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Personal Branding In 2022: Three Considerations

Monday 16th May 2022
The Me Disease on Personal Branding

(This is an excerpt from Category Pirates Mini-eBook, “The “Me” Disease: Why Personal Branding Is A Lie”

In 1997, entrepreneur, acclaimed author and founder of Skunkworks, Inc., Tom Peters, wrote a column for FastCompany’s print magazine.

The title of the article was, “The Brand Called You.”

This may very well be the first mention of “personal branding,” as Peters explains we now live (starting in the late ’90s) in a world of brands:

“That cross-trainer you’re wearing — one look at the distinctive swoosh on the side tells everyone who’s got you branded. That coffee travel mug you’re carrying — ah, you’re a Starbucks woman! Your T-shirt with the distinctive Champion ‘C’ on the sleeve, the blue jeans with the prominent Levi’s rivets, the watch with the hey-this-certifies-I-made-it icon on the face, your fountain pen with the maker’s symbol crafted into the end… You’re branded, branded, branded, branded.”

The solution?

According to Peters, the answer was to fight branding with branding; to stand out in a sea of brands with a brand of your own; to scream, shout, and proclaim yourself to be heard irrespective of message; shouting as both the means and the end and, well, let’s look where that’s gotten us 25 years later.

1) Personal Branding Today

Within that search you will find an army of personal branding experts, coaches, “influencers” and agencies, all determined to help you be bigger and better and louder than you were yesterday. In fact, personal branding has become so widespread there are even personal branding experts and agencies who specialize in not just “personal branding” (that’s so yesterday) but “authentic” personal branding. (Have you ever noticed that the people who overuse the word “authentic” are often the least authentic people?) As if, within the category of you being you bigger and better than everyone else, there is a truthful and honest way of being “you,” which is different from the inauthentic way of being you, at scale, on the Internet.

There’s just one irony, and it’s a big one.

If Tom Peters believed, in almost Nostradamus-like fashion, that personal branding would become as important to our society as almond milk, athleisure clothing, and working from home, then how come the very people carrying the flag and rallying the troops in the name of differentiation suck at differentiating themselves?

Here’s a case-in-point example.

“You are going to learn all the essentials leaders need to develop but don’t take the time to do. You will learn how to build a month by month plan, and build your personal brand with intentionality, authenticity, and results. The way you cut through the noise today is with a crystal clear brand story that rallies, galvanizes, and inspires the masses.”

Can you name who said this?

If the answer that comes to mind is, “No, that literally sounds like every single person preaching personal branding advice on Instagram or LinkedIn,” you’re right. Because that’s not the message of one person, known for a category or niche they own. That’s the message of Tom Peters, way back from 1997, copy/pasted by 1.7 million people who proclaim themselves to be “personal branding experts.”

There’s just one irony, and it’s a big one.

If Tom Peters believed, in almost Nostradamus-like fashion, that personal branding would become as important to our society as almond milk, athleisure clothing, and working from home, then how come the very people carrying the flag and rallying the troops in the name of differentiation suck at differentiating themselves?

The same way companies fell for The Big Brand Lie, good-hearted, well-intentioned human beings fell for The Big Personal Branding Lie.

And it has become a pandemic.

A Brief History Of Personal Branding

2012 was an interesting year for advertising and marketing. It was the year Instagram had reached the masses and been acquired by Facebook for $1 billion, which for the first time moved social media from people’s desktop computers into their pockets. Suddenly, social media wasn’t that thing you interacted with after a social event (uploading photos from last night’s party to Facebook). Social media was something you interacted with during a social event — and eventually, any event — through your phone. (And then social media became the main reason for having an event or experience….”If it’s not on Insta, then it didn’t happen…LOL.”)

As a result, everything (in the entire world) became “content”:

  • Eggs for breakfast? Content.
  • Out for lunch? Content.
  • Unique architecture of a building down the street? Content.
  • You, looking at yourself in the mirror? Content.
  • Cats? Content.

The year was capped off with the “official launch” of Vine, a short-form video app that allowed users to create and share 6-second videos. The app had been originally soft-launched in June, 2012, before being acquired by Twitter just 4 months later (after seeing such rampant early user growth). The app, despite growing to more than 200 million users by the end of 2015 and being shut down a year later (2016), would go on to shape a handful of massively influential online trends. For example, Vine was the first time social media transformed from text and photos into short-form videos (and was the first time Facebook/Instagram blatantly copied another app’s functionality). And Vine gave rise to an entire cohort of social media influencers that would go on to dominate just about every other social platform, including: King BatchLogan PaulJake PaulAmanda Cerny, to name a few. These “influencers” wrote the playbook for how to build massive audiences and then leverage those audiences into five, six, and even seven-figure brand advertising deals.

Pirate Cole remembers this time well because, as a 23-year-old and the youngest employee at the digital agency where he worked, Pirate Cole built the company’s “influencer” department, helping national brands utilize professional mobile-first photography and short-form social video to deploy social media campaigns. And a few years later, in 2016, right before leaving the agency to become an entrepreneur, he launched the company’s personal branding department — something very few advertising and marketing agencies even had on their radars.

It was between this window of time, 2012 to 2016, that terms like “influencer marketing,” “personal branding,” and “vlogging” started to go mainstream. In 2014, wine entrepreneur turned advertising executive, Gary Vaynerchuk, launched his YouTube series, #AskGaryVee, and just 4 episodes in, he began preaching the importance of personal branding (this was the very beginning of Gary Vee-D… a digital transmitted disease). A year later, Tai Lopez’s infamous ad, “Here in my garage,” went viral, igniting an entire generation of “I-will-reach-you-how-to-be-rich” online gurus standing in front of lamborghinis and whiteboards explaining some simple 3-step process to financial freedom.

Now, back then, much in the same way companies talk about “digital transformation” today, this idea of “putting yourself out there on the Internet” was a powerful differentiator. If 99.8% of people exclusively operated in the analog world, and you were courageous enough to turn on the camera and share what you knew, at scale in the digital world, that was akin to using email instead of sending physical mail — or today, minting digital art on the blockchain opposed to selling physical art in a showroom. The simple fact that you were using technology and being a “creator,” not just a consumer of social media, meant you were part of the top 1%.

But the Gary Vaynerchuk’s and Tai Lopez’s of the world took things one step further: it wasn’t enough to just “put yourself out there.” You had to put yourself out there relentlessly (or, in the words of another personal branding hustle pornstar, Grant Cardone, “Be obsessed or be average”). And millions drank the Kool-Aid. Today, you can’t go anywhere on the Internet without seeing the Gary Vee-D “how to turn 1 keynote speech into 30+ pieces of content” model being deployed by everyone from podcast hosts to life coaches to nutritionists to CEOs of 8, 9, even 10-figure businesses.

In less than 20 years, Tom Peters’ idea of being a Brand Called You had mutated with mobile phones and social media to create a generation-defining aspiration and obsession: “Pay attention to me, everywhere, all the time.”

2) The “Me” Disease

Read that 👆 sentence again.

For context, 13% of children surveyed said they wanted to become a doctor or nurse, and just 6% said they wanted to become a lawyer.

We now live in a digital world where the most desirable thing you can be is known on the Internet. For what….exactly? That’s less important. “Let’s just get famous for the sake of being famous and then we’ll do something with it later!”

86% of young Americans want to be influencers.

Read that 👆 sentence again.

Today, the goal for many is to be known, and to be known by lots of people — because once you have people’s attention, then you can decide what to do with it (aka: make money). So, how do you get people’s attention?

Here’s the Starter Kit:

  • Post pictures and videos of you in front of cars, boats, houses, and nice things.
  • Post pictures and videos of you traveling to desirable places.
  • Put captions that subtly (this is crucial) imply you have it all figured out (keywords to remember: financial freedom, living life on your own terms, being your best self, etc.).
  • Post everyday, multiple times per day, across as many platforms as you can. (Actually you should post 100 times. A day.)

And it’s not just children who have this desire of being known for the sake of being known, but full-grown adults. How else do you explain founder of Quest Nutrition, Tom Bilyeu, selling his company for $1 billion dollars, and then deciding to basically become a full-time YouTuber? It’s quite astounding, when you really stop and think about it, that individuals who amass hundreds of millions of dollars and essentially beat the game of life, when given the opportunity to do *anything,* make the same choice as 75% of people ages 6 to 17.

The rationalization here, of course, is that there is immeasurable value in “having an audience” and “being known on the Internet.”

You can do anything once you have an audience.

But to what end? And at what cost?

3) You Are The Product

(Please read this 👆sentence three times.)

In order for personal branding to work — that is to say, in order to get people’s attention for the sake of getting attention — we should look no further than the masters of attention grabbing.

Facebook’s own research has “repeatedly found that its photo-sharing app is harmful to a significant percentage of teenagers,” according to the Wall Street journal. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Facebook also reportedly found that 14% of boys in the United States said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves.

Of course, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, these are just tools. Brilliantly engineered tools with a psychology of their own, but tools nonetheless. Social media doesn’t work if no one is on it (if a truck full of cigarettes is parked in the woods and no one is there to smoke them, do the cigarettes cause cancer?). So while Facebook and Instagram certainly have some questions to answer, we’d like to push the conversation one step further and ask a different question.

Who is creating the content the algorithms are ramming down people’s feeds?

Influencers.

Online personalities.

Characters.

“Personal brands.”

Teenage girls don’t feel bad about their bodies because of Instagram’s double-tap Like feature. They feel bad about their bodies because Instagram continuously shows them pictures of other girls who starve themselves, spend 3 hours doing their make-up, and then take a photo of themselves in perfect lightning with the caption, “Just being myself #authentic.” And teenage boys don’t feel bad about themselves because of Instagram’s square-by-square profile layout. Teenage boys feel bad about themselves because they see video after video of Dan Bilzerian jet-skiing with a gaggle of topless models with captions like, “Don’t get stuck in a cubicle.”

In the context of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms that monetize your attention via ads, yes, you are the product.

But it’s also worth pointing out that in order to get your attention in the first place, there need to be personalities and characters (“influencers” and “personal brands”) for you to pay attention to — which means, to them, you are also the product.

What makes Dan Bilzerian, Dan Bilzerian, is that 32.6 million boys want to be like him.

This is an excerpt from Category Pirates Mini-eBook, The “Me” Disease: Why Personal Branding Is A Lie” by Eddie Yoon, Nicolas Cole & Christopher Lochhead — a top 1% paid business (mini-book) newsletter on Category Design & Category Creation thinking.