyecube as my personal brand. I’ve learned a lot, made plenty of mistakes, but overall I think I’ve made a respectable contribution to the greater marketing community. But long before Eyecube I was the founder of Arsenal America, the official supporter’s club of Arsenal FC. From nothing, with no money, I created one of the top U.S.-based supporter’s clubs. Even though I haven’t been actively involved for a couple of years, Arsenal America is still a vibrant brand with members throughout the country, the vast majority of which I’ve never met.
A few months ago I launched Foundtracks, an art project / creative outlet that I’m excited about continuing in 2009. It’s still very early for Foundtracks, but I think it has potential to inspire others to create their own artifcitions.
These projects aren’t money makers, but they demonstrate my ability to promote something other than myself, work with others and compete in the marketplace of ideas. Those sound like the type of attributes an employer or client would be interested in.
I’m certainly not alone in seeing the value of creating external brands. Take a look at this recent New York Times article citing ad agencies that are creating their own brands. Listen to what Ben Jenkins, the strategic director of Zag, a division of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says:
“Advertising is a massively old model based on the 1950s. As media has proliferated, it’s become a lot harder for us to earn enough money off our ideas,” said Ben Jenkins, . “Zag is about creating the properties ourselves from scratch and having 100 percent of it.”
Let’s do a quick rewrite and see if it doesn’t still ring true:
“Personal branding is a massively old model based on the early-2000s. As social media plaforms have proliferated, it’s become a lot harder for us to earn enough money off our blogs. Now it’s about creating the properties ourselves from scratch and having 100 percent of it.”
The Challenge For 2009
So, for 2009 I think I might pull back a little bit on the Facebook Friending Frenzy, or not check my Twitter Follower/Following ratio quite so diligently. It’s not that I think those social media channels are worthless or irrelevant, I think they are very valuable. But I think I could learn a lot more about brand stewardship by creating something that other people can interact with and even contribute to. If I can prove my abilities to create, maintain and grow a real brand – with virtually no resources – then I think I can demonstrate to my company and our clients that I can provide real value to them.
I’ve already got some ideas, but I would love to hear from you, please let me know your thoughts.