Why you should learn to stop worrying about your brand

A caveat to start off with. One of my favourite books is No Logo by Naomi Klein. Broadly speaking, I take up positions that could best be described as anti-capitalist. Therefore, as you can imagine, I don’t have much time for marketing or marketing speak.  I guess my view of marketing are best articulated here.  Now that caveat is out-of-the-way, I shall plunge straight into explaining my views on the whole “branding” phenomenon, something that appears to be very much (still) the “hot topic” in library land.

I do not like the idea of “personal branding”.  The term itself is incredibly difficult for me to even contemplate putting to paper (or screen).  I find it a deeply reductionist term. Products are branded, human beings are not.  Turning an individual into a brand simply, to my mind, reduces them to the status of a product or commodity, commodities such as Coca-Cola for example. Coca-Cola is a well-known brand.  It’s been around for over a century and is known across the globe.  It is also (bar the odd ingredient change) broadly speaking unchanged.  The drink itself, the way it has been packaged, very little about it has changed over the years.  It is a constant, unchanging brand.

Now think about yourself as an individual.  You are not a constant.  You change from day-to-day.  The person you are today isn’t the person you were ten, five, even one year ago.  People are complex, they cannot be reduced to one, unifying brand image.  Besides, who would want to be?  Conforming to a particular brand image is dehumanising.  Dehumanising because it is not a natural state for a human being to adopt, for the reasons I have already given.  It is simply not natural to try and adapt your behaviour to conform to an image you wish to project at all times.  Whilst turning oneself into a brand is problematic there is, however, a bigger issue for me around the idea of personal branding.

My biggest concern is that a focus on a “personal brand” can actually do substantial damage to the profession in which such a strategy is employed.  Actions taken by an individual to enhance their brand can, as a side-effect, have a detrimental impact upon the broader profession (emphasis on ‘can‘).  Take, for example, being a vociferous campaigner for public libraries.  You may often say things that are in conflict with superiors within your profession, your peers or the professional body itself.  As a result, you may be seen as nothing more than a trouble-maker, an antagonist causing problems.  This, therefore, would become yourbrand.  Now, is this a brand image that you would want to cultivate?  An antagonistic trouble-maker?  Probably not.  Who wants to be viewed by others as nothing more than a trouble-maker?  But whilst this “brand” can be seen as damaging to the individual, it can be a good thing for the profession as a whole.  It may not become apparent in the immediate short-term, but over a longer period of time that individual’s actions can have a very beneficial impact upon the profession.  Dissenters and trouble-makers can, after all, be “an organisation’s most valuable asset.”

On the other hand, someone who plugs away and focuses on creating a “positive brand image” which reflects well upon themselves, may create a positive image of themselves amongst their peers, yet will not have a significant impact upon the broader profession because they are unprepared to damage their own “personal brand”.  So focused have they become on creating a positive brand image of themselves, they have been unwilling to upset this image by taking positions that may be unpopular with peers or superiors but will result in long-term benefits. It is, in my opinion, a short-term strategy that will yield some benefits but will have a negligible impact upon the long term future for the profession.

In my view, if you allow yourself to get too sucked in by “what makes you look good” you are in danger of forgetting about what will help the profession overall.  I think of it as a little like neo-liberal Conservative policy over the past thirty years – an ideology focused on what benefits me, rather than what benefits society. Sometimes the things that benefit the “society” (ie the profession) do not benefit you directly as an individual.  Consequently, you may take actions that benefit yourself (your “brand”) rather than “society” as a whole.  Once you get into that mode of thinking as an individual it is hugely damaging, but when you engage in a process of groupthink where everyone acts in that way, you risk damaging the entire profession.

For example, take strike action.  Strikes may reflect badly on the group that is taking the strike action.  In fact, in this country, it is almost invariably the case that it will reflect badly on those taking such action (have you ever encountered positive reporting from the perspective of those on strike?).  However, it is very often the case that the things they are seeking to defend that has led to them taking action will benefit all of us.  The recent petrol tanker situation being a case in point.  Drivers were prepared to strike due to their concerns regarding (amongst other factors admittedly) health and safety.  Whilst the strike action itself had a negative impact on their “brand image”, a successful action leading to a stricter health and safety policy would benefit all of us (we don’t want truck drivers delivering a substance like petrol without adhering to certain health and safety standards obviously).  Short term impact: negative “brand image”. Long term impact: safe transportation on public highways of a highly flammable liquid.

Of course, I am probably mis-reading the whole “personal branding” phenomenon, seeing it purely through the eyes of an anti-capitalist who has no interest in “brands” and marketing, I am sure someone will tell me as much.  However, this is about my perception of personal branding as a strategy.  And my perception is that it is certainly not a good thing.  Personally speaking, I think we would do well as a profession to stop indulging in continuous self-analysis of how we are viewed by those outside the profession.  It does us no favours whatsoever.  The best way to deal with the concerns that this strategy seeks to address is to demonstrate our relevance.  It is through demonstrating our relevance that we will seek to address the concerns that have been thrown around the profession over the past few years (possibly since the year dot).  Not, I’m sorry to say, navel-gazing or a focus on our “personal brand”.

I couldn’t find the time to squeeze them in here, but I would also recommend reading thiswhich I agree with very much (as you can tell) and a post by Lauren here which also sums up my feelings. In fact, I should probably have just posted those two links and not bothered writing this post at all.