No, you don’t need a personal brand

When it comes to career lingo, no phrase has gotten more buzz over the past several years than “personal branding,” an all-encompassing self-empowerment term that’s increasingly harder to define. And while it may seem vague, the topic of personal branding has launched what feels like a billion articles, workshops, keynotes and more as professionals try to figure out what it means to them.

“Your personal branding is your identity,” says Erica Breuer, a personal branding and marketing strategist behind Cake Resumes. “It’s who you are, why you do what you do. But it’s a matter of communicating who you are in a way that stands out and delivers value. Until you go about this in a strategic way, it’s just this casserole of stuff orbiting you.” Most importantly, branding, Breuer argues, is about making yourself appealing to a specific subset of people, not necessarily everyone.

“Why is personal branding important, especially in the 21st century? As any person today knows, there’s a smorgasbord of different ways to reach others. “We’ve got all of these ways of communicating, and unless you’ve got a solid message, there’s no way to make sure you’re communicating yourself effectively across these different platforms,” Breuer explains.

Alyssa Gelbard, founder and president of Resume Strategists, also says that this doesn’t just go for social media posting or your personal website. It’s includes, for instance, your business cards, your email signature, your headshot, your wardrobe and how to interact with people. Effective branding, Gelbard explains, can lead to more opportunities both in terms of finding employment and moving up on the job.

The downside of personal branding

However, not everyone feels so rosy about what personal branding is doing for people or the job market. Ilana Gershon, a professor of anthropology at the University of Indiana, Bloomington wrote a book called Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (Or Don’t Find) Work Today that asserts that personal branding doesn’t actually increase a job seeker’s chances of landing a position. Instead, it’s a trend within a larger problem where people in the workforce are products and “branding” is a tool that marketers use to make people believe they can control their fates in an uncertain job market. People, she says, have turned themselves into mini-businesses, dehumanizing the market.

But unlike Gershon’s assertion that personal branding and advertising oneself like a business is a “radical transformation” as to how people look at their employment, both Breuer and Gelbard argue that personal branding isn’t a new-fangled idea; only its name and connotations have changed over time.

To them, “branding” in decades past was called “marketing yourself,” and it typically included attending classes or lectures on dress, etiquette, public speaking and other in-person interactions many professionals dealt with. The big shift, they both say, is that people now have to consider their real-life and digital personas and think about how to make those “selves” give off the same impression.

Is there any validity to Gershon’s more cynical look at the world of personal branding? And does it even matter whether or not personal branding is good or bad?

Not right for everyone

Breuer says that Gershon’s assessment makes a great point: Personal branding can go too far to where it stops being about putting one’s best foot forward and instead trying to be something inauthentic or overdone. “There are some branding services or levels of branding that might not be appropriate for where everyone is in their career, “ Breuer notes.

For instance, there’s a big difference between a young person starting a career in digital media and someone older working in local government for 30 years; they’re trying to reach different markets, and digital branding won’t do anything for the latter when most of those interactions are in-person.

Gelbard also says it’s not about promoting yourself everywhere or in every instance but instead thinking about how people perceive you over several months and years. “Having a good reputation is important,” she explains.

What’s the biggest takeaway from the personal branding debate? It can’t hurt to think about the impression you give off professionally, but it’s a long-term commitment. Like anything else in the workforce, your professional persona is built over time, not by a short deadline.

“You shouldn’t be thinking about [your personal brand] only when you’re looking for a job,” Gelbard concludes. “You should optimally be thinking about it when you’re not.”