Personal Branding May Be Hurting You

On September 18, Corey Mull wrote an article for Ad Age titled, “No, Brands Aren’t People – and Consumers Don’t Want Them To Be.” The title got my attention for several reasons. First, for as long as I have been in the online world, and maybe for as long as the “online world” has been around, people have talked about the “humanization of brands.” Indeed, that was part of the allure of social media. You’re not just Joe Johnson, you’re Joe Johnson of Acme Company. The company became human. The company got a human face.

The innocuous question:  What do people want?

Mull isn’t so sure about that whole line of thinking. He writes, “People are complex organisms, products of tens of thousands of years of evolution. Brands are a device invented relatively recently to make it easier for consumers to identify a product and differentiate it from its competitors. Most people, when encountering brands online, realize that there may be humans associated with it, but the brand itself isn’t a person.”

Even more lethal to the idea of a “human brand” are the states that Mull cites from a 2011 CEB survey. Mull notes that 61% of survey respondents said they joined brand Facebook pages for discounts, 55% for offers. The concept of joining a touchy-feely community did not rank. Mull also notes that the survey revealed 70% of survey participants said they wait to decide on a brand until they’re ready to buy something. All of that engagement, while it might make your company feel good, isn’t really doing a whole lot for your potential customers. Mull writes, “we found that only 23% of consumers have brand relationships – and they are already fans of the brand in question. The rest aren’t interested in a relationship, regardless of whether they like a brand or not.”

So what’s the value of a “personal brand” then?

If you are on board with Mull’s perspective, it seems like your conclusion would be that the value of “humanizing your brand” has been overstated. If that’s the case, could we not also posit that maybe the concept of “personal brands” has also been overstated? If we agree that humans are complex organisms (some moreso than others) while brands are…not, and if we agree that people are not interested in having relationships with brands, could we not go out on a limb and say that if you are trying to depersonalize yourself by calling yourself a brand you might actually be hurting yourself?

Instead of “personal brands” I think perhaps we need to shift the focus to “personable brands.” In other words, maintain your own individual humanity – invite people to form relationships with you, person-to-person. BUT do not separate yourself entirely from what you do. As people build relationships with you, they can also be made aware that you’re great at fixing cards, building marketing campaigns, moving furniture, or whatever else you do. Their relationship with you (a human) can tip the scale towards your brand (not a human) when they are ready to purchase your type of product or service.

So what do you think? Is this enough to kill the concept of personal branding? If not, why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Photo Credit

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman is the Director of Client Development at Clayman Advertising, Inc., her family's full service marketing firm located in Akron, Ohio. Margie is the third generation of the family to work there. Margie blogs at and has authored an e-book called The ABCs of Marketing Myths, which you can read about here:
  • amoyal
    • Marjorie Clayman

      Wait, so we agree on something?

      Ewwwww. :)

      • amoyal

        Well, no. I was first therefore you’re emulating me. See how that works? :)

        • Marjorie Clayman

          Oh, uhhuh. Gotcha.

          • amoyal

            See? That wasn’t so hard 😉

  • Kim Mingledorff Stebbins

    I agree with your sentiments. I don’t even like the term “personal brand”–the concept is just weird, along the same lines as proclaiming oneself a guru, magician, evangelist, etc. I had a business when the internet was just a newborn and social media was a glimmer in Zuckerberg’s pre-adolescent eye. It was my personal relationships with customers that often tipped the scale towards my products and services, but the products and services still had to be top quality and a good value for the money first.

    • Marjorie Clayman

      You’ve touched on a big point there Kim. A lot of people seem to think “relationship marketing” is a brand new thing wrought by social media. Do they forget all of those dinners and golf outings that used to happen before Twitter? What were those all about? Relationships, silly!

  • Patrick Allmond

    I freakin’ love that first response you posted below (or…errr above) about people believing relationship marketing is new. I scream this from the rooftops every day. People are focused on the technology and not the process. The process has not changed in 100 years. And if you just discovered “relationship marketing” after FB was born you were doing it wrong before. I had a blog post (or a video) where I ranted about this awhile back and I can’t find it now. But fistbump to you for your beliefs. I think people like you and I are in it for the long haul. Take away Facebook. I’ll be just fine :)

    • Marjorie Clayman

      hah :) Thanks Patrick! I think Facebook can enhance efforts – if you can’t always meet your clients in person social media can help you keep in touch. But “doing social media” is not a business strategy, no matter how many people you may talk to in a day.

  • Shelly DeMotte Kramer

    i don’t think it matters what we call it – and we’re tripping over semantics. I think that for many people, the concept of “personal branding” means owning their spot on the Interwebs. Whether it’s a blog, a website, an profile or a LinkedIn profile – whatever their particular needs are. And many don’t realize how important that is — and really? That’s “personal branding.” But does a brand – any brand, need to be “personable”? Well, of course. That’s part of the process. So I’m not sure that there’s a right or a wrong. But two different things that we’re talking about. Some brands – large or small – will never “get” the concept of how cool it can be, and how effective it can be, to act human. And others, they ace it. Just like people, some are great at communications and some aren’t so great. But for some, a personal brand is an important thing. And for many, being personable, whether you’re a person or a brand – also important. It’s really that simple.

    • Jason Konopinski

      I think what makes the idea of “personal branding” difficult for so many to come to grips with is that branding is very much about selectively deploying different narratives towards some desired result or a manipulation.

      One’s digital footprint is very much a personal brand as I see it – and I agree that we are certainly tripping over semantics on the finer points.

      • Marjorie Clayman

        However, per my point above, if a person is building their personal brand merely so they can be the famousest of all hobbits, is that really branding, or is that just an ego trip? Again, I think intent is important here, and using a marketing term to describe what in fact is maybe a desire for more personal attention can muddy the waters.

        • jimdougherty

          I want to be the famousest of all hobbits. Sign me up! 😉

          • Marjorie Clayman

            heh, you would, Samwise :)

    • Marjorie Clayman

      Hi Shelly!

      I often wonder if people have mistaken (speaking of semantics) “personable” for “person.” A brand can be personable, but a brand cannot be a person.

      I do think that personal branding as a “thang” matters to the extent that a person promotes him or herself instead of what they are supposed to be promoting. If a person works for a sewing machine company but is out here building their “personal brand,” their marketing strategy is more likely to fail. Being the “face of xyz company” is different from making x number of top 10 lists. You know what I mean? I think that’s where it can get beyond a semantics conversation.

    • jimdougherty

      One thing I really appreciate about your comment Shelly: “I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong.” I appreciate people’s points of view each way – I think Margie’s points are particularly compelling, but I think that brands can connect with people in many different ways. Lovely comment Shelly – you are the best!

  • AmyMccTobin

    What I’ve learned this year: Brands, nor Corporations, are people. :) What’s that saying I always quote: give them discounts or give them Romance – MOVE them or help them. <– me paraphrasing. I think THE greatest aspect of Soc Med. from a CONSUMER's point of view is the ability to get customer service quickly (IF the company is responding). The second is being able to stay connected for discounts and/or relevant updates. I will say this 865 times until the entire world agrees with me: it's a TACTIC, not a form of marketing in itself.

    You are brilliant Ms. Margie.

    • Marjorie Clayman

      Well thanks Amy. Yes, I think, I feel, that we are moving to a point where people view social media less as an entity unto itself and more of a marketing tool. I think life will be a lot easier when that happens – people will be able to weave social media in instead of feeling like it’s a whole new world they need to explore that has nothing to do with anything else.

  • Barrett Rossie

    I have mixed feelings about this Margie. I think the “brand” thing is way overblown, and I’d rather be a person than a brand. But in my case, I could vastly improve the way I present myself to people who are encountering me for the first time. And I really should. Starting Monday, I promise.

    So I think the term “personal brand” has some validity. But like anything, if you take to extremes (that is, take yourself too seriously…) it’s a bit off-putting.

    One thing social media is doing, imo, is absolutely devastating the concept of a constructed brand voice. Social media rewards authenticity, within bounds. Very few brands are able to pull off a highly stylized artificial voice these, without being completely irritating. I like my Geico gecko… and the Old Spice guy… and the World’s Most Interesting Man. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

    • Marjorie Clayman

      That’s an interesting point. Is how you present yourself part of your brand? In the case of a company like Zappos it is. If you work there as a CSR, you are expected to be immensely helpful and endlessly patient. That is you carrying on the Zappos brand. On the other hand, you are sort of acting on behalf of a brand. No one really gives a rat’s butt what your name is as long as you do your job well, right? It’s like melding into the Borg.

      i agree – Social Media is taking everything to the lowest common denominator so that it is more polarizing, I guess? I’m not really sure why that happens, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of grey in this space :)

  • danperezfilms

    Here’s how the American Marketing Association defines a brand: a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or services as distinct from those of other sellers.”

    The concept of “personal brands” hasn’t just been overstated, it’s been bludgeoned to death. It’s a tool on the marketing blogger’s utility belt (right next to the “Klout” and “Is Traditional Marketing Dead?” posts) that makes for great blog fodder and discussion.

    In the end? Semantics.

    • Marjorie Clayman

      I hate the “traditional marketing is dead” posts. In fact, I hate all of the “is dead” posts. Not only do they come off as comment bait most of the time, but they mislead people who may not be educated in the space. Blegh.

      Your definition of marketing cited there is exactly why the argument about “not being transactional” makes no sense to me. If you aren’t using your content to encourage a transaction, I’m not sure you’re marketing. Semantics, maybe, but it gets under my skin. Especially as content marketing continues to grow into some “thang” that everyone, as you say, is bludgeoning to death.

  • Susan Silver

    What I always thought social media/blogging was good for was connecting to fans. Fans have a lot of power in the form of word of mouth. If you keep them happy then they can spread the word further than you ever could. Even such a small percentage can give you a good return on your time. But, I don’t think any amount of “humanizing” gets you new customers. Not unless they were considering joining up with you any way.

    Don’t know if the personal brand is over yet. It seems like one of those concepts like influence that refuse to die. We will be talking about it forever.. Even when it is no longer relevant.

  • Theo Priestley

    So you know how to use social networks, your Klout score is 64 and you have
    1790 followers on Twitter. Your online persona is linked across several
    platforms and is all but defined now. Or is it ?

    Consider how that personality would or should
    transfer within your organisation. Does it ?
    I think personal brand is more important now than ever.

  • ambreen11

    Great insights. Setting up a site brand is very different than setting up a personal
    brand. When you are working on your own, you tend to cross the lines
    pretty often since it can be difficult to think of your site as
    something separate to yourself.