BRAND OR DIE: The Downfall of the Institution and the Rise of the Personal Brand

I (Nick) was sitting in a sushi bar in Los Angeles, thousands of miles away from my hometown of Orlando, FL. Having found a table, I asked the waiter to assemble my usual selections which included one order of Maguro, one order of Yellowtail, and one Steamed Shrimp, Cucumber and Cream cheese roll with a drizzle of eel sauce (the Nick Roll, as my friends have come to call it), and then I began to do what I do most of the time when I’m alone - I took out my iPhone to occupy myself. I checked emails, read and posted a few tweets, and checked my newsfeed on Facebook to see what my friends were up to. I also engaged in a newer activity, "checking in" via geotargeted apps and games like Loopt and Foursquare (If you don’t know what these are, you should! Just google them!). This particular meal was during a period of time several months ago, before Foursquare had been brought to the iPhone, so I checked-in via Loopt. Much to my surprise, I noticed that a friend that I went to law school with and who also lives in Orlando had also checked in on Loopt and was just a few miles away from me in Los Angeles. I immediately texted him to say hey and to tell him I was just a few miles away. This prompted us to try and coordinate a chance to say hi; the meeting would be for the sake of novelty, if nothing else. This occurrence prompted us to take stock of what many of us do to bide our time (check-in, tweet, post on Facebook), and how it was not only becoming second nature, but what that means for the way we are going to conduct business in the future. Based on these hyper-connected, entertaining, and informative ways of passing information from person to person, we are really leaving behind a trail of everything we’ve ever done, everywhere we’ve ever gone, every opinion we’ve ever had, and, thanks to some less than scrupulous folks who tend to overshare and take pictures with their phones, everything we’ve ever eaten. You might be wondering where this trend is headed and what it all means. Well, in the context of "The New Economy", this trail is essentially a "Personal Brand Map". It’s a record of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, all mapped out in chronological order, from which anyone in our networks (or increasingly, even someone who we haven’t allowed in our networks yet) can review and form an opinion about us. In the New Economy, some might say that our Personal Brands are increasingly important. We’d go further, saying they’re all we’ve got left. Think about it. The internet and technology have brought about the following changes: ♣Removed the barriers of information flow, allowing us to find anything we want, anytime we want it ♣Made transparency a way of life, allowing the general public to piece together a story even if you aren’t telling it yourself (you can’t hide most things anymore if you wanted to!) ♣Leveled the playing field by giving everyone on Earth an instant platform to publish anything you can think of, including thoughts, muses, obsessions, hobbies, photos, videos, business ideas, invitations to social events, collaborative efforts, and more. We’ve seen this technology bring about the rise of the Personal Brand, while we have simultaneously witnessed the downfall of the institutions that we grew up believing in. We’ve seen the banking industry fail us through credit crises and mortgage meltdowns. We’ve seen over-inflated real estate prices which are due, in large part, to the previous bottleneck on real-time information flow. In the past, we’d have to wait for all the data from real estate sales to drip down from title companies and city and county records in order to get a gauge on what was happening. Even worse, we might have to go to a physical location to view the records. Now you can find that all online, from anywhere in the world, with the click of a mouse. Simply revolutionary. We’ve witnessed many a corporate meltdown due to lowered barriers to entry. For instance, it is now a very acceptable practice for any business person to schedule a meeting at a Panera Bread or Starbucks location. No formal office is needed, just a place to meet. We’ve also seen the increase in shared spaces replacing the more traditional executive suites and even some less traditional solutions like existing businesses renting out offices that aren’t being used to new businesses. We have seen increased international competition from countries like China and India, who are in a venerable race to bring their high-talent, low-cost human capital to America, with no plane tickets needed, using nothing but Skype and email. And, finally, we’ve witnessed those willing to compete and incur lower overhead in order to gain market share that previously would have seemed untouchable. This accumulation of corporate meltdowns has left many unemployed and without the pensions, retirements, or the security we always thought would be there. This is a major shake up. In spite of the fact that many are calling it a "lost decade" (2000-2009), we instead look back and see a time of painful discovery and major shifts in the way information is shared, received, and processed. No longer do we look to journalists in last Friday’s newspaper to determine what movies we want to watch or what restaurants we should try out; rather, we look to social networks to see what our friends think and where they are right now. There has been a shift of power. Power is now at all of our fingertips - in the hands of the many, not in the hands of the few. So, how do all of these powerful cultural and economic shifts affect you? You, as an individual, have become your own brand, whether you like it or not. You can control your brand to your own advantage or you can let your personal brand be run by others who comment on what you are doing. In fact, whether you choose to document your life and your business or not, chances are someone around you is going to document it for you. You don’t have to post photos of yourself on Facebook or videos of yourself on YouTube for such photos and videos to end up there. You don’t have to post your thoughts on a particular concept or issue online for them to end up on Twitter, as those around you are doing it, for you sharing for you whether you like it or not. So, the real choice you need to make (before someone does it for you) is to control your personal brand. The good news is, if you learn how to effectively control your brand, you can also control your life in ways that were never before possible. Think about it this way: in the past, if you were a superstar employee, you still got paid what your employer thought you were worth. Now, you can take your brand as a superstar employee to the internet, sharing your knowledge and building a following of people who are interested in your ideas and the projects you are working on. You can become an "internal evangelist" and a thought leader for your industry - all while working for someone else. This buzz about you in turn raises your profile and credibility, which then gives rise to the notion that no longer will you be an employee with limited options. You will now be a free agent operating no differently than the sports stars who are able to offer their skill to the highest bidder. This new free agent marketplace is already occurring in limited scope through the use of social media sites like LinkedIn that are dedicated to connecting people for business, as well as through sites like Facebook that allow you to share text, video, audio, and even create custom apps to let people know what you do. Not to mention, we are just now in the early stages of internet platforms and tools to make those kinds of connections work to your advantage. The future will give rise to more of what one of our clients, Chuck Boyce, calls the "Independent Executive". This label applies to someone who takes their knowledge from previous employment and sets out to create their own destiny, lifestyle, and income on their own terms. This philosophy takes personal branding to the next level, because it is not just important for the professional or the entrepreneur, but it is now very important for employees who are happy to work in someone else’s environment but who want to be recognized, both financially and emotionally, for their very real contributions. In the past, an unhappy employee had limited choices: ♣Do nothing but complain (with increasing disgruntlement) ♣Quit and go look for a new job (which has no guarantee of being any different) ♣Beg the boss for a change in circumstances (power, money, responsibility) without having any real say in the process Now, in the new "Branded Economy", you are all allowed to play the role you want in building your brand and building your value. If you don’t take control, you will risk becoming irrelevant and relegated to the position of a cog in someone else’s wheel. You will be at the mercy of a third party whose self-interest will always outweigh our own - just like the players in the sitcom The Office and the comic strip "Dilbert". You have the choice to BRAND OR DIE Our purpose in this blog is to uncover strategies, technologies, and case studies that will help you build your personal brand as a successful employee, entrepreneur, professional, or free agent, so you can thrive in any way you choose. Your motive may be increased profits, better lifestyle, more time to give back, or anything else that allows you to take control of your life. What you want is not for us to decide, but our insights will help you succeed in gaining control over your own destiny. We’ll be revealing the strategies that will help you build your personal brand so that you can achieve whatever it is you desire. So, bookmark this blog, share it with your friends, and stay tuned!

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  • Nick Nanton & JW Dicks

    Rasul, thanks for the great comments. I think you'll be refreshed when we start to unravel the 3 pillars of success in building your personal brand in the Branded Economy. Positioning, Credibility and Community. And while I do love how every consumer has a voice, we are really going to focus on how to run a business within this new context. While we all love to hear what our customers have to say, and give them some input, it's also important to note that a democracy does not a business run :). Someone with vision has to steer the ship, and all customer opinions will never converge fully to create a clear vision, that's up to the company and the vision of the CEO to take it where it needs to go!

    Thanks for your input too Paul! I hope we can have as successful a series as Tom had with that article. And the companies that can strike that careful balance are going to kill it in the years to come! The balance is the hardest part to find, though...

  • Nick Nanton & JW Dicks

    Rasul and Paul, I tried to respond to both of your comments for the past 2 days, but it won't let me! Will do asap!

  • Paul Copcutt

    Nick & JW - enjoyable post, look forward to future ones. This is almost a 2.0 version of Tom Peters Brand You article from FC in 1997!

    What excites me now are the companies who are starting to quickly realise the value of personal branding programs within their own organizations to retain and engage the people they want to continue to be successful. Almost like they are developing the "Independent Employee!"

    Just my toonies worth

  • Rasul Sha'ir

    Nick and JW,

    Great summation of where the world is. I think, though, that with the Brand or Die conclusion the opportunity was missed to get at the heart of today's emerging reality: the shifting of power to the customer. As Krishna said "personal branding" is nothing new, but what the new economy is affording is "brands"to birthed and re-imagined in new and radically different ways (able to be determined by the emerging power at the finger tips of all of us) than ever before. The "branded economy" spotlights a small slice of the new power of brands. A more significant way of looking at this is how does a brand (personal or otherwise) create a movement? The last 50 years have been about the individual, the hero, the all knowing leader, which is fine, but it's limiting and doesn't grow economy (which is what we need right now) which gets to the heart of the matter. In the 21st century a branded economy is not sustainable. A movement economy is. In today's market the most successful individuals are those who will build their personal brand around something bigger than themselves. A personal brand is only as powerful as its followers and followers are excited by, get behind, and support movements. Anything else will give you marginal success, at best.

  • Amit Pandey

    Good job Nick & Dicks,
    That's a great point indeed! In fact, I just finished reading "The Tipping Point" and have to agree that the social media is yet another epidemic; for that sake, a word of tweet (for example) epidemic or so... ;)
    Still the empowerment of people who weren't very effective connectors or rather who did not realize their strength / brand value, has become extremely accessible via social media where in any one can express their views and connect and bring about a change...
    The Best part is your TITLE, "Brand or Die"... Well said, indeed!!!
    - Amit Pandey

  • Nick Nanton & JW Dicks

    Nice work Beverly, and thanks for the kind words!

    Hey David, yes, unfortunately with technology we seem to also get increased demands on our time and attention. However, I think we all have to monitor this and take stock of what is necessary and what is just a time sucker.

    For example, I don't recommend jumping on the bandwagon of every new social media site that pops up, but you do have to pay attention to at least the ones that have become communication hubs in society.

    Most importantly, set up google alerts or another monitoring service so you can see what people are saying about you, then you can at least try to keep an eye on it and intervene when necessary.

  • David Folley

    Interesting article which I agree with completely. Just picking up on your comment regarding how online marketing will develop over the next few years. As a sole trader, my greatest fear for the future is: 'lack of time' to monitor and maintain my Personal Brand and still have a life! So for the future development of my web presence, I would like to see an apt to create 'more' time. I look forward to your future comments with interest.

  • Beverly Ewan

    This is fantastic Nick. Fast Company is one off my faves and the combination with is just great. Loved the article. I'm working on your personal branding philosophy as an Author "Uncovering Your Mental Treasure"

  • Nick Nanton & JW Dicks

    Mark you are dead on. It's always great to hear your viewpoint as it's always spot on.

    Krishna, there is nothing new about the art of personality branding, you're right, and again, what you're right on about is how it is now achievable on a mass scale for everyone due to technology and the platform we all have.

    Adam, wow, spot on. Now I remember why you're my hero. Thanks for breaking it down and making this post even MORE valuable to others. Can't wait to do some more work with you!

  • Adam Urbanski

    Great post, Nick and JW. It reminds me of Seth Godin’s message from his latest book “Tribes”. Truly, what used to be a concern of only executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals – meaning turning yourself into a Celebrity Brand – is now something everyone how has a desire to “get ahead”.

    You caught my attention with several terms like “internal evangelist”, “thought leader”, “independent executive”, and “free agent”. What’s interesting about people who qualify for one of those labels is at least three things:

    1) They aren’t shy about expressing their (often controversial) opinions – which of course is what makes them an evangelist and thought leader.

    2) They develop their own “Intellectual Capital” by documenting and packaging their ideas and skills into products, trainings, systems, tools, etc.

    3) They separate themselves from the traditional “Time Economy” – selling their time for money - and create amazing lifestyles by taking advantage of “Value Economy” and generating "Info Profits" – being compensated based on their contribution to their clients or their companies.

    In my own business I see that the clients who subscribe to the "Celebrity Branding" and "Info Profits" way of thinking are the ones who stand out about competitors, experience the fastest growth, and create their own "recession-proof" economy.

    Nick and JW, I look forward to your future posts and the valuable resources, tools, and ideas you’ll be sharing here.


  • Krishna De

    Personal branding is nothing new - just look back in history in terms of the people who stood out from the crowd in their generation.

    What is different today however is that we can now build our visibility and reputation and network strategically - very quickly using online platforms.

    We do however need to take a step back to consider what our goals are, what we want to be known for and how that impacts what to post, where to post and when to post.

    I look forward to reading your future articles.

  • Mark Eldridge

    Yes Nick it's amazing how fast everything is changing! Living in the Live Free or Die state New Hampshire - it's a motto to live by! If you're not moving forwards then you're going backwards! The beginning of the last decade many businesses didn't think they needed to get on the internet and thought they could keep operating as status quo only to discover they became obsolete. The playing field was leveled back then for those businesses that learned how to do business online and now once again with social media the playing field has been leveled for everyone. Great blog post! Yes everyone now has a platform and if they don't use it, someone else will be using it for them. Looking forward to more great posts.

  • Laura Denktash

    Thanks for a great post Nick and JW. I think I am actually one of those "Independent Executive!" I began branding myself as an author in late 2007. I did such a good job of it that I lost my corporate job in 2009! My boss realized he was no longer my target market! Personal Branding is powerful stuff! But I could not be happier, and I don't look back!

  • Eileen O'Neill

    Great article Nick and JW, You've made a great summary of the very recent past that with all the communications advances makes 5 years ago feel like the Digital Stone Age (DSA)! But many people are still trying to get their heads and hearts around the Social Media revolution.... However,not everyone is in the DSA - did you see this blog post by Charlie Oliver on "Heavenly Social Media Marketing" (hmmm... do I see a possible future book! ;-)

    I look forward to more of your posts!

  • Nick Nanton & JW Dicks

    We wonder the same thing Rachel! Thanks for the comment! We'll be giving you some insights as to where we think the New, Branded Economy will lead us in the next few years. Our next post is coming soon!

  • Rachel Gogos

    Well said Nick & JW. Life has changed so much in the past 5 years. The Internet has leveled the playing field of life, love and work in every aspect. I wonder what the next 5 years will bring.