Why I Hate Personal Branding

From Chiot’s Run on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Most people don’t do too much thinking about the metaphors that they use on a day to day basis. Readers of this blog will know from past entries (Time Management Is A Crock;Do We Need A New Word For “Career?”;Passion: The Enduring DebateCalling It What It Is) that I see things a bit differently – that the language we use says a lot about how we see ourselves and the world. Unfortunately, those metaphors often shortchange us in various ways, and in the world of career advice, this is particularly apparent.

Case in point: personal branding. It’s a well-meaning enough concept, describing the process of differentiating and drawing attention to oneself so as to positively influence others, most notably in a job-seeking scenario.

I read a couple of articles recently that I resonated strongly with, and they were both to the tune of “let’s all stop talking about personal branding.” Andy Welfle’s post on his personal website is a balanced opinion piece with a fair overview of both sides, while Drew Olanoff’s missive on TechCrunch is a tad more volatile – and both are worth a read.

But I have more fundamental beef with personal branding. Have you ever stopped to think about what a terrible, demeaning metaphor it is? I doubt most people have, given how commonly it’s used.

Branding? Ouch.

Let’s stop and think about the first uses of the word “branding.”

From Steve Corey on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Can you describe what’s happening in the above photo? That’s right. It’s a man branding a cow (I don’t know about you, but I was more than a bit taken aback by the volume of smoke produced by this). The practice – which dates back to ancient Egypt – involves the permanent searing of flesh, using a red-hot piece of iron shaped into a symbol, indicating ownership. If it sounds brutal, that’s because it is. Effective, though.

You know what else branding was used for? Permanently marking criminals, slaves, or lower castes so they would never be confused for their betters. Kind of puts a different twist on “personal branding,” hmm?

Big Business

Somewhere along the way, as the developed world became increasingly corporatized, the idea of a brand took on a new meaning as an essential way to differentiate products and services from one another. Today, companies like Coca Cola and Apple are held up as testaments to the power and effectiveness of corporate branding done right. The consistency of image and feeling obtained by the advertising efforts of these companies means that you can look at anything that they do, and know that it is that company and no other.

The market advantage to having a strong brand is undeniable, and companies will go to extreme lengths to achieve that kind of distinction. Look no farther than the example of bottled water. Why in the world does anyone buy bottled water, besides the fact that they’ve been convinced that it’s somehow different than the alternative, in spite of consistent evidence that tap water tastes better, and is better for you?

Still, what’s leaving the worst taste of all in my mouth?

You’re A Person, Not A Product (Or Livestock, For That Matter)

You’ll never, ever overhear me telling someone to “sell themselves.” For me, the reason is simple: people are people, not products. Why would I imply to a fellow human being that I think they should transact themselves for a monetary sum? It’s insulting. I can understand if some people don’t feel the same way, or think I’m being too picky, but I believe that the words matter.

For the same reason, you’ll never hear me encouraging someone to “develop their personal brand.” There’s just too much negative connotation for me. To me, when I think of a person having a brand, I think of them permanently marking themselves as the property of someone or something else. I think of them being someone or something that they are not. Something that can be bought, sold, or exchanged if only the conditions were right. Inauthentic. Inhuman.

Am I saying that we shouldn’t think about the impression that we make on other people? No. Am I implying that we should all be our 100% “authentic” selves everywhere we go? Not really. What I’m saying is that there’s a difference between a human being doing these things and a company doing them, and that it can be dangerous to confuse the two.

So let’s all agree to be human, and for our language to reflect that.

Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary in the Career Services Insider blog.