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The Unified Model of Personal Branding

This post was published simultaneously on To view the discussion it generated there, feel free to jump over there after you finish reading the post.

Two Things You Need to Learn from this Post:

  1. Character is at your core, image & brand are what you project to others, and reputation is how others perceive you. While you can control the first two, you cannot control the third.
  2. The human mind is continually seeking to identify discrepancies between what others say they are and what they actually are. If the image you project is different than your character, the gap between the two will buckle and collapse under scrutiny.

The Unified Model of Personal Branding

A More Detailed Exploration:
The subject of personal branding fascinates me primarily because it evokes such strong reactions from people. It first caught my attention in late 2008 with Dan Schawble and others promoting personal branding and Geoff Livingston and others railing against it.

ScottyHendoAvatarAt first, I was geared up to tee off against personal branding. Heck, I even had one of our designers whip together an absurd personal brand for me to use with irony and sarcasm as my Twitter avatar and background. Why? Personal brands seem to be full of hubris and egotism while being devoid of teamwork (e.g. Terrell Owens). Who likes to be around people who just look out for themselves and who only care about what others think of them?

Surprisingly, as I discussed the concept with my MediaSauce colleagues and gave deeper thought, I began to appreciate how highly nuanced the concept is. As I moved on to other ideas and projects, my attention to the subject drifted. However, in the back of my mind I’ve kept thinking about personal branding.

Does Reputation Trump Branding?
Last week, when I read Chris Brogan’s tweet commenting on Geoff Livingston’s new blog post about personal branding, I clicked the link and read the post. Since Geoff has been one of the most vocal critics of personal branding, I was curious what he had to say that might be new.

While some might get distracted by his acknowledgment that he does have a personal brand or his claim that it “accelerated [his company’s] reputation for social media,” I found the discussion around brand and reputation most relevant.

In short, he encouraged people not to confuse personal branding with reputation and made the case that reputation matters more. In his opinion, those who are using social media to project their personal brands would be better served building their reputations for accomplishing things.

While I don’t disagree with this idea, I think it is an incomplete assessment because it fails to acknowledge a deeper truth: Character is more important than reputation, brands, and image.

But before I explain why, let’s consider branding and its relevance to broadcast and social media.

What is a Brand Anyway?
Despite what the man behind the curtain wants you to believe, brands are artificial constructs designed to evoke emotional reactions. They came about when people began to trade goods and services over longer distances with people they’d never met. Prior to that, people had plenty of opportunity to interact with the other person and form a judgment of their character and value to them.

heinz-57-varieties-200x200To fill the void created by the absence of these personal interactions, the brand was born. Through consistent imagery, colors, tonality, etc., merchants could ensure goods and services would be remembered by those who were in the market for their products. H.J. Heinz’s pickle emblem and Coca-Cola’s signature bottle are examples of this.

Over the years, branding has developed into a complex science and created interesting niche professions and firms. The process and cost to develop the new Pepsi logo was an eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the inner workings of the branding sausage factory.

Social Media Fuels Personal Brands
Personal branding is a natural result of giving people who’ve been bombarded by branding with easy-to-use tools to project their presence across the Internet. Those uninitiated in the field are fusing their perception of branding with what people have done for years to maintain their personal images. That’s why you’re seeing the digital versions of wearing the same fresh cut flower in your lapel or always wearing the same color combination.

Why Personal Brands Matter
Now that everyone has a voice, joined the conversation, and [insert your favorite social media cliché here], it’s getting awfully crowded and noisy online. Projecting yourself online with consistency and clarity can help you stand out. While some might scoff at the notion of personal branding, it’s hard to argue against the goal of wanting to be associated with the value you think you bring to the world.

Let’s just acknowledge the elephant in the room: personal branding is here and will be around for the foreseeable future. Knowing that, we better understand how it relates to reputation and character.

An Introduction to the Unified Model of Personal Branding
With these underlying concepts explored, it’s time to introduce a unified model to help people be successful personal brand managers.

At Your Core: Character
The Unified Model of Personal BrandingThe values and principles by which you act say a lot more about you than the image and reputation you try to maintain. Your character is substantive and drives your actions. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

Projecting Yourself: Image and Branding
Even when we lived in small villages, image has played a role in our social lives. The way we dress, the things we own, where we live, who we hang out with, where we work, and how we carry ourselves project an image. That will never change.

As commerce grew over greater distances and people were able to buy goods and services from faraway place, a void was created between buyer & producer. To fill that void, the concept of branding was created to personify a product or service. While many definitions exist, let’s simply define branding as providing a consistent experience to evoke a desired emotional response. Personal branding is applying corporate branding on the individual level.

What Others Think: Reputation
As social creatures, we rely upon others to survive. What others think of us determines our ability to achieve what we want in social settings. Therefore, reputation matters greatly.

Interestingly, reputation is the only one of the three elements you cannot control – no matter how hard you try. That’s because reputation lies in the hearts and minds of others.

Humans seek discrepancies between what others say and do. From these micro-observations (many of which are subconscious), we make judgments of all kinds. And, when we share these observations and judgments with others they form into a highly dynamic cloud we call reputation.

Managing Brands and Reputations in the Interconnected Age
The simplest path to success is to project an image/brand that is directly aligned with your character. Trouble comes when you try to pretend to be something you’re not – that’s true for corporate brands and personal brands. If there is something different (or nothing) at the core, the image/brand you build around it will buckle and implode upon itself eventually.

With broadcast media, there are only so many channels and none of them are inherently two-way or allow for peer-to-peer interactions. In the broadcast era, branding was powerful since it was very easy to control the images you projected and the experiences everyday people had with your brand could only be shared with their limited, local networks.

As online and social media have spread, the playing field has shifted. The ability to share each of our observations and judgments with each other has grown exponentially. Not only does the little boy know when the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, he can quickly tweet about it and post photos and videos to his Facebook page and blog – spreading it almost instantaneously.

Greater Scrutiny Increases the Value of Character
Whether you are a corporate brand or a personal brand, this greater scrutiny increases the importance of aligning your image/brand with who you are at your core. Character matters now and will continue to matter more. That’s why you are seeing savvy corporations increasing their commitment to being good corporate citizens (e.g. Timberland, Starbucks, P&G, and Target).

So if you are building a corporate brand or your own personal brand, the best use of your resources is to clearly define who you are at the core and stay true to that. Those who invest in building an image/brand that is different than the core will find the perils of building a house on a foundation of sand.

What are Your Thoughts?
What do you think of personal brands? Does character really matter? Is there an element I’ve missed?

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7 Responses to “The Unified Model of Personal Branding”

  1. Dan Schawbel Says:

    Scott, this is very very well done. You obviously know where I stand on the topic of personal branding, but I like how you captured various opinions, including your own.

  2. Brandon R Allen Says:


    I have read a ton of articles on the subject and can honestly say that this the freshest article I have read on the topic in months. I think the idea that your brand starts with you and how you conduct yourself is overlooked. The bottom line is that image does matter and being the best person you can be for yourself is important so long as you’re doing it to be a better person to mankind.

  3. Mike Magan Says:

    While I agree with your points I think you are discounting the influence of perception on reality, no matter how real or artificial it is. If the interaction with a personal brand is short, say the result of a Google search before or after a business meeting or an interview.

    “If there is something different (or nothing) at the core, the image/brand you build around it will buckle and implode upon itself eventually.”

    Eventually when? Weeks? Months, Years? Think of all the people satisfied with the first page of Google results. Search results become a reality in and of itself and wether it is aligned closely with actual reality doesn’t matter to anyone but the subject.

  4. Scott Henderson Says:

    @DanSchawbel – glad to have your comment. Feel free to share with your community.

    @Brandon – I appreciate the kind words.

    @Mike Magan – That’s a good question about when. I think it’s situational since it will depend upon how many touch points a person has with that brand (corporate or personal). Each interaction offers an opportunity to reinforce or diminish your perception of that brand/image.

  5. The Unified Model of Personal Branding « Rally the Cause Says:

    [...] 19 by Scott Henderson This post was published simultaneously on To view the discussion it generated there, feel free to jump over there after you finish reading the [...]

  6. Joost Derks Says:

    @Mike Magan – You truly have a point here, but how do you know, as a brand manager, if the interaction will be short enough to be sustainable?

  7. Phil Says:

    The truly wonderful and scary thing about the evolving Internet is that it’s getting real, up-close and personal!

    You could and can hide but you’ll be inconspicuous by your non-action and not being found. Not having an online reputation is a reputation and most likely not an advantageous one. Do you really have a choice anymore?

    Yes, of course you can be a hermit but if you’re aiming to go places and make waves you’re going to need to play this game, so you might as well, play it well.

    Now, because things are getting so cosy, you can’t really hide your true essence/character for very long, you’ll be sniffed out sooner, rather than later (have you ever tried being something or someone you’re not in a video).

    The only way forwards is transparency and authenticity, which ultimately means wearing yourself on your sleeve (if that makes sense). Secondly, I agree that the motto of the day should be ‘add value and be useful’; it’s a lot prettier that self-promotion and it goes a lot further too.

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