Friday, October 16, 2009

What is missing in current discussions on authentic personal branding?

In my recent tweeting past I have been reading so much about personal branding and there is much value in what is being said and taught in these forums. Yet, as I read some of this work, I have a strong feeling that something is missing in this discussion. The purpose of this posting is to reflect on what is missing in popular personal branding forums.

Many people have written about personal branding. The credit of spawning the personal branding movement perhaps goes to Tom Peters, who wrote in a famous article in Fast Company in 1997, “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called 'You.'" Another contributor to this stream is Catherine Kaputa, author of the famous book, “U R a Brand!” and more recently articles like, Top 10 Ways to Use Your Female Advantage in Business.”

Two speakers that I have been following on this subject in twittersphere are Hubert Rampershad and Dan Schwabel. While there is an overlap in their message, they do have unique personal brands. I love Hubert’s emphasis on authenticity and expressing the inner genius that each of us has. Hubert teaches social media for personal branding, yet his own tweets are repeats promoting his books or his workshops and lack originality and the spark, in my opinion. On the other hand, you have to love Dan for the activity he is generating around his Blogs, videos, and engaging people with social media. Dan speaks to authenticity but his focus, in building a personal brand is slightly different from Hubert's. His definition, “Personal branding is the process of how we market ourselves to others.” speaks to his emphasis on identifying and articulating your “unique value proposition, whether professional or personal, and then leveraging it across platforms with a consistent message and image to achieve a specific goal.”

So many tweets and blog posts about personal branding – what is missing in this stream of thoughts and voices? Even though personal branding is about authentic expression of your inner genius, why is the discussion dominated by managing external expression. Even posts dedicated to expressing our “real selves” describe superficial strategies that appear to be a forced attempt at being unique and different. For example, the post, “Break Out of the Social Media Prison,” on Dan’s Personal Branding Blog, is an attempt to get people to be their “real selves.” Let’s look at the author’s suggestions to be our authentic selves:

1) “ONLY leave a comment on a blog IF you completely disagree with the author’s point of view.” So we are talking about being real, but to be “real” we need to comment only when we disagree? What if I agree and love what the person is saying – would I be more real by acknowledging my appreciation or by not commenting so I can be unique?

2) “Go through your Facebook and Twitter profiles, and un-friend/unfollow people who you are not close friends with.” The author find this very liberating and good for him. But does it mean that everyone in order to be “real” needs to follow him? No, we all go to social media sites for different reasons, to learn, to share, to grow, and we can do all that without being “intimate” with each other.

3) “Find a topic in your niche that is HOT. Find one that is very biased towards one side of the argument and write a post arguing for the other side. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with the other point of view, as long as your argument is well thought out, coherent, and makes people want to debate with you. You’ll not only stir up a great conversation online with your post, but you’ll drive more traffic to your blog and gain a new readership.” Notice that the purpose of the post was to bring out the “real” self in readers and we end up with suggestions to increase readership by writing a controversial post that we may not necessarily agree with as long as it is coherent.

I do not mean to pick on this one post, there are ample examples with other leading writers on the subject who I am sure are also writing with good intentions, but I am amazed at the superficiality and even obvious contradictions in these writings. For another example, please also read, Top 10 Ways to Use Your Female Advantage in Business” by Catehrine Kaputa.

If indeed personal branding is about clear articulation and expression of our unique selves, where is the discussion about the “self”? Who are you? And how do you get to know the real you? How do you go beyond what these Blogs, your parents, society, or anyone has every told you about you? Even if your personal brand is an expression of service and compassion to the world, how do you know that is who you really are or was that also a desirable identity imposed upon you? There are many blog posts, books, and workshops on using social media and technology to create a consistent brand identity, an impressive identity, and all of these things have their place, they are important tools, but what about the “unique you” that is dying to speak but has been thwarted by all the voices of personal branding gurus telling you how to be and what to say?

I meet people everyday who have something very unique to offer not only because of the natural gifts they were born with, but also the unique life experiences that have taught them many valuable lessons. I believe each of us has something very unique to offer but very often that gets hidden under many layers of conditioning, fears, and expectations. If we jump to a well-articulated and coherent expression of our personal brand without internal reflection of who we are, will we not be depriving ourselves of living our highest potential and a truly remarkable life?

There seems to be such a focus on our external worlds and appearances within these discussions. Reaching for our goals, a constant strife to get somewhere other than where we are right now is what we are taught. While goals are important and hard work is also important, after 40 years of an amazing life, which includes an amazing family, challenges, several academic qualifications including PhD, and professional success, I am realizing what is most important is self-awareness. As I have learnt to get more in touch with who I really am and get rid of who I am not, I am finding myself more peaceful and energized. I am learning that my inner world is creating my outer world. As I gain clarity internally I am able to more clearly manifest my external reality, not by doing, of course there is doing involved, but that doing is a natural outcome of who I am. I don’t mean to get philosophical on you but am speaking from a very practical, and even scientific perspective. If you are not familiar with the work of scientists like Bruce Lipton, I encourage you to do so because they are now showing scientifically how our inner worlds are shaping our outer worlds.

Suggestions to find Self and Purpose

Well, I hope to blog more about personal branding from this perspective of authenticity and mindfulness. In the meanwhile, I would like to leave you with some suggestions and invite suggestions from you as well, with respect to the important step in personal branding about finding your self. I understand this is a journey and not a destination. That being said, here are some ideas for your journey of self discovery:

1) Ignore everything I just said and everything else you have ever read about personal branding and listen to your own self – who are you? Not who you want to be, not what you want others to see, but who you are you?

2) I offer some suggestions to tap into your inner purpose in an exercise I have written about elsewhere. You are welcome to try that. Doing all the steps in that exercise should surface themes that are important to you in your life.

3) Devote some time (I like to spend at least 30 minutes) every day to being with your self alone – use this time to connect with your self through breathing, walking mindfully, sitting in nature, or anything else that preferably doesn’t involve much doing, but just being.

4) Devote some time to doing things that you love – could be cooking, dancing, sports, etc.

5) Try to bring some new activities in your life in the form of doing something new, or reading, or traveling to new places, or even doing the same thing but more mindfully this time.

6) Join a group that is built around mindfulness or study of the self. Being in the company of people interested in the topic will open up new doors for you to view the world and your self differently.

7) Non-judgmental acceptance and loving your self – We often hide away parts of our selves that are not perceived to be desirable by some standards. Being mindful of how we feel, listening to our body, and thoughts, without judging, just observing can be a powerful teacher about our selves. Next time you feel angry or have any negative emotion, do not rush to hide it, move to a quiet place and stay with your thoughts, simply observing and see what happens when you become the observer of your own thoughts.

These are some of the things I do to find myself a little more each day so I can express myself in ways that serve my highest purpose in authentic and mindful ways. This is my first post inspired to write about the missing element in our discussions on personal branding and I am sure there will be more thoughts about this in the future...

I would also love to hear what you do to find your authentic self....


  1. Hi Shalini, Very interesting post - I enjoyed your fresh approach to this topic. I find exercise - particularly swimming, running and yoga - really helps in clearing and focusing the mind. Also helps boost creativity as Amantha Imber (author of The Creativity Formula) will testify.


  2. Thank you for this interesting and stimulating post.

    I think personal branding is an ongoing process that ultimately seeks to answer the question: what am I about?

    In various stages of our lives we come to know new layers of our 'selves' and our presonal branding will have to be redefined and upgraded.

    Dan Schawbel is writing for the so-called 'Generation Y', and although I do not necessarily agree with all of his proposals, I see inherent value in his efforts to drive home to us the need to 'brand' and to make a stand for ourselves.

    As for the specific list of suggestions you make in this post to learn more about yourself, I think they are fine as far as they go - as long as they do not become obsessive or fundamentalistic. There are infinitely diverese ways in which we may come to learn more about ourselves, some of them not highly recommendable (suffering comes to mind).

    All in all, let me congratulate you on a thoughtful and cogently argues post.

  3. Shalini

    Indeed a very thoughtful post and I commend you on highlighting one of the key aspects about the new wave of personal branders - it is not just about the external and certainly not just about the 'brand' you have online. Social media is ONE of the tools to communicate your personal brand - but I have many examples of clients who have wonderful personal brands with no Facebook, Twitter or personal blog - because it is not relevant to their brand, does not play to their unique strengths, skills and abilities and is not relevant to their target audience. Yes that quite likely will change, but right now - it's not relevant.

    Full disclosure here - I am a Reach Certified Personal Brand Strategist, trained in the leading personal branding methodology and one of the core pieces of work we do with clients (as much as 70% of the work) is the Extract phase. This is clearly understanding you, your target audience and assessing your competition.

    Part of that YOU is knowing who you are from an 'internal perspective' , uncovering your unique skills and strengths and appointing the VP's of your life - Vision, Purpose, Values and Passions. This all comes well before "What are the 160 characters I use for my Twitter bio!"

    Far too many people are rushing in to communicating their personal brands before they even have clearly identified what those brands are and what they mean to themselves - let alone anyone else. In a fast paced society we sometimes are all a little too quick to jump in before stopping to ask the important questions.

    Give yourself some space for creative thinking and the answers will come.

    Just my toonies worth.

  4. Shalini,

    Your blog post was very refreshing. The personal branding space is in a growth phase with a lot of opposing views and perspectives. and many people looking to be that GUY (or GAL) to monetize personal branding. There is a lot of good information in the personal branding space as well as noise and each person will have to filter out what is authentic versus what is snakeoil.

    I believe personal branding comes from a place of authenticity and is born out of who you are naturally. Continue to make content that impacts lives.

    Hajj Flemings - @HajjFlemings

  5. Persephone, thank you for sharing what you do to find your self. I was reading John Medina's 12 brain rules and that also talked about exercise and boosting the brain. I will look up Amantha...

    Oscar, I read your comment on the controversial post and agree with you - not a good strategy. Thank you for your comments - very encouraging :)

    Hi Paul, square peg :) Loved your site and your approach to personal branding. I don't know what reach is but seems to be a sound approach based on bringing out the best in each individual, which is my focus too and has always been, even as a business professor too - not about the profits, its about passion and purpose, and profits will follow. Like the VP's :)

    You mentioned give yourself space for creativity - do you allocate some time in the day for that or when ever you need it? Thank you again for your detailed comments.

    Thank you Hajj for your comments and encouragement. Even though I will continue to write when I am inspired regardless of feedback, it does feel good to connect with people and have an exchange that supports us and even challenges us.

  6. You did a great job with this. I too did NOT like that post at Dan's site recently. I am a management geek, so I am all over the concept of value. "Branding" is a marketing concept, as you correctly point out, and associated with the communication of value. Absolutely agree that you must be authentic, but if your value is not clear no one is going to show up to pay you for your brand. To me that is the goal that a lot of folks are taking their eye off in the pursuit of being personal and authentic. The people that follow my brand understand cleary what my value is yet my personality SCREAMS through what I say, how I say it, and how I interact with others.

    Keep up the good work.


  7. Valuable advice Bret, thank you. It is important to be authentic but not forgetting what value one provides to his/her customers.

  8. Shalini,
    Thank you for your comment on my blog and linking me to this post! It's a very interesting point you bring up. As a college student soon to be graduating, I often feel extremely pressured to create this brand for myself, but it seems I have to follow a strict set of rules in order to do so. I appreciate Dan's advice and the mix of personal and professional he offers.
    However, I strongly agree with your thoughts on the authentic self and feel individuality and personal flair are necessary. It is often forgotten that above all we are individuals and if we all follow the same set of rules, we are bound to all start to look the same. In response to your asking what we do to find our personal selves, I take as much time each day to read. My daily commute on the subway to school is spent with my nose in a book. I actually just finished The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which speaks of finding our own personal legend. I recommend it, if you haven't already read it! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts!


  9. Hi Marielle, It is a good idea to read and be aware of all the changes in technology so you can use them to serve your highest potential most effectively. And at the same staying in touch with what is our highest potential. And looks like you are on the right track - anyone who reads The Alchemist is on a quest of self discovery. Love that book! Wish you the best in your journey of self discovery and expression of your inner genius in ways that are meaningful and profitable.

  10. Namaste', dearling!

    You say above,... well, I can't quote you because you use this asinine Blospot platform that won't allow copying text, and I'll be damned if I am going to page up and down and re-type every word you said. Move to, dearling.

    But your puzzlement over what's "missing" in the personal-branding thing is due entirely to your insistence that it be what it isn't and never has been.

    Personal branding is not about being authentic. It's not about your self. It's not about expressing your authentic self. It's about selling things.

    Personal branding is about gaining people's trust so that they will be more inclined to buy things from you.

    It's about getting people to notice you. It's about self-aggrandization, promotion, marketing your personality as the vehcile for the things that you sell.

    Now, everything that those other personal-branding gurus tell people to do makes sense, deosn't it?

    Find or make up another name for what you are selling, dearling. "Personal branding" is the wrong one; it means something entirely different to most people. People will misunderstand you, and then they won't what they expect from you, and then they will say you're no goog.

  11. Dear Barking Unicorn,

    Thank you for your honest talk (bark) :)

    I do not have any problem in copying & pasting on Blogger and am curious if others have similar problems. (sometimes right click to copy doesnt work in some sites and you can use edit button on top tool bar) I will be moving the Blog to my own website using Drupal, so hopefully that will take care of that.

    As for authenticity in personal branding, my belief, research, and experience is that aligning our passions and purpose with customer well being brings favorable outcomes for both parties involved. The seller gains the trust, loyalty, and sales of customers. The customer gets products and solutions that are in his/her highest interest.

    Despite starting my business in recession in a really small town, I am finding growth and recognition because people find my approach different from traditional brands that are focusing on driving their own sales and customers interests are secondary. I cannot speak for others, but I am certainly drawing clients in my workshops and consultancy work simply because in addition to services that so many others are providing they like my authentic and mindful approach to personal branding and marketing.

    Authenticity would require that we live our truth. So if you believe that self aggrandizing is what you need to do to sell then that is what you should do and if being authentic & mindful is how I want to be in this world and in my business then that is what I should be and am doing.

    An aspect of my authentic purpose is to raise awareness about Self and mindfulness in business. It by no way means people should blindly buy into what I am saying. Rather, I am asking people to defy everything that anyone has ever told them - and that includes our educational and business institutions who say you need to sell by self-aggrandization and focus on maximizing shareholder value.

    I am asking you to defy all your assumptions about marketing and business and find your own way. There is so much we don't know even of our own potential because we have bought into old thinking patterns and systems. I am saying blow away those containers that hold you so you can be free to explore what feels right to you....

  12. Shalini - I am so glad I left this tab open all day. We chatter earlier on Twitter and I said I'd come back. What a marvelous post.

    We do come from a very similar perspective and express it in very different ways due to our varied writing styles. What you have said in one post I have spread out over my last 45 days of posting.

    Looking forward to reading more.

    I particularly like how you ask us to forget everything in the post and find ourselves. Social media is as the end of the day just another tool we as humans use to communicate with one another.

  13. Thank you Jim. Coming from you the compliment means a lot to me. And the writing style, I am an academic used to writing long papers and thesis. Though I am making a conscious effort to break up my posts into more concise pieces.

    I was inspired by your Blog for several reasons including your writing style, which was concise, clear, and insightful.

    Look forward to your posts as well...