Why personal branding is not pathetic (or, why Sheryl Sandberg never wears a T-shirt)

By Mark Schaefer

There are a few terms in our industry that I loathe, and near the top of the list is “personal branding.” But just because the phrase has become a cornerstone of guru speak doesn’t mean the concept of a personal brand is irrelevant. Ironically I used the term in the title of my newest book because I could not think of a replacement that people would easily understand!

There have been many articles written lately about why personal branding is vain, fruitless, and narcissistic. One person emailed me and claimed the idea of a personal brand represented everything that was wrong in our world today.

Let’s step back a minute shall we, and take a dispassionate view of the importance of the personal brand, with lessons from Sheryl Sandberg.

My friend John Dale Beckley sent me an article from the BBC called “The Case Against Personal Brands,” featuring quotes from Sheryl Sandberg, best-selling author of Lean In, and COO of Facebook. In the piece, Sandberg rails against the idea of a personal brand. Here is a quote from the article:

“Crest has a brand. Perrier has a brand. People are not that simple. When we are packaged, we’re ineffective and inauthentic. What we each have is a voice, which can be complex, contradictory and sometimes wrong. Don’t package yourself.”

Packaging yourself

What is a brand?

A brand is simply the idea that somebody has about you (or a product) from their accumulated experiences. Those experiences, increasingly, are formed from the online impressions we get of you through content, photos, and videos. When I searched for Sheryl Sandberg, here are the consecutive photos that come up:

personal branding

So my question is: Does Sheryl Sandberg ever wear a tee-shirt? Does she work out? Is her hair ever messy? Does she go without make-up? Does she ever wear a designer outfit that is not black or white?

Please know that I’m not dismissing Ms. Sandberg in any way. I respect her very much. I’m using this somewhat silly example and asking whimsical questions to suggest that in many ways, she indeed packages herself. We all do. Even if you choose to not “package yourself” (whatever that means) you are packaging yourself. You are making a decision about how you present yourself to the world.

And that’s not bad.

I think it’s really smart that Ms. Sandberg has packaged herself. Her buttoned-up, elegant persona will help her sell books and command respect as a leader on Wall Street where image certainly matters. Everything you do, and everything you don’t do becomes your brand. I think if Ms. Sandberg didn’t curate her image to some extent we’d probably be disappointed.

Being intentional about your brand doesn’t mean you’re a fake or inauthentic. It means you’re smart. As I point out in my book KNOWN, establishing an appropriate presence, reputation and authority on the web can provide a permanent and sustainable advantage. In fact, it may be the only advantage we carry with us throughout our career. Why would anybody leave that to chance?

Faking it

I think perhaps what Ms. Sandberg is really saying is “don’t fake it,” and I can agree with that entirely. She probably loves designer clothes and hobnobbing at fine restaurants. So being pictured in these circumstances is somewhat curated (because you’re leaving the bed head out) but also entirely authentic.

I recently wrote about being “strategically authentic.” On the surface that might sound awful but I also believe that’s what most of us do every day. Authentic means being the same all the time, everywhere. We probably don’t want to know about Ms. Sandberg’s annoying skin rash, or smelly feet. She can leave those details out and we can still see her as authentic.

Ms. Sandberg has a son and a daughter but we don’t see them too much online. As a highly-visible executive it seems smart to largely edit them out of her brand for safety reasons. She doesn’t hide the fact that she has kids and occasionally includes references to them in her content because that is an important part of her identity. But this intentional curation is also an aspect of her packaged image and that makes sense.

Establishing an effective personal brand takes courage

Trying to be somebody you’re not is tragic. It’s not sustainable. Establishing a great brand means being more of yourself at your best: Amplifying your message and what you stand for. Ms. Sandberg doesn’t appeal to everybody and I’m guessing she’s OK with that.

I don’t appeal to everybody either. I have people disagree with me all the time. And that’s because I’m human, not a tube of toothpaste. Part of having a successful brand is being OK with the fact that you may not be universally beloved. As I wrote in my book KNOWN, not everyone will like you … you’re not pizza.

If you appeal to everybody, that’s probably a sign that you’re faking it.

The next level

Let’s take this argument for the importance of personal brands a step further. To what extent does the Sheryl Sandberg personal brand create a halo for Facebook? If Sheryl is cool, does that make Facebook somewhat cooler?

Obviously, yes.

People really don’t care much if Facebook advertises on TV or updates their logo. But we do intensely care about the personalities behind the brand. In the old days brands were created by advertising impressions. Today they are just as likely to be created by human impressions.

So to the extent that a company is made up of a collection of cool personal brands, that adds immeasurable value.

Get over it

I think if people deny the importance of a personal brand it is simply hubris. If you’re breathing, you have a personal brand. Every public figure “designs” their brand to some extent … and they’re not being very smart if they don’t.

So can we please get over this nonsense that a “personal brand” isn’t a thing? I don’t think any professional business person today will claim that their public image, reputation, popularity, and  presence isn’t important. All of that is part of your brand, even if you hate the term (as I do)

And as I’ve shown, in many cases, a personal brand IS THE COMPANY BRAND.

Instead of debating the semantics, I’d like you to consider the bigger picture: The only sustainable advantage we have as individuals is to be known in our industry. Either you’re known or you’re not. And if you’re known you will have a business advantage over those who aren’t. It’s just that simple.

Now what are you going to do about it?

Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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