On August 31, 1997, an article by Tom Peters simply titled “The Brand Called You” appeared in Fast Company magazine. It sparked a movement that would lead to a new way of defining personal achievement -- a movement that would forever change how we think about ourselves in the context of our relationship to our jobs, industries, co-workers and even the world at large.
Whether Peters intended it or not, the idea that we as individuals are every bit as much a brand as Coke, Starbucks or American Express was born, and it has continued to unfold -- and even expand -- over the past two decades.
Today, if you search “personal brand,” you’ll be rewarded with millions of books, articles, blog posts, consultants, trainers, workshops and more that promise to help you understand, define, and implement your personal brand. Not bad for a term that wasn’t even in use a few decades ago. And with the invention of the internet and its focus on self-disclosure, personal branding has become a major player on the landscape of CEO effectiveness, executive leadership, entrepreneurial and startup success and career planning. From CEO to secretary, the message is clear: If you don’t define your personal brand, someone else will define it for you.
The downside of the personal brand movement is that a cluster of myths has grown up around it, which we often embrace without even knowing it. As a branding and marketing strategist, I come face to face with these myths daily. Here are a few I’d love to bust for you.
Myth 1: Personal branding is a relatively new phenomenon.
While Tom Peters brought the idea of deliberately creating a personal brand into the foreground of business and career planning, it’s actually been with us for hundreds of years. Think of Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, just to name a few.
Myth 2: Your reputation is your personal brand.
Popular wisdom goes something like this: It’s not what you say your personal brand is, it’s what other people say it is. While that’s true, what you’re known for among your closest colleagues, friends and family (in other words, your reputation) won’t necessarily be the brand you have online -- and vice versa.
Myth 3: Your personal brand is all about you.
I’m often pulled aside by executives who say in a hushed tone, “Karen, I understand the value of a personal brand, but I don’t want to be seen as a braggart or an egomaniac.” While a powerful personal brand can certainly be a career booster, its impact isn’t limited to your professional advancement. People benefit from a leader who has a positive personal brand. Research from Barna Group reported the following:
- 91 percent of employees who work for good leaders say they enjoy going to work each day.
- 80 percent say their work makes a positive difference in the world.
- 74 percent say they feel empowered to be a leader at work.
Myth 4: A personal brand is a good thing.
Not always. Have you ever worked for someone who was known for being an X@!!&? I’ll leave you to fill in the blank with your favorite term of non-endearment. We tend to think of a personal brand as a halo of positive attributes that surrounds someone successful and respected. But some entrepreneurs, executives, CEOs and individuals have poor reputations, which have become full-blown “bad” personal brands. Early in my career, I worked with a small bank whose president had a reputation for hurling phones at anyone who dared to deliver bad news. Did he have a strong personal brand? You bet -- but it was a disruptive and destructive one.
Myth 5: Your image is your personal brand.
A well-dressed businessperson with a snappy email signature line and a ready-made elevator speech about who they are and what they stand for does not a brand make. A strong personal brand goes beyond what’s seen and said on the surface to a deeply authentic expression of values, purpose and contribution -- all backed up by action. In short, a personal brand isn’t strategically conceived, it’s authentically discovered.
Myth 6: A personal brand is nice but unnecessary.
If your plan is to wait out this personal branding trend until it passes -- think again. In reality, it’s been with us for centuries (see Myth 1), and whether you realize it or not, you already have a personal brand -- even if it’s an unwitting one. As Jeff Bezos famously said: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” In a world where access to information on any individual is just a few clicks away, clarifying and managing your personal brand is an evergreen business skill.
Myth 7: Your personal brand is at odds with your business brand.
“I don’t want to be seen as competing with my business’s brand” is a refrain I often hear from CEOs and executives when I bring up the topic of crafting a strong personal brand. Done right, creating a parallel CEO or executive brand in concert with your company brand can double your business brand exposure and even be a morale booster for your staff. Think Tony Hsieh (Zappos) and the late Steve Jobs (Apple).
As Peters so famously said in his Fast Company article, “All of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”