We are all brands whether we like it or not. And there are many people who don't like it. Take one of my career idols journalist Gayle King for example. Last week, during a panel about empowering women in business at the Time100 Summit, King admitted to former Victoria's Secret supermodel Tyra Banks her frustrations with personal branding.
"I see so many of these young people saying, 'I'm working on my brand, I'm working on my brand, my personal brand' and it drives me freaking crazy," King said to Banks. "I think your brand should be: keep your head down, do your work, and do a good job. And then you'll be noticed."
"Am I outdated?" she asked Banks, who co-teaches a MBA class on branding at Stanford University.
"Yes and no," Banks responded with a smile.
"Not outdated because today people are so concerned with popularity over achievement," she went on to explain. "It's like popular, popular, famous for famous sake."
"However," Banks continued, "everyone does have some type of personal brand, particularly because of social media. You're putting something out constantly and the lack of having that control makes other people tell your story."
Banks spoke about teaching her students the importance of branding.
"They're going out into the business world and I'm giving them these tools to assess their brand, to differentiate their brand so that they can have a competitive advantage against so many people who are in that same room doing the same thing that they are doing."
Then Banks quite skillfully tooted her own horn as a branding expert: "I remember my first year of students. Three out of 25 students were on— I can't remember the list—it was either Fortune or Forbes 30 under 30, using the principles we taught them in my class," Banks said. "So [branding] does make a difference."
"But their achievement," she quickly added, "was pushing the popularity as opposed to the other way around."
"Maybe I need to change my mindset about that," conceded King.
Yes, Gayle, yes you do. And she's not the only one.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 23 (L-R) Gayle King, Aileen Lee, Whitney Wolfe Herd, and Tyra Banks participate in a panel discussion during the TIME 100 Summit 2019 on April 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TIME)
Branding gets a bad wrap. I've been in many a conversation where millennials were criticized for being too focused on their brand instead of their work, which also ignores the fact that branding is work. And there are numerous examples out there of people admonishing this recent trend largely driven by social media.
But Tyra Banks made a perfect point. Branding does not make up for effort, time or talent. Branding promotes it.
I can't begin to count the many times I've met someone with amazing social media presence and in real life couldn't get away from them fast enough. They couldn't back up in person what they presented on paper or online, and yet, some of them were doing just fine "making money moves" in the world.
For anyone who wasn't popular in high school (raises hand), this might feel like being on a school playground all over again. However, in real life, I can assure my younger readers, is not like grade school. Yes, popularity contests still exist, but people are less forgiving of those who are all shine and no substance.
A couple of years ago, I had a colleague who looked great on paper and LinkedIn, but when I worked with them, I struggled to understand how they were hired. They could not do what they said they could, so part of my job became teaching and handholding. Ultimately, the person didn't add up to the presence. And consequently they were fired after a short time in the role.
See, the actual problem with branding is a culture that too heavily values verified check marks and follower counts instead of proven ability or achievement (I mean, have you seen Fyre Festival?).
Branding is a promise. It's saying you're going to deliver on what you're offering. It isn't putting up an illusion of who you want people to think you are. It's offering up who you are, truthfully and consistently. And the consistency comes easily when you're telling the truth--it's natural, not premeditated or planned.
Branding, as Banks thankfully pointed out, is also about taking control. Almost three year ago, I wrote about taking the shame out of self-promotion, saying that "every time I share myself and my story (or stories), I’m taking the power of my life into my own hands. I compared this to taking hold of a mic, instead of feeling like one was being put in my face."
When I switched careers from business to journalism in my mid-twenties, my brand as a communicator and writer helped me make that risky move. Not only did my brand help prove that I was prepared to take on this new path, but it opened doors for me. I've had sources tell me they found me through Google or my social media presence or word of mouth. These were people who tried to figure me out before meeting me. Thankfully, I had something to say, even when I wasn't speaking.
Now, there are people who definitely don't need to brand themselves. They either have privileges like a powerful network, access, money. Their brand, like a solid platform, is built beneath them in a way. But unless you're Gayle Kings' best friend Oprah and need no introduction, you'll want to assess how you stand out in a crowd. Keeping your head down and just doing the work is good, but being known for the work you do is better.
Just don't forget, as Oprah once said, "Let excellence be your brand."