Why Personal Branding Is Like A Viral Video… And Why It Shouldn't Be

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“Personal Brand”… talk about a saying that has become so polarizing.

The year was 1997. Business thinker Tom Peters grabs the attention of the world with his Fast Company article, The Brand Called You. It truly does usher in a new era. 

“It’s time for me — and you — to take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that’s true for anyone who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work.”

This new idea that all of us are now the CEO of our own company. This new idea that all of us can truly control and work on how we stand out in a crowd. Control and and define what we’re known for, and leverage these assets to build more personal value, wealth and success. While these were not new-ish concepts, there was with new focus on the relationship between Nike‘s ability to captivate millions of consumers, and the thinking that  we – as individuals – should do the same. 

The timing could not have been more perfect.

Just after Peters’ brought this idea forward, the nascent world of social media would begin to take hold (blogging or online personal journals would start gaining traction with the platform Blogger). It’s interesting to look back and see just how prescient Tom Peters was, in a world where email was the most advanced form of technological communication the world was still trying to wrap its collective head around.

“The same holds true for that other killer app of the Net — email. When everybody has email and anybody can send you email, how do you decide whose messages you’re going to read and respond to first — and whose you’re going to send to the trash unread? The answer: personal branding. The name of the email sender is every bit as important a brand — is a brand — as the name of the Web site you visit. It’s a promise of the value you’ll receive for the time you spend reading the message.”

Imagine how different Tom’s thinking would have been if blogging, online social networks, podcasting, YouTube, and the smartphone were around back then. And, that’s the real point here: I’m not sure if Tom (or you… or me) haven’t muddled this valuable concept of the “personal brand” into something more like “personal advertising” (aka “inflating one’s own tires”).

A personal brand is not about how loud you shout or how many followers you have.

Social media changed us. It changed who we are. It changed how we connect to another. It changed how we define fame. We live in a very strange world where individuals chase this idea of building a “personal brand” while sacrificing what their real personal brand is all about. Our lives should be about how we build relationships and add value to one another.

This isn’t about being anti-personal branding.

There is no doubt that the world of social media has brought forward many new, fascinating and interesting voices that we may have never heard from if we were still stuck in the traditional media complex. Even old-school media professionals can have their own platforms and content amplified  to expand on ideas or stories that the bigger media channels don’t cover. Big thumb’s up to social media for facilitating so many voices to be heard. Still, many people chase a personal brand as if it’s something that must be fabricated and promoted. They’re focusing more on the antiquated definition of a “brand” and forgetting all about the “personal” part of it. Again, hunting likes, followers and shares over building anything of substance. 

Personal branding is not a bad word.

So, here’s the thing: Personal branding is not bad, but personal branding should never be the reason why you are publishing. A strong personal brand is the outcome. Personal branding is like having a viral video. Many people will tell you that they know the secrets, strategies and how to build one, but the truth is that it can’t simply be manufactured. If you create a strong video, it resonates, it gains distribution, and the timing works (dash a whole lot of luck on top of that)… you *might* have a viral video on your hands. You can’t really plan for viral video success. You can’t really plan for personal branding success. Viral success or having a strong personal brand is the outcome of efforts well-received.

Ultimately, Tom Peters is right (he usually is)…

“No matter what you’re doing today, there are four things you’ve got to measure yourself against. First, you’ve got to be a great teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you’ve got to be an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third, you’ve got to be a broad-gauged visionary — a leader, a teacher, a farsighted ’Imagineer.’ Fourth, you’ve got to be a businessperson — you’ve got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes. It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.”

With all of the evolution for us to connect and publish since 1997… this is where we are. Stop chasing likes. Start chasing a true voice.