“Personal Branding” is Bullshit

Posted on July 22, 2008
Filed Under Marketing 2.0 |

Fairly recently, a commenter on this blog asked for my opinion on “personal branding.”

For those who haven’t been exposed to this cutting-edge concept, it’s really quite simple.

In 1997, business consultant and author Tom Peters wrote :

Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, 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.

The idea is easy enough to grasp: just as many successful companies owe their success to their ability to build a “brand,” so too can individuals become successful by thinking of themselves as “brands” and marketing themselves accordingly.

In his article, Peters reveals the steps involved in personal branding (differentiate yourself, communicate your values and character, build a reputation, etc.). For the most part, they don’t differ much from the things corporations try to do when attempting to build their brands.

So what do I think of “personal branding”? Not surprisingly, I think it’s bullshit.


It’s not that some “personal branding” advice isn’t useful or beneficial; it’s that much of the “personal branding” concept is little more than common sense put into a trite “package” for the sole purpose of commercialization.

Every person who wants to get ahead in the professional realm doesn’t need to buy a $29.95 book, pay $2,000 to attend a seminar or hire a “personal branding” coach for $5,000 to do the following:

None of the above requires a person to look at himself as the CEO of Me, Inc. These are all things that individuals with good work ethics do instinctively.

That said, if such a perspective simply served as a reminder to those lacking common sense, it probably wouldn’t be problematic.

Unfortunately, I find that the core philosophy behind the concept of “personal branding” is very problematic.

In my opinion, it is little more than an offshoot of the same flawed thinking behind , which conditioned an entire generation of children to believe “I am special” and think themselves the center of the universe.

These children, of course, have become the Gen Yers who can’t take a piss without hand-holding and who expect to receive a pat on the back everytime they perform a task correctly.

The truth of the matter is that there’s a huge difference between doing a good job, going the extra mile, making yourself indispensable, etc. and believing that you’re the CEO of Me, Inc.

The former is healthy; the latter is narcissistic.

In the dream world inhabited by Tom Peters and other promulgators of “personal branding” bullshit, everybody is a “free agent”:

I know this may sound like selfishness. But being CEO of Me Inc. requires you to act selfishly — to grow yourself, to promote yourself, to get the market to reward yourself. Of course, the other side of the selfish coin is that any company you work for ought to applaud every single one of the efforts you make to develop yourself. After all, everything you do to grow Me Inc. is gravy for them: the projects you lead, the networks you develop, the customers you delight, the braggables you create generate credit for the firm. As long as you’re learning, growing, building relationships, and delivering great results, it’s good for you and it’s great for the company.

That win-win logic holds for as long as you happen to be at that particular company. Which is precisely where the age of free agency comes into play. If you’re treating your résumé as if it’s a marketing brochure, you’ve learned the first lesson of free agency. The second lesson is one that today’s professional athletes have all learned: you’ve got to check with the market on a regular basis to have a reliable read on your brand’s value. You don’t have to be looking for a job to go on a job interview. For that matter, you don’t even have to go on an actual job interview to get useful, important feedback.

In the real world, you are probably not the Kobe Bryant or David Beckham of your industry. You’re not fielding 8-figure contract offers or 7-figure endorsement deals. While your employer or client(s) may love you, you’re almost certainly replaceable if push comes to shove.

In today’s world, opportunity, success and security are, for all practical purposes, zero sum games. You’re competing with people more intelligent, experienced, skilled and hungry than you. Thanks to globalization and a faltering economy, many of these people are eager to offer their services at a price lower than you can.

Any notion that you are the CEO of Me, Inc. belies the fact that if Me, Inc. has one customer (your employer), Me, Inc. is one customer away from $0 in annual revenues.

Most new companies fail within the first several years of their existence, which reflects the fact that not everyone is capable of being a “CEO.” This begs the question: do you really want to manage your career like you would a new company? If you do, I say: put your money where your mouth is and start your own business.

Additionally, I think it’s worth pointing out that most companies in existence today are not “brands.” For every Coca-Cola or Louis Vuitton, there are tens of thousands of Smith & Brothers Constructions. When a Smith & Brothers Construction gets a Coca-Cola-sized ego, it doesn’t take a Wharton MBA to predict the likely outcome.

At the end of the day “personal branding” is bullshit because, while it does provide a certain amount of common sense for “getting ahead,” it unwisely and naively encourages individuals to pretend that the companies they rely on for employment need them more than they need the paychecks those companies can provide.

For the vast majority of individuals, this is simply not the case.

The bottom line is that you are not a brand. If you’re an average professional, you’re probably lucky to simply have a job that pays a decent salary and provides decent benefits. Don’t lose sight of that that.

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15 Responses to ““Personal Branding” is Bullshit”

  1. Mike Rundle on July 22nd, 2008 12:11 pm

    The stuff I love to read about in the business world, or our “Web 2.0″ world (argh) is about the companies that are making a metric killing and I’ve never heard of them before. And neither has any of my friends.

    They are flying under the radar, making the right moves, making tons of cash, all without being egoistic or having a Twitter account. They don’t know what the fuck a Twitter account is, but they do know how to do what they’re doing really well, and they do it. And they cash on it.

    I love reading about these companies because it’s the opposite of this Me Inc. mentality and shows that you don’t have to have 10,000 RSS subscribers or a book deal to be successful, all you have to do is kick-ass at what you’re doing.

  2. gregorylent on July 22nd, 2008 2:25 pm

    cash? did someone say cash? web2.0 is the cashless society, isn’t it? cash, what a funny concept

  3. DominatedStrat on July 22nd, 2008 8:01 pm

    The best proof of this blog post is to simply look at the time of the FC article. During the late 90s, Xers were feelin’ the love during the buildup of .bomb 1.0. Lots of free agents back then enjoying their moment in the sun. Just a beautiful wild orgy of job hopping. No gray-hairs allowed (except maybe for CFO presentations.)

    But then the nuclear winter came, and a lot of them went groveling back to their old employers (their old, *profitable* employers), ended up unemployed while they waited for their inflated salaries to return (they didn’t; sometimes their job didn’t either), or started their own companies (not quite as easy as it sounded in Red Herring, eh?). And it spawned an army of subsistence level “consultants” living project to project.

    I too don’t understand the need to invest in yet another metaphor when common sense will do (I understand the need to create and sell one, however…) The dangerous thing about metaphors is that they might be helpful only in a certain context but then the applicability degrades quickly once you go outside of that context.

    They might make for good training wheels for those who don’t know any better, and that’s fine. But once you get a feel, it’s just better to strip away the veneer of the metaphor and think of the principles behind it.

  4. Drama 2.0 on July 22nd, 2008 8:33 pm

    DominatedStrat: I think you make a valid point.

    In many ways, the “free agent” attitude that the promulgators of “personal branding” encourage promotes the “burning of bridges.”

    In his article, Tom Peters essentially argues that you owe no real “loyalty” to the company that employs you.

    Yet in my opinion, loyalty to an employer that pays you well and treats you fairly is not only desirable, but deserved.

    If you take the “I’m a free agent and owe loyalty to myself only” approach instead and jump ship every time you think you’ve spotted a greener pasture, you will lose respect and will usually end up groveling back to a former employer at some point because the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, as many learned in Bubble 1.0.

    While the fact that working for a single employer for 40 years and leaving with a decent retirement may not be possible for many in certain industries, I would be interested in seeing a study that follows chronic job hoppers around.

    My guess is that most of them aren’t significantly better off financially and that they’re not any more happy than their “stay with The Company” counterparts.

  5. DominatedStrat on July 23rd, 2008 12:01 am

    As much as I enjoy my current job, I have little loyalty to the *company* that I work *for.* I do, however, have a lot of loyalty to the *people* that I work *with* because I’ve benefited so much from their efforts.

    Doesn’t mean I’ll stay forever in my job; my needs might change. But so long as those interpersonal relationships don’t change, I’ll always try to do right by them because they try to do the same for me. Who we’re working for doesn’t change the foundation of that relationship.

    And that’s a big problem with Me, Inc. Individuals generally do not scale well. You can only do so much unless you’re truly one of the gifted few. Teams, however, scale nicely. Your strengths cover their weaknesses and vice-versa, and everybody’s the better for it. But it takes some real effort especially with the trendiness of “Metopia.”

    But putting in the hard work to truly earn the respect and trust from your peeps is worth far more than some shallow self-branding exercise. You’re more than just yourself. You’re part of something bigger. You’ve accomplished something that would get someone else to put their neck out on the line for you.

    But in today’s world, it’s far easier to sell the idea of owning 100% of 10 instead of owning 20% of 100 because it’s all about Me, Inc.

  6. I agree on July 23rd, 2008 12:22 am

    I agree. Everyone that I’ve ever heard mention # of followers, or utter the phrase “Personal Brand” is a complete douche.

  7. Disillusioned X-er on July 23rd, 2008 10:53 am

    DominatedStrat: Your description of my generation hits too close to home!

    I agree that “free agent” BS, especially sold to then-young impressionable souls has done lots of damage that is only recognizeable in the retrospect. Oftentimes you wish you did not burn this or that bridge.

    Consider however that a lot of this free agency mindset was result of broken promises to earlier boomer generation. They grew up with expectations of lifetime jobs only to be confronted with mass restructuring and outsourcing. When your job goes away and you are too old to get hired, you are a free agent whether you like it or not.

    In a way, perhaps you should think as a free agent (damn, yeah I am CEO of Me Inc. and I risk going to $0 in revenue any day) but not act out with flamboyance of one (I am the CEO, bitch).

    Drama 2.0, how would you advise to deal with extinction of job security if not adopt at least some tools from free agency and branding toolbox?

  8. Drama 2.0 on July 23rd, 2008 1:47 pm

    Disillusioned X-er: “job security” is an interesting subject.

    While I won’t dispute the notion that “job security” is harder for many to come by, I’ll make the following points:

    1. Unless you work in government, I’m a firm believer that most of the time, if you’re knowledgeable, competent and work hard, you have as decent a shot as anyone at finding employment. There are never any guarantees and times may be tough for a lot of people, but building up a track record of substance goes a lot further than pretending you’re the Derek Jeter of your industry and constantly feeling the need to “promote” yourself as such.

    In other words, as I said in my post, the best employees are naturally proactive (they seize the initiative, strive to become indispensable, etc.) - they don’t need to run through some “personal branding” checklist.

    2. While there are probably fewer employers that you can rely on for a lifetime job, in many professions (including technology), I don’t see any shortage of employers with long-term potential.

    Far too many people have bought into the myth that job security doesn’t exist and thus they believe that they need to be on a constant look out for a “better” job.

    In my opinion, this is merely a convenient lie for those who think that greener pastures abound and that they can “get ahead” faster by jumping from company to company.

    3. A considerable number of people (probably the majority) are in jobs that are commoditized and/or highly-competitive. The “free agent” approach really doesn’t work for them because they’re easily replaced.

    Again, pretending you’re Derek Jeter when you’re really just a pinch hitter is a foolish approach to your career.

    Bottom line: employees who consciously think of themselves as “free agents” and buy into the trite process of “personal branding” are usually the employees with big egos who overvalue their contributions and don’t realize that they’re not as smart as they think they are.

    The best workers simply do their fucking jobs and they do them well.

  9. Disillusioned X-er on July 24th, 2008 3:03 am

    True, the best workers simply do their fucking jobs and they do them well. Yes, pretending you’re Derek Jeter when you’re really just a pinch hitter is a foolish approach to your career.


    The technology industry is extremely fluid. Sectors and companies appear and disappear. As an employee you have negligible control over that. Your company is not your friend and if they need to make profit numbers they will cut whoever execs decide is not essential. As employee there is little you can do about that. No matter how well you do your job.

    So yes, you have a better chance of keeping your job if you keep doing it well. But if instead of trusting your company 100% you are not following what is happening in the industry and looking for the next thing (isn’t that free agency?) you can really get screwed. You know all these people who got laid off at IBM, HP, AOL, Yahoo and Sun whose long employment records are scorned by the new crop of tech highfliers. Try getting hired at Google or Facebook if you are over 30. At this rate of change Silicon Valley might end up looking like Detroit in a generation or less. I am not even talking about the implications of trusting your employer if you God forbid work for a newspaper. Lots of people who worked in declining segments of tech have horror stories to tell. Whether declines caused by bubble or old-fashioned market maturation. I am not talking about doing BS personal branding for ego. Just common sense hedging against downside.

    Am I a stereotypical cynical X-er or just a realist?

  10. Sam B on July 24th, 2008 4:21 am

    When people reject a long-held bad idea, their eagerness to get away from it tends to send them headlong into an opposing bad one. The most common example is people who reject religion, typically in their teenage years, and then become rabid anti-religionists, before eventually mellowing out and realising that they don’t have to bother anymore.

    The “personal branding” and “free agent” rhetoric that we’re mocking seems to be the anti-bad-idea to the employment ideal that underpinned post-war socialism, the feudal system before that, and the Roman patronage system before that.

    What we now call the “job-for-life” ideal essentially says that a job is not a mutually beneficial relationship, but a boon offered to the employee by the employer, who acts as a patron. (Depending on your point in time and your social status, the patron could be a patronus, a lord, a political crony, a relative, a guild or a trades union.) The flipside of this is that the employee is “owed” his job, preferably for life, and making him redundant is a gross dereliction of the employer’s duty.

    The first paragraph of the second quote - the “any company you work for ought to applaud every single one of the efforts you make” stuff - seems very narcisstic and self-esteemy. But if considered as a reaction against the job-for-life ideal - that employees are not an asset to be profited from but a social obligation to be borne - it doesn’t seem as bad. We are fortunate that we live in an age where it sounds like happy-clappy feel-good fluff, rather than heresy.

    That said, an anti-bad-idea is still a bad idea. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase “free agent” if it means “free from government regulation”. But if it’s taken to mean “free from reality” - such as the reality that you are not an executive highflyer, or that you still need to pay the rent while job-searching - then you’re in trouble.

    All it comes down to is accepting reality. You are not Derek Jeter (whoever he is) but neither are you a useless social obligation. Thinking solely of yourself will make you a very unpleasant person, but so will thinking of everyone but yourself. Pretending you can dance between jobs as much as you like is delusional, but so is pretending the government can guarantee your current usefulness forever by signing a piece of paper.

    Not all self-help books are useless when it comes to recognising reality, but even the best are a crutch. It’s better to walk assisted than to crawl, but at some point you have to stand on your own and rely solely on your own senses.

  11. Drama 2.0 on July 24th, 2008 9:01 am

    Disillusioned X-er: I think you’re probably a bit of both, which in my humble opinion is healthy.

    One point I would make is that Silicon Valley isn’t necessarily representative of other areas and the technology industry isn’t necessarily representative of other industries.

    That said, once again, most new businesses fail so one shouldn’t expect that pretending you’re the CEO of Me, Inc. is going to help you cope with an industry with a fluid employment dynamic.

    Sam B: thanks for the thoughtful response. Enjoyed reading it and agree with a lot of what you said.

  12. Disillusioned X-er on July 24th, 2008 1:49 pm

    I think this works just fine if you define the sole business of “Me, Inc.” as staying in touch with economics of the business of your career.

    This means managing the satisfaction of the customer providing 100% of the revenue, while paying attention to sustainability of this gig and looking out for other options, weighed for long-term risk/reward ratio. Anything else as applied to Me Inc. is just a distraction, potentially harmful to the mission.

    Not everyone is Gordon Gekko, but if you have ever bought into index funds you are still a Wall Street investor.

    Sam B: Love the metaphor. So true.

  13. Drama 2.0 on July 24th, 2008 2:04 pm

    Disillusioned X-er: I don’t disagree with your assessment but if you think buying an index fund makes someone a “Wall Street investor,” we’ll have to disagree on that. :)

  14. Disillusioned X-er on July 24th, 2008 5:12 pm

    I did not say it makes you a “professional” Wall Street investor, who knows what he is doing. Just another guy who could get screwed by the markets TOO. I had the misfortune to learn this first hand :)

    How’bout that?

  15. Why Personal Branding isn’t Enough | Numinous Nonsense on August 9th, 2008 11:36 pm

    […] and are undoubtedly on the cutting edge in that regard. But even so, I still often wonder if personal branding is bullshit and even if it’s not then why do I feel repulsed as much, if not more, then I feel thrilled by […]

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