To some, it's an impersonal marketing buzzword. Others see it as a lifestyle. Personal branding, as one might imagine, carries a right fair amount of controversy because of its strategies for promoting personalities.
Students and professionals young and old hoping to succeed in life and career may learn a few things from the philosophy's tenets, but that doesn't mean they should embrace the whole philosophy unquestioningly. Just like almost anything else, it has both positives and negatives, the latter frequently dismissed by vocal personal branding proponents. Before making any commitments, make an effort to understand some of the approach's main drawbacks.
- It's kind of dehumanizing: "Brand" automatically conjures up images of corporations and products. In the minds of critics, sneaking the "personal" ahead of it doesn't exactly quell such connotations any. And this is a perfectly legitimate concern. A phrase like "personal branding," to many, transforms individuals into commodities — which may delight some, but render others uncomfortable. They might not want to be compared to hair care products or other consumer good. Shocking though this may sound to many personal branding buffs, most humans tend to want to feel like humans. While the concept may have its professional merits, some might avoid the term because they just can't fathom treatment as anything more or less than a unique individual. Not a packaged item to be set on a shelf and sold off to an eager customer.
- It's an ego-stroking distraction: Ardent personal branding buffs, along with "life coaches" and "social media experts" tend to obsess over their image more than most internet denizens. Not all, of course, but buying into the trend does place one at risk for heavy distraction. The label inherently requires them to spend hours calculating their image, playing up all their positives without allowing any of the negatives to sparkle through. If people ever hope to progress, they're just going to have to accept that they'll never truly become perfect little automatons. And subscribing to a mindset placing too much emphasis on their financially beneficial strengths doesn't exactly allow them to accept or address their weaknesses. After all, companies just don't want to sell inferior products. Self-improvement should occur to make an individual, his or her loved ones and the world itself a little bit better — not because there may very well be monetary or ego compensation at the end of the preening rainbow.
- It's nothing new: At its core, "personal branding" simply means "marketing yourself." It's just a fancy, likely ephemeral, term for an ancient concept — one every individual uses at some point in his or her life. Much like the word "synergy" getting roped into defining mutually beneficial cooperation, "personal branding" is nothing more than a buzzword meant to spice up something old without adding anything terribly fresh to the experience. Sure, everyone indulges in the affiliated tropes at least once, particularly when job hunting, but many (if not most) see the flashy new label for what it is and prefer just going about their business without it.
- It'll just be replaced with a different trendy label later: Once the masses grow tired of hearing "personal branding," some other sexy new buzzword coined in a bestselling business guide will emerge from the wings to succeed its throne. "Human shampoo," perhaps, or even "consumer good…with a pulse!" Or one could add an edgy little retro flair by reclaiming "sellout."
- It shoves people in boxes: In some ways, personal branding just pulls high school perspectives of people into the "adult" world. Everyone's expected to painstakingly calculate every iota of their very being for maximum attention. But rather than "hipsters," "jocks" and "those theatre kids," this movement has "the pseudo-iconoclast fond of 'X-TREME' Corn Nuts-style campaigning," "the wannabe CEO with 5,000 Twitter followers and nothing to say but generic platitudes" and "the intern who eats Top Ramen and lives with his parents, but drives a BMW, makes sure you know and by golly that makes him important." Personal branding is to sociology what life coaching is to psychology — it swallows only the most gossamer of realities from something wholly complex and purges everything back up in an oversimplified, nearly unrecognizable mass. Such an all-absorbing preoccupation with image and labels can easily stunt organic personal growth and reflection. After all, it's a lot of work to decide on an attitude, find just the right photos and make sure the color schemes on every social media site stay the exact same. One just can't change his or her mind and decide to go from a "jet-setting, fast talking charmer in the boardroom and the bedroom" to an "earnest type who just wants to help YOU (yes…YOU!) succeed in business!" overnight.
- It limits thinking: Carefully piecing together thoroughly calculated labels and images compromises more than just natural, individual evolution. Psychologically speaking, it can also dangerously alter one's very perceptions. Not only do personal branders run the risk of oversimplifying, if not outright stereotyping themselves, they might very well levy a right fair amount of prejudices onto others. Considering the world at large requires high degrees of openness, acceptance, flexibility, compromise and cooperation for progress to be made, one could argue that the movement's rigidity and obsession with all things external might very well its most glaring weakness, if not the source of its own ultimate unraveling.
- The people buying into it can't seem to take criticism: Personal branding enthusiasts absolutely love pointing out that everyone participates in their little marketing game. Nothing instills them with more condescending glee than implying that their critics are ever so hypocritical. They latch onto the subjective corporate term with such rabid ferocity, they just can't (or won't) conceive how anyone could possibly disagree. The fad has its positive attributes, of course, but nothing out there is immune to valid critique. With so many blindly clinging to "personal branding" when forging their identities and dismissing any contrarian input, it makes perfect sense that others prefer avoiding the tenets altogether.
- It requires too much validation from other people: Nobody will deny that there are times when reputation is important. When finding a job, for example, or surviving Thanksgiving without everyone glaring at one another for no reason. But when chewing over it grows into a daikaiju-sized preoccupation, then such things shoot from reasonable to the realm of the neurotic. Since personal branding pretty much revolves around sprucing up an individual for consumption, their value as a human being ends up the responsibility of the target audience. If they fail to reach it, some unfortunate implications might very well arise. Even seriously talented, honest people deserving of success can easily fail in this model thanks to one small factor out of their reach. While self-centeredness is never fashionable, veering too far in the other direction and basing everything on others elicits similarly destructive results. Just be.
- It shifts focus away from sincerity: Easily the biggest complaint personal branding detractors hold concerns an overarching sense of inauthentic behavior. Although adherents do come from all shapes, sizes and backgrounds, the one thing they all have in common is their desire to cook up an image and sell it to a crowd. In blending this cold calculation with the preceding argument's discussion of others-centeredness, one can certainly understand their critique. Perhaps this sounds idealistic, but consumers appreciate honesty and quality; despite what many corporate types seem to assume, they aren't all simpering goats willing to swallow everything thrown at them. Success might come slower, but never discount the possibility of ditching personal branding altogether and focusing on just…well…doing what seems comfortable and natural. No buzzwords or trend chasing necessary.
- It relies too much on social media: It doesn't take an anthropology degree to know that life coaches, personal branders and (duh) social media "experts" love themselves some Twitter, Facebook, blogs and LinkedIn. These are all undeniably excellent tools for networking and exchanging ideas. But — surprise of surprises — not everyone is a fan. And plenty of extremely successful people and businesses don't require any of them to succeed. Individuals searching for jobs have plenty of valuable, viable options available without ever once hopping onto these sites. One can certainly make professional splash without ever bothering to set up a Facebook account. All the emphasis personal branding places on social media clouds one of the (ostensibly) major routes towards sustainable success…simply doing a good, honest job. Plus, keeping up with the various communities proves overwhelming after a while.
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Story by Erin Lenderts