“Personal Brand” – An Exercise In Linguistic Olympics? Ross | October 13th, 2008

People find reasons to disagree about many things. Sometimes, what appear to be substantive disagreements turn out to be little more than smoke and mirrors.

Take for example the subject of “personal brand”. David Armano’s new “Brand U.0 Blog focuses on personal brands. Chris Brogan recently listed 10 articles from his blog about personal branding. And shortly thereafter, Jason Bender wrote a short article in his blog titled “People Aren’t Brands. Ever”. Jason Bender disagreed with Armano and Brogan – and argued that “people ain’t brands.”

Here’s the irony. They are all saying the same thing. A personal brand is your reputation. Pure and simple. There’s a great simplicity to the term reputation – everyone knows what that word means. There’s less simplicity to what is a brand – that’s been the domain of agencies and marketing specialists.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Reputation has always been important. The Internet didn’t create the notion of “personal brand”. Web 2.0 didn’t create the notion of “personal brand.” Gary Vaynerchuk didn’t create the notion of personal brand (although he is demonstrating firsthand how one can build a great reputation online). There is no new “movement” of people as brands.

Reputation has always been important.

And that’s why the debate about “personal brands” is purely linguistic olympics – it’s a debate about something that’s not really in dispute. There’s no real disagreement about what it takes to build a good reputation. Among other things, it takes time, effort, and the sharing of insights and ideas. This is what it takes to build a brand. And marketing-speak doesn’t shortcut that process. Nike didn’t become a “brand” overnight, despite the fact that today, its logo design is iconic. Neither did Apple, Google, or any of the top brands in the world. Similarly, the people whom many admire online – Chris Brogan, Gary Vaynerchuk, Jason Fried, Guy Kawasaki, David Armano (among others) – they gained their reputation after investing time, effort and the sharing of insights and ideas. Over a lengthy period of time.

And that’s why the disagreement about personal branding is a lot of smoke without much substance. I wanted to accept Chris Brogan’s statement that a “strong personal brand is a mix of reputation, trust, attention and execution.” But at the end of the day, I don’t buy it. When you have a strong reputation, you have built trust. When you have a strong reputation, you command attention. When you have a strong reputation, you can execute better because of that reputation. If we want to call this a brand – fine – but we can call it an elephant and it’ll still be the same thing – reputation.

Those people who have built a strong reputation are trusted by people who listen to them, command attention, and can execute better. How did they do this? Time. Effort. Sharing.

There’s no secret formula. There’s no secret sauce. It’s always been about reputation. Reputation has always been important.

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  • marckohlbrugge

    The difference may be linguistic but that doesn’t mean it’s not a big difference. As soon as you call it “personal branding” it becomes something you can truly work on. You can set up mission statements, define your vision, work on your strategy, etc. – You can actively start thinking of ways to better yourself and thus your reputation.

    If you just call it “reputation” you won’t think as much of your values and the directions you want to go. It sounds like something that forms by itself, although you CAN really work on it.

  • http://www.crowdspring.com Ross

    @marckohlbrugge – It’s a distinction without a difference. You can work on your reputation – it’s the same mission statements, vision, strategy, etc. And reputation has never simply formed by itself. It takes lots of effort. I think there’s been too much talk about personal branding lately as if it’s some new, novel concept. It’s not. This doesn’t mean it’s unimportant – it is important. It means only that “personal branding” didn’t introduce any novel breakthroughs in what people needed to do to develop credibility. The Internet has merely offered more opportunities. But it’s always been about reputation.

  • http://www.crowdspring.com Ross

    @marckohlbrugge – It’s a distinction without a difference. You can work on your reputation – it’s the same mission statements, vision, strategy, etc. And reputation has never simply formed by itself. It takes lots of effort. I think there’s been too much talk about personal branding lately as if it’s some new, novel concept. It’s not. This doesn’t mean it’s unimportant – it is important. It means only that “personal branding” didn’t introduce any novel breakthroughs in what people needed to do to develop credibility. The Internet has merely offered more opportunities. But it’s always been about reputation.

  • marckohlbrugge

    I agree “personal branding” itself is nothing new, but by giving it this name and thus linking it with concepts which people are probably more familiar with it makes the whole thing more accessible.

    If you ask a random person to work on their reputation they probably don’t know which is the best way to start, but if you tell them to work on their “personal brand” they will understand they can use the all concepts they already know about companies and apply them to themselves.

    Of course this depends on the person, but for working on my “personal brand” seems more interesting and accessible than working on my reputation. Even if it’s the same thing.

    So if the discussion is about whether or not it’s a new concept I think we agree, it’s probably not. But I wouldn’t call it “linquistic olympics” because that makes the linquistic difference sound unimportant while I do think it can have an impact.

  • mayobrains

    See this is where I wholly disagree with Brogan et al – the buzzword known as “Personal Brand” is not the same as the buzzword “Reputation.” Not by any stretch. Personal Brand is about the picture you use to represent you, the colors you choose, and how you present yourself.

    Most people brand themselves as a professional – blue collar, slacks, and the like. Some people have a bit more creativity…

  • http://www.crowdspring.com Ross

    @marckohlbrugge – I think you and I mostly agree – except for the “linguistic olympics” reference. The linguistic difference may be important, but as I wrote, it’s a distinction without a difference. I agree, however, that if a person is more likely to to work on their “personal brand” as opposed to their reputation, then there’s a good reason to use a different term. The term certainly means something – but it’s been stretched and pulled in so many directions that much written about it is marketing goo.

    @mayobrains – a picture, colors, and how you present yourself (assuming this doesn’t include substantive contributions) don’t make a brand. In the world of commercial brands, Nike, Google, Apple would still be top brands even if they didn’t have their logos. Gary Vaynerchuck, Chris Brogan and others haven’t built great online reputations because of their pictures and colors. While there’s a temptation to import into this discussion some of the same terminology that’s used in branding companies and products, this is a false temptation. It’s the equivalent of using terms meant to describe wine when talking about high end audio. At the end of the day, it’s not about the color. It’s not about the picture. It’s about reputation.

  • http://www.crowdspring.com Ross

    @marckohlbrugge – I think you and I mostly agree – except for the “linguistic olympics” reference. The linguistic difference may be important, but as I wrote, it’s a distinction without a difference. I agree, however, that if a person is more likely to to work on their “personal brand” as opposed to their reputation, then there’s a good reason to use a different term. The term certainly means something – but it’s been stretched and pulled in so many directions that much written about it is marketing goo.

    @mayobrains – a picture, colors, and how you present yourself (assuming this doesn’t include substantive contributions) don’t make a brand. In the world of commercial brands, Nike, Google, Apple would still be top brands even if they didn’t have their logos. Gary Vaynerchuck, Chris Brogan and others haven’t built great online reputations because of their pictures and colors. While there’s a temptation to import into this discussion some of the same terminology that’s used in branding companies and products, this is a false temptation. It’s the equivalent of using terms meant to describe wine when talking about high end audio. At the end of the day, it’s not about the color. It’s not about the picture. It’s about reputation.

  • marckohlbrugge

    @Ross
    Yeah I think we agree :). I haven’t read much into this stuff so I’m not aware of how and when the terms are used, “personal branding” does sound real marketingy.

  • fredK

    A brand always involves reputation, but reputation doesn’t necessarily involve a brand. I’d have to agree with Jason Bender: people ain’t brands.

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  • bender

    Ross, thanks for the link to Famine City. Wanted to throw in a few more cents on your thoughts, and clarify my position.

    First off, reputation is important, but it’s not the same as a brand. Your brand might be “Tasty Cakes”, but if your cakes aren’t tasty–well, then that’s not your reputation. And that’s a real distinction, not linguistic.

    The point I was trying to make in my post, if not eloquently, was just people aiming to be brands are aiming too low.

    Actual brands are doing everything they can in the digital space to become more people-like–multi-faceted, responsive, communicative, dynamic, etc.

    So why would a person aim to “just” be a brand? I mean, position yourself and market yourself if you’re trying to establish a professional name and credibility, but a logo/positioning are just the beginning. They’re not the end-all be-all, as some of the “personal brand” enthusiasts suggest.

    Be a person who provides something of value. THAT’S more valuable than being a brand.

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