To a certain extent, we’ve always been brands, or at least parts of brands – representing our families, friends, communities, countries, etc. – but never like this. Now each of us is a personal brand, and organizations are collections of many personal brands rather than hundreds or thousands of faceless employees.
The ways we find talent, discover new thoughts and decide what to watch is being flipped on its head. Where we used to trust music labels to find us artists and publishers and a handful of media outlets to shape our thoughts, there is now a free flow of information, a super highway without many rules. We are finally getting a genuine look at what people are interested in, what we would listen to and read if it were up to us, because, for the first time, it is.
Here’s what we’ve found so far:
- Videos of animals, particularly cats, being cute or silly receive lots of views.
- To build on the point above, in most cases, entertainment trumps information. Infotainment, a combination of the two, is becoming increasingly popular.
- Popularity has become democratized. Whether or not the best content rises to the top is debatable, because “best” is subjective.
- The ability to pursue and/or stay up-to-date on personal interests has resulted, and will continue to result, in rapid segmentation, perhaps most evident in the industries mentioned above (media, publishing, music).
- Mass support and/or protest allowed by new channels and platforms has already had meaningful political, economic and social implications. Examples include, but are by no means limited to, the Arab Spring, the incarcerated Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, the ousting of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, the ousting of RadiumOne CEO Gurbaksh Chahal and the public shaming of the New York Police Department (covered in a later section).
At the same time that the ways we source information have changed, so have the ways we express ourselves and how we’re perceived, which is what makes each of us a personal brand.
A contract with the likes of HarperCollins or a position at The New York Times is no longer a prerequisite to being read, in the same way that it’s possible to be heard without a deal from Universal or Sony.
Back to us all being brands.
One byproduct of the new digital environment is that we collectively source information. That’s the part we just covered. The second byproduct is that we now have the ability, some might say responsibility, to show what we support and ensure that our interests are represented by being active participants. It’s through our participation that our personal brands are built. Now this is where my opinion may differ from some of my peers: I don’t think it’s possible to avoid building a personal brand. Therefore, I don’t think it’s possible to avoid being a brand, in a sense.
The main argument against this point of view is that it’s possible to not participate in what music and which media outlets, authors, causes, etc. are supported. While some may look at that type of individual and claim they lack a personal brand, I would look at the same individual and say that they have a personal brand, and it’s one of a nonparticipant. Just as not voting in a political election or choosing not to show up to a meeting sends a strong message, sometimes even a stronger message than participating, making a conscious decision not to be a part of the new decision-making processes sends a strong message. Brands are defined by what they say, the contributions they make to the communities they are a part of and, most importantly, by their actions, by what they do. Personal brands are no different, just on a smaller scale.
And some personal brands are huge! If you’re still not buying the “everyone is a brand” rationale, ask yourself why so many high-profile executives are starting to blog all the time, increasing social media activity and actively securing media opportunities. They get it, it’s what they believe. because it’s true. Some have caught on quickly (1.1 Richard Branson) while others have lagged behind. Some have executed their strategies beautifully while others have been strategic but a bit reckless at times (1.2 John Legere).
1.1 Personal Branding With Richard Branson
Sir Richard is such an obvious and cliché choice for this section that I considered not using him as an example. On second though, however, I decided that because that’s the case, because he’s everyone’s perfect example of a CEO who has masterfully built a personal brand, I had to.
The rock star Virgin CEO was light-years ahead of his peers in understanding that he is a brand and the personal brand that he creates spills over into Virgin’s success. He embraced social media and blogging at a time when most public relations agencies, and probably his legal counsel, would have told him is was an unwarranted risk. He was one of the first influencers to join LinkedIn and subsequently became the first to hit the one-million-follower mark. By being at the forefront of these movements, he’s forever endeared himself to each of the current generations and the entrepreneurial community at large.
1.2 Personal Branding With John Legere
I’ll begin by saying that, from what I’ve seen of him, I like T-Mobile CEO John Legere a lot. Unfortunately he and his team have been a bit reckless recently. While building a personal brand is necessary these days, it’s still risky business. He’s taken a particularly risky approach by playing the role of a foul-mouthed, trash-talking “man of the people.” I say playing a role, because that might be his genuine personality, it might not be. If pulled off without any missteps, it would be a genius approach and would likely appeal to the T-Mobile customer base. But that’s just not the case. There have been several missteps recently. At a company press event in June, Legere, referring to the likes of AT&T and Verizon, said: “These high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have … they fucking hate you.” The problem with building that rebellious personal brand is that the second you slip up, and you will if you’re in power for long enough, your critics will be waiting. Legere made his way into many media outlets that thought he’d taken it to far with the rape comments. Days later, he was also attacked internally by his own employees who wrote him a letter saying that the comments were “violent” and “traumatizing.” Coincidentally, the following week an FTC investigation was opened looking into allegations that T-Mobile has been burying phony charges in their cellphone bills. If they’re going to employ this approach, Legere and his team must consider the consequences of what he says and use this bad-boy approach to their advantage rather than letting it drag them down.
Personal branding isn’t as much about constantly amplifying your presence as it is about doing it strategically. Authenticity is the best place to start. Most of us are incapable of keeping up long-term public facades. Being “you” from the beginning will save lots of time and energy. Again, the most accessible case studies are in the high-level executives (mostly CEOs) that I mentioned earlier. If a public relations firm or strategic advisor constructs a personal brand for an executive that doesn’t gel with their personality, it will eventually fall apart.
The first and most important step in personal branding is deciding how you want to be perceived. After that comes the strategy. For some, having a friendly, approachable persona pays off. On the flipside, sometimes being standoffish and unavailable is the best strategy. That way, when you do make yourself available, you have the power to dictate the terms. One CEO even used this approach to turn 60 Minutes into an hour-long commercial for his company right before holiday season under the pretense of an announcement about a hypothetical drone delivery system years before it could possibly go into effect. They were just so happy to see him.