Friday, April 16, 2010

No, I'm Not Shampoo

Lot of talk these days about "personal branding." Tom Peters is one of the better known business gurus doing the talking, and at there are pages of books by other experts on the topic.

Brenda Bence, MBA, is one of them: an "internationally-recognized branding expert" who has worked for Procter & Gamble and Bristol-Myers Squibb and as a motivational speaker and executive coach. She has created an industry around the personal branding fad that includes several books all titled with variations on "How YOU Are Like Shampoo."

In the first of these, she says, "I firmly believe that people—just like shampoo and other products—are brands, too." Ms. Bence goes on to remind us that Brad Pitt, Mel Gibson, and Britney Spears are individuals with very specific personal brands, with the implication that the rest of us surely want to be just like them.

I doubt that. In fact, I doubt any of them are entirely happy being "just like them." Their celebrity brand serves a publicity purpose but, probably to their own dismay, it is not a reflection of themselves as three-dimensional human beings. And it is not the secret to their success in show business. Don't be fooled: there's a lot more behind Brad Pitt's success than the gloss of his celebrity. Gibson is hired for his whole self, not merely his public brand.

Celebrity is a facade that some wear with grace, others not so much. But what they bring to those who hire them is not their personal brand—it's their talent and their work ethic and their humanity, with all its strengths and quirks.

But back to our shampoo marketer/executive coach...

Bence goes on to dismisses the reasonable objection that the rest of us can't be like those people—Pitt, Gibson, Spears and the rest—because, unlike us, they are celebrities. She suggests that the only thing that makes them "different" from the rest of us is that they all employ image specialists to manage their brands.

But there's hope, says Bence: We don't need expensive help to manage our personal brand's perception, we just need to read her book and take her advice.

The first bit of that advice is that "perception is reality in marketing ... it doesn't matter who you think you are. What matters is how others perceive you."

So to Ms. Bence, personal branding is all about managing perception, not about substance: about perceived value, not real value; image, not integrity.

And that's why I don't believe one does, or should, create and market a personal brand. The term is meaningless and the very idea dehumanizing, inappropriate, and dishonest.

"Personal branding" is a two-dollar name we give to the age old act of posing-to-impress. We use such high-falutin' phrases to make ourselves seem (or feel), more knowledgeable, sophisticated, and fashionable. (We don't look for jobs anymore, we "network." We don't act ourselves our improve ourselves, we "develop our personal brand.")

"Personal branding" is the most currently hip in a long string of self-help management techniques, except that it is not about self-improvement, but conveys something less genuine: self-packaging.

The only value of the phrase is that it gives us a slightly different way to think and talk about our ambitions and how to achieve them—modeling the process on tricks pioneered by the "hidden persuaders" of yore. I'll grant that. But it's an inherently dangerous model that can make us less than what we are—not more.

The phrase has the ring of scientism and enlightened, dispassionate management—but also the accompanying smell of fraud, exploitation, and fakery. It reeks of the rudest ambition and the most unseemly self-absorption. It sounds dishonest and beneath the dignity of human beings.

Branding is for corporations, not people. It is the creation of meaning around a business or product that is otherwise devoid of meaning and differentiation. In practice, branding is more the manipulation of image, less the creation of substance. It's something we do to cattle, potato chips, the aforementioned celebrities, and cosmetics. It's what Ms. Bence did for shampoo at Procter & Gamble.

What real people do is engage with other people and build their reputations—through good works and value, through their contributions to the success of others, through their humanity, and by their demonstrated integrity.

Branding is too restrictive for anything as versatile and deliciously unpredictable as a human being. Despite what all the gurus proclaim, I am most decidedly not a brand; I am me, take it or leave it. Today and in this place with these people I am one me; tomorrow, elsewhere, or with others I will be another. My generation fought against the grey flannel suit, the organization man, the pigeonhole, the stereotype, the glass ceiling—and won. We won the right to not be pigeonholed or defined by others, and it would be hypocritical and foolish to do that to ourselves.

We should not think of ourselves as brands—and should not want to—any more than we should think of our faces as logos, our beliefs as positioning, our character as our "unique selling proposition," or our friends, colleagues and associates as a network or the "value chain" we bring to the market. I am not a definable collection of features and benefits, not a platform or an ecosystem, but an ocean of possibility. My name may be my word, but I refuse to call it a brand promise. My sizzle is not for sale.

Personal success does not come from packaging, but from performance; not from buzz, but respect, not from a marketing strategy, but from a consistent habit of goodwill, kindness and humor.

We are hired for the value we provide others, for our honor, honesty and reliability—not because we have succeeded in creating an appealing "personal brand." Branding may get us in the door as objects to be oggled, but we will be judged for something else: our true selves; our unadorned substance; our un-spun character; our raw, naked unpackaged and unpretentious humanity.

I have nothing against genuine and sincere self-improvement, no quibble with the value of learning and skills development, and certainly no problem with ambition nor argument against the self-promotion necessary to get what one wants. But let's leave the branding to objects that cannot engage with others on their own behalf. We're better than that.