THE BLOG
07/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Kick In the Career: The Perils of Personal Branding

The only sensible thing to do when one is about to kick off a career column is to Google the word "career." Let's face it, we live in a world where if you don't do a little Googling before you put pen to paper (or keyboard to cyberspace) then you are entering the game without a competitive edge. And speaking of the aforementioned edge, one of the notions that recurred during all that Googlizing was the idea that products and corporations are not the only entities that are well-served by building a brand; in fact, it seems that each and every one of us should be building, reinforcing and otherwise enhancing our very own personal brands, too. In other words, if nobody in the boardroom has your custom-designed logo tattooed onto his or her forehead, you need to reevaluate your marketing strategy.

Now, I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of branding, since my mind goes to the name of a ranch being seared into the haunches of a group of livestock that has not necessarily signed off on the idea. Of course, I grew up watching Westerns on television, which was sort of my generation's version of Grand Theft Auto IV. Yet, that mark on cowhide represents something valuable to the consumer: it lets them know at a glance that they can trust what they are getting. Though the non-conformist in me balks at a person being reduced to that kind of shorthand, it may well be that in today's short-attention span marketplace we could all use a good branding. As long as it doesn't involve being milked by a machine and having to take nourishment from a feedbag.

So, what is our own personal brand? Are we an old reliable one like Coca-Cola? Or do we bring more than just dependability to the table? Maybe we're Diet Coke. Same great taste but always looking for a way to keep the cellulite out of our bottom line? Are we caffeine-free? That would be a courageous choice, since most of us can't even wiggle our mouse in the morning without getting jump started by a Frappucino. Being a green tea guy might really set you apart. Or get you beat up, depending on whether or not your job involves a loading dock.

Of course, if we're all products, the only way to stay competitive is to make sure consumers know we're constantly new and improved. "Hi, I'm Jim -- now with the patented efficiency agent DoMore™!" "You've always trusted Barbara when it comes to your outsourcing needs ... but now she has fifty percent more infrastructure-building capacity and a powerful fast-acting bleach that can turn even the most drab spreadsheet into a sparkling whitepaper!"

Oh, and you better get a catch phrase, or you'll be buried in the brand-recognition sweepstakes. Pick one that sums you up in just few words. "There are some things money can't buy...for everything else, there's Jennifer." Or, walk to different spots in the office and say, "Can you hire me now, can you hire me now? Good!" And it's never too early to start. Make your four-year old understand that if they want to get ahead, they better learn to think outside the sandbox.

All right, so you've got your brand down. Now it's time to get it out there. Get creative. Bring a Sharpie into the restroom. You never know what might come of a bathroom stall scrawl. "For a good scenario planning, call Dave. Extraordinary back office skills." A lot of the branding advice-givers say we should all have a presence on the Internet, and a blog is a good place to start. Just be sure to make it specific to your career goals, and not like the majority of the blogs on the Web. For example, veer toward an up-to-date resume and a few testimonials from previous employers, and not an eight-page rant on the inferiority of the later-period Steven Segal films. Similarly, it is probably unwise to include a link to your Facebook profile, you know the one where you're throwing back shooters in Cabo with a biker gang whose t-shirt's say, " DEATH TO CORPORATE AMERICA".

Now, you've established a brand, the moment has come for that all-important face time. Be sure to bring plenty of your branded swag to the interview. Key chains, t-shirts, foam fingers, all with your phone number and an image of you shaking hands with Warren Buffet's niece. Why, that prospective employer will probably be thinking, "Wow, I haven't had a bag full of this much crap since our last team building adventure camp when we all got to keep our glow-in-the dark lanyards and a stress ball that says "be my buddy" when you squeeze it.

I don't know, I think it's all too easy to toss out terms like "branding" and make it sound like a viable way to present oneself in the workplace. There's plenty to be said for Spencer Tracy's approach to acting, which was "learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture." Being yourself, being prepared in meetings and interviews, engaging the people you deal with on a personal level, paying attention, being courteous and professional...these are viable strategies, and they lend themselves to everything falling into place from there. And aggressive branding can very quickly obtain levels of overkill. I can only speak for myself, but if I was interviewing Tony Robbins and he leaned across the desk at me going, "There's a giant within you and he wants to write me a check," I'd freak out. In fact, I'd probably walk on hot coals just to get the hell away from him.

In the end, we might all be better off not getting caught up in high-concept ideas like making sure you have a brand. Of course, this is coming from a man who is leaving for the beach in fifteen minutes so he can skywrite his e-mail address across the horizon. What do you think, too much?