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

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?