Is Personal Branding Really Effective?

Personal branding is a hot topic these days. An entire industry has grown up around it seemingly overnight. Personal branding gurus claim that branding yourself is the key to success in this new economy. And yet, there's something often repulsive about personal branding that can make it backfire if you're not careful.

There's a television show called My Super Sweet 16 on MTV. It’s about a bunch of bratty rich kids who talk their parents into throwing a six-figure 16th birthday. The standard episode usually involves months of lead up to the party in which the 15 year old star of the show devises the perfect popularity statement involving a precise invitation list, music celebrities, non-alcoholic cocktails and the ultimate embodiment of teen superiority, the gift of a new luxury car from their parents.

The entire show is a real eye-opener into what’s important to certain teenagers these days. The stars of the show are all so obsessed with what everyone thinks of them that it wreaks of desperation. They care nothing about substance and everything about appearances.

That was like my first reaction to the recent trend of “personal branding,” that it’s really just an ego-driven waste of time. The premise of personal branding (in case you haven’t been exposed to it) is that success doesn’t come from personal development or hard work or intelligence. Instead, personal branding proponents claim that success comes from self-packaging.

Just like My Super Sweet 16, personal branding seems to be short on substance and long on appearances. It’s like an adult popularity contest for people who didn’t get enough in high school. It all smells a little like a discipline invented for people who were good at it already to cash in on.

If you can get past the repulsive self-promotion though, there are aspects of personal branding that make sense. One thing that personal branding gets right is that the nature of work is changing. People are moving from one job to another more frequently, or striking out on their own as freelancers and entrepreneurs. In this new world of individual free agents in the workplace, how you present yourself is an important consideration.

How much you focus on personal branding really depends on what you’re selling. If you are a consultant or freelancer who works as an individual and you’re really selling your time and expertise as the product, than personal branding may be an important part of your marketing activities. If you’re selling products though, or you’re an employee of a larger firm, focusing too much on your personal brand will just come across as desperate and ingenuous. In that case, it will work against you and you’ll be known more for your ego than what you produce.

Think about personal branding like you would any other product marketing. There must be substance or content that underlies the marketing, or your customers will resent you for lying about the product. If you’re going to position yourself as an expert or guru, make sure you’re really at the cutting edge of your field. The key to effective personal branding is authenticity. Pretending to be someone else is exhausting for you and obvious to your potential customers.

It’s ironic that personal branding as a topic comes off as repelling as personal branding does in practice when it’s too obvious. I suppose that’s because those who are in the business of personal branding let their egos get the best of them just like those poor misguided 16 year olds.


Corbett Barr is an entrepreneur who blogs about lifestyle design and the future of work at He founded and built the venture-capital backed email service Boxbe in 2005 before becoming interested in the benefits of lifestyle businesses during a six-month road trip through Mexico with his wife and dog. Corbett now helps people make the transition from cubicle dwellers to independent entrepreneurs in the new economy. Find out more at Free Pursuits where he writes about lifestyle de...

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