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The darker side of personal branding

The Internet is a powerful tool for pumping your personal brand. But will we lose ourselves amid all the chatter?
Mars Hill's Mark Driscoll preaches to an Easter crowd at CenturyLink field.

Mars Hill's Mark Driscoll preaches to an Easter crowd at CenturyLink field. Mars Hill Church

This is not a how-to article about personal branding. There are hundreds — probably thousands — of those. There are “personal branding strategies,” “personal branding tips” and “personal branding examples.” There are multiple sites for, “How to discover your personal brand,” and others with “Advice on the brand called YOU.”

But there’s precious little about what might be called the ethics of the increasingly common practice of “personal branding.” When I entered “Personal Branding: Is It Right?” into a couple search engines, they choked. All that came back was, “Personal Branding: Is It Right for You?”

Which is part of the issue. Questions of right and wrong are ruled “out-of-order” without a second, or a first, thought. The only real question is, “Is it right for you?”

Should you wish a definition of the subject at hand, here’s one from that venerable on-line authority, Wikipedia (I’m pretty sure you won’t find “personal branding” in Webster’s Collegiate).

“Personal branding”: “A description of the process whereby people and their careers are marketed as brands.” To which Wikipedia adds, “It has been noted that, while previous self-help management techniques were about self-improvement, the personal branding concept suggests instead that success comes from self-packaging.”

Examples? Locally, think Dale Chihuly, Pete Carroll, and Bill GatesPersonal branding can fit all stripes: Martha Stewart, Nelson Mandela, Oprah, the Myanmar activist Aung San Suu Kyi or Donald Trump. Good brand strength one and all. Moreover, personal failure — and in Stewart’s case even jail time — need not diminish brand strength. With the right management, the brand can even be enhanced by such miscues. We all love redemption stories.

Last week, while in Minneapolis, I was a part of a group of hapless, boring mainline Protestants (my tribe). We met with a guru of the Emergent Church movement.

He made the interesting, if obvious, point that, “Evangelicals aren’t afraid of personality. They love personality. You mainliners don’t. You run away from personality.” He’s right and it’s a problem for us.

Another way to put this is that, in world of religion and its competition for hearts, minds and money, Evangelicals are all over personal branding — think Mars Hill's Mark Driscoll, Joel Osteen, Robert Schuller, Joyce Mayer and Tim Keller, to name a few. Odds are, you can’t name a single mainline or liberal Protestant leader at all, much less one with good brand strength.

We main (or old-liners) are a modest people, reluctant to tout ourselves, last to blow our own horns and as a consequence “losing market share.” Long ago we were taught and came to believe that the cardinal sin is Pride, thinking too much of yourself, putting yourself above others, pushing yourself forward. These days doing these things is no longer a sin. It is a tool, a skill, a virtue.

In the new dispensation, the real sin isn’t pride. Just the opposite: the real sin is to fail at self-promotion, to be inept at “creating a presence,” to lack overweening ambition — this is a problem.

What sells isn’t modesty, still less humility. It’s people with big personalities, with a personal brand. Lots of teeth help too.

According to our guru, there is one thing that makes the books and products mentioned on Oprah really move: crying. When the author and/or Oprah cry on-camera, the on-line orders go wild. “Then,” he exclaimed, “there’s a human connection. People want the human connection.” God, have mercy.

Meanwhile, as I was in Minneapolis being schooled on personality and brand, the whole thing with General David Petraeus was unfolding, which led to further ruminations about personal branding.

Andrew Sullivan, among others, pointed out how carefully Petraeus has built and managed his brand. On Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” website two photos appeared side-by-side. Panel One: General Dwight David Eisenhower on D-Day, with not a medal or ribbon on his khakis, looking plain as oatmeal. Panel Two: David Petraeus with medals and ribbons up one side and down the other, a genial all-American Caesar. Sullivan went on to note that even when Petraeus appeared in public in a civilian suit, he had his medals tacked on to his lapels. Part of the brand.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

My problem with branding is that it is exclusive rather than inclusive. It sets people apart, rather than brings them together -- i.e., "I am I and you are not I". (And, by the way, you'd better not infringe on my "I-ness"!) I prefer a mindset of, "We are all in this together & there is a place for everybody."

frana

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 12:09 p.m. Inappropriate

This is news? Somebody skipped their classic literature and history classes. As for generals, Petraeus is just the latest in a long line of generals whose egos got in the way of the mission, Custer and Patton are the classics American examples.

Obama is the best living example of personal branding in American politics. Second place? Sarah Palin of course. Which describes the sorry state of American politics today. Anybody who has worked in the public sector understand the concept of "Image Management" as the first priority of upper management. Results and the public good are a distant second and usually an after thought.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 7:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Personal branding = fluff and stuff. It does not include the public good.

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 1:47 p.m. Inappropriate

I share much of the same frustration. For that reason I generally Facebook and the like, assuming rightly that other people are as uninterested in the minutiae of my daily life as I am in theirs.

But it's hard to avoid. If I am to succeed professionally, then I must focus of building a teaching portfolio, a research statement, and so on. In all professions, where people change jobs more often than ever before, "resume building" is a key professional activity. Career advisers like to talk about elevator speeches and talking points, whereas I would rather focus on doing my job well and believe that at least some hiring managers will use that as their criterion.

Although the term "personal branding" is new, as noted above, the concept is not. Still, I think in the long run the winners are those who are careful about faddish ideas. A hundred years from now, I expect that the "Emergent Church" movement will be known only to history buffs, but mainline Protestantism will still be around.

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 3:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I avoid individuals that are empty shells, and must promote themselves.

jhande

Posted Sat, Dec 1, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Me too. I especially avoid those who use the Seattle "5 Star" various magazines to hype themselves. No one has ever asked me to "nominate a peer" but according to the magazine for my profession, I get nominated each year "by my peers". It gags me.

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 10:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I was very sad to find out that this is a thing.

Jon Sayer

Posted Wed, Nov 28, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Of the US Presidents of the 20th century I can only think of two that eschewed (something like) personal branding; Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman. This makes me wonder if "personal branding" is just a new new media tag for self promotion and, like the spoken word, SP has been around for a long time.

kieth

Posted Wed, Nov 28, 11:28 a.m. Inappropriate

'We main (or old-liners) are a modest people, reluctant to tout ourselves, last to blow our own horns and as a consequence “losing market share.”'

Your comment above contrasts with your "About the Author", which is pretty strong marketing.

sarah90

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 7:23 p.m. Inappropriate

The darker side of personal branding? It's all fibs.

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