The Paradox of Personal Branding


We live in a time where brands are trying to act like people and people are trying to become brands. It’s a paradoxical situation. Corporate brands don’t fit well in peoples’ clothes — and people feel confined by positioning statements and brand personas.

The original brands were people. Here are some long-forgotten brand names: Farmer, Butcher, Baker, Candler, Miller, Shoemaker, Carpenter, Miner, Smith and Gold. These family names were passed on for generations, along with craft skills the names promoted. These people were neighbors and trade was face-to-face.

Then in the 1800s factories, finance and railroads turned the traditional order on its head. Products became disembodied and assembled, packaged and labeled, bought and sold. Modern brands replaced the personal relationship between customer and craftsperson.

Design, advertising, PR, and store merchandising worked to gain customer trust for this new order. Once factories really started humming in the 1950s, space-age wonders and modern shopping malls were invented to cater to our every whim, with such an abundance of choice that even needs became wants. It was a magic carpet ride.

Before long, this horn of plenty led to confusion and skepticism. Research shows that too much choice actually leads to anxiety. In response to this disillusionment, corporate branding found ways to attach a human face to brands through advertising — using humor, celebrities and cartoon characters. The theory was that brands could become like old friends.

(Coke was an early innovator in the concept of giving a human face to corporate brands, aided by the ability to reach 80% of Americans with just three TV spots. This 1971 spot was aimed at the “PEPSI generation” during the Vietnam War — promising ‘The Real Thing” as a claim of authenticity.)

This human-faced branding approach was just what brand managers needed. The innovation machine started slowing in the 1970s, brands settled into niches, and competition became more intense. Warm and fuzzy advertising extended the joy ride for awhile.

Then the internet hit modern brands like a tsunami, fracturing advertising media models, forging new distribution channels for rivals, undermining structural supports, and opening a liquid space for haters. Concurrently, new business models continue to sprout up on apps and in the cloud, disrupting entire industries.

This same technology that empowers shoppers has washed away jobs, resulting in a free agent nation and the advent of personal branding. Many labor analysts believe 40% of workers will be self-employed by 2020. The traditional order of personal brands is making a comeback in a global electronic village.

In recent years social media provided a new forum for personal and corporate brands to express themselves. In the beginning, particularly on Twitter, there was a belief that social media would result in a new age of personal authenticity. Now many argue the opposite has happened. Twitter still surprises and delights; it’s also loaded with fake accounts, hustlers and hackers. Social media inhibits authenticity because everyone can watch, and anyone can criticize.

Of course, social media is not the only province of inauthenticity. Years ago I worked as an advertising copywriter and freelanced at many ad agencies. You see a lot when you enter through the servants entrance. Along the way, I heard some choice quotes. One was from a Mad Man to a junior executive. Said the Mad Man, “Son, this business is all about sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Here’s another: “Eighty percent of the game is believing what you say.” To their credit, the Mad Men were honest about the inauthenticity of advertising.

As my colleague Joe Pine says, “authenticity is an epistemological impossibility and a phenomenological reality.” It took me awhile to unpack this. Essentially, for something to be truly authentic, it has to answer these questions: “What is authenticity? How do we know if something is authentic? What is authentic?” These are impossible questions to answer. Yet as individuals we can feel that something is authentic. As authentic, bad-boy personal brand Kid Rock said: “If it looks good you'll see it. If it sounds good, you'll hear it. If it's marketed right, you'll buy it. But if it's real, you'll feel it."

The authenticity advantage is much easier for people to accomplish. People can read faces, interpret tone of voice and sense intent. Conversely, it’s difficult for a modern brands to feel authentic. Modern brand authenticity seems more likely when a founder has a controlling interest in the company and continues following a personal passion. Apple felt authentic to many under the reign of Steve Jobs. Tesla has authenticity mojo with Elon Musk. You could also argue that Costco, Chipotle and Patagonia feel authentic. Each of these brands are tied to passionate founders. These corporate brands are extensions of personal brands and human authenticity.

The final paradox is that brands must continue trying to be like people, even though they will never succeed — and people who want professional careers will use branding techniques whether they know it or not, and these techniques will likely reduce personal authenticity.

We live in a brand new, brave new world.

Dan Wallace develops products and is a marketing & brand consultant. He is co-authoring a book, “The Physics of Brand,” to be published by HOW in 2016. This blog post was written for the 15th annual FUSE Conference in Chicago, hosted by IIR. You can follow Dan on Twitter @ideafood.