Caution: Is your personal brand going to drive your success throughout your working life, or–at some point–is your brand going to make you obsolete?

Today, thanks to Dan Schawbel’s pioneering efforts, a lot of attention is paid to building personal brands. An equal amount of attention is paid to addressing the issues involved in maintaining personal brands.

But, what happens if your personal brand wears out?

The question bears attention, as we’re living in a time of unprecedented rapid change. Is there a chance you may become hostage to a brand that no longer performs for you?

Branded for Life

The question came up yesterday, while I was reading Branded For Life, an article in the October 1-7 Bloomberg Business Week.

Branded for Life chronicled the lives of 3 successful character actors, Smiling Bob–the Enzyte Man, Joe Isuzu, and the Dell Dude–whose personal brands become wrapped-up in the companies they represent.

As the article describes, although the money was good, “the actor behind a successful brand character enters a state of existential limbo. He is famous, yet anonymous. His face is everywhere, yet his name is largely unknown.”

However, “when the campaign is over, chances are, no other brand will hire him….He will have successfully acted himself right out of acting.”

Authors and brands

Authors frequently run into this type of problem. In most cases, however, the benefits of writing a book to build a personal outlive the brand.

The benefits authors gain during their period of greatest earning and productivity, immediately following the publication of their book, are powerful enough to outweigh any negatives that might occur in the future.

This is especially true when authors use their new visibility and the rewards of their “obvious expert” position to master new life-changing habits and skills–like speaking–that they can transfer to new projects down the road.

Nevertheless, many authors do become hostage to the brands by their first book. Jay Conrad Levinson will forever be associated with the Guerrilla Marketing brand–no matter if he could write a damn fine architecture book, or provide a new perspective on World War Two.

 Trade publishing doesn’t reward “genre jumpers,” i.e., business authors who want to write mystery stories, or mystery authors who want to write books about marketing.

I found the sledding tough when I tried to move beyond the “graphic design for non-designers” brand that I was associated with following the success of Looking Good in Print: A Guide to Basic Design for Desktop Publishing. It took a while for me to move beyond my initial brand.

When book title becomes more than a book title

If you’re an author, I encourage you to be very careful in choosing the title of your first book. For better or for worse, the title of your first book is likely to become your brand!

Paradoxically, the more successful your book becomes, the more you’re locked into the genre!

The danger, of course, is that your brand may go out of style! Not so long ago, for example graphic design books occupied two bookcases, floor to eye level, at the Portsmouth, NH, Barnes & Noble. Now, the design books are mixed in with photography, craft, and architecture books. What’s that mean for my next book proposal?

“Well, it looks good, BUT, design books aren’t selling anymore!” is likely to be a publisher’s first response.

All brands face the threat of obsolescence

But, in today’s world, it’s not just authors–few of us are immune from the threat of obsolescence!

As Dan Pink pointed out in his landmark 2006 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, outsourcing and technology are undermining all types of formerly “safe” fields. (Often, for example, an xRay of your arm, taken in your local hospital emergency room, is read by a radiologist in Asia, etc.)

So, what can we do to protect our brands?

Ultimately, it seems the only protection for us is to be as genuine, simple, and consistent as possible when choosing, building, and maintaining, our personal brands:

  • Genuine. Being the best radiologist, or lawyer, or souffle chef in Sullivan County is no longer enough! We can’t afford to confuse expertise with personal brand.  We have to go beyond the obvious, surface layers and identify what is at the heart of our personal brand. We need to identify the essence of our character, and develop it, rather than cloaking our identity in skills and currently-desirable attributes that may quickly go out of fashion.
  • Simple. And, as the parade of recently-introduced books about Apple and Steve Jobs shows, we have to simplify our brand and learn to trust simplicity. The simplicity of Apple’s approach to design may be “obvious,” but it’s just about impossible for other companies to  duplicate because Apple’s approach comes from within. Other companies may try to “graft-on” specific brand attributes, i.e., thinness, intuitive operation, etc., but decorative design doesn’t last.
  • Consistent. The final way to protect our brand is to consistently act upon it, so we’re living up to our brand–while improving it as we go along.

Taking action

As we enter the fourth quarter of 2012, perhaps we all should audit our personal brands and analyze whether or not our personal brands are genuine–i.e., goes deep enough–simple, and consistent to project our value to the end of our working lives. What do you think? Is your personal brand safe from obsolescence? Share your thoughts as comments, below


Roger C. Parker encourages you to create an IdeaTracking content dashboard to harvest the good ideas all around you. Use his online form to ask questions about writing and publishing.