online branding

Overbranded and undersold: The problem with online branding today.

Many people believe that a personal brand is something for celebrities. They don’t think that they need one, and even worse, they don’t realise that no matter who they are, they already have one.

Your personal brand is the way you are represented to the world. You may aspire to be famous, a star on the world stage. You may simply understand the importance of marketing your small business to the local community. Maybe you’re seeking investors for your next project or startup. Or maybe you just want your friends and colleagues to think well of you.

No matter the reason, personal branding has become as essential in today’s world as an internet connection is, and if you are not shaping your brand then, believe me, it will be shaped for you… It already is.   

Now before you go panicking, take a deep breath and repeat after me, “My personal brand does not have to be perfect. Just authentic.”

In the age of Instagram, this may seem hard to believe, but the idea that we somehow have to live Insta-worthy lives is a lie. Nobody does, and nobody should aspire to. Our hunger for social media is, in part, fuelled by our hunger for connection in an individualistic, isolating world. And you can’t make connections without honesty, without being real.

It’s a bit of a paradox, I know. Your social media feeds are probably filled with mantras like “Be yourself”, yet behind those words is the image of a beautiful person in beautiful surroundings. If we stop to think about it we know that that Insta-model has spent a great deal of time on their appearance, posing for the perfect shot, and arranging it all with the perfect filter. None of these images suggests that you can be yourself if you don’t have abs and a tan.

Let’s forget the hypocrisy for a minute though and focus on the sentiment. Our world is crying out for something that is real. Something that is honest and authentic. If we tune in to the spirit of the age then we see that plastic perfection is out, while mindfulness is in.

 

People like me

One Australian singer who seems to have tapped into this zeitgeist is Courtney Barnett. Hailed as the millennial Paul Kelly, Barnett’s lyrics capture everyday anxieties and dilemmas. One of her best-loved tracks details the mundane horrors of house-hunting in Preston.

Undoubtedly part of the reason for Barnett’s success is is that she is not a shiny celebrity living in another world. Instead, she sounds just like one of us. Barnett’s is a true example of a perfectly imperfect personal brand. The fact that she talks openly about her flaws, anxieties, and the less glamorous side of life has given her a unique, authentic, and memorable personal brand. As she croons on her latest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, “Your vulnerability stronger than it seems / It’s okay to have a bad day”.    

Nobody has it all together

You might think someone like Jamila Rizvi has it all together – a writer, commentator and editor, Rizvi was the Editor in Chief of Mamamia and a freelance columnist for News Corp. She has published two best selling non-fiction books in two years, and she’s now the Editor at Large for Future Women.

In a recent interview with The Garret Podcast, Rizvi was quick to point out that her supposedly successful career does not necessarily feel that way from the inside.

“This is my guess about what feels different about Not Just Lucky (Rizvi’s latest book), is that what I was trying to achieve is that most books of this genre are written by a woman who is like really amazing, who is at the peak of her career, who is Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington.

“You are at the peak of your game. You’ve learned it all. You’re a CEO. You’re kick ass. You’re amazing. The advice is great, but when you’re starting out you kind of look up and you go, ‘Yeah sure Arianna Huffington, I’ll take a day off a week to volunteer and meditate, but also, like rent’. Their experience isn’t quite yours.”

Rizvi has tapped into something important here – no matter how many career goals we kick, there is always someone to play the comparison game with. A brilliant writer and editor, Rizvi is still painfully aware that she is not Huffington or Sandberg. As she goes on to note, “I remember a reference in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to the night nanny. I remember reading that and just being like, ‘Oh, okay, great. Well, I’ll be CEO of Facebook when someone stays awake with my kid at night sure’.”

And here we have another dilemma. Akin to the drive to “have it all together” is the desire to “have it all”. When we see others juggling career, family, and personal life, there is a tendency, not to draw inspiration from them, but to despair that our own lives don’t measure up.

If we believe that we have failed where others have succeeded then it is very tempting to simply cover this fact up. We don’t have it all, and we don’t have it all together, so we instead opt for the image of a perfect life. We edit, filter, and fudge, because if our life isn’t perfect, at least it can look like it is. But this is a huge error. If we are all desperately hiding our imperfections then we remain in the constant competition, missing the chance to build each other up.

“I’m not at the peak top of my career having done it all. I have got no idea what I’m doing. I’m just kind of muddling through with everyone else,” Rizvi says. “That’s how I imagined my audience when I was writing. I was like, ‘These are my peers. I am writing to my peers, and I’m writing to the people I care about, and who I think are great’. Now, they might not think they’re great, but I do. And so it’s kind of like a giant pep talk.”

Isn’t that a wonderful image? A successful woman acknowledging her shortcomings, presenting her real and flawed personal brand, and using that to give a pep talk to her peers. Because our supposed imperfections don’t have to drag us down. They can be used to build us up.  

 

The power of imperfection

It’s hard not to be a perfectionist in today’s hyper-competitive world. The results of Australia’s biggest mental health check found that a third (33%) of women, and 21% of men, are in high ranges for perfectionism (which was linked strongly to anxiety). Also alarming was the finding that 44% of women and 34% of men use self-criticism as a primary stress response.

The study found that most were not seeking help, professional or otherwise. Of those in moderate to severe ranges for a mental health disorder, only 17% were getting some form of treatment.

When did we allow things to get like this? Because of the perceived need to live the “perfect life”, we cover up our flaws, and it is making us sick.

This means that authenticity is not only beneficial for our brand – it is essential for our health!

An attitude akin to Jamila Rizvi’s is the perfect antidote to perfectionism and self-criticism. When we openly acknowledge our failures, flaws, and shortcomings, they don’t exercise the same power over us. We can also then look up to and learn from our role models, and take comfort in the fact that they too are human. Humanity is an often undervalued attribute.

When we are real and honest with people it creates a sense of connection. We often fail in this regard though because we are afraid of being judged. Especially in our workplaces where being perceived as a successful individual with power seems to be the only aim of the game. In the overall scheme of things, this is sadly flawed thinking.

Authenticity can counteract the tendency we have to view powerful or ambitious individuals (sadly, especially when they are women) as cold, selfish, and unapproachable. There are a warmth and humanity inherent in revealing your flaws, and it will make you a better leader. Hiding your human mistakes (we all make them) is not the way to avoid being cut down as a tall poppy. Owning your mistakes is.   

 

The story of two brands

Sir Richard Branson, to me, is the epitome of a successful personal brand. His image is instantly recognisable, and as the face of the Virgin Group, he has steered the brand to great heights. But Branson is not what I would call an authentic brand.

Now I am not saying that Branson is a fake. His showmanship is (presumably) part of his personality, not just his branding strategy. When he acts the part of enthusiastic entrepreneur for the cameras he is being real, but one thing he rarely allows himself is to be vulnerable. Truly vulnerable. And maybe he does not see a need to do that, I get it. However, vulnerability is key to authenticity.  

A less-well-known, but still hugely influential brand, comedian turned political activist, Russell Brand, could not be further from Branson when it comes to honesty (often too-much-information style honesty) and vulnerability.  

Brand has lived a life on display, and his former addictions—to drugs, to sex— his eating disorder and need for attention, were from the start a part of Brand’s bohemian brand.

But now Brand has been sober since checking into rehab in 2002, and the authenticity is still there. He may have shifted to talking about picking up dog poo and changing nappies, but now, as an author, podcast host, and activist, Brand is still refusing to make polite conversation to maintain a polished personal brand. He talks about politics, sex, and religion, and whether he worries that he will be judged for this brashness (or whether he counts on it) he takes the risk of being open.      

The world doesn’t encourage vulnerability – especially in any culture that is superficially image-conscious and all about “looking good” – it’s dog eat dog out there. Business people, politicians, right-wing, left-wing, it doesn’t matter. The political game players are wielding their power in a Machiavellian struggle, and if you don’t keep up, unfortunately, you are tossed aside.

However, how we live our lives is still up to us. We can still choose how we respond to this often corrupt, power-hungry world.

Does showing our vulnerability means taking a risk? Of course, it does. But as with many things in life, the rewards far outweigh the risks. The rewards of vulnerability also outweigh the enormous risk we take by doing nothing.  

As Helen Keller so famously said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Keller was a woman who knew that struggles and setbacks are the things that make you stronger. The fires that refine and prove your character.

Character, in this sense, is a word, an ideal, that our society has stopped talking about. But it is this somewhat out-of-fashion idea that I am thinking of when I talk about the importance of authentic personal brands.

Your image, after all, must be underpinned by solid foundations. It should, at it’s best, be a true representation of your tried and tested character.  

 

A character with character

The late, great, Anthony Bourdain was a man of inspiring honesty. As one Forbes contributor noted, “A more human, human being than Anthony Bourdain is rarely seen on television.  Pretence? No. An air of superiority? None. Need to show us a perfect life? Not a chance.”

This was an integral part of Bourdain’s character, and one of the many qualities that endeared him to audiences. “We don’t want to manufacture a scene,” Bourdain once told The New Yorker. “We don’t do retakes,” he said. “I’d rather miss the shot than have a bogus shot.”

The life of a jet-setting foodie may sound idyllic, but Bourdain’s life was far from perfect. As we were all to learn, his demons had followed him through fame and fortune. Yet even in tragedy, his realness, his all-too-human struggles, have proved a light of hope to others.

As fellow celebrity chef David Chang stressed in a recent podcast,”We all need help, even those of us that think that everything is going great.”

“I thought the best way to honour Tony would be to talk about my own struggles with depression,” Chang said in his introduction. “I apologise if you’re a regular on this podcast and you find this too dark or too self-indulgent, but if it makes any of you feel a little bit better for seeking help for your own struggles, then it was worth it. I think it was what Tony would want me to do.”

Chang went on to describe Bourdain as “The cool uncle, the sage, the oracle, the person that would dole out advice — in many ways he’s been my mentor and my North Star, ’cause he trailblazed a path that would not be available to me otherwise. I am in great debt to him.”

The power of Bourdain’s authenticity was such that he has left a legacy which will continue to inspire even now that he is gone. This type of brand legacy has nothing to do with the commercial. It is about impact, not cashing in. 

In the end, the best thing we can do is live a life of meaning, this always has, and always will be, more important than gaining followers.

Bottom line – let’s have a good life, with all of its ups and downs. Life is a gift, and this gift is too fleeting and too uncertain to live in fear and falsehood. Instead, we need to celebrate it – if we choose.  

 

Originally published at ThriveGlobal and The Image Maker Blog.

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