Don’t drink your own kool-aid in the name of personal branding

My ex-colleague from Ogilvy posed an open question on Twitter recently, on personal branding:

This is a very fair ask. Most people do connect ‘personal branding’ to self-aggrandizing, or talking about oneself. And that’s mainly because most personal branding proponents have merely transposed the offline version of that activity online. Before social media/internet happened, there were limited avenues for individuals to address the broader public about their thoughts and opinions. Very few had access to mainstream media (guest articles in print media, or television appearances, or even being featured on radio) and hence, any limited opportunity was utilized to talk about oneself to boost the personal brand to whatever extent possible.

Result? It seems like drinking your own kool-aid.

By the way, have you wondered how this phrase, “drinking your own kool-aid” came into existence? The background story is quite ghastly and also technically inaccurate. That… at the end of this post.
Digression ends.

What does it mean? In the most basic terms, it means you incessantly talk about,

  • what a great human being you are
  • how good you are
  • how many awards did you win
  • how people love you and tell you that they do
  • how many leads/accounts you have won and how happy you are
    … and so on. You get the drift, right?

Now, all this isn’t wrong. It’s just one way to build a personal brand. But there are less self-aggrandizing ways of going about it too.

How? That would mean you incessantly talk about,

  • what fantastic inspirations other people are, and you explain why you think so
  • what your points of view are, about important updates in your industry
  • how different is your thought process on topics that affect your industry
  • what is wrong in your industry, with whom, or what, and you explain why, without getting personal, by focusing on the broader aspect

This is literally 95% of what you need to do to build your personal brand. To be sure, there is a focus on you, but that ‘you’ is at the service of the point you are trying to make, not on yourself.

The self-aggrandizing part is the last 5% that you do very occasionally, by considering that it would make others cringe… and it would.

Why should you use these points and not the earlier, self-aggrandizing ones?

Let me explain with the example of a product that is not a personal brand.

Take a car brand, as an example. Say, an entry-level, sub-Rs.5-7 lakh car.

There are 2 ways you can market and sell the car in the largest numbers.

Option 1: to talk about,

  • what a great car it is
  • how good it is
  • how splendidly it rides on all kinds of places
  • how many awards did it win
  • how people love it and tell it to anyone who cares

Option 2: to talk about,

  • the kind of wonderful people who drive it, and why they chose this car
  • not to talk, but show how good it is in different situations and driving conditions

Because a car is a material possession, you can sell the car in both ways. You do not need to choose one over the other.

But in case of an individual/personal brand, the latter is a better, sustainable way to do the selling. The only exception is with politics and the entertainment industry. With personal brands in such sectors, it is appropriate to sell them using any and every method, because the aim is to make them endearing to the largest number of people, in terms of votes, or in terms of audience – they are like FMCG products, and anyone/everyone could be a potential ‘buyer’.

For normal people like you and me, that is not imperative – and we’re more like B2B brands. The idea is that you should be remembered (top-of-mind recall) as a person best associated with a certain set of topics that are beneficial to your career/profession.

So, if you are in the HR profession, and people recall your name if they think of say, employee motivation, or recruitment, or employee retention, that is beneficial for your career. And this you can achieve without using a self-aggrandizing tone. In other words, without drinking your own kool-aid 🙂

The point is that the internet and social media allow a platform for anyone/everyone to have a consistent voice on topics that they deem fit. Most people generally squander this opportunity by talking about everything under the sun.

If someone skims through your profile on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn, would they be able to gather what you are interested in and are reasonably and demonstrably good at? A LinkedIn profile is merely a static CV. You merely claim that you work in certain areas and have been at it for specific periods of time. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, that connection is not even present. So, you utilize the ongoing content creation and sharing potential of all those platforms to convince complete strangers that you could be remembered around a particular set of topics. In a way, you earn that recall value by working towards it.

(Of course, this is only a trailer. You need to live up to the reputation you built for yourself when they meet you in real life. Else, it all comes crashing down)

While this is not rocket science, I have observed, in my experience, that not everyone gets either this context around personal branding or the thought process of what topics to stick to that could give them a sustained runway to share content around, on their own.

Many pick topics impulsively based on their broad career contours and struggle with, ‘what do I write today/tomorrow/next week that could help build my name’s association with X topic?’.

The first realization should be that this association is a long-term habit. Not a short-term task or an immediate effort.

The second is that there is a structure to arriving at sustainable themes that you can use over a period of time. And to build your own content pipelines for you to be reading as much on them so that you expand your worldview on them. Without the latter, merely talking about the themes will sound shallow. Your learning and opining go hand in hand.

That’s what I help with, in my corporate workshops on personal branding, and on an individual basis (selectively). To help you understand the need to do this over a period of time, pick the best themes based on your career goals, and build the tools, methods and habits that could help you execute it consistently.

This is not a Likes-gathering or Shares-accumulating game. That’s a short-term hack – to pick on trending topics and opine on them without worrying about what kind of associations that are being built with your name/personality. That’s the influencer-game, as we have come to associate with it.

The other long game in personal branding is not to worry about Likes or Shares and just be at it, consistently. It’s not about the total number of people reading, Liking or Sharing your content, but the number of appropriate and relevant people reading, liking and sharing it.

In short: the right target audience who may hire you, work with you, recruit you, refer to you, partner with you… or talk about you to the people who may do any one of those!

There is a phrase people use:
“How do you know her? Have you worked with her”
“No. Only by reputation!”

That reputation used to happen by offline word-of-mouth before social media. Now you can be in direct control of that word-of-mouth about yourself through intelligent use of social media.

The crux of my interpretation and recommendation of building a personal brand is… be useful and informative on a topic of your choosing… as frequently as possible.

PS: I work primarily with corporates (for their CXOs) on helping define their personal brand and help them make a daily habit out of building it. I also work with individuals selectively, given the time and effort it takes on an individual basis.

I do not do it on behalf of these people – personal branding is not an outsourceable habit. Think of it as your physical health. A facilitator could only help you understand the basics of what you need to do and not do, hand-hold you in the initial days and help you cultivate it as a daily habit in terms of how you need to work out and what you should eat more of. The facilitator cannot go to the gym or eat on your behalf for you to become healthy.

Similarly, I facilitate your understanding of the personal branding activity, help you learn some techniques and processes that could make it easy for you to do it yourself and offer constructive feedback as handholding during the initial days of your progress. This is a 4-8 week process at best, from my experience, and post that, you should be able to pick it up and run with it yourself.

About that phrase, ‘drinking your own kool-aid’:

The phrase was coined after an incident involving a delusional, pseudo-guru named Jim Jones in 70s USA. He ran a cult called ‘Peoples Temple’ that moved out of USA to Guyana, a South American nation, to avoid scrutiny. He called the community Jonestown. One thing led to another and things went completely haywire. Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals including cyanide, diazepam (aka Valium — an anti-anxiety medication), promethazine (aka Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid—a grape-flavored beverage similar to Kool-Aid. 900 members died, including 300 children!

The horrendous irony was that the brand, Kool-Aid wasn’t even used, but media reported Kool-Aid instead of Flavor-Aid and that name has stuck, along with the phrase, ‘drinking one’s own kool-aid’.

For more on this story, do check out this article in The Atlantic from which I quote (in italics) above.