Words matter, except when they don’t – ending my ban on personal branding

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IndividualityYesterday, I spoke at the Public Relations Council of Alabama’s annual conference on personal branding. Except I asked them not to call it that. I’ve always shied away from the term “personal branding,” primarily because some of my early influencers in the online space hate it. And the ones who hate it really hate it.

I’m not really interested in belaboring the debate (if you’ve been reading marketing blogs for a while, you may have seen it’s a pretty tired topic). To me, there’s nothing more boring than an unnecessary, hair-splitting debate over semantics. But I think it’s interesting to consider that connotations change over time, and as PR pros it’s our job to adapt.

Most people familiar with the term personal branding have never heard of the shysters who gave it a bad name in the early days. To them it’s something altogether different. I’ve managed to avoid the term by talking about authentically building your profile, visibility, credibility, reputation and awareness. But when you say personal branding, people know what you’re talking about more quickly, and virtually all of the “normal people” (outside the social media fishbowl) associate it with the alternative words we use instead.

I’m arguing that “personal branding” as a term has moved beyond the literal translation of the two words contained in it.

Modern, established professionals – the wise readers of this blog at least – know that human beings aren’t something to be talked about “like a shampoo” (believe it or not, there was a book written that said exactly that). They know that putting your best foot forward doesn’t involve faking it, and no one I’ve spoken to has even heard of the controversy around the term (in fact, I recently learned that one of the largest mentoring organizations in the U.S. has a “Brand Me” session as part of its program for disadvantaged youth).

So, there’s no use in fighting it – personal branding as a term seems here to stay. If the vast majority of people are using a term to refer to something, but you refuse to say that term and instead insist on using other words, aren’t you sort of like Martha Stewart saying “herbs” with a hard “h”?

Everyone has their line in the promotional sand (and mine tends to be more conservative than most), but that conservatism will no longer include a ban on the term “personal brand.”

Very interested to hear what you think in the comments. Do you have any negative connotations associated with term “personal brand”? Have you ever changed your use of terms you once avoided?

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  • Kami Huyse

    my concern with it, is the more we focus on it, the worse the behavior gets. A focus on contribution and how to contribute to your community is more important. We are are already too self absorbed, and the relentless focus on me and my brand is taking us further down that road. You are right that this is becoming normal in our culture. mine is not an argument of semantics, but rather an argument of attitude. perhaps it is a losing battle, but it is one1 that I will quietly fight.

  • http://twitter.com/KellyeCrane Kellye Crane

    How appropriate that you would comment first, Kami, since your objections (and my utmost respect for you) are the primary reasons I’ve abstained from using the term in the past. 

    Your point about attitude is an important one — I’m certainly not advocating people relentlessly focus on themselves and their “brand.” But I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone who’s ever written their own bio or filled out a LinkedIn profile has given some thought to their personal brand (in the now-common usage of that term), whether they call it that or not.

    If those of us who want to stress the importance of contributing and being a resource do so as part of defining the term personal brand, we’re more likely to be heard. That’s what I learned this week.

  • http://twitter.com/fransteps Fran Stephenson

    I was one of those people who cringed when they heard the term personal brand, but I see a lot of people using it who, as your post so eloquently points out, were not in on the sham game in the past. I am open to accepting it, but like Kami, am very concerned about the attitude that usually accompanies a “personal branding campaign.”

  • http://twitter.com/KellyeCrane Kellye Crane

    Yuck- a “personal branding campaign” sounds very gross indeed! In my session at the conference, I included a clip from this Seinfeld snippet (at the 2:12 mark): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnKRbEPbItE :-)

    Saying “look at me, love me” is not going to get you the attention and credibility you desire. Sharing and being a resource is how you get there.

  • Lori

    Who I am is my brand. I refuse to be anything but authentic. If who I am doesn’t “jive” with my client’s preconceived notions of who they’re PR representative should be then we aren’t a fit. Se la vie…..

  • Lori

    And my brand does usually include poor grammar choices :) Of course I meant “their.”

  • http://www.prconversations.com Judy Gombita

    I’m still not huge on the term, Kellye. I think my recent column Profile Byte basically summed up my dislike, in that “personal brand” reeks too much of “personality,” whereas I think we all need more “just right” character these days (especially online).

    What you didn’t get in to was how some have been hired into high-level corporate (or agency) positions because of cultivating their “personal brands” and getting attention (especially online). There’s all kinds of great fanfare…but then, quietly, three to six months later, you hear the person is no longer with the organization….couldn’t deliver in a corporate setting all that the “personal brand” implied or promised? Something to think about.

  • http://soloprpro.com KellyeCrane

    I believe when you say “personality,” you mean as in being *a* personality (the noun), which I agree is best left to the movie stars. I don’t believe the term personal branding, as it’s now used in the popular vernacular, means trying to promote oneself into a personality – not anymore.

    You raise a great point about how much individuals can be known/visible within a larger organization. I think some companies encourage employees to have strong personal brands, and some the opposite. When the individual and their employer differ in opinion about that, I don’t think it usually ends well.

  • http://www.prconversations.com Judy Gombita

    Per your invitation, Kellye, pointing your readers to my February “Profile Byte: PR Fly Zone on Social Media’s Radar” (PR and social media column) where I detailed more thoroughly, “personality” versus “character.”

    http://windmillnetworking.com/2012/02/23/profile-byte-pr-fly-zone-on-social-medias-radar/

  • http://twitter.com/crcpr21 Christine R. Cox

    I completely agree with you and honestly have found the entire debate over symantics a bit mundane. I understand Kami’s comment, and point of view – and find it valid. Nevertheless, Kelly’s point is more accurate. No matter the way we express it, we all have a ‘personal brand’ that we need to be aware of. Having said that, the awareness also means taking responsiblity for the brand -thereby, walking the walk, not just talking the talk. So yes, community contribution and participation are key to defining one’s ‘personal brand’. It’s almost like a chicken and egg thing. Frankly, I think they go together and are interchangeable, no matter how we frame it.

  • http://twitter.com/rockstarjen Jennifer Wilbur

    The reality is that everyone has a personal brand, regardless of whether they are active online or not. Those who are visible/vocal online (via social network or otherwise) just have a larger audience. Whether your want it or not. What you say and do directly contributes to how you are perceived. Let’s not forget that your brand isn’t what you want it to be or say it is, it’s what your audience believes it is.

    Often it seems the ones protesting it the most are more focused on their brand then anyone. Or maybe that’s just a byproduct of one of their brand values. ;)

    We can call it whatever we want, but when we are courting (or debating with) potential partners, clients, employers and peers, we’re creating a “brand.” Your prowess, personality, values and effort are all factors in how that is accepting (or rejected) by others.

  • http://soloprpro.com KellyeCrane

    I often note that one of my favorite things about social media is we now attract people who enjoy us on a more personal level than before. As you note, those who don’t like us will probably stay away, and that’s OK — it wouldn’t have been a satisfying working relationship, anyway.

  • http://soloprpro.com KellyeCrane

    Thanks for your comment, Christine — so true that you have to be able to walk the talk! Working to build authority in an area where you have no real experience is one of the misguided tactics of some “personal branding gurus” that gave the term a bad name to begin with.

  • http://soloprpro.com KellyeCrane

     Great points. The fact that being anti-personal brand is actually a big part of some folks’ personal brand is funny, and I think true.

    If the wider public was not only using the term personal brand, but also engaging in some of the overly self-promotional tactics that detractors hate, I’d be on the front lines of the fight against it. But when I talk to people they see it as a noun, rather than a verb.

  • http://www.facebook.com/arikhanson Arik Hanson

    I’m with Jen. Personal brands exist–whether we want them to or not. No big breaking news there. But, the term does bug me. I really just refer to it as your reputation, because that’s really what we’re talking about, right? I heard a wise man once say: Your “personal brand” is what people say about you once you leave the room. I thought that was spot on. 

  • http://soloprpro.com KellyeCrane

    For solo PR pros, I think it goes a small step beyond reputation (though that’s a huge part of it). It involves proactively helping people know what to say about you when you leave the room – how do you answer the question, “what do you do?” Thanks for your thoughts, Arik!

  • http://www.facebook.com/amy.fey.5209 Amy Fey

    We all agree that personal branding exists, and no
    matter what we call it, it’s important we understand it and do it perfectly.
    Also, I believe that it’s easier for clients to understand what we are talking
    about if they already use this term, and confusing them just because we have
    some negative connotations associated with “personal branding” seems a little
    bit unproductive.

  • http://twitter.com/KellyeCrane Kellye Crane

    Great point about clients, Amy. As the term continues its widespread acceptance, many client executives are now thinking about their own personal brands, and seeking counsel from their PR reps on this topic. Thanks for weighing in!

  • http://www.facebook.com/amy.fey.5209 Amy Fey

    Thanks for the answer. Glad you agree. Keep up the good work!

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