Competence is not a prerequisite for personal branding

To be clear, competence is not THE only criterion for personal branding. To link competence as a prerequisite for personal branding is a failure of imagination.

A recent article in the Financial Express, by ad industry veteran Ambi Parameswaran—also the author of the recent book on personal branding titled, ‘All The World’s A Stage – A Personal Branding Story’—piqued my interest because I was shaking my head left to right as I read it, in disagreement.

The article is available online on the Financial Express website too:

The gist of the article is this: personal brand and competence go together, as expressed by Prof. Jankiraman Moorthy of SPJIMR and elaborated by Ambi in his article as a 4X4 grid.

Ambi summarises the gist in his tweet: “Can Personal Branding help anyone? The short answer to that question: no. Personal branding can help you only if you are good at what you are supposed to do. If not, beware.

There are quite a few reasons for my disagreeing with this entire premise of thinking about personal branding, and this comes from my own experience of having thought deeply on the subject of personal branding for my book and teaching a lot of people across experience categories on how to craft their own brands.

Let me list my many disagreements:

1. Competence and personal brand need not go together

If that was the premise of personal branding, school/college students cannot gain from personal branding efforts at all! But that’s not true in the real world and they do gain enormously given how smartly they use social media tools to accentuate their personal brands these days.

2. Personal branding is not only about ‘jobs’, ’employment’, ‘promotion’

That is a very narrow view of the end-point of personal branding. To be fair, I get caught in this track too, using my journey as an independent consultant and looking at personal branding’s end-point as consulting gigs, but I force myself to look beyond that and expand the purpose of personal branding.

3. Personal branding is only a signaling mechanism

The effort towards personal branding is a signal to the broader world to build a perception about ourselves. That signal could be anything, even far removed from competencies, work, employment, or professional qualifications.

For example, specifically for students—particularly B-school students: Imagine you are a B-school student at SPJIMR and you are keen to get into a product management role at an FMCG major in India. How could personal branding help you, particularly when you are just a student with no real-world competencies to talk of?

As per Prof. Murthy and Ambi’s explanation, you would fit into the bottom-right quadrant. Or, if you have a good personal brand given the time you spend on Twitter and LinkedIn, you may fit in the bottom-left quadrant. Both these are not purposeful as per Prof. Murthy and Ambi. But I would argue that it can be purposeful.


First, consider what you write often to gain that personal brand, via Twitter and LinkedIn (bottom-left qudrant). Do you crack smart puns often, express your views on topical issues often, or have a point of view on all-things-sports? These are not aligned with your product management job interest, and may not help you at all.

But if you take personal branding seriously and define what you’d like to signal to the world as your interest areas, you’d start opining more on product management within the FMCG space often. This is your future, intended area of work. And you have a point of view on it, while you are a B-school student.

You may wonder: “I’m just a student. How can I have a point of view on something which has very experienced professionals who also share their perspective frequently?”

This is where the article by Ambi is, in my view, a failure of imagination. Personal branding is a signaling mechanism, as I mentioned earlier, and such signaling need not be about competencies alone. It can also be about something far more basic – curiosity (which may lead eventually to competence when pursued relentlessly).

If, as a B-school student, you constantly look for opinion pieces on product management in the FMCG space and share them often with even a fleeting personal opinion (however raw they may be), that IS a signal too. About your interest. Your curiosity. On a specific topic.

Sure, you are still in college. But you signal interest by consistently showing up online within a specific area of interest.

What good would that do, you may ask… since you lack real-world experience anyway?

Here’s how it would help: when you start looking for work after your B-school and when you start applying to FMCG companies, the hiring managers eventually would always land up your digital footprint to see what you are up to. Consider how your LinkedIn profile, with a steady stream of FMCG product management links and 2-line views, would seem to the hiring manager compared with another B-school student who shares random leadership quotes once a month on LinkedIn. Your profile would perhaps keep you in good stead as a door opener.

Prof. Moorthy and Ambi’s framing assumes personal branding to be a deal closer. Instead, if you frame personal branding as a door opener, it opens a whole new perspective.

You may still argue: Ok, I get an interview call because of my LinkedIn content around product management while I’m still in college. So what? Does it guarantee me that job? Of course not. That is still on you. How good you are in the interview and how you can back all that interest/curiosity showcased on LinkedIn is still on you. But competence in the subject did not get you that interview call; mere signaling of your interest did. There is a difference between the two and it is useful to understand (a) that there IS a difference and (b) what the difference is.

Another example: a super successful chartered accountant could signal her interest in running. She could only be starting her running journey and is barely able to run for 15-20 minutes a week, but she still shares her experiences and interactions. In the space of running, she is totally ‘incompetent’ and is trying to signal her personal brand’s link to running – she’d fit in the bottom-right quadrant of Prof. Murthy and Ambi’s explanation. But that doesn’t mean it is pointless at all! For her, the goal could simply be a public catalog of her experiences and if she could connect with similar like-minded people in her stage of the running journey, that would be a great outcome.

In this example, unlike Ambi’s assertion that you need to be good at something you do for personal branding to work, the CA is NOT good at what she signals her interest in – running. That need not stop her from associating with her interest as deeply as she wants to. She could start by being known as just deeply interested in running. That is a brand too. She could also decide that she doesn’t want to be a serious runner at all – her brand could be that of a casual runner. Or a weekend runner. Or a runner who runs for the love of photography. The options are limited only by our imagination. It’s too stifling to confine only competence as a requirement for personal branding.

4. Do not conflate personal branding and branding in business too intricately

This is where most marketing professionals who look at personal branding through the marketing lens get it wrong. Sure, personal branding shares a lot of basic concepts with branding as we understand it in business management, but the fundamental difference is quite glaring: people vs. products (or services). Products or services have to be sold, to be successful in business. People need not get the equivalent of ‘sold’ (‘get a job’, ‘get a consulting gig’) for personal branding to be successful.

To take the context from branding in business, personal branding that leads to either association or consideration is a good success metric too.

So, for instance, a student in human resources, showcasing her consistent interest in the happenings around the HR industry, would be associated with the topic even before she starts working, depending on how frequently she shows up with her views.

Or, a student in public relations, merely curating the various interesting examples of PR (done right, done wrong) frequently on Twitter and LinkedIn (and perhaps his own blog?) would be a bit more seriously considered for an interview in a PR agency.

This is not very different from a coffee brand advertising frequently and that leads you to take a look at the product, either on Amazon or at a departmental store aisle. Whether you end up buying the coffee or not depends on factors beyond advertising – on the product attributes that appeal to you. But the fact that you did spend some time on the coffee brand is also a success metric for advertising.

5. Personal branding as advertising people

Advertising, in business and marketing, is not necessarily only to sell. There are several ways in which advertising does not sell things but only communicates, that too without the intention of selling. Brand-building advertisements aim for sales in the long term, not immediately. The goal is to evoke interest and build salience in the minds of potential consumers.

Similarly, if you consider personal branding as ‘advertising people’, look beyond ‘jobs’, ‘gigs’ or ‘promotions’, the equivalents of a ‘sale’ (or conversion) as metrics. At a far simpler level, look at more direct outcomes: if I share my views, or merely curate others’ views, on a specific topic, consistently, would I be seen as someone really interested in that topic? Not an expert; just seriously interested.

And this can be on any topic, even those completely unrelated to your competencies or current income-earning capability. For instance, you may be a stockbroker, but you passionately talk about weather tracking online. You’d then be advertising yourself as ‘that stockbroker who is deeply interested in weather tracking’.

Krish Ashok is a great example of this. His day job at TCS is completely different from what he is known for, online. He went on to write a book on that interest – cooking… because he took it so very seriously. But he started as a casual cook/chef.

Social media—Twitter, in particular—helped him accentuate that interest (in himself) and association (in other people’s minds), I’d argue. Consider a very simple illustration:

You see one tweet from Krish talking about having cooked something for his family one day.

What do you think about this tweet and Krish? You’d think that some bloke in Chennai, named Krish, cooked this-and-that today. End of topic.

But he turned that one tweet into a running thread… of the very same topic, again, and again, and again, and again…

When you see hundreds of tweets on the same topic in one thread, your entire perspective of Krish and cooking changes dramatically – from one bloke in Chennai cooking something random, to ‘Oh wow! This TCS techie is so very seriously interested in cooking, eh?’. That is how ‘people advertising’ (or personal branding) works in creating or changing perceptions.

6. Faking till you make it?

All this may lead you to assume that I could be advocating ‘faking till you make it’. No. Not at all!

The simple premise I’m advocating is that generating interest and attributes-based association with your name is a good enough metric for personal branding efforts. What you do with the interest generated and attributes-based association is up to you. If you define your goal as a ‘job’, you better live up to the image you created in terms of being curious about the topics you share often.

If you share content often on a topic and then fumble to expand on the same topic or are unable to hold an intelligent conversation on the topic during an interview, that’s not personal branding’s mistake – that’s your lack of effort. In fact, personal branding has worked in that case – it led you to that interview after all. Beyond that, you need to do the heavy lifting to close the deal.

Related read: Personal brand and school/college students