But I’m a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated, yeah

                                                               ~ The Who

Back in the day, when I first became a certified Personal Branding Strategist, I learned that personal branding was about having permission to be yourself. And personal brand was synonymous with your reputation.

Actually, it still is. 

To be even more specific, there are still many people who use the term personal brand to refer to an authentic expression of who you uniquely are in terms of the attributes, vision, purpose, values, and passions that you bring to what you do. It is the you-ness you add to your professional competencies that makes you more valuable to your clients, and your broader professional community.

In many ways, then, your personal brand is the experience you provide while you are doing what people hire you to do. So, the skills that you bring to your work may be the same skills that others in your profession use, but your approach is unique to you. For example, I have a friend who injects her fun, vibrant personality into meetings where she is delivering accounting and tax advice. She brings who she is to what she does. She didn’t cultivate a personal brand. She is just being herself, and her clients love her!

Today, however, there seems to be a lot of personal branding advice that tends to overlook the you-ness element and treat “your personal brand” as a distinct entity that you have to care for and manage. Kind of like a bonsai tree. So, we get articles and blog posts that provide advice on buildingrevamping, or reinventing your personal brand!!

While much of the advice these authors provide is actually useful, it has little to do with who you are. It is much more focused on tactics for gaining visibility and attracting clients. In fact, there is much great business information for promoting yourself right on this blog.

Yet, in my opinion, you need to make a very clear distinction that changing how you express and exude who you are is not the same as revamping or reinventing “your brand” – but just the way you communicate it. Indeed, it is only the first stage of the Reach 1-2-3 Success process that gets to your brand…to your you-ness. So, to engage in any exercise that is construed as “working on your brand,” but leaves out YOU, is akin to caring for some abstract entity. It’s like creating a proxy. A substitute.

I think it’s really important to be clear on this – and even more so, today!!

Seeing the notion of personal brand become more mainstream is a good thing. It signals the end of mass-market, one-size-fits-all solutions. Even more it supports the growing recognition that we all have the capacity to serve specific tribes. It helps us see that our true value comes not merely from the commoditized functions our skills are based in, but from the very weirdness that makes us appeal to our niche.

Of course, personal brand has also become subject to criticism. And frankly, based on the approach of many “personal branders,” it’s criticism that is well deserved. If you have any doubt about this, you should read Olivier Blanchard’s very well-argued critique of personal branding. Blanchard notes, “People are people. They aren’t brands.” And ironically, one of the tips he offers is, “Just be you.” I think this is great advice! It’s a great post, actually; and if you haven’t read it, you should!

As you might surmise, I reject the idea of personal “reinvention.” This does not mean, of course, that I believe who we are and the reputations we develop don’t evolve. They do. Yet, they change because we have gained new insights into who we are, what we want to do, who we want to serve, and the difference we want to make for others – and impact that has on how we do what we do. This is very different from throwing out a new value proposition to see if it sticks.

So, insofar as our “brand” is concerned, the real task is the application of introspective insights to our work. And often, it is a process that is best done with a well-qualified coach who can help identify the themes that matter to you and to your audiences. Investing this kind of effort fosters a personal clarity that can help align what we know about ourselves with a communications strategy that will bring meaningful visibility and credibility.

Frankly, as I see it, bringing anything less than who you are to what you do means you may as well have been born with a plastic spoon in your mouth.


Walter Akana is a Reach Certified Personal Branding and Online Identity Strategist. Founder Threshold Consulting, he works with mid-career professionals and executives. His career advice has been featured online at marketwatch, cnnmoney, and online.wsj. He is a long-time blogger, and avid user of social media.