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Why Personal Branding Is So Misunderstood

IMB_Fortune_MrAwesome Personal branding has a branding problem. If most people in business today were asked to describe someone who had a personal brand, the first image that often comes to mind is of the often-ridiculed "social media guru" persona – someone who talks endlessly about social media and is well known online for it, but has little real experience at anything beyond talking about themselves. Others might think of someone with a big personality who has used social media expertly to amplify their success. Earlier today a journalist for CNN/Fortune ignited this debate about the value (or lack of value) in a personal brand through an article that featured Scott Monty from Ford*.

In the piece, Scott was portrayed as someone whose "personal brand doesn't take a back seat to anyone else's — not even that of Ford Motor Co., his employer." Many commenters have already jumped on the article throughout the day to defend Scott as a great guy and not the "sanctimonious self-serving asshat" as one commenter felt he was portrayed as in the article. This is not the first time that a debate about personal branding has erupted pitting the believers against the skeptics, and it likely won't be the last.

Is personal branding becoming a catchphrase to describe those who are using social media as a drip pan for their overflowing egos or is it just misunderstood? As someone who has spent considerable time building a personal brand while working at a large company, this is a question I have struggled with before and I believe it comes through to six main assumptions (some truth and some fiction):

The FICTION About Personal Branding

  1. Personal branding is about ego instead of reputation. Ego is a dirty word, which carries with it the notion of a misbehaved, arrogant, generally pompous individual. The truth is, we all have egos – but a good personal brand is all about reputation. When you have one, people know something about you before you walk in the door. Hardly anyone would argue that your reputation is important, but somehow the label of "personal brand" became disconnected from that.
  2. Personal brands are only grown at the expense of corporate brands. A main point from the Forbes piece seemed to be that if Scott Monty was growing his personal brand, then he was not doing everything he could be doing for Ford. Yet when we look at successful sales people or executives who post record sales or perform well and move on to bigger and higher paying jobs … generally they are not lambasted for building their own reputation while successfully contributing to the company they work for. Personal brands are the same.
  3. Only certain types of individuals have personal brands. When it comes to discussions of personal branding, there are certain types of individuals that you might point to as having strong personal brands – when the truth is that we all have personal brands. In an age where our virtual identity extends beyond just who we are in person and also encapsulates our profile on LinkedIn or the networks we join on Facebook – each of us has a digital reputation and that equates to a personal brand. Already, this personal brand impacts how people are searching for jobs and is likely to extend further to more parts of business as well.

The TRUTH About Personal Branding

  1. Many personal brands START egotistical. As I have shared in blog posts before, it is much easier to be egotistical than to be open online. In fact, the place where most people start when using social media tools is on the more egotistical side, just talking about themselves. It is not a sign of raging arrogance, but of initial naivety. When you are not used to "engaging" online, it is easier to just talk about yourself. Eventually, the good personal brands get past this and become something more robust.
  2. High profile tension between personal brands and companies will continue. There have already been several stories of individuals who built a personal brand and had difficulty remaining in their corporate positions and this will continue. To attribute this only to a phenomena that happens for personal branding, however, would be a mistake. There are situations every day where people outgrow roles at companies and move on, for many reasons. Growing a personal brand will continue to be one of these reasons, but should not be singled out.
  3. Personal branding matters because PEOPLE matter. I have been vocal for several years now about the premise that people make decisions to buy from a company or talk about it based on the personal relationship they have with individuals who work there as much as the association they have with the product. If you have ever recommended a product that you didn't buy to someone who needed it, you know this well. Companies with personality succeed because they create a deep emotional connection with customers, and personality comes from individuals. If the faceless company is dying, as I believe it is in every industry, then more and more companies will need to hire people with strong personal brands and this tension between the individual and the company will be even more present in business.

The solution, in my opinion, is not to single out and vilify the people who are visibly working to balance personal brands with their employers', but instead to treat them as examples of a future in the business world that is rapidly approaching for us all.

*Disclaimer – Ford is a client of Ogilvy (my employer) and Scott is a personal friend of mine. This post was in no way solicited by either and represents only my honest opinion about personal branding.

  • http://personalbrandingblog.com Dan Schawbel

    Well stated Rohit.

  • http://flavors.me/merubin75 Michael E. Rubin

    Fantastic post, Rohit. Seriously, everything you’ve said is spot-on.

    I especially believe you’re right on the money with the myth that “Only certain types of individuals have personal brands.” I could not agree more. The fact is, everybody has value. If you diminish them because they don’t fit your type, then you do a disservice to yourself and the other person.

    Social Media is about enabling other people, fostering relationship, and building connection. That’s probably a bit too Kumbaya for some people, but it’s the honest to goodness truth. Human nature doesn’t change just because we’re all online now. Having a million Twitter followers or Facebook “Likes” isn’t going to change the fact that people don’t like to listen to jerks.


    Michael E. Rubin | Social Media Strategist | Fifth Third Bank
    Disclosure: I am a Fifth Third employee, and this is my personal opinion.

  • http://www.sueannereed.com Sue Anne Reed

    Great post. I do think the personal branding vs. corporate branding is something that needs to continue to be debated. Look at Frank Eliason leaving Comcast and what that means for the @comcastcares handle now that Frank is not going to be behind it.

    I think the interviewer got it totally wrong with Scott though. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about Scott is how he uses his followers to bring recognition to others at Ford and to what the Ford brand is doing. It’s rarely about his speaking engagements or a new book.

  • http://www.flaggedforfollowup.com Ian Sohn

    Bravo, Rohit. Well said.
    -Ian

  • Andrea Meyer

    Here is the thing: Scott Monty was aware he had a personal brand, it was developed and he continues to protect it. Many people simply do not pay attention to this and it is important. Being smart enough to have cultivated it and be recognized for it should not be criticized or questioned (as the CNN/Fortune article did). Perhaps his quote did not serve him well: “I was Scott Monty before I came to Ford, and I’ll be Scott Monty after I leave Ford,” but the fact remains that Ford will be Ford after his departure, too. That both should benefit from the relationship should not be an issue.

  • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

    Anyone who says they have a “personal brand” self identifies themselves as an ego in motion, IMO. Reputation and brand are not synonymous, especially when it directly pertains to the human condition. Humans make incredible mistakes as part of their journey, and that cannot be compared to an entity of many.

    Tom Peters did the world a disservice with that article 15 years ago. All the people who want to feel important have gleemed onto the concept with an iron grip. THey would be better focused on simply doing the next right thing.

  • Shannon

    You have a typo in #3 under Truth:

    “If you have every recommended…”

    should be

    “If you have ever recommended…”

  • http://jasonwietholter.com Jason Wietholter

    Fiction #2 and Truth #3 go hand in hand. You must realize that people do business with companies because of the relationship they have with that company and that relationship can only come through individuals.

    If you encourage your employees to build their own personal brand, while instilling belief in your corporate brand, you have a win-win-win all around. Your company wins through the increased good will, the employees win because they get recognition and your customers win because they get something truly unique.

  • http://Www.jessepappas.com Jesse Pappas

    Great points and there is a lot of value in associating a person or personal brand to a product. Companies are going to take greater risks in the future because of personal brands. The rewards for the company should be greater as well if they choose the right person to represent them. People like to buy from other people and not from big companies.

  • http://www.rohitbhargava.com Rohit

    @Dan – Thanks for commenting and continuing to publish some great thinking in this space.

    @Michael – Thanks for the nudge yesterday on this topic and for continuing to be a great supporter, hopefully we can meet in person at an event soon.

    @Sue, @Andrea, @Ian – Thanks for the comments and adding to the discussion

    @Geoff – You and I will probably have to agree to disagree on this as I know your view on personal branding is different from mine and this is one of the few things we have disagreed on before. In my opinion, if a brand is indeed about your company’s reputation then why should it be a stretch to say that your personal brand is about your personal reputation? I think you are reacting negatively to the term of “personal brand” – which is understandable given all the misunderstanding and negative stories that it fosters, but not everyone who thinking about personal branding is someone “who want to feel important.” Instead, I think understanding what your personal brand is (and isn’t) should be about self awareness and vital if you want to avoid taking yourself too seriously. I don’t walk around talking about how personal branding is defining my life – but I DO realize that I am building a brand for myself through my content and actions in the online and offline worlds. Whether you want to call it a personal brand or not, each of us are doing the same in our own way. As I shared in the piece above – personal brands aren’t only for a small subset of people, just like branding isn’t for a small subset of companies.

    @Shannon – Thanks, typo fixed.

    @Jason, @Jesse – Thanks for the comments and for your great points.

  • http://www.veronicatsvetkov.com Veronica Tsvetkov

    Truth #2 and #3 are dead on. I just stumbled on Scott’s blog for the first time very recently and it was great and encouraging to see someone else who had a full-time marketing job with a company and at the same time was voicing their personal opinion about marketing on their blog. It’s unfortunate that he was singled out and portrayed negatively.

  • http://mattpoulton.com Matt Poulton

    Rohit, great thoughts on where the personal brand is going in the future. It is going to be an uphill battle to correctly brand the personal brand. In my conversations with work associates and friends I’ve come to realize that most people don’t think they need a personal brand. They don’t understand the importance it has now and the incredible importance it will have in their future. They don’t feel like what they do significantly contributes to their environment in the workplace. In the short run, I feel it is more important to get people thinking about what matters most to them. What key words define their life goals. People understand this lingo and idea and are much more likely to respond by putting in some serious thought to what they want their “brand” to be in life.

    I loved your post! Thanks for taking the time to write it up!

  • http://www.reactorr.com/blog/ online branding

    I feel personal branding would be about positioning and reputation management. We all stand for something. Influencing that perception is only natural, as most of us would like to shape that image and have others see us the way we see ourselves.

    Personal branding can also have ties to successes in career and networking opportunities, which can lead to further reaching social integration. It’s almost a cycle. Your personal brand allows you to connect with certain individuals, which opens doors down the road.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/1212871596s28885 Sarah Hathorn

    Rohit, great post. I agree working with corporate executives they often feel that they need only be loyal to their corporate brand. Working with high level executive’s professional presence – it’s all about communicating with impact your presence through your core personal brand attributes. Executives need to understand that they must incorporate both the corporate brand image and their own personal brand image for greater success today. Every professional work who works in a corporate environment is also a unique individual with many talents and gifts and personal branding is how they remain on top during a competitive business environment.

    I loved your point of view! Thanks for sharing!

  • http://ontherecordpodcast.com Eric Schwartzman

    I agree with Geoff. No matter how passionately the concept of a “personal brand” might be defended, the choice of words conjures up the image of some enterprising opportunist strategizing their personality for monetary gain. Brands are manufactured and sold. People are born and live. Those who let their ambition drive their persona are by definition sell-outs, because they are letting themselves take a back seat to their ambitions, and that’s inauthentic. You may define personal branding differently, but this is why I’ve always had difficulty with the term.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/walterakana Walter Akana

    Outstanding post, Rohit!

    Certainly some of the antipathy toward personal branding results from people who abuse the concept. And yet, as you point out, personal brand and reputation are virtually synonymous.

    I think that in some ways the disconnect between reputation and personal brand is that reputation has often been seen as in the hands of other people – not actively managed. You avoided hurting your reputation, generally, but didn’t necessarily promote it.

    Personal brand, on the other hand, is something you do make an effort to uncover, or discern, so you can actively manage it. Yet, active management is not the same as constant promotion. Rather, it is using your understanding of who you are and the difference you make for others – and then directing your focus in a productive and efficient ways.

    This need not create tension between the individual and the company. In fact, throughout my corporate experience in financial services, I witnessed frequent instances where business was done primarily because of the professional reputation (a.k.a. personal brand) of the deal team leader. And yet, winning the deal brought clear benefit to the company as well.

    Finally, I agree that the “faceless company is dying.â€￾ Indeed, when a company like Pricewaterhouse Coopers launches a personal branding week (link to bit.ly), and begins using personal brand as part of its strategy (link to bit.ly), then you know it’s not something you can easily dismiss!

  • http://www.sales4.ca Hamish

    Isn’t “personal brand” just another way of saying “reputation”? Or is your reputation what builds your personal brand?

    I would concentrate more on building a solid reputation than worrying about a “personal brand.”

    To Walter’s comment, because we need to feel in control of how others perceive us, we focus on our “personal brand” instead of diligently building a reputation that spreads without our direct involvement.

    The difference between a reputation and a personal brand is the difference between a third party testimonial and marketing collateral.

  • http://www.serengeticom.com Beth Harte

    Rohit,

    I won’t dive into this because you know my position on personal branding. For others it’s this: Branding is MORE than identity, relationship, etc. and I think if people understood the responsibility and work that goes into proper branding, they’d run far away because it would be too much for them to handle.

    As for Scott…anyone who knows Scott knows the first words out of his mouth when you see him are “Hey! How are you? Want to see the new Ford Flex, Mustang, Taurus, etc. ??” He puts Ford first and doing so is just simply professional and reflecting work ethic.

    Beth Harte
    Serengeti Communications
    @bethharte

  • http://www.3hatscommunications.com/blog/ Davina K. Brewer

    Rohit- Bookmarking this for a future blog post, smart take on this “debate.” Truth #3 is what cuts through it all, people matter so true. Some comment love:

    @Andrea Simple and brilliant. Scott will always be Scott; Ford will be Ford. Even more I think both “brands” have benefited from this mutually beneficial relationship.

    @Walter, @Jason are right about the win-win of refining both vs. the faceless company.

    @Eric, @Hamish Have similar views on the term “personal” branding vs. a corporate brand. I prefer professional reputation, yet I’ll admit there’s more to it than that. @Beth is right about the work involved in building and maintaining a strong professional reputation and establishing a personal brand.

    Thanks for this!

  • http://iam-bc.com/ Shalini Bahl

    I am a big fan of personal branding because I resonate with your truth #3. I think we build relationships with people, so it is important for people working in corporations to build strong authentic personal brands that are consistent with the corporations’ brands and it will be to the advantage of both if they do that.

    I agree that a lot goes into branding and most people are ignorant about how to build a strong personal brand. But what I find missing in most discussions is the importance of self awareness in personal branding. There cannot be a strong personal brand if one doesn’t have a compelling story, which one can only have if we are in touch with our highest potential and really Own our Truth.

    More about that in a Blog post I wrote on what is missing in our current discussions on personal branding:
    link to iam-bc.com

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0133f2d7416a970b me.yahoo.com/a/qDAUenFtoIxHLtqMYVFy6U.s1A–

    Rohit, Thanks for the post. I’ve been thinking of writing blogs for a while. Being an introvert (that’s why I got into IT in the first place) I saw “Personal Branding” as an ego trip. Now I see it from a better (correct) perspective.

  • http://www.smile.ly JustinAtSmile.ly

    Great Post! I don’t necessarily believe that personal branding and corporate branding are mutually exclusive. In fact, a strong personal branding can actually be used as a overall corporate branding tool.

  • Dolly Saxena

    Yes, Rohit, was great reading your thoughts. I do believe that when an individuals personal branding comes in the way of corporate branding(if he/she is working for an organization) then its time to review the balance and make amends so as not to upset the apple cart.
    And really, theres nothing wrong with personal branding- in fact lots of times we have seen that new product launches happily survive the initial phase because they have a flamboyant godfather/mother)who maybe a brand himself or herself!…of course later, the market pronounces it good or bad, but the first thrust is so crucial! Who will ultimately be or should be the bigger brand is great stuff for a perennial debate, with a very dynamic tipping point!!

  • http://fcinf.com/v/b056 Zak Stawski

    You make a strong argument, especially in your last point under Truth. While branding on a personal level and branding on a corporate level require different strategies, your point acknowledges that personal brands can teach corporate brands a lot–especially the corporate brands that are just now making forays into social.

    I actually think that personal branding demonstrates how difficult making decisions on social can be. Celebrities, for instance, are simultaneously people and brands, so it’s harder to follow the adage, “don’t start learning social media on your brand’s time” and learn it as a fairly-anonymous individual. Of course, if you become a celebrity through social media like this guy (link to fcinf.com), then that’s a different story.

  • http://www.personalbranding.tv William Arruda

    Thanks, Rohit. Great stuff here. I will reference it when dispelling personal branding myths!

    I have many clients who see personal and corporate branding as complementary. They understand that their employees need to build on the corporate brand in a way that is authentic to them. I think this will become the norm as companies stop seeing personal branding as threat and start looking at it as a silver bullet.

    Thanks again, Rohit.
    Best.
    William

    http://www.reachpersonalbranding.com

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