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According to Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten, "'branding' is ruining journalism."
He's referring, of course, to personal branding, the activity that a growing number of journalists are supposedly engaging in as the publications they work for lose clout and financial resources.
As Weingarten sees it:
...the first goal [of journalists today] seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.” That’s because we know that, in this frenetic fight for eyeballs at all costs, the attribute that is most rewarded is screeching ubiquity, not talent.
It is why Snooki — who is quite possibly literally a moron — has a best-selling book. It is why the media superstars of today are no longer people such as Bob Woodward, who break big stories, but people like Bill O’Reilly, who yell about them.
Is Weingarten right? It doesn't really matter according to Gigaom's Mathew Ingram, "We are all brands now, so get used to it."
The debate around personal branding is nothing new. Personal branding gurus sell the idea that individuals should work on their personal brands much like they would their hair or their abs. Personal branding skeptics call the entire concept BS.
Who's right? Well, to answer that question, you have to answer the question, "What's really in a brand?"
Brands are generally comprised of visual components (think logos, colors, shapes and slogans), and they typically stand for something (values, lifestyles, myths, cultural associations). They have longevity, and are used to differentiate their customers from the rest of society.
Take Nike, for example. It has an iconic visual identity (the Swoosh), and it has come to represent nothing less than a particular set of values and lifestyle choices. You know a Nike product when you see it, and the minute you recognize the Nike branding, it conjures up all sorts of associations.
In short, you intuitively know the difference between a person wearing a pair of Air Jordan 3s and, say, a pair of Louis Vuitton loafers because of what each respective brand represents.
Is Perez Hilton a 'brand'? If you recognize him, you're probably far more inclined to think "There's that celebrity gossip guy." Visual identity? Values? Lifestyles? Cultural associations? Probably not so much, if at all.
You could try to make that argument by creating a definition of 'brand' that excludes most of the above characteristics that are normally associated with brands, but in my opinion, the most accurate way to describe prominent mediafolk is "individuals who have a strong reputation."
Perez Hilton has a reputation as a celebrity observer and critic. Andy Carvin's reputation stems from his reporting on the uprisings in the Middle East. David Pogue is the New York Times tech columnist.
None of these individuals has a strong visual identity with iconic potential, and none, realistically, has strong associations with values, myths, lifestyles, etc. You probably don't intuitively know the difference between somebody who reads Perez Hilton and TMZ. In ten years, you probably won't even remember who Andy Carvin was (if you even do now). And you almost certainly won't wear a David Pogue t-shirt to express your affinity for the David Pogue lifestyle.
None of this, of course, means that there aren't individuals who don't become brands. If an athlete was ever a brand, for instance, Michael Jordan would be the brand of all personal brands.
Not simply associated with product, he became the product. Wear these shoes or this piece clothing and some of Michael Jordan's magic might rub off on you. To this day, despite the fact that he retired nearly a decade ago, you can still buy Air Jordans. Michael Jordan, the brand, is more legend and myth than the actual man.
For the rest of us mere mortals, the notion that we have personal brands is, at best, misleading, and at worst, dangerous. What we really have is our reputations, and reputation is built on action.
When action is focused on marketing, and you come to think of yourself as the product, the actions that support strong reputation are more likely to be trumped by a desire to boost one's profile. A journalist, for instance, begins to think that his readers are coming to read his articles for him, as a fan might come to a basketball game not for the game, but to watch Michael Jordan play it.
This encourages self-promotion and self-indulgence more than it encourages behavior that boosts reputation. Just ask LeBron James.
At the end of the day, much of the debate around 'personal branding' may merely be semantic in nature, but words have meaning, and most of the people who think they are McDonald's, and not Ray Kroc, will learn the hard way that they're not.