What if you threw a revolution and hardly anyone came?
When Fast Company published Tom Peters's "The Brand Called You" in the summer of 1997 — its Tide-inspired cover aglow on newsstands and office coffee tables — it seemed we'd all soon be in the streets, happily showcasing our differences and cashing in. Peters argued that individuals had to fashion themselves after corporate brands: becoming CEO of Me Inc. and marketing themselves, ultimately "creating their own microequivalent of the Nike swoosh."
Peters's anthem of self created a firestorm of discussion — and it wasn't all high praise. Although some readers offered Brand You testimonials, others expressed outright fear of the monster Peters unleashed ("The first time I see an office wall adorned with a glossy headshot and a personal 'mission statement,' I will lose my enthusiasm for your magazine"). Still others sat on the fence, endorsing the theory of personal branding but questioning the feasibility of relentless self-promotion for already-busy people.
They were all right. Today, Me Inc.'s most visible acolytes seem to be the wannabe guru class of "experts" and consultants peddling commonsense bromides in ever more execrable books. (Judging by the mountain of unopened books in Fast Company's offices, this is no longer a good way to stand out.) And Brand You has undeniably worked for the two people whose ideas formed the double helix of our cover package. Certainly no one asks, "Whatever happened to that nice boy Tom Peters?" He found his swoosh, appropriating the exclamation point as his personal logo for a megabuck consulting and speaking practice. Scott Bedbury, the brand guru behind Nike and then Starbucks who outlined eight brand-building principles in the issue, left Starbucks the next year, launched a consultancy, wrote a book (featuring a blurb from Tom Peters!), and is represented by the prestigious Leigh Bureau for speaking gigs.
But for everyone else, Me Inc.'s brand hasn't aged well. It's the Bromo Seltzer of personal-development concepts. "The personal-branding revolution didn't happen," laments personal-branding consultant and author Peter Montoya. "Branding is too abstract, and it's not part of people's everyday thinking." Adds Karl D. Speak, another personal-branding consultant and author (!): "Peters's article had lots of interesting stuff in it, but it's hard to apply and the idea went to the back burner."
If you're looking to apportion blame, look no further than your employer. Corporations don't want Lord of the Flies playing out in their cubicles, with an army of personal brands battling the corporate one. Individuals haven't wholly bought in either: It's often more politic and, well, nicer, to share credit for successes than to throw colleagues under a bus. Even Peters, who unsurprisingly argues that Brand You is more relevant than ever, acknowledges today that your brand must work with your team's and, ultimately, with the corporation's.
That modern relationship between Me Inc. and Paycheck Inc. plays out at Cisco Systems. In the Brand You issue, we featured Cisco in "Hire Great People Fast." Today, the router king is more concerned with the personal growth of employees already on the payroll. "Sixty percent of employees have the skills needed for every job," says senior VP of human resources Kate DCamp. "When it was hire, hire, hire, we were limiting [their] opportunities." Cisco now uses e-learning to assess, for example, an engineering employee's interest in a marketing position. The company lets people virtually shadow jobs they'd like and then self-train at their own pace. When jobs open up, Cisco HR can easily search for qualified internal candidates. It's Brand You with an Intel Inside tag slapped on. Not quite a revolution, but it beats thinking of yourself as a box of detergent.
"As of this moment, you're going to think of yourself differently! . . . You don't 'belong to' any company for life, and your chief affiliation isn't to any particular 'function.' You're not defined by your job title and you're not confined by your job description. Starting today, you are a brand."
— Tom Peters, August/September 1997
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.