Going Off Brand
#evolve Magazine
July 15, 2022

There are two words that, when put one after the other, invariably make the eyes roll — at least mine: personal brand. There are many oft-used phrases that are ridiculous contradictions. No better example is the cliché “thinking outside the box” to signal your daring originality. The same with personal brand, as it’s not all that personal, but something you manufacture. Like a “juice product” that’s never 100% juice, your “personal brand” is never anything close to 100% you.

I have other issues with “personal brand,” but first a few words on branding in general, just to establish where I’m coming from. I’ve been involved with many branding and re-branding, even re-re-branding, processes for startups trying to stand out, organizations needing a makeover, some needing a complete reboot.

A company rebranding can be a fun process. It can also be painful when you don’t feel you had sufficient input, especially if the results are better than you imagined. But assuming you were part of the process and like the result, it’s exciting to be there at the unveiling, a rally-around-the-flag event that creates an exhilarating esprit d’ corps.

I should note that WorldatWork recently underwent a rebranding. They had me at sans serif. I should also note that this column, formerly known as NSFW, has also been rebranded as A Piece of Work. It’s the same great taste, same consistency, and in just about every respect indistinguishable from NSFW. But in the age of remote work and in the spirit of “life happens,” old definitions of what is and what isn’t safe for work no longer apply. What’s the point of calling a column NSFW when we don’t know where the line is?

So, branding I get. But personal brand? An entertainer, an athlete, a prominent CEO, or any public figure, has a brand. It’s shorthand that establishes in which aisle and on what shelf you can find them. The brand is the product, and the product is the brand. For anyone else — you, me and the rest of us who are not public figures — the notion is, on its face, preposterous. Proponents of this idea — yes, there are people who are actually employed as personal brand consultants — distinguish between one’s reputation and one’s personal brand. Here’s an excerpt from a recent Harvard Business Review article on this very topic:

“Everyone has a reputation. The first impressions you make, the relationships you form with managers and peers, and how you communicate — all of these things impact how others see you. Your personal brand, on the other hand, is much more intentional. It is how you want people to see you.”

My problem boils down to two things: First, it’s my experience that, when someone is said to be “on brand,” it almost always means he or she is acting like a jerk. It also implies that years of acting like a jerk can be fixed with a new color scheme, logo and personal mission statement. Second, what’s wrong with reputation? Sure, sometimes a narrative forms that’s based on a bad first impression or someone’s worst day. But once co-workers and colleagues get a big-enough sample size, impressions crystallize, and your reputation becomes an accurate representation of what and who you are.

If someone asked me to describe my “brand,” I honestly wouldn’t know what to say. Though if someone asked me to speculate on how people perceive me —my reputation — I’d be able to hazard a good guess (after all, it’s something I like to think that I earned!).

Brand may be intentional and what you want people to see. But eventually they’ll see through it. Instead of working on your brand, work on being a good boss, a good co-worker, develop your skills, and try not to be a jackass. If that becomes your brand, even better!




“Everyone has a reputation. The first impressions you make, the relationships you form with managers and peers, and how you communicate — all of these things impact how others see you. Your personal brand, on the other hand, is much more intentional. It is how you want people to see you.”
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