"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Personal Branding–Who Are You, Really?

Everything and now everybody gets branded.  Sarah Banet-Weiser, writing in the Wall Street Journal (1.24.13) reports that in the age of social media, just being you is not enough:

Increasingly, students have come [to me] seeking a different sort of advice, asking: how should I build my personal profile, or what do I need for a successful self-brand? Should I have a personal website, or a strong online presence? Questions that used to be framed as “Who am I, and who should I become?” are more and more “How should I sell myself?”

These questions emerge not because students are more superficial, but because they often feel compelled to compete in a marketplace that requires them to manage themselves as commodities.

This trend is not as alarming or dehumanizing as it might seem.  Social media have given us a chance to express ourselves more completely than ever before.  In seconds we can post pictures, opinions, articles, commentary and cute quotes. Thousands of people get to know us in more diverse ways.  The more we are willing to share, the more complete the picture.  It is only natural that we have begun to think more about how to manage that often scattershot image – how to trim, focus, concentrate, and distill it so that when others see our name, an immediate composite image comes to mind.  If you are sharing baby pictures, recipes, and Tea Party screeds, the image is garbled, messy, and imprecise; but if you restrict your posts to one particular aspect of your life and relate all information to it, then a more focused and clearer image emerges. You have branded yourself.

The brand does not have to be static – e.g., Baby Mom or Tea Party Crank – but can be more dynamic.  A commentator such as David Brooks, for example, does not fall into any particular category, but followers know that when they read him they will usually get an insightful look into current social, political, and intellectual trends.  Others, like Christopher Hitchens was known as a sharp-tongued, brilliant iconoclast; and although you never knew who or what he was going to pillory, expose, or deride, reading his pieces was always entertaining and challenging.

Brands and branding strategies have expanded beyond selling actual products or companies. We are witnessing the expansion of brand language and logic to our personal selves, where individuals often feel obliged to not only construct, but to understand themselves as brands. Branding, at the end of the day, is about selling and marketing things.  When we create a self-brand, we embark on a process that packages, designs, and markets us—human beings—just like other products and commodities.

The unasked question in this article is “Why do we do Facebook and Twitter?” Within the catch-all category of ‘social motivation’ there are many subheadings.  There are those who simply want to keep up with hundreds of virtual friends instead of a few real ones. The virtual network can expand geometrically and the social opportunities within it are almost limitless.  At any time, you can stop the virtual wheel, and get off into a real person’s bed.

For others, it is a way to connect to an exponential world of ideas.  It is one thing to have an opinion, another to have articulated it, and yet another to have shared it; but the real reward is to get responses to it, attract commentary, review, and criticism and by so doing, learn and appreciate more than ever.

I was delighted when I discovered Twitter.  I had always thought it was a teeny-bopper toy to share girly stories, but found it could be a highly sophisticated device which could put me in touch with hundreds of other writers instantaneously. As I scroll down the day’s Tweets, I see many which touch on topics that interest me.  I reply, post articles from my blog, and wait for others to comment.  The hits on my blog have increased tenfold; and if I expanded my Following list beyond the current 50 or so journals and writers, the increase would be even more.

I am concerned about my ‘brand’ because I want to facilitate the communications between me and other writers and their followers.  The more recognizable I become, the more likely readers will click on my posts and reply; and the more the intellectual circle is energized.

Producing one’s visibility through technological and digital tools, across multiple media platforms, is a primary way to create a saleable image of oneself, one that can circulate in a competitive marketplace.  These new, social media enhanced, visible selves, are no longer just versions of who we are, but they have become the essence of who we are. Increasingly, individuals are producing a self-brand not to promote one’s work or accomplishments, but to promote their very presence as a commodity in a market society.

The author, however, goes on to lament the passing of an older, more ‘real’ version of individuality:

Those various reasons one might garner public attention based on what one does, rather than how one is packaged, now seem almost antiquated, old-fashioned ideas in the contemporary economic context. I worry about what this means for a new generation of students and scholars who have been taught to value domain names and retweet campaigns over books and articles and ideas, perception and hype over content and substance, when what we promote becomes the very act of promotion itself.

This is where I disagree.  Why does the exercise that I have described above in anyway mean that I have valued perception and hype over content and substance?  Just the opposite.  Since I have been plugged in to social media, I have never been more intellectually active.  The immediate, critical audience that these media provide has been stimulating, energizing, and motivating.  I look forward to writing every day – articles I hope have substance and insight – largely because I like throwing myself into this large, unanticipated, diverse, and largely unknown reader pool.  What I promote most definitely does not become the very act of promotion itself, as Banet-Weiser suggests.

On the other hand, branding has gotten out of hand.  I used to work for a private consulting firm which provided technical advice to developing countries.  The company did not have a particular area of expertise, but easily found short-term talent on the open market to satisfy contractual requirements.  It was not known for its leadership in health, agriculture, education, or democratic reform, but for coming in on time, under budget, and meeting stated objectives.  It bid on everything that USAID offered, won one-third of all bids, and made a tidy profit. Despite this success, the CEO was not entirely happy.  If we branded ourselves, he said, we would be even more saleable and even more favorably viewed within the contracting agency.

Questionnaires were sent out to us, asking for our opinions on what the company meant to us; and what we thought of its mission, purpose, and overarching goals.  The CEO expected, I am sure, glowing comments about saving lives, mitigating misery, reducing poverty, and making the world a better place. The employees, however, uniformly stated the obvious – the company was in the business of making money, promiscuously went after every contract on the street, and had no mission whatsoever other than enriching the stockholders.

Another company I know – this time a non-profit company working in the same field of international development – spent thousands to hire a consulting firm to rebrand it.  The company name reflected its early origins – a small enterprise working in world education – but given its expansion and diversified portfolio, the CEO wanted to project a new brand image.  He went through the same exercise – a questionnaire soliciting opinions about mission, principles, and goals was circulated, results tabulated and analyzed, and a report issued. Not surprisingly, the employees uniformly said that the company only cared about winning.  It bid on just about everything, hired day-labor to fill technical slots, and instead of doling out shareholder dividends, bought a lot of artwork and built fancy facilities. 

It was a shock for both these companies to realize that they had no distinctive, attractive, sexy brand image.  They were money-makers.  They had no consumer base, only USAID bureaucrats to please; and because government regulations forbade any contact with them, contracts were awarded based only on the quality of proposals submitted.  They were contract mills, and they wasted their money trying to create an image of something they were not and would never be.

A small university in the South where I have been a teacher is currently going through a branding exercise; but in this case it is needed and very worthwhile.  The university has had to compete with two State behemoths which have attracted public attention, alumni contributions, and significant government funding.  As state financial resources have dwindled because of the recession, this small university has been in danger of being marginalized or worse.  It needed to show state bureaucrats and decision-makers that it filled an important niche between the two large universities; but it was not clear to anyone what exactly that niche was.  The branding exercise forced it to focus on all its attributes, to identify which of those were lacking in competitor universities, and enable it to position itself as a unique alternative.  The process has not yet been completed, but it should be productive.

The point is that in an increasingly competitive world, branding is not only essential but rewarding.  It in no way demeans the individual or institution, for they are only looking to enhance themselves, not just their image.  While some companies arrogantly and foolishly assume that they can become something they are not and never will ber simply be rebranding, many more understand today’s marketplace and see the need to reconfigure, retool, and refocus scarce resources to succeed.

Such rebranding, refocusing, and consolidating pays equal rewards for individuals who want to increase their personal value.  Some, like me, want only to be part of a larger and more demanding intellectual world; others want to present a more complete and complex personality and by so doing enhance their chances for partnership. 

There are few downsides to this natural and logical outgrowth of a competitive, market society, and Ms. Barnet-Weiser need not be so concerned.

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