There is much confusion about what a personal brand actually means. Generally, it’s assumed to refer to a self-promotional style of marketing in which the marketer seeks some measure of personal notoriety, credibility, even fame—usually in the form of a large social media following or YouTube channel following.
It’s also assumed by many that establishing and promoting a “personal brand” includes some measure of inauthenticity and shameless self-promotion.
There is another way of looking at personal brand though, which is precisely authentic and self-sharing, not self-promotional. This method is gutsy, real, and mostly valuable to others in some form.
Where We Fall Down
I’ve been involved in brand strategy work in various forms for more than 20 years, the past seven years as a brand strategist in the B2B realm. In the past two years I’ve been venturing into the realm of personal branding, motivated by the frustration I’ve seen in individuals who feel stymied, stifled, and even somewhat aimless in their careers. It really comes down to this one thing: a tragic inability that most people have to talk about themselves in a way that truly speaks to their greatest talents and gifts.
It’s simply hard for all but the most egocentric of individuals to speak compellingly about what they do that is special, unique, and valuable. Whether young or old, it’s the same thing: “Um, well, I . . . I think what I do is, um . . .” Or it sounds like an actual commercial like, “I design and run software integration projects.” Or, “I’m in sales.” Or, “I do corporate videos.” Or . . .
None of these types of elevator pitches says anything about who the person is, and what they uniquely bring to the table. And how could it be any different when considering that we actually want that kind of canned response from people we meet at a local networking event or social gathering. And the next question after, “What company are you with?” Or, “What’s your name?” Is the typical, “What do you do?”
We don’t ask, “What brings you the most passion in life?” Or, “What vision seeks to emerge through you at this stage of your life?” Or, “What values drive you the most in life?” Or, “What is the most profound thing you’ve learned about who you are?”
Taking A Risk
Oh no. That would be too real, too vulnerable, too intimate. Those kinds of questions would make most people terribly uncomfortable, and likely motivate a redirect to, “How about those Lakers, eh?” Or, “What do you make of the stock market these days?” Or, even the banal like, “Boy, the fall weather is really here now.”
Not that small talk with nice people can’t be enjoyable and even relaxing at times, but when we seek for people to perceive us for who we really are, and we seek to build a career on exactly that, then we need a different approach than merely the standard elevator pitch about what we do and how great we are at it.
Enter personal branding. But not the shameless, egoic, look at me I’m so great kind of personal branding, but the real, the raw, the often funny, even quirky, with foibles and antics, successes and failures.
We Love Real People
It’s like this. Why do we love Forrest Gump so much, or Patch Adams, or Andy Griffith (for those who remember) or so many of the YouTubers out there tearing it up with nothing but their raw authenticity to share with the world?
Why did we love Mahammad Ali so much? The man spoke his mind like few could. Many felt threatened by him, but you couldn’t fault him for not being real, and to a large extent you could attribute his great fame not just to his boxing success but to his unique personality and realness (whether you agreed with him or not).
Why do we love the ending of romantic comedies when (usually the man) who previously screwed everything up and destroyed the relationship, later finds himself lonely and despondent, has an epiphany and commits himself to baring his soul in the slim hope that he will sway his lost love to give him another chance. Remember, “You had me at hello.”
Why we love these people so much, and the Jerry Maguire ending, is because of their realness. It may make us uncomfortable, but we still love them. They may even bring us to tears. Forrest Gump sure did for me.
What It Actually Is
So, back to personal branding. It’s about realness, not about showmanship or marketing for an ulterior motive. It’s about going within to discover who we really are and then having the courage to actually be that person in all aspects of our lives.
And mostly (and this is important) it’s about sharing what we have with the world from a place of gifting. I have this gift, this idea, this insight, this ridiculously funny idea for a video, this song, this recipe, this talent for doing a certain kind of work like no one else, and here it is. Shamelessly authentic, putting ourselves out there. Hitting the publish button. Commenting something completely contrary on an influencers feed. “Shipping our work” to quote Seth Godin.
Living it. And living it real.
That’s what personal branding actually is.