It has been a decade since management guru Tom Peters wrote his seminal article "The Brand Called You." By this point, you should stand out as a well-defined brand the rest of us can sum up in 15 words or less. You've likely abandoned such old-school terms as "employee" or, worse, "manager." You're CEO of Me Inc., reinventing yourself every few years while balancing a series of provocative, fascinating projects.
And yet all those efforts could have also turned you into a cautionary tale about self-branding run amok. Your colleagues make retching sounds every time you mention your personal coach. They wish you'd stop boasting about your finely calibrated contributions to the team and get some work done. Your signature suspenders are looking a little tired, and your boss doesn't seem suitably impressed by the 3,712 connections in your LinkedIn account and 9,000 "friends" in MySpace (NWS ). You're a brand, all right, but one of the first things that comes up on a Google search of your name is an embarrassing photo from that drunken golf weekend in Guangzhou.
And yet the idea of self-branding just won't go away. Among the books released over the past year: Me, Inc.; You, Inc.; Brand You; and one that casts branding as 120 ways to promote yourself. Quietly doing a good job is cast as, well, pathetic. Even in the off hours, people feel more compelled than ever to post fascinating alter egos on social networking sites, painting an image of themselves through clothes, musical tastes, and interests that can be much edgier than the ones they let on about at the office.
As Brand You becomes part of the DNA of 21st century workers, should we all aspire to become like, for instance, Donald Trump? Donald Trump doesn't think so. "Most people aren't brands," Trump says, after noting that Trump Vodka is the hottest alcohol launch in years. "Most people aren't equipped to be brands. They may be great managers or great at something. But they're not a brand. They don't have it'—and they think they do." The result: annoying behavior or, in the case of Trump's rivals, TV ratings that don't equal those of The Donald.
Then again, what if you're a well defined brand—just not one anyone is interested in? Time to confront reality. At 53, playing the resident ingenue might be a stretch, but the role of enigmatic sage could still be open. The raucous fun of being office gossip rarely translates into a better paycheck. Smart brand-builders look around at the brands that work and adopt the best elements of them. They join a reading club that the vice-president favors; they assume the top guy's taste in ties is always worth a second look.
Don't think you can escape it. Seth Godin firmly believes that in the age of Google, MySpace, YouTube (GOOG ), and blogging, everyone is a brand. Marketers brand you. Politicians brand you. Your colleagues brand you, and so does your boss. So where were you when all of this happened? "You have to take control of your brand," says Godin, a best-selling author, entrepreneur, and agent of change (as stated on his blog, sethgodin.typepad.com). "Many of us are taught to do our best and then let the world decide how to judge us. I think it's better to do your best and decide how you want to be judged. And act that way."
Amy Dorn Kopelan of Coach Me Inc. says with amazement that, even now, "There are a grand number of people who never thought they could market themselves as a brand." Kopelan tells her clients to reflect seriously on the value of their brand to an organization. "Are you worth keeping around?" she asks. "Why would someone pick you off the shelf?" Once you've established your brand, you have to think about giving quarterly updates on its performance to clients—namely your boss, your customers, the landlord, your mother, even the guy who gets your bagel order wrong every day, as if you weren't a well-defined person with well-defined tastes.
If you can't figure out how to package yourself, maybe your company can help do it for you. Estée Lauder (EL ) offers an in-house course that meets monthly for half a year called You Inc. But management is less interested, frankly, in pumping you up than in having you get pumped to do more for the company. Phebe Farrow Port, vice-president of global management strategies, says she's careful to make sure all the talk about distilling one's self-worth doesn't make people feel so unique that nothing will ever please them. "It's all about how it's framed," she says, pointing to a seminar on how to market yourself internally without being "overly aggressive and perceived as a nonteam player."
Not everyone buys into the concept so easily. Generation X types, generally the thirtysomethings between the self-congratulatory baby boomers and Facebook-addicted Gen Y youngsters, tend to be skeptical and doubting. "You need to prove the value to them," Farrow Port tells this Gen X writer. Likewise, employees in Asia seem resistant to the notion of "Me, Me, I, I."
And yet numerous big names say self-branding will increasingly become the mantra of every ambitious individual. You will move around more (but not too much, lest the word "frivolous" be added to blog posts that mention your name). Your roster of online "friends" will explode, and other highly defined people may try to crowd into your space. In that kind of market, you'll need to showcase the brand that is You from Day One. Remember, your co-workers aren't just your colleagues. They're your audience.
By Diane Brady