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Putting Limits on Brand You

Photography: Markus Merz

Personal branding isn’t new. It’s been around the since the days of P.T. Barnum, since Buffalo Bill turned himself into a one-man sideshow, since Walt Disney decided to name the studio after himself, and it’s been a staple part of marketing Hollywood stars for as long as there have been movies. The idea that personal branding can be applied to anyone, that it’s possible — and essential — for even a corporate drone to create a self-image and market it, is new. That idea has only been around for as long as social media has made it possible for individuals to create personal profiles on websites and social media platforms, and put them in front of anyone they can bring to see them. Dozens of writers now have written books explaining how a personal brand can help to win jobs and build careers, as well as sell products and help entrepreneurs. But while the techniques and strategies of turning a life into a brand are clear, it’s much harder to know where to place the boundaries. What are the limits of personal branding, and how do you know when you’ve crossed them?

To some extent, the answer is personal. Different individuals will have different sensitivities to sharing aspects of their personal lives. Evan Williams and Biz Stone, both founders of Twitter, are happy to post occasional tweets that mention their wives (and in Williams’ case, his child too) but are miserly when it comes to details about the work that they’re doing for Twitter. Actor and technology geek Stephen Fry, on the other hand, has averaged just over eight tweets a day in the two years he’s been on Twitter and talks about his TV appearances, his charity work, his scriptwriting, speeches and product reviews. He regularly replies to tweets sent to him and comes across as open and direct, all of which have become important aspects of how the public sees him. And yet in none of his tweets does he ever mention his life with his partner, an agreement the couple made when he began using the site.

No Family and No Friends

Your own personal comfort level then will be one important guide to where you place the boundaries. There’s nothing wrong with leaving your family out of your personal branding — and certainly many people do — but there is a price to pay for that gap. Everyone has some form of family life so if it’s missing from a Twitter stream or not included in a professional Facebook page, the proximity to the reader is affected. The reader will know you’re not being fully open, and when someone has information he’s not prepared to share, he’s not just protecting the privacy of the people he loves. He’s also declaring the nature of his relationship to the reader.

He’s not as close to the reader as the reader might like to think.

The same is true of friends. Facebook pages, tweets and LinkedIn profiles will contain plenty of references to colleagues, partners and associates. But it’s less usual to find public information that reveals the relationship between two pals, and tries to use it for branding.

That’s a much more solid limit and one that’s particularly revealing about the factors that go into personal branding.

Colleagues bring something to the power of your personal brand. When you mention that a well-known figure in your field is a friend of yours, you win some credit by association. It’s why people name-drop, and it can be an important part of personal branding. Marketers, in particular, like to build their own reputations by attaching them to the reputations of others. It’s also a strategy though that fulfills the need to show that you’re a well-rounded, normal and popular individual with an active social life.

Just as people know you have family, so they’ll assume that you have friends — and they’ll become suspicious, or at least distant, if they’re not mentioned.

Talk about a friend who works in a completely different field however, and while you will come across as human and personable, you do nothing for your reputation as a professional.

It’s not possible then to place a limit on the mention of family without paying some sort of price in personal branding power. But it is possible to swap friends for colleagues, and keep your social life private.

Limiting Your Professional Life

There should be limits too within your own professional life. Personal branding, whether you do it through a website, a social media platform, or both, is essentially an advertising tool. It’s not meant to show everything you’ve ever done — including those projects that didn’t work out, the clients who fired you and the companies that made up for the loss of your intern work by hiring a coffee machine. It’s meant only to show what you can do. That means that while you talk up your successes and most significant projects, the work that failed or was insignificant can be swept under the carpet. It’s not something you want to hide or deny. But if it’s not worth mentioning, don’t mention it.

Personal branding then comes with its own paradox. It’s easy to construct and simple to maintain. It’s meant to show not just what you’ve done — which has always been the role of a resume — but what you can do and, more importantly, who you are. It’s supposed to be honest and open and comprehensive too. And yet, it’s also clearly a marketing piece, a kind of multi-platform brochure that can manage both advertising and distribution. Readers expect it to show every aspect of your life, both professional and personal, while still understanding that you’re only being this open with them because they believe you might have a position or a job that you’d like.

It is possible to place limits on your personal brand. It’s also acceptable and understandable. But the final impression should still be that you’re capable, reliable and likeable. Get that right and there are no limits on what your personal brand can do for you.

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