The Morality of Personal Branding

For the majority of my life, I’ve been mediocre at best when it comes to marketing myself.  This is true in the business and personal realms.  In fact, there was a time when I took pride in being mostly steak with very little sizzle.

However, I’ve slowly realized that building a personal brand has massive benefits in helping accomplish your goals.  I know people who are pretty much average in their talents who’ve been able to accomplish a lot simply because they were truly great at marketing themselves.

What is personal branding

Just to be clear, personal branding is any attempt to dress up your own accomplishments.  This can take the form of a highly manicured LinkedIn Profile, a personal blog (ahem), smart-sounding language you use to describe stuff, etc.

Why I hated personal branding

The reason I took pride in my lack of sizzle is because at my core, I think that  ideas, talents, etc should be evaluated in an objective and analytical manner that rewards that which is truly great.

I hate it when entrepreneurs spend days honing their pitch before raising capital.  Shouldn’t VCs simply be judging their business’s merits based on a frank conversation that answers the key questions in the most honest, and intellectually honest way?

There are a few million other examples: dating, sales, introducing yourself to a stranger.  These interactions can all be changed and framed in drastically different ways through the way someone “brands” themselves.

The reality – it matters

I mentioned a few people I know who’ve done well because of their personal branding.  Ok, so I won’t mention any names here, but there are smart people I know who’ve made >$10 million MOSTLY on the backs of their personal branding efforts, and average people who’ve made $>1 million.  Those are pretty conservative numbers.

Think about the person in your office who does a phenomenal job of making sure the boss knows when they did a good job, introduces themselves to the CEO to get on their radar, and gets promoted faster as a result.  Now, think about an entrepreneur who turns a personal mystique into a million dollar contract, despite their product.  Yup, this stuff matters A LOT.

What’s more – it takes a VERY long time for most people to figure out if the emperor is wearing any clothes or not.  Marketing of products is so ubiquitous for a reason, this is how companies effectively hack our brains into buying products.  The same can be done at a personal level.

The moral question

Ok, so who cares if your colleague gets promoted 6 months before they should?  We live in a capitalist society where you should get yours, within the realm of the law, right?

Sure, but where is the line?  At the extreme, “false advertising” here means that someone is a con artist who defrauds people of money.  One step below is the person (probably entrepreneur) who grossly over inflates their past accomplishments, relationships, etc to get economic benefit.  I’ve run into this a lot as I’ve started my own business, both watching others and from people overselling themselves in order to get equity in our company, or cash.  Fun times.

We all need to do our own diligence on the characters that we run into in life, but I’d also like to think that we are all good actors in the world that have empathy for others.

At the risk of getting very long winded, I believe that the personal branders out there need to make sure the image and narrative they’re putting forth are in line with reality, and not aspirational – or down right false!

It’s actually not all that bad!

Before you call me a hypocrite for having a personal blog ( I don’t even have a favicon, c’mon), professional LinkedIn headshot, etc…please let me state that my perspective has changed drastically since I started my career.

Beyond the most basic of “branding” (you should probably wear deodorant, brush your teeth, etc), it just plain makes sense to market oneself.  Realistically, we all use appearance, reputation, etc to evaluate people and figure out if we want to do business with them, or be their friend.  With that in mind, you should take the basic steps to put your best foot forward.

The important key is to remain authentic, and self aware.  A week back, I heard someone in my network talking about how they modeled their personal brand off of the “heel” character type in pro wrestling.  I actually admired that.  They aren’t pretending this is their true self (even if they are kind of pretending this is their true self).  And, they’d done this in a very intentional way in order to differentiate themselves in a market full of nice people.

From a personal standpoint, you’d be kind of crazy not to put in at least the baseline efforts.  Just please don’t exaggerate because then it makes the whole personal branding this feel really icky.