Having a Personal Brand is Fine, But Making an Impact is Better

by Shannon Paul on January 14, 2010

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If you read a lot of the guidance around establishing an online presence, much of it revolves around this notion of building a personal brand. I’ve never embraced this principle because I feel it trivializes the human experience. Plus, I think the whole philosophy creates a lot of potential to confuse priorities with regard to relationships.

The best metaphor I can think of is that a personal brand should be the icing, not the cake.

Humans, Not Brands

  • Brands don’t love or experience love (though some might love a brand)
  • Brands don’t grieve or experience pain
  • Brands aren’t creative, ambitious or innovative (though many are the result of human creativity, ambition and innovation)
  • Brands don’t feel the human need for connection

Applying the rules of branding to help individuals play to their strengths and adapt an outer reflection of who they already are is a worthy exercise, but it’s not more important than developing real skill, experience and depth of character. A personal brand can’t substitute.

If what we want is fans, we have to be a fan first — not just look like one.

I know there are those who are very passionate about the importance of personal brands, but I believe that branding-applied-to-humans not only cheapens the outward expression of the human experience, it gives an inordinate amount of focus to the superficial stuff and less to the substance of what we have to offer and our impact on the world.

Having a consistent image that is aligned with our work is important, but substituting a glossy image for a lack of experience, or compensating for a narcissistic worldview won’t work well for long — online or offline.

How and Where to Make a Real Impact

Believe it or not, I was already coincidentally thinking a lot lately about how best to make an impact in my life and work before reading Jonathan Fields’ article about the question of impact earlier today.

But, I was inspired and convinced I was on the right track when I read the story he shared about meeting Srikumar Rao, author of Are You Ready to Succeed? and founder of Creativity and Personal Mastery Institute (CPMI).

This is the beauty of serendipity that an online presence filled with sincere relationships and connection has the power to bring about.

Business is still about relationships. If you don’t have relationships, meaningful relationships built on trust, you have nothing. The same thing cannot be said about a personal brand; even on the Internet.

See, what Jonathan was talking about with Srikumar Rao, was impact. Not the impact of a brand, but of his life’s work.

The opportunity to make a real impact in the level of authenticity we humans share with each other in the act of commerce — THIS is what inspired me to start learning about social media in the first place — not the supposed rules of engagement, not the opportunity to micromanage my online reputation, or tell others what they should or shouldn’t tweet about. And, it was definitely not the chance to adopt a persona that establishes who I am as a brand, but rather, the opportunity to bring more humanity to the PR work I was already doing and to share how its done. I wanted to make it safer to bring humanity to our work.

Establishing a new dogmatic approach filled with rules and guidelines on what you should say and who you should know in social networks has never appealed to me and it still doesn’t, though you’re free to try to convince me otherwise.

With this work, I was drawn to the opportunity to help businesses use social technology to connect with customers and stakeholders in a more meaningful way.

I was also drawn to the beautiful, unsettling chaos that was beginning to take root in the hearts and minds of those involved in business communication and traditional journalism. I also saw an opportunity to help this process.

I thought I could show that I could be human, share my thoughts and opinions; to grow a voice that was flawed, but getting better all the time, and uniquely my own.

I thought I could use my own life as an experiment in this manner in order to prove this theory — that I might be an example of someone who has committed to sharing their expertise, opinions and life experience online, and that I could actually benefit from it and develop real skill — so far this has been the case. I could then apply what I learned about online interactions and the technology that goes with it to benefit business.

If I had listened to the personal branding experts when I was about to start down this path, I would have never started writing on this blog to begin with. Rather than haphazardly throwing this site up in a manner of a couple hours, I would have waited until everything was perfect and perhaps eventually started to post and then wondered where everyone was.

Instead, I started posting first in order to develop my voice and to get comfortable exposing myself so much. I trusted I would figure out the rest over time, because the most important thing I could do was share my voice and learn, and I wasn’t going to learn this stuff in a book.

My plan was that if I could just share my voice — my self, people would show up eventually. And, thankfully, you did. Sometimes you even say something when you’re here and we go back and forth a bit. I love that.

Almost every time I post you teach me something, whether it’s something you say in a comment, something you share somewhere else, something you ignore or forgive. I am still surprised by you even though a lot of the time I find some of you entirely predictable — in a good way. In a way that makes me feel like I know you.

From a personal branding perspective, there’s a lot that I do wrong:

  • I still don’t own name as a domain. If you visit ShannonPaul.com you will visit a site devoted to Russian tea cookies that I am totally unaffiliated with.
  • My blog is hosted on WordPress.com (not self hosted, although I’m just about ready to make the move)
  • I have a weird picture in my header that causes some people a lot of confusion
  • My blog blatantly lacks any real user experience design

Yet, you show up; not tens of thousands of you at a time, but plenty.

I’m not telling you this because I think you should disregard all the advice, but instead to use myself as an example to tell you that doing everything “right” is only one option. There are many paths, and if you wait for everything to be perfect before you show up and participate, you will have missed thousands of opportunities to establish your voice, connect with others, and make an impact.

Lately I’ve been restless. I forgot what I started showing up to do here in the first place. Thankfully, you along with several others, whether it was intentional or not, reminded me of my mission, and for this I am grateful.

“Don‟t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one‟s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” – Viktor Frankl

The above quote is included in the curriculum document for Srikumar Rao’s course on Creativity and Personal Mastery that was only recently made available to anyone other than Columbia MBA students. Something I found as a result of investigating into the little question of impact over at Jonathan Fields’ place.

Forget About Influence

Feel free to obsess over your personal brand all day long and think about how you too might become an influential taste-maker. Let me know how that adds up.

Instead, I’m going to be working out how I can make a real and lasting impact for myself and everyone I encounter. How’s that for a personal brand?

What inspires you to move forward on your path? What is the impact you hope to make along the way?

Photo Credit: ~jjjohn~

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

January 14, 2010 Helen South 1

I’ve been puzzling about this for ages. I’ve had my personal domain name and even web hosting for YEARS and it still lies dormant. But today I figured it out.

It’s not about brand, or money-making opportunities, affiliate marketing or pageview-funneling.

It’s about sharing ideas about things that matter. Things I care about, and that maybe others care about too. You can’t make a connection if you’re just going through the motions.


January 14, 2010 Shannon Paul 2

Thanks, Helen. If using your name to build an affiliate site isn’t for you, it’s not for you. I think finding your passion and connecting with others is the important thing. In my experience, the tools and the teachers show up when you finally commit to your goals.


January 15, 2010 Helen 3

I guess if you do work with integrity and passion, then the ‘brand’ actually evolves from that .

I’m actually interested in using affiliate marketing and so forth – but I needed to figure out what the driving force was first – does that make sense?


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 4

Absolutely makes sense. Sonia Simone (@soniasimone on Twitter) over at Copyblogger (and @Copyblogger in general) is a great resource for helping people tap their passion to make the revenue/marketing stuff work for them in a sincere way. Liz Strauss over at successful-blog.com is also a source of a lot of inspiration on that front, as is Jonathan Fields, referenced above.


January 14, 2010 Ari Herzog 5

If you want to talk about branding, humanity or not, consider my writing is at ariwriter.com and everything else, which these days is an information portal only, is at ariherzog.com.

But once upon a time, ariherzog.com was much much more. Things change, folder structures get deleted, and we learn to do whatever makes us happy.


January 14, 2010 Tim Bursch 6

Very well said. Underneath all the linking, tweeting, and blogging are still real people. People that have fears and dreams. I’m hearing you say we need to be here though and use our unique voice. Just maybe we should be focusing on doing great work and helping others, instead of polishing our brands.
Keep up the impactful writing. It matters.


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 7

Thanks, Tim – your words are appreciated. :)


January 14, 2010 Angela Shetler 8

You’re right — it’s not just creating a logo or registering a domain name, but about putting the “personal” into it. I read a lot about personal branding, and occasionally write about ones that resonate. For me, those examples have always been ones that people put themselves into, like you do with your writing. Thanks for an insightful post!


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 9

Thanks, Angela. The personal is important. I just see a lot of people interpreting the personal branding push as being very surface-oriented and overly image conscious. It’s important to recognize how others perceive you, but I think there needs to be a balance. Make sense?


January 14, 2010 Owen Greaves 10

Making business human agian is probably the best way to say this, but we all want to be treated with respect, be valued, and be fully utilized.

Making Brands human is a difficult thing to do, the truth is, I attach the experience I had with your brand as whether it was human or not.

I have said a million times me thinks, “How Many People Are Better Off Because You Lived”?

That can be lived at every level including a Brand.


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 11

I’m not sure we’re talking about the same things. Injecting human characteristics and archetypes into branding for companies is a great practice, but people focusing on being brands rather than being good humans — not so much. I guess that was the point I was trying to make.

Do brands impact humans and the way we live? Absolutely. But any human that strives to be a brand first and a real person with a mission second isn’t going to leave much of an impact.


January 14, 2010 Peter Chee 12

Shannon, you just spill it out there with warm candor.

Thanks for sharing that link to “A question of Impact”. That’s one where I’ll have to dwell on that for a little while.

I listened to Daniel Pink (author of Drive) on Monday and there’s been one question in my head all week: “Was I better today than yesterday?” I find this question ties in to your question of where to make a real impact. This is a question I ask myself in all aspects of my life, family, and work.

I do enjoy your writing, it’s full of thought.


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 13

Thank you, Peter!
I’ve also been hearing a lot of great things about Daniel Pink. I appreciate recommendation as well as the kind words.


January 15, 2010 Janet Clarey 14

“From a personal branding perspective, there’s a lot that I do wrong.” I’m glad to hear you say that. I was talking with a small group of business owners earlier this week and, while preparing for my brief presentation at their meeting, I couldn’t help but think some of what I was planning on saying was do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do.’ (What would they think if they went to my sight and read some F-bomb posts?) There is no right way. How boring that would be. Make an impact. That’s the right way.


January 15, 2010 Geoff Livingston 15

Heya, great post. And thank God people are not drinking personal brand kool-aid everywhere on the internets. You know I agree, that we’re here to do something, not build our egos up.

I do use my own domain geofflivingston.com for my personal blogging. I kind of saw it like I am so opinionated that I would have a Shel Israel incident at some point with a troll like Loren Feldman using my domain to attack me. Better that I use it and/or own it than someone else.


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 16

Yes – I know you and I are pretty well aligned on the whole personal branding phenomenon — it’s probably all that literature we read in college, fellow English major. Although Loren is probably my favorite troll, I totally understand the Shel Israel example. :) Good thing my doppelganger on the Interwebz is only making cookies!


January 15, 2010 Stephanie Baffone 17

Hey Shannon-
please don’t take this the wrong way but…I am in LOVE with you! Thank you for stepping put and making it clear that brands limit intimacy and without intimacy and connection business among others things does not reach full potential. As a therapist and a blossoming writer I’ve heard it all… Brand-brand-brand! Orhewise people won’t know that or who you really are. Well, finances limit me to simple interaction with others and indeed they are coming. I need to be my authentic self, speak from my heart and trust the rest will follow and so far so good.
I appreciate your courage to step
out and share your voice…it inspires me to keep on keepin on!
Ps sorry for any typos…still trying to figure put this IPhone!


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 18

Thank you for the great big laugh. I appreciate the sentiment very much. Oh, and I also understand the typo issue with the iPhone. Having always been a pretty good speller, I’ve had to adjust to sending things out that are um, less than perfect ;)


January 15, 2010 eclawson 19

Props for this post, Shannon. No one else has articulated a “thanks but no thanks” to branding quite as compellingly. I’ve tried myself, but you said it better. Thanks!


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 20

Thanks for the props. I’ve been stewing on this for awhile if it makes you feel better. :)


January 15, 2010 Elmer 21

My colleague and I discuss this very subject from time to time. She has a book blog and doesn’t do anything “right” yet she has strong readership and some very loyal fans. She is a fan, too, of those who follow the same genre of books she follows.

She makes an impact on her readers, and she does it her way to ensure she enjoys what she does and has a life outside her blog. I think she epitomizes what Shannon describes here and backs up those ideas very nicely. It certainly gives me food for thought.


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 22


Great example – this friend of yours. I think the lesson here is that rules, when served as guidelines can offer a type of blueprint, but rules served as do’s and don’ts can be stifling and lead to a lot of fear and procrastination. That kind of stifling leads to a lot of mediocre content that sticks to safe subject matter aligned with popular opinion.


January 15, 2010 Veronica Sopher 23

Shannon — Thank you for this post. I’m so relieved. Once in a while, I wonder if people won’t take me seriously because I don’t seem to have my “personal brand” act together, but I’d much rather spend an afternoon meeting and learning about people than making my blog look pretty. You’re absolutely right, business is about relationships. People knew that and lived it before mass media advertising. I hope this social media thing helps everyone get back to that.


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 24

Your comment expresses the very reason I thought I should write this post.

Anyone who doesn’t take you seriously because you don’t have your “personal brand” act together isn’t worth worrying about.

I’m confident saying a lot of the people who are successful in this space wouldn’t care either, including Chris Brogan, Jason Falls, Liz Strauss, Valeria Maltoni, Amber Naslund, Jay Baer, Scott Monty, Beth Harte, Andrew Hyde… I could go on. From what I know of each of these people personally is that they care a lot more about what you have to contribute. Sure they’ll probably support any of your efforts to tweak things and improve as you go, but people who dismiss others for superficial reasons are, well, superficial. Don’t worry about them. You just keep learning and focus on your passion. Let me know if I can help.


January 15, 2010 Karl 25

The phrase has always been a pet hate with me but by some shocking coincidence I’m putting together something that is around this.

I’ve never seen the personal brand thing as owning your name url, or making stuff look pretty. As usual, things need to be good enough and the content counts and where and when you get involved with real people. Pointless having a url when you talk about the fluff in your belly button all day.

May be people started using it as a way for marketing folk to understand individuals online. I have no idea, but it is obvious that people have reduced it down to a logo and a set of colours.

The thing is that everyone has a “brand” offline but we tend to call that style and/or personality. Hopefully some of that comes through in online interactions and what I hope people try to do… just be themselves.


January 15, 2010 Brandon Chesnutt 26

Good stuff, Shannon.

For what it’s worth, you’ve definitely made an impact on me. During our very first conversation at BlackFinn in Royal Oak WAY back in September 2008, you said something that I’ll never forget…

“You have to know your community.”

One year later, organizing events and conferences here in Detroit has become my passion.

So, go ahead and add my name to the list. :)



January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 27

Thank you — that’s very sweet. And, yes, I love what you’re doing back in Detroit. I miss you and others in that community very much.


January 15, 2010 josh lauritch 28

this is very refreshing to read! ‘personal branding’ happens in the best way when you’re just being yourself, putting others first, making an impact and not worrying about becoming a big deal. that’s a basic principle of life i think. people are drawn to that.

love your blog! thanks for your perspective.


January 15, 2010 Shannon Paul 29


I appreciate you sharing that perspective, but as someone who’s done a bit of branding strategy and given the practice a bit of study, branding is anything but just being yourself. Sure, there’s a certain amount of aligning brand with who the company is, collectively, but people are so much more than brands — at least I hope they are.


January 15, 2010 marc meyer 30

Shannon, about 3 months ago I did a deck in which one of mys slides that: “your personal brand will only last as long as the latest Google update.. but one’s works, one’s contributions and one’s ability to share with others will last longer than any Google indexing. The point being that the sooner we all get past assigning credibility based on popularity, the more of a chance that we’ll have to focus on the truly wonderful things that people have done that get swallowed up by those that are masterful in crafting their faux brands…


January 15, 2010 Galen 31

You built a blog the way anyone should start a new venture – test out some theories quickly and inexpensively, collect feedback, learn, and test out new theories.


January 17, 2010 Nikki Stephan 32


You are so honest and genuine, and those attributes continue to shine through in your writing.

I can see where those who tout the importance of creating your personal brand are coming from. However, rather than finding the perfect way to describe my personal brand to others, I prefer to let my actions speak for who I am.

I hope to light many fires along the path I’m traveling, but mainly I just want to be helpful. The people who inspire me are those who do just that…help others by spreading what they learn and encouraging them to be great. Seems like a pretty good personal brand to me. ;)


{ 7 trackbacks }

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  • Patricia Longhurst , Having a Personal Brand is Fine, But Making an Impact is Better February 21, 2010
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