A few years ago, the concept of personal branding became all the rage.  In the age of social media, people no longer build their reputations -solely- based on location and between real friends and business associates, but can have a reputation that exists beyond your “real world” community and into the various and multitudes of social communities online.  This means your reputation, more than ever, is being dictated not only by who you are and what you do, but by what other people say about you.  And because all of this information is easily found and shared thanks to our friends at Google, (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr- I could go on…) our reputations are largely transparent to anyone who wants to know more about us as well.

Yet, people aren’t products.   I’m fond of saying that even if I’m a brand, I’m not ketchup on the shelf. But personal brands do share these similarities with products:

Limited Supply– A store only has so many pairs of shoes, and I only have so many hours in a day

Distribution channels: You can engage with my brand online on Twitter, Facebook, Skype, this blog- you name it.  Wherever I post information, data, snarky messages, copies of presentations and more, there’s an opportunity to find out about me and possibly engage with me however you wish.

Where People as Brands as an analogy may have issues is in the following areas:

Moving Product: If personal branding is all about reputation alone, it’s definitely not ketchup.  It can be difficult to take all the attention you may have on Twitter and convert it into a positive cash follow unless you have some sort of product to sell.  That product could be a book, an e-book, a podcast, consulting- whatever it is.

Personal branding is great if you have something to sell.  It raises your personal “brand awareness” and makes it more likely people will buy something from you.  Seth Godin, for example, says that his books are “souvenirs” of a lot of the content he posts on his blog for free, but the book gives people a way to remember and memorialize that content.  Blogging and engaging with folks created enough of a personal brand for me that a publisher contacted me about writing a book, so in August, I’ll finally have a product to sell beyond consulting.  But if you don’t have a product, personal reputation and brand itself doesn’t do you much good other than ego points unless you have an option to help people convert from fans to customers.  (Trust me- Motley Crew may like it that you’re a fan, but they really want you to buy their album and become a customer.)

Transferability/Share-ability: Personal branding, or a “cult of personality” is important.  In the geek world, the personalities of both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been infused into their companies, so much so that stock prices have risen and fallen with the personal trials and tribulations of these great men.  Yet I think we would all agree that both Microsoft and Apple are huge companies with great products that are NOT Bill Gates and Steve Jobs themselves.  The trick when one person- a CEO, the face of the business- and this could be someone running a personal services company like a hairdresser, a doctor or a lawyer just as well- is whether you can transfer that goodwill, that sense of person and personality to the straw person that is the company or brand, and will it still function when you’re no longer there.

If you look at some other brands that have had a bit of the cult of personality baked in- Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken; Orville Redenbacker’s Popcorn; even Perdue Chicken or Bush’s Baked Beans-these brands seem to do well and survive the fact that the originator of the brand is no longer central to the process. But the initial personality of the brand was based on the personal brand of the folks involved.  KFC doesn’t still have the old man speaking for them, but you still see a cartoon of him on the bucket from time to time.  Even in repose, Col. Sanders still lends his personal brand to his enterprise.

But will someone who has built an empire based on reputation alone have anything that will be able to survive their direct involvement?  What will Lindsay Lohan leave behind for others to carry on in her stead? Her legacy outside of where it’s preserved in celluloid will likely die with her, (although the announcement of an Opera in London based on Anna Nicole Smith may prove this entire theory wrong.)

Personal branding is hard to transfer to others.  You can recommend other people and products, but at best, you are lending some of your clout and risking a bit of your reputation at the same time, in the hopes that the people  who take your advice find it useful.  If they do, the product seller wins, and you win as well, through increased trust and reliance as a good source of information; if it fails, the product or service provider won’t get any repeat business, but you’ve also taken an unknown amount of hits to your brand as well.

Consistency/Variability: Personal branding is really a fancy term to try to clothe reputation and trust into a commodity jacket.  The danger here is that people also change and evolve, unlike the formula for Coke, the secret recipe for KFC, or the quality (hopefully) of popcorn from Orville.  If you are a brand, people expect consistency, continuous delivery of a reliable product or resource, and they turn quickly when there’s too much variance in the perceived quality of what they receive.  Stray too far from the niche people see you in, and you’re failing to deliver on your “brand promise” and you risk alienating folks, if you are looking for fans and followers as your measure of value.

As I think more about personal branding, it’s a blessing and a curse.  It’s a commoditization of you as a person, but it can “fix” your image in the eyes of others in such a way that it makes it difficult to grow and change and retain the same sort of following.  Just look at celebrities who try risky roles- many times it works out well, but if you disappoint your fans who want to watch you repeat the same thing over and over again ad nauseum one too many times, or get caught doing something unsavory, they will desert you in a heartbeat.  It’s a way to help you grow your reputation and get known, but it also creates golden handcuffs that can be restricting.

Personal branding is still evolving as a concept, but like anything, you have to look at it as a metaphor, not a law of nature. People can be like brands, but very few people are brands, despite the fact both Sarah and Bristol Palin are trying to copyright their names.  When you look at personal branding, substitute the words “reputation management”.  Think of it more like high school- who do you want to be in this cast of characters, but more over, your success in the end will be by remaining true to yourself.  That way, people aren’t buying a mere avatar of you, they are getting a souvenir of your passion and that version of a brand will allow you to grow and breathe, rather than ending up with a “new coke” fiasco every time you pursue something new.