Way back in 2006, I heard a talk about personal branding given by CC Chapman and Mitch Joel at the first Podcamp Boston, which changed the way I approached most of my new media projects.  Having a blog and a podcast meant I was regularly putting information out in public about myself and my interests, along with what had caught my attention.  Thinking about all this media as a “brand” meant that I began to take greater care with proofing my writing, editing my audio, and basically treating my work in a more professional manner.  I respected the concept of “Brand” a bit more than I did when it was “just me”.  When it was all about me, the mistakes were irrelevant, because I had really no concern about the audience, or if there even was one.  Now that it is more about talking to an audience, even one that I don’t necessarily know, there’s a sense of duty to put my best foot forward- the focus is on them, and less on me alone.

The concept of personal brand has grown and changed since that time.  As some people in the social media space of gotten more and more followers, their ability to scale has been more difficult.  The initial “I’m doing this all for me” changes to “I’m doing this all for you, my fans” to  “I can’t be everything to everybody, sorry.”   This isn’t all that far away from what happens to local brands.

One day, the local pizza place happens upon a sauce or salad dressing that everyone likes.  People ask to take some home.  Eventually, the owner decides to try to bottle some up and sell it at the pizza shop.  This works great, but sooner or later, the popularity spreads and it goes to local grocery stores, then maybe even national distribution.  As the scale for the product increases, sometimes different choices are made with the ingredients- they may use dried onions instead of real ones because they have a longer shelf life- but the end product ends up changing, and it’s never quite as good as the original, in part because as things scale, compromises have to be made.

For people with strong personalities that have become brands, like Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine TV, it’s inevitable that the personal communication that helped get him where he is would have to change.  Compromises need to be made.  He may want to get back to everyone who writes him, but the guy has only so many hours in the day.  Response time may change.  He may have to group similar questions together and answer a bunch of  queries at once.  For some people that were attracted by the fact that Gary was personal with everyone will feel like he’s changed.  Gary is still Gary, but your ability to have the same relationship with him has changed.  There are many more people and projects competing for his attention than ever before.  And you have to get in line with everyone else.  Unless you offering something that’s particularly useful to Gary, all you are really looking for is to take something away from him- his advice, his time- for free.  And the boy is busy with offers from many more people who are offering value in exchange for what they are asking- who should he pay attention to?

Personal Brand can be a bit of a trap- because unlike the bottle of salad dressing, we can’t all have a piece of Gary V except, perhaps, through his upcoming books, or by watching him on the internet.  The personal touch, the bespoke suit, the custom made anything, even email, is valued because it is rare and can’t scale.  Martha Stewart made a whole industry out of this, by teaching people that small, personal touches, like a handmade card or flowers from the garden make our guests feel special in our home- that the handmade was valuable because it represented time, effort and attention that can’t scale.

There’s not an easy answer for people that are personal brands that have taken off, because they will have to outsource some of themselves to try to scale.  Yet when does the carbon copy bear no resemblance to the original?  I don’t know the answer, but it will be interesting to watch this work itself out over time.