The Unbearable Lightness of Branding

Lots of trackbacks (or pingbacks) are spam, and I don’t approve them for the comments section. But some pass the first sniff test, and some are interesting enough to warrant a reply. That’s what happened with the post “To be (a brand) or not to be (a brand)”, at a blog called Daily Breaking News Update. I’m not linking to either, because I think I fell here for a splog (a neologism I like, coined by Mark Cuban, for a spam blog).

What got me interested in the piece, naturally, was this paragraph…

It may be that some of the fallout from the Tiger Woods scandal has made the idea of personal branding seem trickier – people are people, after all, not objects and not cattle. As Doc Searls has argued in two recent blog posts, brands are “boring” at best and “bull” at worst.

The post ended, provocatively enough, this way:

Undoubtedly, building trust is fundamental to business success. Maintaining reputation is crucial, whether or not you want your name to be synonymous with a product, a service or a company.

What are your thoughts on personal branding? Has it become impossible? Or has it become ubiquitous?

So I took the bait and posted an answer in the comments section. Here it is:

I think the Tiger Woods experience demonstrates the risks of hiring a celebrity to personify a company’s brand. Besides Nike with Michael Jordan, I can’t think of a single case where this kind of personification has worked in the long run. Maybe some other readers can; but I’m not sure it makes much difference. Nike will stand or fall on the quality of its products, not on the qualities of its celebrity representatives.

As for personal branding, I still think it’s an oxymoron. Branding is a corporate practice, not a personal one. Build a reputation by doing good work. Put that work where others can judge its value. Contribute to the success of others, and credit others generously for their contributions to your success. Never promote for its own sake. I think it’s a mistake to categorize these practices as forms of “branding,” because they are expressions of humanity and integrity.

Branding works for companies and products in part because those things are not people. Buildings and offices and ballparks and shoes may have human qualities, but are not themselves human. Likewise humans may be industrious or durable or attractive in the manner of good companies, but that doesn’t make them corporate.

You and I are not brands. Our parents did not raise us to be brands. Nor would we want our children to be brands, any more than we want them to be logos.

“Personal branding” is a nice gloss on playing for celebrity. And celebrity is a Faustian bargain. Ask any veteran celebrity and they’ll tell you that. They live in fishbowls and yet, for all their familiarity, are not well understood as three-dimensional human beings. The healthy ones deal with it gracefully. The unhealthy ones use their celebrity as a façade (as with Tiger Woods), as a pass to a virtual Las Vegas where everybody keeps indiscretions secret (as with Tiger Woods), or as an ideal they can never really match (and hence seek surgical alignment, as with too many to count).

Many of us assume without question that celebrity also equates with income. It doesn’t. There is a degree of correlation, but in the long run we get hired for the useful goods we bring to the market’s table. Not because we have a “personal brand.”

Building trust and maintaining a reputation matter. Calling both “branding” is a categorical error.

Then I took a closer look at the blog and realized that it had no apparent author, and the about page was WordPress boilerplate. So I looked up the headline on Google, and got a fog of identical results.

The original appears to be this one, at ReadWrite Start. The byline is Audrey Watters, and that’s the post that most (or perhaps all — I didn’t go down the whole list) of the many citing tweets point to.

But there are all these other re-posts as well (listed in order of Google’s first page of search results):

All were from ReadWriteWeb feeds, obviously. I suppose these might be good for ReadWriteWeb (which deserves the respect it gets), but they also have the effect of deliberately false radar images. They are also part of the Google AdSense ecosystem, within which publications of all sizes try to game the system by re-posting attractive postings that will bait traffic and inbound linkage, goosing up the site’s PageRank to the point where ad placements appear, click-throughs happen, and money comes in.

An interesting thing about all these re-postings is that Audrey Watters‘ byline does not appear in them. So we have the interesting irony of a post about personal branding re-appearing all over the place with the writer’s name stripped out.

Obviously some dysfunctional things are happening here. And I doubt any more talk about “branding” will help, beyond accounting for some of the motives involved.

Bonus link.

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26 comments

  1. Tom O'Brien’s avatar

    This is flat out content farming.

    Splogs are ubiquitous and one of many challenges for firms like ours (MotiveQuest) in separating the wheat from the chaff in web content mining and analysis.

    Tom O’Brien
    @tomob

  2. Audrey Watters’s avatar

    My first reaction: “Oh snap!”

    My second reaction: To copy-paste what I wrote on RWW in response to your comment: “Thanks for the comment, Prof. Searls. I found your initial posts to be very thought-provoking (hence my post). Despite the fact that we are people, not corporations, I do think there are pressures to market ourselves as products, so it’s no surprise that terminology like “branding” persists. Your point about the difference between reputation, trust-building, and branding is well taken, although perhaps unlike “tastes great, less filling” reputation and trust are the cornerstones of personal brands are supposed to be.”

    My third reaction: Do I enter my personal website in the URL above? Or my work one? ;)

  3. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I have a radical solution…. instead of putting everything on web hosts, we actually make copies of it that get distributed. This removes the ability to count the number of times something is viewed, and thus removes the ability to charge for ads. It routes around censorship as well. It gets us away from silos.

    Think of it as having a free photocopier and being able to hand out clips of things to your friends. This would democratize, decentralize, and reduce the barriers to entry for anyone with a good idea.

    Then things would be full circle… and we’d be back in the age of the pamphlet.

  4. Matt Neznanski’s avatar

    Too bad your time was taken by a dishonest site. If it helps, your work wasn’t wasted: I appreciate your clear thinking and differentiation between branding and personal reputation.
    In many ways it’s like the snake oil behind most SEO programs and consultations that promises incredible results based on minimal changes or effort. In the long term, time spent building a body of quality work and making it readily accessible is much more effective, especially in the world of the personal filter.

  5. Marilyn Carpenter’s avatar

    Hey Doc – thanks for routing that out.
    Your thoughts on personal branding are new to me – don’t know if you’ve posted before.

    I’m somewhat in this space with my book (Open Sesame ACCESS) and ACCESS Coaching program – and I have strongly resisted ‘personal branding’.

    But – we all can get to a value mission statement that describes how we create unique and real value in our work – and then do it. And use this to guide you – so that when you stray from doing what you are really good at – like being a great communicator – you don’t work for a company that will have you sit at the table, mute, while the fast and smooth talking boss gives the customer a stomach ache and you end up at the chiropractor with a bad back from trying to slouch and slither to the meeting room floor.

    the bonus link says it all! Thanks – I really like that.

  6. Richard Gayle’s avatar

    Doc,

    You point out a real problem when a blogging style consists of synthesizing information from a variety of sites. I love posting a small amount from one post – giving the author their credit – and then commenting on it, bringing in information from a variety of places in a sort of collaboration that can only happen online – of course, I do write a lot of purely original posts. That is what I did with your previous post on branding.

    But I find more and more that some of the so-called links I am starting with are actually these sorts of ‘resourced’ posts. They seem to be slipping into even some trusted sources. They are fooling people just as you were fooled.

    So I have to spend time tracking down the original – luckily most do not bother to change the title – while purging the implicated splogs.

    At least it usually leads me to the correct blog at the top, ones that often then find themselves into my list of sites to follow. So, perhaps in an arcane way, this practice helps extend the reach of the original poster, but only if the intermediate blogs are identified as such and the footwork is done to follow the crumbs back to the original.

    Is there a place that identifies these parasitic sites or do they replicate too fast?

  7. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Richard,
    Theory: A site without ads is more likely NOT to be a splog.

    Strategy: Treat any kind of advertisement on a site as a sign that the site shouldn’t be used. Perhaps someone could put together a mashup that does the standard google query, then shows you as it disqualifies things because of ads.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mike, I think that’s a fact. Or mostly one. This blog used to be splogged a great deal, back in the early days of splogging. Not any more. Could be that’s because there are other far more popular blogs now, and the sploggers leverage those. Could be that there is some sploggy algorithm that looks for the presence of ads to sense the flow of AdSense dollars.

    What amazes and depresses me is that ReadWriteWeb, BusinessWeek and USAtoday all seem to be complicit in the splogging game. And a good writer like Audrey Watters kinda gets screwed in the midst of it, as her work gets leveraged for AdSense bait while her byline gets scraped off. Pretty icky shit.

  9. Mike Warot’s avatar

    So it looks like we agree…. if we stop sourcing things from anyone who has ads on their site, we’re more than likely not to source splogs or linkbait.

    Until, of course, the game changes again. ;-)

  10. John Caddell’s avatar

    Doc, I heartily agree with your skewering of the concept of “personal branding.” I have to confess that when I first started blogging I quickly became very concerned about page ranks and inbound link counts and Technorati ranking. Some people (not sploggers) were nice enough to syndicate my posts (attributed and with permission), and I found I got a little paranoid when days went by without them picking up anything of mine.

    Something happened, though. Nobody paid me because they read something I wrote. People who hired me did so because of reputation, including my blogging (but also including direct experience, personal recommendations, work samples, and affinity with other clients).

    I finally said “screw it.” I will write in my blog what I want, without being concerned for its fidelity to a theme. That makes it more fun for me. More fun means more posts. More posting means a better (usually coincidentally more influential) blog.

    There are people who have turned the alchemy trick of spinning an online identity into gold. Usually they are carnival-barker types. They shout a lot. But when you peek into the tent, there’s usually not much there.

    regards, John

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Richard, I wish there were a place where sploggers were outed as the parasitic creatures they are. Alas, splogging has gone mainstream. When Bloomberg and USAtoday do it as a matter of course — and worse, strip off the bylines of the original authors in the process, any number of things have gone terribly wrong.

    What makes these sites splogs is that they re-brand the work of others as their own and fail to point back to the original sources in more than a minimal way, if at all. Worst of all — to me, as a writer — is that they strip out the name of the original author, even if they credit the publisher. That’s the crowning pisser.

    Back when Technorati was still its old self, the company did a remarkable job (for not being Google or Yahoo) of flagging sploggers and expunging them from its search index. But the Technorati we knew was undermined by the sad (or happy — take your pick) fact that serious writers and readers of blogs — those people who deserve the label “journalist” — don’t click on ads, no matter how well-targeted they may be.

    I’ve heard from a number of sources that much (if not most) of the money generated by advertising click-throughs comes from people who a) don’t know better, or b) care mostly about celebrities or porn. I’d like to know more about that.

    Meanwhile, I do what little fighting I can, for example with this “branding” business. It’s not about building a reputation. It’s about standing out in a cloud of crassness.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Two additional links.

    First, Kevin O’Keefe’s Telling lawyers to build a personal brand may be a big mistake.

    Second, Scott Greenfield’s The Brand War, written in response to Kevin’s post, and the comments below it, most of which disagree with Kevin, who agrees with me, in this post.

    Scott hears both sides, chooses Kevin’s, and adds this clarifying distinction:

    Branding is what you want to call yourself. Reputation is what other people call you. You give yourself a brand. You earn a reputation.

    Yep.

  13. reactorr online branding’s avatar

    Thanks for the bonus link, it fit so well. The amount of regurgitated content is disturbing.

    My own definition of branding;
    Branding creates a shortcut in the mind of the others, helping them associate the brand with a phrase, feeling or value. (i.e. reputation)

  14. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    > Obviously some dysfunctional things are happening here

    Absolutely right. You just noticed, hmm? I wonder if you’ll eventually end up a bona-fide convert to the anti-marketing side – stranger things have happened!

    This is part and parcel of the critique of the commodification of social relationships, that people have been making for years. One strange aspect of the promotion is a shibboleth that such commodification implicitly should be done only in the relatively “high-class” way of being a consultant or similar. However, that’s an extremely narrow niche which has a huge skill-based barrier to entry. Being a splogger is obvious and a much lower barrier to entry.

    At this point, the consultant-types tend to write something along the lines of “Nooooo. We meant that the only moral way of doing things is OUR business model, of monetizing high-class attention via high fees. That’s good. We don’t mean that anyone should be monetizing low-class attention via low fees. That’s evil.” But money adds up either way, and why should one expect only the high end of the market to exist?

    Preaching is notable ineffective in the face of monetary incentives otherwise.

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Seth, I’ve been on the anti-marketing side since before Cluetrain, which was itself an anti-marketing book.

    Naturally, marketers adopted it. Irony rules.

    We (by which I mean many, not just you and I) have gone around on marketing and branding many times. One occasion that stands out is the post Can marketing be conversational?, which I wrote to surface my belief that the answer is no. I threw punches in that one, but I pulled some as well (for example on branding). I don’t do that anymore.

    I know many good marketers. And by “good” I mean that they have chosen to stay in the corner of their profession where they might stand a chance of turning the promotional tide on behalf of customers. It’s a hard slog.

    I try to be helpful in their efforts, but I mostly feel it’s not worth the bother. Marketing, in the minds of most of its customers, and most of its practitioners, is about promotion. It’s about pushing. The challenge of the Good Marketer is like that claimed as his challenge by the late William F. Buckley: “To stand athwart history, yelling Stop!”

    So mostly I shut up about it.

    But every once in awhile I get the urge to scourge, which is what I’ve been doing with this series on branding. It gratifies me that I actually got through with exactly two people who troubled to blog about it: Kevin O’Keefe and Scott Greenfield. Not coincidentally, both are lawyers, trained in the making of cases. They heard mine, and agreed. In Kevin’s case, it changed his mind: a rare thing in general. Scott was already in agreement, but came to Kevin’s side in his argument with commenters still in thrall of brandging’s rationalizations. Again, bravo to both of them.

    To me putting a positive spin on “branding” is like trying to do the same with “lobotomy” or “eugenics.” The metaphor came straight from the cattle industry, folks. You can’t change that. It’s in the DNA of the concept.

    Not long after Cluetrain came out, in 2000, we heard from people at a real brand management company — Procter & Gamble — who were already saying, basically, “Why are all these Web marketers taking up the ‘branding’ flag? We’ve been doing that for seventy years and want to move past it.”

    I’ve been paid many times to bring the anti-marketing message to marketers. It tends not to cause repeat business. And I’m a pretty good speaker, and a pretty good consultant.

    Right now there is huge money chasing “social media,” which exists entirely in closed commercial spaces, and in which users give up lots of information about themselves in a Faustian bargain for “personalized” advertising, when it is abundantly clear that there is little market demand for that among any groups other than, say, coupon-clippers. Meanwhile, trying to round up money for my own community’s project, which is all about giving customers a real voice in the market’s conversations, is has mostly been like squeezing stones for blood.

    If marketing is honest about “finding what the customer wants and satisfying it,” marketers and their customers should put their money where that mouth is. Until that happens, I refuse to believe it.

  16. Kevin OKeefe’s avatar

    Thanks so much for causing me to reflect on my telling lawyers to develop a personal brand through blogging, it really is pretty shallow.

    You commented at my blog that I made your day, month, and year by being one of the few who may have been listening to you on this point.

    You should know that without you, your wisdom, and the provocative thoughts you have shared over the years through your blogging that I would not have the company I have today. A company that employs 20 people and is providing our family of seven a means of not only support, but also self worth in knowing that we’re doing what we can to change the world for the better.

    Take care.

  17. Richard Stacy’s avatar

    Another slightly alternative way of looking at this is to say “what’s the problem with splogging?” In the old (media) days, an author or a place of publication were important – because that is where influence and trust resided. The defining shift of social media is the separation of information from specific or dedicated means of distribution and the consequent shift in influence from places or even people to spaces (conversations). What now matters is the content itself and the process by which it gets filtered or distributed through the ecosystem, not who wrote it or where it was first published.

    It is all too easy to forget just how radically different social media is, and apply traditional media thinking in order to try and understand it.

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