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Stop Trying to Build Your "Personal Brand"

Trust me - I'm in marketing

I teach marketing, advertising, and consumer behavior, so I have nothing against brands. “Quite the antithesis!” as W. C. Fields would say. Brands are useful in business, because they facilitate easy recognition and immediate recall of latent knowledge, experiences, and memories. For example, if I show you the golden arches, I don’t need to tell you the company’s name, what it sells, and what memories and experiences you may have had as a customer. In my example, the logo alone is sufficient to stimulate brand associations.

For similar reasons, some people who are in a position to give career advice (e.g., HR and placement professionals) advise career-seekers to develop a “personal brand.” I think this is bad advice, and to me personally it is offensive. I’ll tell you why.

I’ve never liked the term “human resources.” Employees used to be called “personnel,” and that was a perfectly good term. At least it had the dignity of recognizing employees as people. The transition from “personnel” to “human resources” amounted to a semantic dehumanizing of the workforce. Employees are no longer people – they’re assets. (And if they’re not assets, they’re liabilities.)

A current trend is to refer to employees as “human capital” rather than “human resources.” I’m not sure if that means employees are slaves and all pretense to the contrary has been abandoned, or if it just facilitates expensing them on the balance sheet.

These are the reasons that I as a psychologist, a marketing professor, and as a former business owner and employer, find the concept of “personal brand” to be not only wrong, but offensive:

1. Just as companies and organizations should view – and treat – their employees as human beings, not resources or capital, individuals shouldn’t facilitate the commoditization of themselves. Yes, you have to market yourself in a competitive economy. You do so by showing past accomplishments and/or your potential to help the organization achieve its goals. In short, what have you done, and what can you do? Ability and achievement are real. Personal branding is puffery (see #2).

2. Is your “personal brand” who you are, really, when you’re not working or looking for work? If not, then it’s just a false front. You’ll never be satisfied and will always feel like an impostor if your reputation is built on false impressions. (I realize that most people behave one way at work, another way with friends, another with family, and so on. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about play-acting and calling it a “personal brand.”)

3. Strong brands are by definition limiting. Weak brands are less so. For example, if I ask you to pick me up some Head & Shoulders at the store, you know what I want. But if I ask you to pick up some Suave shampoo, you still don’t know which kind of Suave shampoo to buy. If you develop a strong personal brand, you’re limiting yourself. If you develop a weak personal brand, what’s the point, and why bother?

4. Last, and probably most important, is this: If the idea of developing a personal brand is appealing to you, there might be an underlying problem or weakness you are ignoring. If so, focusing time and energy on developing a personal brand is a distraction from confronting the real issue: Why aren’t you content to compete in the job market and the workplace based on merit and on who you really are? Do you lack education, experience, self-confidence, or some critical skill? Remedying actual deficiencies is important. Diverting your attention to personal brand-building while ignoring real issues is a mistake.