Would the real YOU (tm) please stand up! The case against personal branding
A view from Adrian Britten

Would the real YOU (tm) please stand up! The case against personal branding

For a while now, dollops of 'personal branding' lather have been floating in the self-help bath, writes insurance provider Amlin's comms director Adrian Britten. But, maybe it's time to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Gorgeous titles like 'How YOU (tm) Are Like Shampoo' urge us to define our unique identity and project it consistently to our 'stakeholders' to unlock career and personal success.

The published research about personal identity is, however, surprising and empowering. It turns out ‘personal branding’ is psychologically implausible, potentially damaging to your relationships and results in an identity with virtually no authenticity.

Why does anything need branding? Many products and services are functionally similar; branding creates additional thoughts and feelings, making purchases more desirable and usage more enjoyable.

Personal branding applies these ideas to the 'YOU (tm)’ in the title above. First, you specify your core strengths and what makes you different, then you present this identity consistently to build a distinct ‘personal brand’ in the minds of your key stakeholders and influencers.

So far, so good? Well, no actually!

The fallacies of personal branding

The first error is to assume we can accurately assess and then describe our own identities. Many of the processes governing our identity are outside consciousness and when we do describe ourselves we tend to enhance our characteristics, describing a person that people who know us well do not recognize. By encouraging us to reflect on and define our own identities, personal branding causes us to create a distorted view of ourselves which we then actively promote.

We already have a name for people who are skilled at managing and projecting an identity: actors

The second fundamental error is to suggest we should have a single identity across situations. Yet, at any given moment, I am a father, son, husband, co-worker, boss, team member, subordinate, etc. Fifty years of research confirm that people have multi-faceted identities with different facets being triggered in different situations depending on the role that is relevant.

Just like you, I switch effortlessly and automatically without even being aware this is happening (imagine ‘father’ being active in a context where ‘team member’ is the appropriate identity). This multi-faceted identity system is healthy and helps us navigate our social environments. It is a beautiful system, honed through millennia of mammalian development and enables us all to rub along together in a hugely complex social environment.

Contrast that with people who do not adapt to the social environment: at best, we might say they are boorish, selfish, egotistical or, at the extreme, sociopathic.

Back in the normal world of social interaction, we all monitor and respond to feedback from the social context in which we find ourselves. A real-time and largely automatic process, it informs which parts of our identities we need to project to help us all rub along together. This 'identity negotiation' defines our social relationships and is something we are engaged in all the time when we are around other people.

It throws up a third fallacy in the personal branding approach. To be so busy presenting your own consistent identity regardless of what is going on for people around you means you are not negotiating your identity with the people around you and therefore not engaged in socially-viable relationships with the people in your social context.

Trust yourself to be yourself

We already have a name for people who are skilled at managing and projecting an identity: actors. Usually, we know they are acting; we put them in situations where we can watch and admire their skills. For every other context the term 'actor' implies disingenuous, false and manipulative behaviour.

If this all seems to contradict our personal experience, rest assured: social scientists can explain that too. Most of us feel like a whole person, the same person across situations, not a series of identities that are context dependent. Losing that feeling or experiencing a fragmentation into different selves is a diagnostic criterion for the condition known as Borderline Personality Disorder. Thus the phenomenological experience of being consistent keeps us sane.

Having an automatic system that effortlessly and automatically allows us to adapt our identity to the situation, whilst allowing us to experience a consistent sense of identity, is not only extremely efficient and adaptive, it is a thing of psychological beauty. By contrast, personal branding proposes we override the hard-wired, automatic process with a conscious attempt to manipulate our mindset and the identity we present.

Authenticity for your identity is achieved by trusting your well-honed, automatic identity processes. This will effortlessly provide an identity that those around you can understand, which they can appreciate and to which they can relate. Everything else is acting, and, unless you are Judi Dench and in an acting context, just forget it. You are being inauthentic.

Trust yourself to be yourself!