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Personal Branding: Must-have or Mostly Hype?

Updated on March 9, 2010

I’m seeing a lot of buzz lately about personal branding, which has been defined as the process whereby people and their careers are marked as brands. There are tons of articles on the subject, ranging from how to discover your brand, to how to define it.

So apparently, the days when one could simply be a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker and be done with it are over. Must you now become The Butcher for the Ages, The Quintessential Baker, or The 21st Century Candlestick Maker in order to “make it“?

I’m not so sure. From what I’ve read the message is basically: Learn how to sell yourself.

And that message is centuries old. I can almost imagine two of our early ancestors trekking to the village square with freshly slaughtered goats or whatever slung around their necks, and one reminding the other to stand up straight when negotiating for wares in order to appear more formidable. And, the other reminding the first to wash the goat’s blood from his garments before bidding the local maidens a fair morning. Even then, we were trying make ourselves appear to be more valuable, relevant, and essential than we really were.

And, part of me thinks personal branding is a lot like that.

On the other hand, is it possible that we all engage in personal branding without even realizing it? Could it be that, when you strip away the layers, personal branding is simply touting your stronger points and differentiating yourself from your competitors? And if so, does it also entail stretching the truth from time to time? Playing fast and loose with the facts when it’s to our “strategic advantage” to do so? Sacrificing substance for image?

I only ask because when I digest it all, the sense I get is that personal branding is a lot like a trend which was popular in the early 80’s: Grassroots entrepreneurship. People were quitting their jobs to become the president and CEO of Joe Lunch Pail Enterprises. Most were in the business of selling common household items, or life insurance. And most, over and above characterizing their business as an “enterprise”, tried to appear more successful than they really were.

And most of them were at their former employer’s doors, “hat in hand”, asking for their jobs back within a year.

I’m not saying that everyone who utilizes personal branding is or hopes to become an entrepreneur. The common thread, as I see it, is that both groups want (or wanted) to be viewed as “kind of a big deal”; they endeavored to set themselves apart from their peers, to be seen as more dynamic, energetic, and indispensable.

Just like our goat slaying ancestors.

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