December 23, 2023

Don't Be a Brand, Be Human


Posted by Sharmarke Hujale


5 min read

Personal branding is a hot topic, and many creators are striving to "build" their online brand.

I'm a branding person. I've been in the business of branding, and read numerous books and articles on the topic.

Yet, I've never fully come to terms with the idea of people building brands for themselves or others.

In theory, it sounds nice. Who wouldn't want to be seen or stand out from the crowd? Maybe that's why so many jump on the personal branding bandwagon. To be honest, I jumped on it too, without giving it much thought.

It was only recently that I started to reflect on where this obsession with building a personal brand comes from.

I believe to truly understand the phenomenon of personal branding, we must understand its roots—to put it in the right perspective.

The Branding Revolution: Creating Corporate Identities

The rise of consumer culture, particularly in America in the early 20th century, meant that products couldn't longer be differentiated from one another.

This led to the birth of corporate branding as a response to the increased competition among corporations.

The goal was to manufacture a cohesive image to represent their products to the world.

So, the idea of a brand evolved from selling the quality of a product to selling an idea—a feeling.

You're familiar with Nike's "Just Do It" or Apple's "Think Different."

These taglines go beyond selling products—they sell the idea that these companies are more than just a shoe company or a computer company.

That's the whole point of branding—to humanize a company and imbue it with personality.

Companies with a "soul" become more relatable to a consumer. But when a company is viewed as a brand, the focus shifts from laboring practices and supply chains to the construction of narrative and identity.

Interestingly enough, Marty Neumeier, author of many books on branding, defines a brand as a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.

And when there are a lot of people who've got the same gut feeling, then a company has a brand.

But his definition doesn't extend to a person's gut feeling about another person, only about a company or organization.

So where does that leave us with personal branding?

The Brand Called You

One of the early mentions of personal branding can be traced back to Tom Peters, the author of the 1997 article 'The Brand Called You.' He envisioned that people should become their own brands, just like in the corporate world.

To stand out from the crowd, you have to be 'branded'. But there's an issue with that line of thought.

Brands by definition are concepts people manufacture in their heads—they exist in your imagination. Unlike humans, brands are inanimate. They lack emotions and a sense of what's right or wrong.

Focusing excessively on personal branding carries the risk of intertwining your identity with the brand, leading to an overwhelming emphasis on staying 'on brand'.

We as humans are complex and unpredictable with the autonomy to change our thoughts and behaviors—brands can't do the same.

As the writer and designer, Debbie Millman puts it, "When a person aspires to be a brand, they forfeit everything that is truly glorious about being human."

Thanks to the rise of social media influencers, the personal brand has increasingly focused on the "me, myself, and I" rather than on a mission or the exploration of curiosities and sharing them with the world.

Consider your favorite writers, thinkers, entrepreneurs, or artists. Were they fixated and obsessed with "building" their personal brand?

Or were they driven by a passion to make a difference in the world using their unique skills and passions?

I believe the majority of the figures I admire fall into the latter category.

What about the ones you admire?

Societal and Cultural Pressure

I believe it all comes down to social pressure. You "feel" you've to build a personal brand because that's what everybody does or tells you to do. Especially if you want to be noticed on social media.

During my studies as a multimedia design and communication student, we had personal branding as part of our curriculum. We were required to create a 'professional' self and even had to go through an examination for it.

Which in my opinion, didn't make much sense at the time. And it still doesn't.

This obsessive focus on personal branding often leads to wearing a metaphorical mask, presenting a specific image to the public.

You transform into a product that needs to be marketed and sold.

This approach can make it challenging to embrace who you truly are, with all of your complexities and imperfections.

Shift Your Perspective

You can certainly manufacture your online image to fit the perception you desire.

But, instead of manufacturing a sense of self, consider this approach:

  • Focus on building your reputation, and your character
  • Focus on your obsessions and passions
  • Focus on the value you wish to share with the world

Focusing on being useful to others liberates you from the fixation on "building" a personal brand.

It's the people with genuine obsessions and passions for what they make that create movements—not those who waver and shout, "This is how can build a powerful personal brand."

Instead of asking yourself, "How do I build my personal brand?", a better question is: "How can I contribute and be useful to others with what I have?"

Brands are artificial constructs, you're not.

Don't be a brand, be human.

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