He looked at me with a slight touch of bewilderment, but I knew he and his lackeys were on the verge of bursting into laughter at any second. Laughing at me that is. And specifically at the incredulous and irreverent statement I had just made, as if introducing myself as the President of a club they were founding members of.
Standing in the gym, leaning against the leg press machine, I was a 10th grade outcast waiting for a group of 12th graders to finish up, as they made small talk with me that could have been taken as patronising if I had cared any more. “I’m a bodybuilder” I told them, with the faintest smirk, not even sure myself if I was serious or taking the piss. I was tall and well-built for my age, but by no means did I look like what anyone, let alone these kids, would spot as a “bodybuilder”.
But I was just trying to give them an honest answer as to why I was training a particular way, compared to another!
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of things about bodybuilding I didn’t know back then — plenty that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. I did, however, know substantially more than most kids my age, which is why I had specially negotiated with my teachers to let me go to the gym for our mandatory weekly sport sessions, instead of anything else that most of my friends signed up for. I preferred being alone, lifting weights for a couple of hours, and getting laughed at by older kids. And laughing along with them innocently, before going back to pumping more iron.
So what does this have to do with personal branding, networking and other ideas? And why are they stupid business ideas, any way?
I don’t know how I fell into it, but somehow more than a decade later, I’m sometimes called a branding expert. And sometimes it really grates on my nerves. There are a lot of branding experts out there. Especially personal branding experts. They include people on the fringes of actual brand strategy, like fashion stylists working with executives who want to be less Donald Trump and more George Clooney; and commentators who analyse George Clooney’s marriage to Amal Alamuddin for all its strategic and tactical facets representing Clooney as a brand.
More commonly though, there are those who jump on the bandwagon of personal branding because of the term’s increasing popularity amongst Google searches, or their faith in their own expertise and education - that largely comes from reading pop psychology in magazines and opinion blogs. This is when you know personal branding really becomes a stupid idea. Allow me to explain. Wikipedia will help.
Personal branding is the practice of people marketing themselves and their careers as brands.
In even simpler terms, it’s about putting your best foot forward. Except that “putting your best foot forward” completely ignores the fact that mostpeople have two left feet. We’re all an amalgamation of not only the occasional grand triumph, but a wild string of humiliating failures and many more mediocre “good enough”s than glorious victories worthy of Facebook status and milestone updates.
May your life someday be as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook.
So, personal branding, particularly for the aspiring entrepreneur and ambitious executive, has quickly become the practice of not just putting your best foot forward, but also pretending like the other one doesn’t even exist. Locking the black sheep in the basement, as if a real Bertha Mason was cock-blocking your desperate pursuit of your very own Jane Eyre(s).
Somewhere along the way, catchy and colourful terms for who you are became more important than what you do. The Relationship Rabbi. The Money Mistress. Web Design Dame. Account Dracula. I’m just making these up. Some of the ones I actually know personally are far more ridiculous.
And so it goes that when a 16 year old - or anyone for that matter - says they’re a bodybuilder, because they apply certain methodologies and principles to building their bodies, it’s a laughable proposition because they’re clearly not a Bodybuilder with a capital “B”.
And that’s where networking, the other stupid idea, comes in. If I had a dollar for every time someone tried to shove a business card in my face as a substitute for a genuine hello - a card that looked like all the sheen and class of the card giver’s personality had been sucked out of them and put onto the gloss coating, leaving them completely incapable of having a normal, sincere conversation - I wouldn’t need to go to another networking event again!
And maybe you’re thinking, “Well, so what? What’s the big deal? Besides a shit-storm of ethically questionable tactics, that might slowly eat away at my self-esteem through a miserable, existential self-delusion… What’s wrong with that? It worked for Coca-Cola, Dev!”
Well for starters, bullshit is becoming harder and harder to sell. Often even harder to sell than your actual product or service. Yet many are still stuck on selling the “image” first. Media is not just more democratized, but also more transparent than ever before. People can tell when an entrepreneur, executive, or anyone really, is packaging themselves up in a pretty box, wrapped up with a neat bow. And the first instinct is to dive right in, rip that bow off and destroy the box.
So does this mean personal branding is a redundant concept, and we should all get on this new bandwagon of “showing-our-feelings-and-vulnerabilities-more” strategy? If only it were that simple!
Authentic expression is not a tactic.
You can’t fake honesty. There’s no shortage of people who try, but that’s the whole point. We all know now. We can tell. We can see you, and usually we can see right through you. And whilst being beautifully well-dressed when you’re tweeting and checking in to your morning bathroom visit might get you attention, it won’t hold engagement for very long. We simply don’t live in an attention economy any more, we live in an engagement economy. And we the people, amidst an endless barrage of brand choices (personal and otherwise) want what we’ve always wanted — to engage with people, companies and brands we can trust.
So when is personal branding NOT a stupid idea?
For a long time now, my definition of branding has been, and still is:
The experience your customers, clients and audience have of their relationship with you.
When you start acknowledging that branding is actually about relationships and networking is actually about connecting, you can then really begin to appreciate the value of leveraging marketing strategies to be heard better, clearer and in more relevant contexts. And then, with a bit of courage and faith, if you can start taking off the bow and coming out of your box, you can declare to the world that, in this moment while you’re pumping iron, you are damn well a bodybuilder.
And then maybe you can start start dancing like George Clooney too, even if you do have two left feet. I promise, you’ll find plenty of people to dance with you anyway.