“Personal branding? That’s what ranchers do to cattle, right?”
That was my first comment when I was asked what I though of personal branding. Personal branding is simply marketing oneself and career in a way that promotes you as being distinct in a specific way. Personal branding is something I personally loathe. It’s not that I think the concept is bad in and of itself. I think everyone promotes a specific desired image of themselves in some way through fashion choices, media preferences, beliefs, people they associate with and so on. But personal branding, well, there’s something that feels very facetious about it all.
Dan Mullin wrote his thoughts on personal branding and it made me think of the conversations we’ve had about it and why we, each in our own way, see it as a necessary evil. A friend advised Dan to control his “brand”, and to stay away from controversial topics such as politics and religion, “all the fun topics” as Dan put. Like Dan, I tend to be contrarian and when told “you shouldn’t do this” I often answer with “why not”, which can be both a good and bad answer.
While Dan forms his opinions based on academia as his peer group, my group is different: members of the media. While media, like academia, does have it’s intelligentsia, those attracted to deep thoughts and big questions, media is much more “image obsessed” than academia. In some ways image is everything in media. At the risk of sounding cynical, when I look through what’s popular in pop culture, it seems to be that if you have a good enough beat, enough big explosions and some zombies thrown in for good measure, substance isn’t really needed.
I’ve worked in TV and film for many years and have had the opportunity to conduct workshops and be part of media advisory council. Especially in working with the media advisory council I’ve pushed myself to know how a news story is covered, the difference between “soft” and “hard” news, to know what’s going on in my hometown of Hamilton, and to know my media theory as well as anyone else in the room.
Personal branding presents me with a problem: how do I present myself to fellow media members? The key in the TV and film worlds is networking. It’s often not so much what you know and how well you can do it, but who you know. I will readily admit that networking isn’t my strong point. I can be charming and friendly when I need to be but I would never be described as a social butterfly.
So how do I present myself? I’m a man of walking contradictions. While on the one hand, I’m always reading about philosophy, theology, physics, social justice and many other topics, I still take far too much childish glee in whenever I come across the section in Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” where he gives advice on how to deal with someone with stinky armpits. While I’ve given intelligent public discourses on everything from the problem of evil to aboriginal rights to media theory, I still giggle like a three year old whenever someone farts. When it comes to personal branding do I put my best, most polished self out there or do I present an honest picture of who I am, warts and all, and say “this is me, take it or leave it”?
Along with figuring what “me” I want to brand, there is another issue at play here: my ethnicity. I’m Native. Or Aboriginal, if you’re more into the politically correct phraseology. Being a Native in Canada at this point in time is both a blessing and a curse. On the bright side, Natives are standing up for their rights and heritage in a way never seen before, but it’s also bringing to light the abuse, neglect and despair they’ve faced for generations. Where I live, in Hamilton, Ontario, there is still bitterness and resentment towards Natives because of a Native occupation several years ago in nearby Caledonia. That resentment has led to me being the target of several racial remarks, despite neither me nor any of my relatives being involved in the Caledonia incident.
Racial slurs aside, there is another reason being open about being Native can be a problem for me, branding wise: roughly 50% of Natives in Canada have a high school diploma, compared to roughly 80% of Canada’s non-Native population. The number drops to roughly 14% for university/college diplomas, compared to 35% for the rest of Canada. As I’ve written about before, I fall into that 86% of Natives without a university diploma. Along with education issues, another roadblock Natives face is that they are over-represented in Canada’s jail population, to the point where Supreme Court justices in both British Columbia and Manitoba have stated publicly that “something needs to be done” to address why so many Natives end up behind bars.
You might be asking “what does this have to do with personal branding?” and the answer is this: As much as we might believe we are a progressive society, especially here in North America, we still have a long way to full acceptance of those different from us. I’ve unfortunately had to face that stigma of racism when being assessed for a job. I guess I could highlight that being Native means hiring me helps fill government-mandated quotas for equal opportunity employment, but branding myself as “Hire me, I’m government quota-friendly!” doesn’t exactly scream “best qualified”…
However, when I think about it, “best qualified” doesn’t seem to matter all that much. It used to, but now that seems to have been replaced with “best promoted”. As I wrote earlier, I’m not the best at self-promotion. Self-promotion is something that is profoundly uncomfortable for me. Part of it is because of my upbringing. My adopted parents were children during the Great Depression and then World War II. What they were taught is that you’re part of a team, that we all have to work together, you should let your work speak for itself, and that self-promotion comes at the cost of social goals. They were also raised under the mantra of “a craftsman’s worth is shown by the quality of what he produces”.
Personal branding, in many cases, goes against that mantra. One thing I’ve learned from attending film industry meetings and networking get-togethers is that often the person promoting themselves loudest is, ironically, the person who has the least to actually give in terms of talent and ability. It’s the old “you can talk a good game” experience we’ve all had. With the explosion in social media, self-promotion is easier than ever and it’s no longer confined to just your personal sphere of influence. You can now post something on the internet and have it found around the world. The global village as led to global outsourcing of things you’d previously have to find either in your hometown or the nearest large city.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing. When TV was first becoming the media staple it is now, newsman and TV interviewer Edward R. Murrow said during an industry speech “It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other”.
Applying this to social media, the danger of over-estimating our wonderment to the world at large should be very apparent. It’s easy to let our egos run away with us, especially knowing that the anonymity of the internet means consequences and proving of one’s abilities aren’t much of a priority. For example, I could brag that I’m now an internationally-read blogger, since according to WordPress’ tracking data for Shaneisms my posts have been read by people from North America, to Europe, to Asia, to Africa and everywhere else in between. That might sound cool, but what does it mean? Humbly speaking, not much. I think it’s cool that people from all the planet have take time to read my words, but like Murrow said, that doesn’t confer upon me any greater wisdom or understanding.
*Note to self: add “internationally-read blogger” to bio*
It’s far too easy to assign yourself a title that sounds good and impressive on a bio, even if those words are a stretch of the truth. For example, if I wanted to make myself sound far more impressive than I actually am, I could list all the jobs and volunteer activities I’ve done. I could list times I’ve been featured in some form of media, or things I’ve given lectures and sermons on. Using that criteria of self-promotion my titles list could go as follows:
Maintenance man, security guard, waiter, carpenter, roofer, Philosopher, on-air video game reviewer, stand-in elf, snow shoveller, grass cutter, card shark, dog sledder, Marilyn Monroe impersonator, videographer, filmmaker, writer, TV producer, media adviser, social activist, workshop leader, amateur pilot, Christian, die hard fan of the Toronto Blue Jays and Maple Leafs, Theologian, tour guide, fake superhero, philanthropist, cat herder, dog walker, snowfort builder, poetry quoter, babysitter, haunted-house mummy, carpet cleaner, comic book writer, internationally-read blogger, imitation midget, podcaster, alternate Pope, fake mustache enthusiast and, finally, the man behind the Great Moon Hoax of 1835.
All of those descriptions could be correct. Okay, maybe some of them are made up. They could all be made up. That doesn’t really matter though, does it? When it comes to personal branding, truth doesn’t seem to exactly be the main thing in mind. It’s all about setting yourself apart, saying “I’m unique, just like everyone else, and this why!” as loudly as possible. It’s about careful control of one’s personal image, the idealization of who you could be, even if it doesn’t match up with who you actually are.
Should that matter? Nah. Put your best foot forward, wear a snappy suit, and use buzzwords and phrases like “stakeholder” “political capital” and “synergy”. Branding doesn’t actually have to mean anything if it sounds really important when you say it. I really do think Winston Churchill was on to something when he said “however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”. After all, he knew a little something about putting forth a strong public image when it mattered most.
Personal branding does give me the chance to tell the world who I am on my own terms, which means I can present myself as the person I’ve always wanted to be. After all, my parents told me as a child that I could grow up to be anyone I wanted to be, even if it turns out as an adult this is called “identity theft“…
Maybe I should just be honest about who I am, warts and all. Honest is the best policy, right? But if I tell everyone who I am, warts and all, what if they don’t like me? What if they’re only interested in the snappy-suited, buzzword-using Shane? After all, it’s all about image, right? My actual talent doesn’t matter. I work in TV and film… we can greenscreen in my talent later, right? I’m so confused…
I guess I should go hire a personal brander to tell me who I really am…