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

The Internet is a powerful tool for pumping your personal brand. But will we lose ourselves amid all the chatter?

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.

I don’t know whether David Petraeus was a good general or a crappy one, but Sullivan’s point is that Petraeus has been very good at marketing, positioning and selling himself. He has been excellent at “personal branding,” and the media and adulatory public have been willing co-conspirators. And when you get really good at personal branding, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a big surprise that you  may end up selling your self, but losing your soul.

Even if the terminology of “personal branding” is new and its arts more sophisticated these days, the business of selling and positioning oneself is old. Very old indeed. At least as old as Genesis, where Jacob cons blind Daddy Jacob out of the family blessing by shoving forward and pretending to be brother Esau.

But now the old art has been taken to new heights with the Internet, social media and legions of agents, publicists, marketing consultants and media advisors. It has been democratized. It is not the sport of generals and movie stars only, but of, well, the guy next door, the gal you knew in grad school. And that’s where it gets creepy — when ordinary people are packaging and selling themselves through Facebook, Twitter, websites and blogs.

Or maybe its not creepy at all. Maybe it's a good thing, because now publicity and prominence aren’t limited to the few, but are the province of, well, anybody and everybody.

On the upside, it is a way for people with something important to say, a perspective or product to offer, to get it out there. With an agent, a website and relentless use of social media, you can make your voice heard and shape (hopefully for the better) the conversation. Those who are called or impelled to influence or change hearts and minds have new avenues and tools for doing so.

But there is also a downside. Social media gives license to talk about yourself incessantly. In ordinary human interaction, few of us would tolerate the navel gazing and self-promotion that is stock-in-trade on Facebook and Twitter. Such social media turns out to be oddly “un-social,” feeding illusions of self-importance in ways that were once slapped down as bad manners. The culture of celebrity, which celebrates people not because they have actually done something significant, but only because they have compelled or garnered attention (and often for the most tawdry things), has been made available to all.

A couple centuries ago the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that a first principal in ethics is, “Human beings are never to be treated as a means but always as ends.” People, that is, are not to be used, not be made instruments to our various agendas and ambitions. Human beings should be regarded, in some sense, as sacred. With personal branding, we turn ourselves into a means to an end.

While Kant’s imperative has, arguably, been violated more than it has been honored, there is still something to what the old Prussian philosopher said, something important, even elemental, if human life is to remain humane.

What happens when people morph into products? What happens when relationships — say marriage or children — are reduced to a cost/ benefit analysis? What happens when “image-management” replaces reality-based reputation, when personal brand supplants character?

In a world of many competing ideas, get yours out — by all means (literally). Convey your message as skillfully and as widely as you are able. If it helps, create and use your own personal brand.

But be careful. Be careful about so marketing or selling yourself that you discover you have lost your soul in the process. Be very careful that you don’t begin to believe your own press, that you don’t confuse yourself with what an adoring public or biographer believes.

And, oh, by the way, check my website, listed below, for more about me.

This article was modified on November 27th.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.