Shifting the perception of ‘personal branding’ away from vanity

The phrase ‘personal branding’ still makes a lot of people queasy. I had a conversation with a tech. industry veteran yesterday and he said the first thing that comes to his mind when he hears ‘personal branding’ is ‘vanity’! He’s not alone, though.

I had already written briefly about this for Brand Equity (The Economic Times).

Allow me to shift this perception in 3 ways.

1/ Think of personal branding as insurance.

Let me explain.

Our careers, when we start at the age(s) of 20+, usually has a good run for about 20+ years, in current times, if you are lucky. But even during this run, there are ups and downs, and this is normal for any/everybody. You end up with a bad boss, or a bad company, you want to move, but when you want to, you don’t get the right opportunities. You may end up rushing into another job out of frustration, loathe that job too and wait for your luck to shine. All this is perfectly normal in everyone’s career.

Entrepreneurship has its own ups and downs anyway!

Now, think of your monetary status throughout your career. You start small and build a better pay as you progress in the corporate hierarchy (or, do better business, if you are an entrepreneur). All through this, you are told, by people around you, that you should invest in insurance. All kinds of insurance – life insurance, in case something happens to you, to help your family; car insurance, health insurance and so on. The Government-mandated provident fund too is a kind of insurance for the future.

Think about when you invest in insurance. Is it when you have no money and are in dire straits in life? No. You invest in insurance when everything is hunky-dory and you have money to spare. You may really not feel like doing it, but you look to the future and invest.

The time that you invest in building your personal brand is insurance you need to consider when you are in a steady, well-paying job… when everything seems to be going well for you. So that you could make use of the brand that you built for yourself when there is a need.

When everything seems to be going perfectly, try imagining a near-future when they may not, and start working on your personal brand to insulate yourself towards a harsher future, and mitigate the negative impact to whatever extent possible.

2/ Think of personal branding as your physical health.

This is similar to the insurance example but may ring true more universally.

One kind of new year resolution that is universally famous is signing up to a gym during the first week of the year. We all have done this at some point in time; even if it is not a gym membership, we may have at least made up our minds during the last weeks of December that we will ‘get active’, ‘start running’, ‘start exercising’ and so on, starting with the 2nd of January. Not 1st January, though – that is a tad unrealistic 🙂

We probably follow it up too, for about a week or two. And we do look for some visible signs of ‘progress’ after 2 weeks, by Pongal/Baisakhi. Plonk a finger into the belly and feel that something has reduced… or look at your biceps impressively, as if something has improved. This is human nature, but nothing would have changed in 2 weeks. If you are diligent about the activity and look at the progress after say, 8 months, I’m sure you’d notice visible progress. In fact, you wouldn’t need to look at it yourself – people around you would notice the change and tell you about it!

So, when do you start to exercise? When you are sick? Not at all. You start it when you are feeling well, but realize that you need to do it for the sake of the future. Even if you are overweight, you decide to work on your fitness and health considering a better future where you are of normal weight and feeling healthier overall.

Start considering your daily effort on your personal branding like your physical health. And when would you start seeing its effects? In 2 weeks, after you shared 2 updates on LinkedIn? Not at all! Like your physical health, the impact of building your personal branding works in the long-run. In fact, just like your health/fitness, even if you do not obsess over vanity metrics like Likes or RTs or Shares, people would start noticing your effort and content if you are diligent in your pursuit.

Another significant aspect worth remembering is that your health is a combination of what goes in and what goes out. What goes out is burning the calories that you amass. What goes in is the kind of food you consume that augments your fitness activity. The personal branding equivalent to this is:
what goes in = what you choose to read online, consciously
what goes out = what you choose to share online, as the building blocks of your personal brand

3/ Think of personal branding as defining who you are for others.

This is perhaps the most important context. I know for a fact that most people assume personal branding as a vanity exercise and associate it as amassing followers. Far from it.

Personal branding starts within you first. It is simply a better understanding of your strengths (and weaknesses) and your conscious decision to pick a few relevant facets about yourself that you want the world to know as the things that you who you are, as an individual.

If in that process of talking more frequently about what interests you and your opinions, you amass followers, that is a byproduct, not the goal.

The goal is to build a wider network of people who know what you are good at, or interested in. This is not a tight-knit network, but more of a loosely existing set of individuals – the people ‘who know you’. These people may not even leave a visible trail that they follow you, Like your posts or Share your updates, but they do read what you have to say IF you say useful things, in interesting ways.

If you have not consciously worked on your personal brand, this ‘who knows you’ is a much smaller set of people – from your current and past educational alumni and workplaces. And perhaps the people you met at events, industry gatherings and so on. These don’t happen by choice, but by serendipity and chance.

In one of my recent workshops, one of the participants, with about 20 years of work experience, came up to me and asked me, “But Karthik, why should I share my opinion on anything with complete strangers, on the internet? I share it selectively with people close to me. That’s enough I think. Why stir up the hornet’s nest unnecessarily by saying something about anything that people may misunderstand me?”. Good question – and I get asked this often 🙂 The point is, we already share our views with a very small set of closely connected people *offline*. We just need to pick and choose the topics and the way we articulate our opinions on those topics so that we can share that with strangers too, online. This is a carefully controlled exercise – not something you blurt out online without thinking. If done well (and there are enough ways to do it well), this ‘markets’ you in a positive way amongst complete strangers who have a good way to remember who you are.

Defining your brand and working on it using social media is an easy way to build the ‘who knows you’ to a larger number. It is not rocket science, but it is not effortless either; like the gym example above, you need to put in the conscious effort and spend small chunks of time frequently to nurture your brand.

Most people miss out on the fundamentals of what and why of their brand and merely stumble through social media platforms as a trial and error, or worse, as a waste of time. But social networks are extremely powerful in carrying stories and all of us have within us the impetus and urge to tell our stories to the world.

Having said all this, please allow me to add,

1/ That my book is precisely on this subject, in more excruciating detail, with tons of examples.

2/ That I conduct highly immersive and practically useful workshops on this subject for 2 kinds of audiences:

a. CXOs of an organization (or founders/management team of a startup/VC/PE firm). CXOs and founders are literally the company’s brand ambassadors and they should avoid their personal brands being dictated by the internal or external PR/corporate communications teams, and take active charge of their own personal brands, particularly on social media. They could seek operational help from the communications teams, but the larger goal and strategy should be theirs.

b. Employees of an organization, as part of employee advocacy programs. Progressive companies have realized that employees are their most valued resource and the most valuable support they can give their employees is the power and freedom to work on and nurture their personal brands. This is akin to treating employees as customers; brands showcase their most vocal customers to the outside world in an effort to impress more customers. Similarly, companies can help build individual employee brands because that is good for business. Happier, confident and better-known employees may sound like perfect candidates who would quit for better prospects, but consider the famous joke:
CFO to CEO: What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?
CEO: What happens if we don’t invest in developing our people and they stay?

If you are in Human Resources or Learning & Development in an organization, do reach out to me for details on my workshop at

Photo courtesy: Felicia Buitenwerf.



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