‘Long Live Personal Branding’: A Response to Olivier Blanchard

It was long overdue that someone should “sound the death knell of all things personal branding”. After all, we personal branding enthusiasts should not expect we deserve any better treatment than SEO, Klout or Facebook (let alone, as Nietzsche proclaimed, God). This time round the honor belongs to blogger and author Olivier Blanchard, who in a recent post entitled ‘R.I.P Personal Branding‘ mounts perhaps the fiercest attack on record against the process and philosophy of personal branding, wishing it “safeways and a heartfelt farewell in 2012”. Such a pity he had to mar this otherwise nice conclusion to his argument with an unnecessary “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out”, but as we are about to learn Olivier’s sharp tongue is almost a trademark and paradoxically part and parcel of his own freely-espoused personal branding style.

In the best spirit of the festive season we’ve just ended, I won’t hold that against him. At least not as much as his ignorance of the principles, guidelines and values behind Personal Branding posited in this blog and other personal branding quality materials. I was in fact put at rest reading Olivier’s post that his critique is aimed at a personal branding model mostly alien to us. Reading in-between the lines of his latest blog entry we also come across a number of inaccuracies that I would like to address with the hope that readers will be in a better position to assess the value of his radical criticism or lack thereof.

To be sure Mr Blanchard’s post could not have been more ill-timed, since we are witnessing renewed interest in all things related to personal branding at a global scale: bestselling titles like ‘Me 2.0‘ are being translated into countless languages, bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic are raving about its benefits and personal branding services are becoming mainstream for social media, communication and PR agencies everywhere. Once more, we will not hold this against Olivier: there is intrinsic value in being counter-current, especially if one offers alternative views from which new valuable working ideas can emerge. He does in fact offer 5 tips in his post that could fit nicely into this category had they not been put forward long before in this very blog.

But let’s follow his anti-personal branding offensive and the reasons behind it. His tirade begins with a statement that sadly lacks philosophical or sociological sophistication and can therefore be easily dismantled: “People are people,” he tells us, “they aren’t brands. When people become brands they stop being people.” Not quite, I’m afraid. By the same token and under the same faulty premises we could fallaciously argue that people are not consumers, clients, voters, patients, citizens or biological entities. Yet people are of course all of those things and many more depending on the specific context and focus under consideration. And there is no question in my mind that in our digital 2.0 world people are (perhaps for the first time) also brands and have brand-like attributes they can use for their benefit without in any way, shape or form forsaking their humanity or their identity as people.

From the ulterior development of his argument, we learn that the animosity Mr Blanchard feels towards brands and personal branding stems from his negative associations with selling and the misconception that we can only sell by becoming “a character or a product”. “That core need to build a brand to ultimately sell something”, he states, “is at the very crux of the problem with ‘personal branding’. Can you realistically remain authentic and real once you have surrendered yourself to a process whose ultimate aim is to drive a business agenda?”. The answer to his question is obviously a resounding ‘yes’: I have not surrendered myself to any evil process or become inauthentic to create a successful personal brand and sell my services any more than I believe he has done so in order to become a social media author and sell his books. To claim otherwise without proof is intellectually arrogant and plainly misguided. And of course, both he and I – along with everyone else with a career – have “a business agenda to drive” (even if it is is just to remain in business!) and need to sell a product, service or idea: and we are none the worse for that.

I am glad to find in his post the words transparency and authenticity and once again sad that he should need to retort to expletives and offensive accusations to put forward his case (“those extra layers of personal branding are artifice… They’re bulls**t… Don’t be a fake. Drop the personal branding BS”). On at least one account I can most certainly put his mind to rest: nobody here is trying to be a fake or condone such behavior. In fact, our personal branding philosophy goes well beyond his own premises and not only has transparency and authenticity at its core, but is emphatically built on the primacy of values, can be profoundly spiritual, and is open to people from all walks of life including minorities. Once more Olivier’s uptake on branding shows itself to be dangerously limited and his anti-personal branding stance almost fundamentalistic: apparently unbeknown to him, a brand can be much more than “an icon” and to assert as he does that “personal branding schemes” are antithetic to trust proves nothing other than misinformation together with the fact that he has not been exposed to the right sources and models. Luckily for all both can be easily remedied.

To end on a positive note, I was reassured to read his recommendations to “go build something. Make something happen. Create. Invent. Help. Rescue. Solve. Improve.” That is indeed what we have been preaching (starting with personal branding trailblazers like Tom Peters or Dan Schawbel) all along. The case remains that in the 2.0 economy there is no better set of tools and principles to do so for ethical and well-meaning people who want to add value, yes sell their product and services and give a boost to their careers than personal branding. Not the distorted view of personal branding he holds, to be sure, but the one that is directly responsible for my success and that of many other often disadvantaged people in America, Europe and beyond. I can therefore only conclude with a ‘Long Live Personal Branding’ for 2012 and an invitation to Mr Blanchard to learn more about personal branding from its leading proponents before he needlessly disparages and alienates again its growing community of supporters.