Look, who’s talking – a critical opinion on personal branding

Look, who’s talking – a critical opinion on personal branding

We experience, from time to time, that some topics dominate public discussions in certain areas. Unfortunately, this is more and more difficult to judge what is considered to be dominant, really, as we shall rely on the virtual platforms and media instead of live events, consequently we experience the surrounding environment of ours in a way some algorithms want us to…

Fortunately, we have the opportunity to see the environment through the eyes of our customers and potential customers, as well, which may give us a little bit more diverse and more detailed picture about some parts of the world. In this particular case, an interview with Cheryl Sandberg was the momentum which made us decide to come up with this post. She was asked – amongst others – about her opinion on personal branding, and she gave a rather unexpected answer, implying a rather negative approach. Well, our belief is that a meaningful and contentious discussion has a higher possibility, once all pros and cons are on the table, instead of having a constant flow of information from one direction, providing the impression of being the one and only, ultimate direction.

In order to explain our points, we make one step back, and start from the beginning. What does branding mean? How can it be applied for a person? In order to be illustrative, we may apply simplifications, of course.

Branding. We know from our studies that in a market economy, many market participants are competing for the customers with their products and services, and they try to stand out from the crowd by – practically – all means. One of these means may be to incorporate the basic distinctions under a ’label’, and build up a strong perception in the receivers (the targeted customers) to associate all the distinctive characteristics, features, principles, etc. with that ’label’. The brand. In a successful case, once the brand shows up or heard, it is associated with the requested set of features, characteristics, missions, messages, whatever the original purpose was.

Person, personal, human. We mean human beings this time, when talking about persons, who have their basic characteristics as such (the genetics), and who are adding skills and capabilities, knowledge and experience to these basics over their lifetimes. They show up in roles like community and family members, friends and colleagues, employers or employees, taxpayers, customers, clients, patients, citizens, residents, and we could continue further on. Naturally, humans tend to be all different, stemming from genetics, although have also similarities, on the top of which the circumstances and acquired features over time do also have a huge impact.

In the real world, we, human beings, persons, often long for rather controversial things: we need to belong somewhere, to feel to be the part of something, but also would like to be unique, outstanding and individual. We tend to admire others for their different opinion or approach, we need icons and heroes, although we prefer restaurants, films and holiday locations with lots of similar (similarly positive) reviews, meaning opinions of others, before making our choice. Assimilate and stand out, shortly.

To add one more thing here, we are capable of and having a strong desire to build a picture of ourselves, in line with our own perception about ourselves, in others. Nowadays, we have much and easily achievable support for creating and maintaining such an image. Furthermore, we are not only encouraged, but required, or even forced to do so. Look at the recruitment processes, career advisors, coaches and others, who all are about to convince us that this is not only beneficial, but necessary, unavoidable. Is it really? And who is the one who benefits?

Our human connections and interactions tend to be dominated, if not replaced, by virtual ones, where these images have even more importance due to the limitations. That is true. Although, it seems to be a potential to build a desired image for ourselves, instead of our real one, thus it is rather a trap to walk into…

Stability, reliability, continuity. Branding (at least a successful one) requires a lot of efforts, careful planning and execution, then maintenance, to meet the expectations. Once established, it needs compliance, meaning all strategies, developments, actions, communications, etc. to be aligned with the characteristics, features, principles, etc. which have been incorporated under the brand. To have a strong association.

Once something is embedded, deeply rooted, it becomes difficult to change. Certain features, characteristics, principles though may become uncomfortable over time. We see that to stop selling certain brands may have a value, and can contribute to the image of the producer, as one capable of renewal, change, thus adaption. But we can also see companies becoming compromised and losing their market positions, such as products becoming a targets of politics, unsatisfaction or damage, not to go further.

Adaption. The most important key to survival is the capability of adaption. This is valid in the natural environment, such as in a market economy. Although, we must live together with the fact that certain species disappear from nature, such as products and market participants, once they are no longer capable of (or willing to – in certain cases) accommodating changes and adapt. Consequently, we can agree, more or less, that adaption, the capability and willingness to change is something important. It is a value, if not a necessity.

Consequently, branding, if done properly, shall have the room for adaption, without losing credibility, meaning questioning the fundamentum, the essence of the created brand.

Once we try to find analogy for personal branding in the branding activity of the corporate world, meaning legal persons, the conclusions may not be that delightful… Where to withdraw in an extreme case? What to give up? How to stay credible? What are the costs? What if we do not succeed?

Essence of a brand. You are the brand. We can read this statement in articles and see in promotions. Rather interesting, if we recall what we have stated earlier about individuality and assimilation. What shall we centre our branding efforts around? The similarities, or the uniqueness? Of course, the right mixture of them, as you can bet… What is the right mixture then? It depends – comes the answer, as you can also bet…

Honestly, these answers are correct in the sense that we all are who we are, and have our similarities and differences, which make the world interesting and colourful, and  provide the opportunity to have great icons, leaders and heroes, such as important, but invisible supporters, followers and contributors, at the same time, who are also comfortable in their roles (being different personalities, but similarly humans) in a healthy and positive environment. Why do we need branding then?

Unfortunately, as was said, our personality is affected by circumstances, as well, and these may result in controversial characteristics, features, principles, etc. Jealousy, fear, aggression, etc. also exist, as a part of human nature, which – this way or that – may have their roots in some kind of a discrepancy. Of course, it is a very strong simplification, and only serves the purposes of this particular topic. Discrepancy between perception and statements, expectations and reality, words and actions, intuition and orders, instincts and rules, etc. We may go even further, and state that we all have all the positive and negative elements in our personalities. The difference is which ones dominate. We shall not forget that being ’positive’ and ’negative’ may also have different meanings in different environments, under different circumstances… It is complex enough, right? The reaction would be: this is why to differentiate yourself with personal branding – as you can bet, again. Before going further on, see one more important element.

A motive. If we would like to find the reasons why personal branding appeared and emerged, we may look for the motives. We believe that the motives may be found somewhere in connection with complexity. More accurately, the complexity of human nature, and the extensive individuality, as we have explained earlier.

Although we did not call it personal branding those days, the experts who were advising us on how to create our curriculum to be successful in a job application, our introduction to our website, etc., were practically doing something similar. To catch the eyes of the recruiters (nowadays more the algorhythms used for filtering CVs) or our potential readers, customers, audience, etc. (nowadays more the algorhythms used by the search engines). Time has become a scarce resource a long ago, efficiency-hunting continues and accelerates, although, it is parallel to a strong need for specialisation and customised solutions. Which latter requires extraordinary visionaries, innovators, etc. (we, unfortunately call them talents, though talent can be related to very different skills)  in one hand, to break through with innovation, and supporters who can operationalise and commercialise the results of the break-throughs.

Assuming that these requirements are rather complex and time is scarce in a competitive environment, it is easier to standardise (‘simplify’ may also be correct here). Also the uniqueness. No, we are not kidding. Whose motives do we talk about then?

Convincing humans, who are to take the roles of either the talents or the supporters (for simplification, to illustrate our point), to ’brand’ themselves accordingly, makes this tasks much easier. The targets of personal branding are simply jumping into boxes by highlighting certain ’important’ characteristics, features and principles of theirs. Of course, in order to stand out of the crowd …

Everyone is different in the same way. Besides being concerned about becoming a victim of such a smart trick, we would not consider it particularly harmful for the humans. But only to the extent of helping to establish a win-win situation in terms of creating the right matches. Using the employment market example, employers are to find employees with different skills, to provide them jobs that meet their expectations, and that employees are to find the respective dream jobs, which fit their skills and motivations. If the aforementioned small trick makes it easier, then we tend to be forgiving.  

However, a trick is a trick, and may easily be understood as manipulation. Manipulation of the subject, who is convinced to brand him or herself, and manipulation of the receivers, the environment, who may receive an engineered image, not to mention the impression of having no particularly outstanding personalities around…

It may not be an accident that we hear more and more often that finding talents (in the aforementioned meaning) is the biggest issue in the corporate environment. Would not the real problem be to see the result of the ‘standardised uniqueness’? And not to have time (or enough courage?) to dig into the deep and get to know the potential employees (partners, etc.)?

Fake it, until you make it. Further problems occur, when discrepancies appear, and dissonance is generated in the humans, such as when certain bunch of characteristics, features and principles get prioritised, preferred, labelled more important, higher quality, etc. compared to others. We are all different and unique in a way, as was discussed earlier, and all similar in the desire for feeling, experiencing this uniqueness.

Once we see the recipe of being unique, and we expect the desired appreciation for it, we simply go for the ingredients. If this recipe is provided by ‘reputed experts’, who are smart and experienced enough to highlight problems that they can provide a solution for, we feel good as we can expect professional help to have all the ingredients and procedures to cook them. To receive the appreciation for our uniqueness.

We might not be far with our conclusion, that this currently experienced individualism and forced uniqueness is an artificially engineered issue. The roots may be found in the good old principle of ’highlight a problem in order to be the one to provide the solution for it’. It is not a novelty. We may accept it as the part of the game, but only as long as it does not create harm to us, human beings, neither directly nor indirectly.

Provided that a ’problem’ might not be a fact, but based on perception, we arrive to a very thin ice, as ’highlighting’ a problem may be very close to ’crafting’ one, which, in essence, may mean to manipulate our perception…

But we may be happy with it for the time being. We get the desired result: our new, shiny and glamorous personal brand. Which we have then to maintain, to keep credibility, and to align all our strategies, developments, actions and also communication with it…

But what happens if we experience a growing discrepancy between our ‘brand’ and our real self? What if we really grow, learn, develop, and consequently change very significantly? What shall we stop selling?

Manipulating manipulators. Demand generates the supply. Shall we emphasise here that we are not kidding? We actually, partly are, as we might not be that far from reality with our conclusion that we may already had been convinced about having a demand before we realised it. Simply, because It is way much easier to desire something that we see, is explained to be useful, nice, practical, or just having a high prestige.

We, humans, are tend to be trapped into our own capabilities, which means that we may not be able to figure out what we really need, just face issues that may be handled in one way or another. Our basic characteristics, features and principles also kick in when it comes to trying to be outstanding with our way of living, or possessions, availabilities etc., and wanting to be the part of a community, a family, not to feel alone, etc.. – just for repetition.

We may enter into discussions about digitalisation and smart technologies here. We may also initiate a long debate, if they are beneficial or detrimental for us, and we will find a whole library filled with reasonings pro and con, all having at least one valid point. Such as about industrialisation, in general or even fashion. This is why we stop here, and conclude only on one thing, regarding personal branding: there is a high chance that we become an instrument of something (or somebody?) else, rather than the beneficiary of it. Consequently, it may be worth having some critical words on the possible risks of it.  

Conclusion: do we need personal branding? There seems to be a shift of focus from the content, the essence towards the presentation, the packaging. We do not state that presentation and packaging is not necessary or useful, but we do state that these latter cannot take the place of the former.

If we simply give ourselves, it means that we are who we are, e.g. a (wo)man of principles with the characteristics and features. Why should we label it and call it personal branding? What do we add, in essence, to it? If we give – even if only partly – something different from what we are, then we may come across as fake. A manipulator. Does  it really have benefits? It may, but surely on the short term. We either run into a trap and make a mistake, the result of which may be to loose our credibility, or start to feel a growing dissonance inside, between our real self and the created brand, as we age, grow, develop, or anyhow change. As humans do, by their nature.

It may not be accidental to see an increasing number of people fighting with stress, certain levels of mental disorders, anger management problems, depression and/or deviance, when experiencing easy access to all types of means, instruments and opportunities to make our life easier, happier and/or more contentious.

Returning to our example of the employment market, it may not be accidental, either, to hear more and more often the difficulty of finding the right personnel, when we see a growing number of career, human resource, recruitment, etc. advisors on both the employer and employee sides, not to mention the technological support in the form of platforms, algorithms, artificial intelligence, etc. Similarly, we hear more and more often about otherwise talented, devoted, passionate, committed people to leave their careers, being disappointed, burnt out, etc.

Our conclusion is that we all seem to lose the focus on the essence, the content, however described, and become trapped in an artificial, engineered reality, and seek our success in terms of presentation and packaging. Not surprisingly, we are the ones, who go deeper and deeper, once we experienced discrepancies and dissonance by choosing improper solutions. Unintentionally. However, let us admit that we all work on engineering this artificial reality for ourselves…

Looking into the details, we find the followings: we are encouraged (if not forced) to stand out of the crowd, to get visibility, but we have to have a means for this which scores us high enough in an unknown algorithm (thus shall be something pre-assumed, standardised – means not unique). We are expected to be unique and individual, to be labelled competitive, and then integrate and assimilate to comply, in order not to be isolated. We are expected to be outstanding, above and beyond, and then feel forced, if not trapped into teams, families, communities, where these characteristics may be labelled as detrimental. Controversy, discrepancy, dissonance. All over.

What is the solution then? Stop manipulating and stop being manipulated. We may remember that the meaning of and the way we experience ‘success’ is rather a matter of perception. Would not it be better to be a (wo)man of human values instead of a (wo)man of success, however described – most probably – by others? (after Albert Einstein). 

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