Once the purvey of advertisers and marketers, almost everyone is now aware of the concept of branding and brands. The Marketing Accountability Standards Board (yes, that’s a thing) defines a brand as a name, term, design, symbol or other feature that distinguishes one seller’s product from those of others. It’s what makes one widget different from another widget. Coke v. Pepsi. Charmin v. Northern.
The concept of brands have their origin in cattle. They were (and are) used to differentiate one person’s cattle from another’s; to denote ownership. But brands also evolved to denote quality. If a rancher was known to have high quality cattle, well-fed and groomed, then when a buyer saw the rancher’s brand, the buyer could feel confident in purchasing the cattle. A brand was an indication of not just ownership but condition.
Brands are also why companies will ardently defend their trademarks. Companies spend vast amounts of money to define their goods and how they are portrayed. They will then register them for trademark protection, as well as go after those who violate their trademarks. This is because, in many countries, if you do not defend your trademark, you will lose it:
…trademark rights can also be lost unintentionally…for example, escalator and cellophane originally were trademarks in the United States but, as a result of improper use, eventually they became generic names of the products for which they had been used as brands. The determination of whether a mark has become generic can vary from country to country; such is the case with aspirin, which is a generic term in the United States but a protectable trademark in Canada and Germany.
Yet brands are no longer confined to companies. People now often discuss their “personal brands.” This is largely due to the extent we all now broadcast ourselves thanks to the internet. Prior to the internet leveling the playing field of who can broadcast information, it was difficult for people to develop of fame or notoriety. There were gatekeepers and filters you had to go through. The film industry, the music industry, book publishers, tv channels, news media, and more. They were the medium through which fame was created:
Early Hollywood studios tightly controlled who was a movie star, as only they had the ability to place stars’ names above the title; according to film historian Jeanine Basinger, this was done “only for economic reasons”.
Hollywood “image makers” and promotional agents planted rumors, selectively released real or fictitious biographical information to the press, and used other gimmicks to create glamorous personas for actors…the development of this “star system” made fame “something that could be fabricated purposely, by the masters of the new ‘machinery of glory’.”
Through this process, people who became famous began to realize that it would be beneficial if they took an active role in the manner in which they were portrayed. Instead of allowing the media to completely control how they were presented, people began to craft their own narratives to present to the media. Public relations developed. Crafting and curation of narratives that painted stars in an ideal light became a full time job.
Curated Versions Of Ourselves
With the internet, and social media, everyone now has the ability to project themselves. Anyone can publish text, pictures, audio, video, interactive entertainment, and more for little to no cost. And everyone under 40 years old has spent their entire lives immersed in a media-dense environment in which they have observed people in the media curating ideal versions of themselves. Which leads to this phenomenon:
No one wants to come across as boring. No one wants to project that they their lives are ordinary. That they spend evenings watching television. That they pay bills. The mundanity of everyday life.
Instead, ideal images are created. What is broadcast to the world is curated. Selective bits of our lives that present us in the best light. Vacations, victories, and achievements. What shows up in most people’s social media feed is really just a highlight reel.
Which is fine of course. People are allowed to publish what they want. It usually doesn’t cause an issue for most people. Where issues and problems arise with “personal brands” is when something occurs and there is a conflict between a person’s “personal brand” and their reputation.
As Others See Us
A personal brand is something that is self-defined. It’s how you dress and act. It’s what you broadcast via social media to the world.
A reputation is an opinion about someone else, arrived at as a result of evaluation and appraisal.
So what is the difference between a personal brand and a reputation? Put simply:
Your personal brand is what you say about yourself, but your reputation is what others say about you.
The former you can control, the latter you can merely influence.
Which is why your reputation is far more important and valuable than your personal brand.
A recent example of the clash between a personal brand and a reputation can be seen in the colossal blunder of Patrick Zarrelli. Zarelli was/is a web developer and internet marketer who also engaged in “reputation management” – the practice of attempting to shape public perception of a person or organization by influencing online information about that entity.
Zarelli assisted others in how they appeared online. The reason that people hired him to do this, presumably, was not his reputation, but his “personal brand.” Zarelli had built a network of websites that he used to craft an image of himself, making him appear to be a large and influential web company. That he would be able to successfully control how his clients would appear online.
For an overview of the entire situation, read this story at TechDirt.
Zarrelli can continue to craft his personal brand online, but the number one result for his name is not what he is saying about himself, but what others are saying about him.
There is no un-ringing that bell. Zarrelli’s name will forever be associated with this episode. He has become another poster child for the Streisand Effect – the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet (For another lawyer-specific instance of this phenomenon, see the Rakofsky Affair).
The Path Towards Your Reputation Is Paved With Integrity
The ability to see what others think of someone else online is a reason online reviews (Amazon, Yelp, Avvo) have become so significant. They provide “social proof” of a person or product’s reputation (It’s also why people try to game reviews – you should take them with a grain of salt). People want to know what others think. Many people understand the concept of self-defined brands and no longer take them at face value. They want to make informed decisions when selecting a person, product, or service.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, marketer, doctor, writer, consultant, or factory worker – your reputation is of fundamental importance. If your reputation becomes tarnished, it’s not that you cannot polish it to a shine again, but that you should expect it to take significant time and hard work. People tend to hold firm to their opinions of others. If you have a reputation for laziness, people will think you’re lazy. If someone thinks you are unethical, good luck ever having someone trust you again.
Your reputation is precious. You only have the one. There is no hiding from it. You can try, but if people really want to know about you, they’ll eventually find out what other people think about you. Reputations are fragile things – intricate, delicate structures that require years to develop and build but only moments to shatter.
There is no way to self-create a reputation – or at least no way to create one that lasts. You can’t fake a reputation for very long. Reputation is developed through hard work, consistency, reliability, and integrity.
That last one trips people up. Integrity is not that popular of a word in the 21st century. Look at the general mess of “entertainment” available: reality shows, celebrity divorces, backstabbing politicians.
Integrity has seemingly faded from the daily lexicon. But for anyone looking to develop a reputation that matters, integrity is essential. Integrity does not involve subscribing to some Aristotelian level of ethics. Integrity is unity of behavior in thought, word, and action.
Having integrity while consistently and reliably delivering quality work will eventually ensure that others will speak highly of you – you won’t have to do it yourself