new heights of personal branding absurdity


I was recently asked to update one of my past interviewing posts <Interviewing & the gatekeeper:> in which my good friend Scott & I had a debate on the value of Personal Branding. He is smarter than I and his premise was dead on <personal branding is about creating a perception prior to even getting in an interview> … but I still don’t like the entire concept of someone building a ‘personal brand.’

In fact … I still believe the whole idea of ‘personal branding’ is absurd. Branding yourself … or even thinking of yourself as a ‘brand’ has such a narcissistic theme it sends  the wrong message of what is most important – which should actually not involve anything close to narcissism. In addition I believe it misuses the entire concept of ‘brand.’ It implies a brand is an image and the ‘dressing/appearance’ <or style> is more important than the function <the substance>. Scott was, and is, correct that creating a strong impression prior to even getting into an interview process is key to being successful, let alone even having a chance, but if someone were to truly embrace ‘personal branding’ they would have to follow through … because that is what a brand ends up being … a promise actually delivered. It is not about perceptions but rather realities. If someone establishes a belief prior to a meeting they need to deliver on exactly that within the meeting … oh … and if they get hired they actually need to deliver it again <and again>.


People aren’t brands <well … I guess a prostitute could be … because there is some buying & selling involved>.

Products & services are brands. Or companies that produce products & services.

People are … well … people.

Regardless. That is a longer discussion but suffice it to say I am all for people trying to improve themselves and I can certainly understand how thinking of yourself as a ‘brand’ provides some structure and focus … I just don’t like this structure & focus for people.

What got me <re>started on this discussion <beyond updating the article>?

A Wall Street Journal article referencing personal branding:

–          What’s in a Name? In Thailand, It May Bring a Change: Seeking Better Luck, Some Try New Monikers; Opting for ‘Charisma’

Google Inc.’s GOOG +0.05% Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt once predicted that in the future people around the world will change their names to escape all the embarrassing things they did online in the past. In Thailand, people already are doing it—for good luck.

Baramee Thammabandan, 46 years old, had a run of misfortune a decade ago when he was still known as Teerapol Lilitjirawat. His business trading garments in Bangkok’s mazelike markets slumped, his eyesight began to fail and he could no longer properly manage his affairs. Worse, he says his former wife left him.

So, Mr. Baramee did what many Thais do when faced with a patch of bad luck: He changed his name. “I wanted to become a new person,” says the slim, clean-shaven Mr. Baramee, whose new name means “Charisma” and which he chose to bring him wealth and fame.

“People are like cars, and changing names is like changing a flat tire. It can take you further, and give you a smoother ride,” Mr. Baramee says, as incense sticks burn before a collection of Buddha images.

I just shook my head. This is an absurd example of creating a ‘personal brand.’

Changing your name to ‘start over’? Sure. I guess I can see it in extreme situations.

Interestingly I actually know someone who did it … and it worked well <although I hesitate to give credit to the success on a name change>.

A college classmate, Riki Gray, was an excellent linebacker … who had multiple major knee surgeries in his high school/college days. As NFL draft day approached he knew he was good enough to play in the NFL but worried his name conjured up too many bad images. I don’t think this was the main reason but at that time he changed his name to Riki Ellison. What happened? Drafted by the 49ers. Played with the Raiders. Super Bowls. A pro bowl career.


Do I seriously believe his name change facilitated the success? Not really. But to all the personal branding experts I would say this about Riki … he didn’t change anything but his name. He changed nothing about his character … or his work ethic … or how he played the game. In changing his name he was not trying to make changes … simply to try and address any pre-existing perceptions.

On a side note. You also have to remember another classmate of mine actually had a finger amputated because it had been broken so many times it was an ongoing aggravation he wanted to eliminate not because it actually had to be done <Ronnie Lott>.

Anyway. To try and reach the pinnacle of sports? Maybe I could justify a name change <but Ochocinco was a very bad idea>.

But every day? It is nuts and sends the wrong message to everyday people.

This is the kind of stuff personal branding experts throw around as examples of the extremes you can go to … and I do not think it is helpful to most people. Change takes work. It doesn’t come easy. Even if you dress up differently you still need to go to the party. And in a world where far too many people are looking for a shortcut we should be focusing people on what changes they need to make to improve and doing things <tangible things> well rather than ‘how to build a personal brand.’


Now that I have finished my mini-rant on the absurdity of personal branding <and bored everyone with my drivel> I actually googled “absurdity of personal branding” to see if I was standing in the blithering idiot corner all alone.

Lo and behold someone, a guy named Shalom Auslander, actually wrote an article for GQ about the absurdity of personal branding called “Meet the New Me, Same as the Old Crappy Me.”

<by the way … all this reminded me of one of the first posts I ever wrote on Enlightened Conflict … the branding of Nigeria … which was also an absurd example of branding:>

Regardless … GQ magazine, the article will be worth your while for a fun read.

You will find a very entertaining article on personal branding by Auslander  where he sarcastically/comically points out the absurdity of personal branding. What I liked most between the chuckles was the style over substance questions but I bet you will find your own chuckles:.

–          In an attempt to rebrand himself—to reposition his tired “personal brand” from miserable and pissed off to shiny and happy— Shalom Auslander seeks the advice of marketing wizards, self-help gurus, and a legend of the advertising world.

It is long but pretty funny. And does a nice job of making all those self help books on personal branding look kinda silly <which I think they are too>:

Probably my favorite part:

As the days, classes, and assignments passed (“Create a logo for yourself!” “Develop a headline that encapsulates your brand!”), I found myself becoming disturbingly aware of all the brands around me. Strangers, co-workers, friends—everyone was reduced to a unique selling proposition, a niche, an angle. All I could see was strategic positioning. Why was my wife wearing Doc Martens? What was she going for—“Mature but Playful?” Why was my son so much more active at school than he was at home, running around screaming at the top of his lungs? Was he doing the whole “Extreme” thing? He wasn’t my son anymore; he was a struggling youth-brand trying to get heard in the increasingly crowded pre-K marketplace.

<hope you enjoyed the article>.


By the way … before you go out and change your name for your personal brand … not everything about all this all name-changing goes well for people.

In Thailand one businesswoman has to walk around with a battered cardboard folder of documents to prove she is who she says she is. In some cases, she complains, she has had to rebuild business relationships from scratch after changing her name.

Then there is the matter of her recent wedding. “I sent out the invitation cards, but nobody knew it was me because I was using my new name,” she says. Many of her guests only agreed to attend after she visited them in person.

“If you change your name, you should be ready to face all sorts of problems” – Ms. Benyapa.


I would be happier if all the self-improvement people would get rid of the personal brand sound bites and focus on two things – trust and doubt.

So … throw away all the personal branding books.

Brands are as simple – and complicated – as that. Trust can be objective and subjective. Just as doubt can be the same. Creating a successful brand has always been about “doubt management” <note: it can’t be about building trust because trust is earned and not asked for or ‘built’>.

In the end a brand is not words but actions <and the net result of interactions>. So … you can change your name … but you will inevitably be measured by your actual deeds.

And that is exactly what a person is … not words … or a ‘brand’ … but actions.

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Written by Bruce