Audrey Watters

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Lots of trackbacks (or pingbacks) are spam, and I don’t approve them for the comments section. But some pass the first sniff test, and some are interesting enough to warrant a reply. That’s what happened with the post “To be (a brand) or not to be (a brand)”, at a blog called Daily Breaking News Update. I’m not linking to either, because I think I fell here for a splog (a neologism I like, coined by Mark Cuban, for a spam blog).

What got me interested in the piece, naturally, was this paragraph…

It may be that some of the fallout from the Tiger Woods scandal has made the idea of personal branding seem trickier – people are people, after all, not objects and not cattle. As Doc Searls has argued in two recent blog posts, brands are “boring” at best and “bull” at worst.

The post ended, provocatively enough, this way:

Undoubtedly, building trust is fundamental to business success. Maintaining reputation is crucial, whether or not you want your name to be synonymous with a product, a service or a company.

What are your thoughts on personal branding? Has it become impossible? Or has it become ubiquitous?

So I took the bait and posted an answer in the comments section. Here it is:

I think the Tiger Woods experience demonstrates the risks of hiring a celebrity to personify a company’s brand. Besides Nike with Michael Jordan, I can’t think of a single case where this kind of personification has worked in the long run. Maybe some other readers can; but I’m not sure it makes much difference. Nike will stand or fall on the quality of its products, not on the qualities of its celebrity representatives.

As for personal branding, I still think it’s an oxymoron. Branding is a corporate practice, not a personal one. Build a reputation by doing good work. Put that work where others can judge its value. Contribute to the success of others, and credit others generously for their contributions to your success. Never promote for its own sake. I think it’s a mistake to categorize these practices as forms of “branding,” because they are expressions of humanity and integrity.

Branding works for companies and products in part because those things are not people. Buildings and offices and ballparks and shoes may have human qualities, but are not themselves human. Likewise humans may be industrious or durable or attractive in the manner of good companies, but that doesn’t make them corporate.

You and I are not brands. Our parents did not raise us to be brands. Nor would we want our children to be brands, any more than we want them to be logos.

“Personal branding” is a nice gloss on playing for celebrity. And celebrity is a Faustian bargain. Ask any veteran celebrity and they’ll tell you that. They live in fishbowls and yet, for all their familiarity, are not well understood as three-dimensional human beings. The healthy ones deal with it gracefully. The unhealthy ones use their celebrity as a façade (as with Tiger Woods), as a pass to a virtual Las Vegas where everybody keeps indiscretions secret (as with Tiger Woods), or as an ideal they can never really match (and hence seek surgical alignment, as with too many to count).

Many of us assume without question that celebrity also equates with income. It doesn’t. There is a degree of correlation, but in the long run we get hired for the useful goods we bring to the market’s table. Not because we have a “personal brand.”

Building trust and maintaining a reputation matter. Calling both “branding” is a categorical error.

Then I took a closer look at the blog and realized that it had no apparent author, and the about page was WordPress boilerplate. So I looked up the headline on Google, and got a fog of identical results.

The original appears to be this one, at ReadWrite Start. The byline is Audrey Watters, and that’s the post that most (or perhaps all — I didn’t go down the whole list) of the many citing tweets point to.

But there are all these other re-posts as well (listed in order of Google’s first page of search results):

All were from ReadWriteWeb feeds, obviously. I suppose these might be good for ReadWriteWeb (which deserves the respect it gets), but they also have the effect of deliberately false radar images. They are also part of the Google AdSense ecosystem, within which publications of all sizes try to game the system by re-posting attractive postings that will bait traffic and inbound linkage, goosing up the site’s PageRank to the point where ad placements appear, click-throughs happen, and money comes in.

An interesting thing about all these re-postings is that Audrey Watters‘ byline does not appear in them. So we have the interesting irony of a post about personal branding re-appearing all over the place with the writer’s name stripped out.

Obviously some dysfunctional things are happening here. And I doubt any more talk about “branding” will help, beyond accounting for some of the motives involved.

Bonus link.

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