Is “Personal Branding” Just an Ego-Driven Waste of Time?

  • September 8, 2009 by Corbett Barr
  • 21 Comments

personal-branding-guru

Have you ever seen that show My Super Sweet 16 on MTV? It’s about a bunch of bratty rich kids who talk their parents into throwing a six-figure 16th birthday. The standard episode usually involves months of lead up to the party in which the 15 year old star of the show devises the perfect popularity statement involving a precise invitation list, music celebrities, non-alcoholic cocktails and the ultimate embodiment of teen superiority, the gift of a new luxury car from their parents.

The entire show is a real eye-opener into what’s important to certain teenagers these days. The stars of the show are all so obsessed with what everyone thinks of them that it wreaks of desperation. They care nothing about substance and everything about appearances.


That was like my first reaction to the recent trend of “personal branding,” that it’s really just an ego-driven waste of time. The premise of personal branding (in case you haven’t been exposed to it) is that success doesn’t come from personal development or hard work or intelligence. Instead, personal branding proponents claim that success comes from self-packaging.

Just like My Super Sweet 16, personal branding seems to be short on substance and long on appearances. It’s like an adult popularity contest for people who didn’t get enough in high school. It all smells a little like a discipline invented for people who were good at it already to cash in on.

If you can get past the repulsive self-promotion though, there are aspects of personal branding that make sense. One thing that personal branding gets right is that the nature of work is changing. People are moving from one job to another more frequently, or striking out on their own as freelancers and entrepreneurs. In this new world of individual free agents in the workplace, how you present yourself is an important consideration.

How much you focus on personal branding really depends on what you’re selling. If you are a consultant or freelancer who works as an individual and you’re really selling your time and expertise as the product, than personal branding may be an important part of your marketing activities. If you’re selling products though, or you’re an employee of a larger firm, focusing too much on your personal brand will just come across as desperate and ingenuous. In that case, it will work against you and you’ll be known more for your ego than what you produce.

Think about personal branding like you would any other product marketing. There must be substance or content that underlies the marketing, or your customers will resent you for lying about the product. If you’re going to position yourself as an expert or guru, make sure you’re really at the cutting edge of your field.

It’s ironic that personal branding as a topic comes off as repelling as personal branding does in practice when it’s too obvious. I suppose that’s because those who are in the business of personal branding let their egos get the best of them just like those poor misguided 16 year olds.

What do you think? How much attention do you pay to “personal branding?” Is it a waste of time? Let us know in the comments!

photo by FromTheNorth

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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J. D. Bentley September 8, 2009 at 1:25 pm

I don’t pay much attention to personal branding. I feel the same way you do about it. It’s mostly inauthentic hype. I’m not sure I know of anyone who has branded themselves that I actually respect. I can understand personal branding for freelancers since they are literally selling themselves, but even then it seems I only know freelancers working under a DBA or LLC.

Your comparison of personal branding to Super Sweet 16 is so dead on. Personal Branding seems to be all about making people think you are what you aren’t or that you are great at doing things you probably suck at.

Considering yourself a “brand” is kind of cold and cheapening anyway.

Corbett Barr September 8, 2009 at 3:07 pm

I hadn’t thought about how considering yourself a “brand” is cold and cheap, but that’s a good point. I don’t know about you, but I’m a person, not a product. I’d like to keep it that way.

Brian Cendrowski September 8, 2009 at 2:12 pm

In the modern Internet age, we are all “celebrities” to some degree. By that, I mean that privacy is going away, voluntarily or involuntarily. Anything we do can be photographed at any moment on a cell phone camera or end up on YouTube. Anything we say can be blogged or tweeted. It might not be read or seen by millions, but it could affect your reputation in your circles, however big or small.

I define branding as identifying values and then creating a consistent message that personifies those values. That is something all organizations and individuals should do for themselves.

After all, if you don’t create and manage your perception out there in the world, that perception will be created for you by others, and it may not always be accurate.

We all have a “brand” whether we want to or not. The question is how much we want to take charge of our perception in the world.

Corbett Barr September 8, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Our loss of privacy as individuals is an important point. You’re right that we should imagine that anything we do online could be viewed by anyone else around the world. That sounds like common sense to me, and not an endorsement that everyone should embrace personal branding as their most important business function. Caring about how you are perceived in the world is different from turning yourself into a brand, isn’t it?

Back to the high school popularity contest analogy, what’s wrong with the advice “just be yourself?” Transparency is better than a constructed facade. Too many people focus on the appearance instead of the underlying values as you suggest to do.

Andrew MacPherson September 8, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Having branded myself a non-ivy-cap-and-beard-wearer, I clearly can’t totally agree with everything above. (I kid! Geez!)

There are at least two assumptions about branding that are too easy to make:

1. The act of branding necessitates facade creation – While it is possible to create a facade, branding should/can be about introspection and communication of core principles, not smoke and mirrors. Facade driven brands typically don’t resonate with anyone but their owners or mothers.

2. Promotion (or “repulsive self-promotion”) is a component of branding – All advertising is not for the purpose of branding and all branding is not for the purpose of advertising. Anyone floating around out there shouting “look at me” louder and more often than everyone else is not engaged in what we should consider branding at that point. Sure, they’re branding themselves as “hacks lacking the skills to craft an effective message”, but that’s the unintended branding that happens in minds, not branding as just another tool at out disposal.

To those who claim “personal branding” is something wretched, but give corporate branding a pass, I’d ask what about wrapping a corporate veil around something elevates it to a supreme level? I’d suggest there’s either pro-branding or anti-branding… slapping personal on the front isn’t much of a distinction.

I don’t really preach personal branding so I don’t know why I’m defending it. It’s clear that the personal branding gurus who influenced this article and the comments haven’t done a very good job of getting their message(s) across. From a standard branding perspective… that’s a fail.

Corbett Barr September 8, 2009 at 3:22 pm

I guess we’re all so numb to veiled corporate branding techniques that they either get a free pass or are ignored these days. Personal branding is new enough that when someone engages in it to an extreme, it’s easy to spot. But you’re right, the principles of effective branding are similar for both corporations and people. Being transparent and genuine while sticking to your core values should come first. If you do that, you won’t have to “control” what people think of you. They’ll already think what you want them to.

Colin Wright September 8, 2009 at 3:48 pm

I’m going to have to take the opposition stance here and say that I’m a big fan of personal branding, though not as you describe it.

To me, personal branding is taking what is good about you as a person and promoting it in a way that makes it clear to potential clients and customers why you being that way is of benefit to them.

For example, I run a sustainability-focused design and development studio, and I will talk to people endlessly about why I care about the environment, why I love reading about technology (because it will allow us to stop polluting so much!) and my entrepreneurial escapades.

I’ve built my studio, Colin Is My Name, around my personal brand, and that’s a big part of what draws people to me (or at least to my site, where they can check out my work). I don’t think there’s anything inauthentic about this, nor is is super-corporate in any way, but it was definitely a conscious choice on my part to start promoting the marketable aspects of my personality and lifestyle while under-reporting the not so marketable parts (you’d be amazed by how many people won’t do business with someone who doesn’t share their faith).

That being said, I don’t disagree with what you wrote in your post because what you describe is something quite different than what I consider to be personal branding. What you seem to be describing is more or less lying in order to seem like something you’re not, which, in almost any field, is a really good way to come across as fake and really let a lot of people down.

Great topic!

Carl September 8, 2009 at 7:35 pm

Any branding/marketing scheme has to be deeply linked to the creation of content/product.

Personal branding is about showcasing the best of your content/products and who you are in relationship to that. It is both about creating an image of yourself that resonates with your work/who you are and who you want your clients to be. Failing to be authentic in that and people will sense it.

Personal branding should be about being yourself and being honest – but it should also be about showing other people your talents and what you are capable of doing for them.

Caron Margarete September 8, 2009 at 8:50 pm

The emphasis in personal branding isn’t on the business of branding but in the personal presentation of ourselves.

I am using Colin’s personal branding ebook in a series on personal branding in which I learn and attribute the recommendations therein to my own life. It’s is fundamentally personal and real. It’s who I am and as an upstart blogger and freelancer with the goal of location independence I must rely on who I am and my core values to attain success.

I do not disagree with the previous comments made, in fact I can completely understand this position because it’s one I worried about too but in our lack-of-privacy lifestyles we must control what others see of us. If what we present is who we are then we will not come across as Sweet 16 wannabe’s, just people walking their talk.

Great discussion point Corbett!

DeyIrfanAdianto September 8, 2009 at 9:03 pm

I have the same opinion as Colin. A branding can be very useful as long as the thing that you are branding itself can give added value to customers, in return for their attention to you (or your blog, or your business, etc).

So if you can give a kick-ass service, or an inspiring blogpost that can benefit your circle of people, then by all means, erect a sign board above your head.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen September 9, 2009 at 4:30 am

Hi Corbett,

Stimulating post.

I understand your point about personal branding. As you suggest, it comes down to whether or not there is substance to the marketing message you are trying to convey. Calling yourself an “expert” and putting out me-too versions of ebooks and articles that everyone has seen before, is the cheesy kind of personal branding you mentioned.

However, anything you do that demonstrates your authenticity and expertise without gimmicks is also personal branding, even if the person didn’t specifically plan for it.

Look at someone like Gary Vaynerchuk. He has a fantastic personal brand, but I think we all know that it is authentic. His energy and charisma is not just a show for the cameras. I have seen several people try to copy Gary’s style and it comes off as cheap. They are clearly not unique.

It is important to be remarkable and communicate that uniqueness. That is the good side of personal branding. A comparable phrase in writing might be, “finding your voice.”

Relying on superficial gimmicks to bring attention to a mediocre product is the big frommage. It is like bald men trying to comb the hair on the side of their head to conceal the top. They are not fooling anyone. Pretending is not personal branding.

For me it always comes back to Authenticity.

Nate September 9, 2009 at 7:20 am

Like John said, it’s all about authenticity. Gary V himself said, “Not being yourself is exhausting.”

The thing that sticks out to me about personal branding is that you know when it is not authentic. I don’t really understand why people try to change their personal brand. It’s not really something that’s changeable in my mind. And it’s not fun being someone who you really are not.

Let’s say you’re a jerk. Why bother trying to change, it’s just not going to seem right and people will notice. Embrace your inner jerk, and connect with all the other jerks in the world who will love your personal brand.

That’s a little weird, but I’ll run with it I guess :-)

Cool post, Corbett.

Jeremy September 9, 2009 at 7:48 am

I agree with the posts that say it’s all about authenticity. You have always “branded” yourself to some extent. Your resume used to be that vehicle. You sent your resume out as a marketing pamphlet about you. Your intention was for some company to buy your services. Given, we don’t look at it that way in the job market… but it’s true. They are paying you for the service you provide.

I think that if you are looking for a job or freelancing or whatever… branding is important. The key point is be authentic and truthful… no different that any other marketing. If you don’t, you’ll probably pay for it in the long run when people realize that you’re not what you say you are.

David Walsh September 9, 2009 at 8:31 am

Creating an inauthentic personal brand is similar to introducing yourself using a fake accent. People might buy it for a while, but it’s exhausting to maintain the facade, and eventually you’ll get burned.

Killer post.

Nicole Relyea September 9, 2009 at 9:32 am

Great post and interesting responses.

My initial reaction to personal branding was also that it seemed ego-driven and really just kind of silly. But as I’ve come to better understand the concept, I think – as other commenters have mentioned – that it’s a natural outgrowth of social media. As social media and professional networking are increasingly becoming one and the same, they’re becoming more aware of what image they’re putting out there. To me, personal branding is really just deliberately controlling your online identity.

Greg Rollett September 9, 2009 at 9:39 am

Awesome conversation here. As you can prob guess I am pro personal brands, as I think it can help develop you in many ways.

Knowing the person that you want to be, through your career, starting your own business whatever, putting yourself out there delivers opportunities that many will miss out on. Being the go-to person in your niche will keep you up to date on industry tid-bits, innovations, get press and land clients that see you due to your visibility.

A big misconception that is being thrown around is that a personal brand is all about “pushing” information. I think it is finding a balance of listening to your niche/industry, learning, responding and giving your thoughts on that topic. Not just me, me, me.

Anyway, great analogy with the Super Sweet 16 – I can see where that came from.

Corbett Barr September 9, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Thanks everybody for the fabulous comments. Don’t you just love the power of blogging to get a substantive conversation started?

I’m definitely hearing a consensus here, and that is that personal branding can be an important marketing tool, but authenticity and substance are key to its effectiveness. It’s about finding your voice and being honest about it. When done correctly, personal branding should be easy and transparent. That’s powerful. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in sales and marketing was genuine and transparent?

Robert September 9, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Hmm. I agree with Colin. I think personal branding is valuable, but only when you regard it as I think it rightly should be, a promotion of your best qualities in honest light. If you make the clear distinction between hyping yourself up and honestly polishing your strengths then this it’s a no brainer. When you have a skill, and you use it to help others, you will no doubt do SOME level of promotion and in effect do SOME level of branding by default.

I am in the process of re-branding my IT services from under my last name to “IT Arsenal”, a simple DBA name. I hope to bring to light and promote some of the things I do best, and the fact I do varied services. I hope not to amp up the fact I do everything and appear as something bigger than I am, but for business’ sake, I’ll be ready to smile big in a business sense in all the lime light thats appropriate. I guess I’d argue it comes down to integrity when you self promote or self brand. It would be absurd to get a pony when you turn 16, if you’ve never ridden a horse before….but if you’re in the junior olympics for polo (that’s horses right?) … then I would deem it just.

NomadicNeil September 10, 2009 at 5:11 pm

A part of me still feels uncomfortable referring to myself as having a brand.

It’s weird how every aspect of life gets spoken of in terms of marketing, sales and transactions these days.

Home School College Counselor October 24, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Something that I struggle with regarding personal branding and using the new social media is privacy. How do you keep an element of privacy in your life to protect your family your own personal privacy but at the same time brand yourself using the new social media that is so open and “un-private?”

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