Personal Branding

We hear so much now about the building and managing of one’s “Personal Brand” as the key to success. You can’t attend a conference without hitting a breakout session helmed by some Personal Brand high priest or priestess. They’ll describe the brand concept the same way Coca Cola describes it, as standing on the pillars of quality and consistency.

Breakout sessions get flip-charts and grape-scented markers to practice listing the attributes of their Personal Brands. It eats up the 45-minutes before the gravy-laden conference lunch, but is it productive? Or even necessary?  Really, don’t your colleagues and customers want the same from you as from their cola: consistent quality? Yes, but our quality and consistency sometimes rises and falls in a continuous cycle.

Coca-Cola’s brand is micro-managed by teams of professionals working on nothing else. This raises the question: can (or should) a person even begin to undertake a project like self-branding?

A look at social media will tell you about people’s ability to credibly self-manage their own brands. We all know some happily-branded yet simultaneously miserable people.

Rick Perlstein’s examination of the socio-political landscape of the 1960s, Nixonland, is instructive on multiple levels. The first is as an extremely-well-footnoted historical reference. Second as a reminder of how our national mood cycles over time (the bubbles in our current cultural cauldron look a lot now like they did then). Finally, as a collection of case studies of Personal Brand creation and management. He discusses Nixon’s primarily, but also those of a whole motley cast of the era.

Take, for example, Jerry Rubin, the one-time wild-eyed Youth International Party revolution-jockey and anti-establishment provocateur. His relevance waned with the 1970s as a hung-over America happily left the 1960s behind: the war was over and Nixon was vanquished.

Rubin took personal re-branding to an extreme. In the 1980s of Dallas and Dynasty and Miami Vice, the almost-40 Jerry Rubin had every bit the look of the avowed enemy of the almost-30 ‘Chicago Seven’ Jerry Rubin. Here now was a businessman’s businessman, a networking guru in a three-piece suit delivering paid speeches to polite civic groups and business students, preaching the Profit Motive as the key to solving humanity’s most vexing challenges.

This polished 1980s stock-trader Rubin seemed ill-at-ease, though. When reporters (including a young one, me) clipped their microphones to his lectern he backed away with hands raised, nervously muttering “you’re encroaching, you’re encroaching.. don’t encroach! ” as if he could hear his younger self issuing the battle cry of the 1960s counter-culture: “up against the wall!”

Whatever; the new brand didn’t stick:  by the 90’s he was promoting snake-oil life-extension strategies and multi-level marketing. One day, in just his mid-50s, he walked out of his California home into traffic, sadly, to his death.

The ill-fated Rubin trotted out a number of brands, but couldn’t ‘get traction.’ When he met his demise he’d been several Jerry Rubins, with a whole dog’s dinner of employed-then-discarded brand attributes. Therein lies the danger of the Personal Brand juju: the temptation to continually paste-on the fashionable attributes du jour, to your own ultimate detriment. One can easily end up as the desperate drunken clown in Bobby Bare’s On A Real Good Night: “I’ll be your lover/or I’ll be your friend/or I can be nothing at all/a singer, a dancer, a drinker of wine/a sleeper wherever I fall.”

My father was fond of saying “the test of caring is caring” (Latin, caritas: love, affection, charity, valuing-highly).  He would advise putting your list of Personal Brand Attributes together and then tossing out any you’d be ashamed if someone stood up to repeat at your memorial service. If you’re only left with “cares” he’d tell you to put down your marker and head to the ballroom for lunch.