Category: Branding

Burned Out on Your Personal Brand

Tom was recently interviewed by Emma Goldberg for her New York Times article on personal branding. Read the full article below:

Younger workers embraced the idea of a personal brand as a way to get ahead, and carve out some power and security in their careers. But posting through it has its drawbacks.

By Emma Goldberg
Oct. 20, 2022

Kahlil Greene’s father works as an accountant and his mother does something involving “administration,” though he doesn’t know the details. His parents rarely spoke about the goings-on of the office when he was growing up. His mother sat in a cubicle farm — he remembers this from “take your child to work day” — and then she or his father picked him up from the Boys & Girls Club and they talked about other topics, like “Judge Judy” or Serena Williams. Their work never bled into their personal lives.

That made it tricky for Mr. Greene, 22, to explain to his family why he had turned down a job offer from McKinsey to build his online brand as “the Gen Z historian.” He has drawn over 500,000 followers on TikTok, LinkedIn and Instagram to his posts about history and politics; his money comes from brand deals and public speaking. To Mr. Greene, it seems natural for his source of income to be something all consuming, something he thinks about while falling asleep and talks about nonstop with friends.

“There’s no clear delineation between my work life and my personal life,” he said. “Sometimes it can be exhausting.”

Mr. Greene, in other words, finds his job and self inextricable. Like many other millennial and Gen Z workers, he is his brand. This can feel freeing. It can also feel grueling.

In interviews with more than a dozen people who have built lucrative personal brands, they shared that nothing made the benefits and drawbacks of it clear like the pandemic did.

Since 2020, many workers have had the chance to redefine their expectations of employers. More than 40 million Americans quit their jobs last year; most hopped or swapped roles, seeking higher pay. Remote work helped some to prioritize their needs outside the office, while a tight labor market allowed many to assert bolder workplace demands. For many people, leverage meant the ability to create emotional distance from their employers, to draw stricter lines between who they are and what they do.

That also meant a new set of challenges for those who work for themselves: It’s tough to find boundaries when employed by “Me Inc.”

For the millions of people who monetize their online presence in some form, the downsides of this type of work are becoming more clear, especially in a moment when so many are rethinking their careers. Building a personal brand blurs the divide between an identity and a job. It puts pressure on families. It demands that every intimate experience is mined for professional content.

“It’s very hard to disconnect when you are building something that is personal and also a necessary component of your economic life,” said Katie Sullivan, associate professor of communications at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. “It’s ‘I will co-opt my own self in service of this labor.’”

Jesse Israel, for example, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, has a mindfulness brand. Mr. Israel, 37, ran a record label for years, which took off with MGMT, before the stress drove him toward meditation. He realized he had a knack for leading guided sessions and he began to cultivate a public profile, drawing thousands of people to community meet-ups that he called the Big Quiet. His soothing, emotive persona landed him on tour with Oprah. Then personal life interrupted his personal brand: During the pandemic, Mr. Israel began to suffer from debilitating depression.

“I’m sitting at the dining room table with my mom, crying,” he recalled, describing a period of loneliness, illness and career instability. “I’m like, ‘Mom, people think of me as a mindfulness expert and I feel like I’ve lost my mind.”

Mr. Israel, whose mental health has now recovered, experienced a challenge unique to the upside-down working world of the 21st century: His work relied on his personality. When his sense of self lurched, his work went with it.

Unlike other professional phenomena, personal branding announced its formation loudly and clearly (on brand). Tom Peters, a management writer, popularized the term in a 1997 Fast Company article, later linking the idea of brand building to the all-American entrepreneurial spirit of Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“We are C.E.O.s of our own companies: Me Inc.,” Mr. Peters wrote 25 years ago. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”

Mr. Peters, in a recent interview, said he had realized that with organizational bureaucracies disappearing, workers could no longer trust the prospect of a steady career ascension. “Slowly climbing the ladder by sucking up and then sucking up some more wasn’t going to work,” he said. “You were as good as your ability to get your boss to think you were the second coming.”

For decades, heightening business competition had prompted corporate brands to distinguish themselves by selling not just a product or aesthetic but a story. Apple’s “1984” television advertisement, inspired by George Orwell’s book, was about the freeing futuristic powers of a Mac computer; Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign positioned the beverage as community glue. Mr. Peters remembered that his own 1997 article was published in Fast Company with a chic advertisement for Procter & Gamble soap.

Then, as brands that sold warm and fuzzy stories went through rounds of layoffs, and shareholder-focused policies erased worker trust in their employers, belief in the power of branding began to shift from the company to the employee. Management gospel, like Mr. Peters’s, urged workers to cement their professional reputations by developing their own brands.

Dan Lair, an associate dean at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, studies the troubles of personal branding. His interest in the subject came from his experience being laid off. Mr. Lair, at age 25, got a job in corporate marketing. It wasn’t the most thrilling work in the world, but it was a way to make rent in Missoula where, he noted, “you can’t eat the scenery.” Mr. Lair was hired in the summer of 1999. By the winter of 2000, after the company’s acquisition by an East Coast-based firm, he was fired.

“I felt dumb,” he recalled. “This was a company that very much branded itself as a family. It was built around two dynamic founders. A couple months before we’d had this big retreat at a summer camp that I had been to as a kid. There was this sense of shock that this could actually happen.”

But he was equally disillusioned by the notion that workers should have to steel themselves for economic uncertainty by building personal brands that would make them indispensable. It felt to him like what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called an individualized solution to a social problem. And Mr. Lair did what many people do when they end up citing sociology to explain phenomena in their daily lives: He went to graduate school, and studied personal branding.

For some entrepreneurs, brand building at first is more dopamine than drudgery; there’s a thrill in the full exposure it demands.
Alexa Heller, a millennial who built a yoga teacher brand, used to feel it was important to be fully candid with her Instagram followers. She posted about making efforts to stay celibate, taking months off from sex and dating. She posted about insecurities bred by her acne. She attracted thousands of followers on Instagram, which she also used to boost her yoga classes, by treating her followers like close friends.

She felt the angst of compressing every strand of her personality, from the professional to the highly personal, into a single persona. Friends sometimes questioned whether various members of her online audience — relatives, business associates, potential suitors — might judge her ultra openness. “One of my girlfriends was like, ‘Well, if a guy reads your profile he’s going to be freaked out,’” she recalled.

When she switched career paths in 2020, from yoga to real estate, seeking more financial security, she realized that there was a different kind of rush in maintaining boundaries. She hid some of her old posts. She started to share online only about work. She still wrote down reflections on anxieties and ambitions — but now in her diary.

When everything is content

Modern interpretations of the “brand called you” present a trade-off of sorts. Workers are no longer reliant on the fecklessness of an employer that could at any moment pivot, downsize or cut wages. There are heaps of corporate data pointing to those possibilities: Over roughly the last four decades, typical hourly worker pay rose 17.5 percent while productivity rose by nearly 62 percent and C.E.O. compensation by 1,460 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

But with personal branding, the line between who people are and what they do disappears. Everything is content; every like, follow and comment is a professional boost.

“It sort of shifted the responsibility for those kinds of disruptions from particular companies to the person themselves,” Mr. Lair said. “It’s sort of, ‘Now you are the one who’s supposed to solve this problem.’”

And many of the workers whose careers were shaped by the rise of personal branding are feeling its growing pains.
Kanchan Koya, 43, has seen the pressures that her brand breeds for her family, for example. Ms. Koya’s brand, Chief Spice Mama, which has over 230,000 Instagram followers, offers nutritional tips that draw from her history of gastrointestinal illness. She knows that her followers engage excitedly with her more intimate captions, so she mines some of her own experiences for content.

But recently she has begun to bristle at the responses that evokes. She received direct messages asking her why she is taking photos of her baby daughter instead of focusing on mothering. Her husband has asked her not to include him on her Instagram; he’s part of her personal life, but doesn’t want to be part of the public brand.

“I’ll be super honest right now, where I’m at with social media — if my business wasn’t intertwined with my social media presence, I would be on it 90 percent less,” Ms. Koya said. “I just don’t feel like it’s natural for us as humans to have so many people in our business.”

Plenty feel that public exposure isn’t worth the toll. Sadhbh O’Sullivan, 29, a British-Irish journalist, stopped using her Twitter. The chance to boost her writings didn’t justify the revulsion of selling her personal life, Carrie Bradshaw style, and she’s made peace with the twinge of envy she feels for friends trumpeting their talents to land flashy new jobs.

Sarai Atchison, 25, built a comedy social media brand during the pandemic after finding herself addicted to watching YouTube personalities like the movie commentator “Dylan Is in Trouble.” But in March she decided to take a job doing promotions for the Colorado Rockies. She found an unexpected relief in work that doesn’t draw on the emotional ups and downs of her own life, from heartbreak to social anxiety. The coming-of-age aches stay in her journal, without prompting worries that discretion is undermining her ambitions.

“Putting yourself out there is cool, and at the same time, in the back of your head you don’t know how somebody is going to take your brand,” Ms. Atchison said. “It’s hard not to take it personally because it’s you.”

And some are tempering their exposure by sharing with social media followers more thoughtfully. Maybe not every breakup and depressive episode warrants public translation. Mr. Israel, for example, has embraced an approach that his mentor called “sharing from the scar, not the wound.” When Mr. Israel’s feelings are raw, he waits before conveying them to his audience of tens of thousands.

“When work was directly tied to my identity and sense of self-worth, I would ride these crazy waves,” Mr. Israel said. “I started to realize how important it was to build my sense of self, my self-worth and an identity around things that made me special as Jesse and not my work.”

Even Mr. Peters, the original brand evangelist, is dismayed by the extremes to which people have taken his message. “Use social media,” he said. “But you have to have something to talk about.”

He recognizes that his own brand is outdated — or as he put it: “I’m talking as an incredibly old fart.”

Managing Anxiety and Stress

Stay balanced in the face of stress and anxiety with our collection of tools and advice.

Original article.

Why It's Time To Compete on What You're Thinking

[Our guest blogger is Ian Sanders. He runs an ideas consultancy where he creates and delivers ideas to solve challenges, facilitate growth, and help businesses stand out from the crowd. His new book Zoom! The Faster Way To Make Your Business Idea Happen is due out in November 2011.]

It’s the holy grail for every business, whether you’re a freelancer, a start-up, or an established brand. How the heck do you stand out in a crowded market? Awesome product functionality or a niche specialty may only get you so far as a differentiator. So instead of marketing your product benefits, try communicating what you’re thinking: your personality, your ideas, your attitude. Communicating your thinking—thought leadership marketing—can be really effective in resonating and engaging with your target audience.

Of course this is nothing new. We’ve always made brand choices based on what businesses think. That’s why we fly Virgin, drink Starbucks, ride a Harley. We get what a brand stands for and we either line up behind it, or we run a mile.

Here’s the opportunity. There’s a long tail of small businesses right down to the one-person work-at-home enterprises that spring up by the hundreds every waking hour. This is where the marketplace is at its most abundant: similarly qualified, similarly positioned, similarly priced, smart boutique businesses. Creative agencies, digital companies, copywriters, web developers. Who do you pick if there’s only a cigarette paper between their offerings? You pick the woman who demonstrates her expertise via her weekly blog; the business that provides a monthly video update of industry news; even the business owner who posts a daily picture of her products on Instagram. In sharing their expertise they’re also giving an insight into their personality. So let’s redefine the genre here: “thought leadership marketing” doesn’t just have to be about publishing academic papers or writing posts for the Harvard Business Review. It’s whatever content works for you, your business, and your audience. A blog post, a tweet, a newsletter, a video sharing your business tips, even a blackboard out on the street communicating your “Thought For The Day.”

Back in 2008, Tom told the audience at the Inc. 5000 conference “If you’re not blogging, you’re an idiot”. He was right. And he’d probably say the same today about Twitter. Because together with LinkedIn, Google+, (and whatever next month’s hot new platform is) we have a bunch of tools available that provide a free platform for thought leadership.

The good news is that communicating your thinking does not discriminate on size: instead of s/he with the biggest budget wins, it’s who can demonstrate the original ideas or the fresh thinking. So if you’re a freelancer or small business, why aren’t you blogging? Why don’t you put your thoughts out there, why aren’t you shining a spotlight on your DNA? Don’t assume it doesn’t matter—customers want to deal with experts and they need to see evidence of that. There’s no point making claims about how innovative your business is if you can’t back it up, if you can’t prove you’re living and breathing it.

King Of Shaves is a shaving brand that’s become a success in the UK and is now entering the US market. Founder Will King may not have Gillette’s ad spend but he plays out a David vs Goliath tale, competing with the big guys via Twitter and social media. Will is doing more than selling razors and shaving foam; he’s engaging with his audience 1-to-1 through storytelling and giving advice to the entrepreneurial community. That’s how he—and his business—stand out.

Don’t miss out on the thought leadership marketing opportunity. Remember, you don’t have to be the biggest or the best to stand out; you just need to have something interesting to say.

We've Been Watching You

[Our guest blogger is Cool Friend Steve Yastrow. Find out more about Steve at]

A cover story in last Monday’s New York Times describes the online advertising practice of “retargeting,” also known by its euphemistic synonym, “remarketing.” Retargeting is the cookie-enabled practice of showing people banner ads based on their past browsing behavior.

In one sense, retargeting is the panacea we all hoped for in the early days of the Internet boom. I remember giving speeches in the early ’90s, describing how the “information superhighway” would make advertising less irritating to consumers because they would only see ads for products they want. I imagined my entire neighborhood all glued to the same TV show, but with different ads showing up on our screens during one commercial break. At the same moment a pizza delivery coupon from my favorite Italian restaurant was printing out of my TV set, a coupon for Children’s Tylenol was printing out of my neighbor’s because he had purchased a Robitussin formula for kids that morning at Walgreen’s.

You can make a very good argument that retargeting is good for consumers because it reduces the unwanted advertising clutter thrown at them, and my interest in this topic has less to do with Internet privacy or any sort of need for government regulation of the tracking of online consumer behavior. I’m more interested in understanding where personalization crosses the line from customer convenience to customer turn-off.

Imagine if you got on an elevator and saw a slick salesman waiting for you. With a big smile and an outstretched hand, he greets you by name, comments on the hotel you stayed in last weekend, and starts talking about the relative merits of the three cameras you were considering during a shopping trip the previous day. He produces a chart showing a comparison of the three cameras, with the particular features you are interested in shaded to highlight them.

Would you be more likely to buy from this guy, because he understands your so well and knows what you’ve been doing, or would you be press the button of the nearest floor so you can escape quickly?

For all of the possibilities retargeting offers to benefit both customers and marketers, companies risk becoming “that sales guy” if they are not careful. I’d worry less about the ethics and more about the effectiveness.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: What would you think if a friend did it? We appreciate if our friends buy us personalized birthday presents or recommend particular books because they know us well. But even a friend can become a stalker if he starts to follow you too closely.

Little BIG Video #38
Strategy: The Story is More Powerful than the Brand

In video number 38 from The Little BIG Things Video Series, Tom describes just how powerful storytelling can be and argues that’s why it’s essential to turn your brand into a story.

You can find the video in the right column of the front page of or you can watch the video on YouTube. [Time: 1 minutes, 55 seconds] You can also download a PDF transcript of the video’s content: Strategy: The Story is More Powerful than the Brand.

The Letter Laws


Howard-Hilton-Herb. Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder, visits 25 stores a week. Master hotelier Conrad Hilton says his only advice is “Don’t forget to tuck the shower curtain into the bathtub.” Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher says his only advice is “You have to treat your employees as your primary customers.”

My translation, more or less “all you need to know to succeed”:

Stay in touch. [Howard]
Sweat the details. [Hilton]
Put your people first. [Herb.]


K = R = P
Kindness = Repeat business = Profit


Say “Thank you.”

If you can become a full-fledged “professional” listener and master the arts of appreciation and apology [accountability], you will be 75 yards down the 100-yard path to success.



“What do you think?” = Arguably the four most important words in business/leadership success.



The successful person’s “top 2” key traits.



Vigorous action-relentless experimentation = [Only] effective foundation of progress, personal or organizational.



(This is RFA’s necessary handmaiden.)


Return On Investment in Relationships.
Medium- to long-term: Relationships = Everything.
Hence: Purposeful investment in relationships is the most important “ROI.”


Internal customers are more important than external customers when it comes to execution.

And, of course, always to be repeated in this space as my “signoff”:

If not EXCELLENCE, what?
If not EXCELLENCE now, when?

Steal This!

I assume virtually all of you are familiar with Zappos—and its unusual and potent people practices. Nonetheless, I’m offering a reminder here from a great article I happened across in The Korn/Ferry Institiute mag, Q2.2010.

Zappos 10 Corporate Values

  1. Deliver “WOW!” through service.
  2. Embrace and drive change.
  3. Create fun and a little weirdness.
  4. Be adventurous, creative and open-minded.
  5. Pursue growth and learning.
  6. Build open and honest relationships with communication.
  7. Build a positive team and family spirit.
  8. Do more with less.
  9. Be passionate and determined.
  10. Be humble.

I suggest stealing intact!



I call it “Return On Investment in Relationships.” It outstrips standard “ROI” by a mile in the long term—and, for that matter, the short term.

Here’s a take on R.O.I.R. from Harry Markopolos, author of No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller:

“The financial industry is a business of contacts and relationships. No one ever buys a product and says, ‘That product is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t care who’s selling it.’ Generally people do business with people they trust and like, or people who are recommended by someone they trust.”

This is not news.
But it always bears repeating.

So: Over the weekend, consider in detail your R.O.I.R. strategy for next week, the next month, maybe the rest of the year. This is an idea that deserves careful and continuous thought, not a catch-as-catch-can attitude. You’d work for months or years on a plan for a new bridge. Well, R.O.I.R. is your “bridge to success.”

NB: Markopolos is the quintessential “quant”; i.e., this is a geek pushing relationship power, not a used car salesman.

(Above: Ice-tea season. Fresh mint.)

The KRP Factor


This, KRP, began as a 140-character Tweet:

K = R = P
(Kindness = Repeat business = Profit)


Listens well/obsessively.
On time all the time.
Apologizes with dispatch for screw-ups.
“Over”-reacts to screw-ups of any magnitude.
“Professional” in all dealings.
Understands that kindness to staff begets kindness to others.
Applies throughout the “supply chain.”
Applies to 100% of customer’s staff.
Explicit part of values statement.
Basis for evaluation for 100% of our staff.
Starts with the boss/bosses.


(Above, after a long Vermont winter, there’s nothing boring about a Dandelion.)

Your Brand Can Only Be As Good As …

[Our guest blogger is Cool Friend Steve Yastrow. Find out more about Steve at]

No matter how good your product is, no matter how good your marketing and sales are, no matter how cool your ad agency is …

Your external brand can never be stronger than your internal brand.

In other words, what your customers think of you can never be better than what your employees think of you. At least not for very long.

It’s impossible to fake out your customers. Our world has become very transparent, and your customers can see, clearly, right into the soul of your company. If you want your customers to have clear, compelling, motivating beliefs about who you are and what you do for customers, you must ensure that your company’s employees have those beliefs. Otherwise, your marketing and sales promises will not resonate with the reality of being your customer.

I often ask executives if they can name one person in their company who does have some effect on the customer experience, even if that effect is indirect. No one has ever been able to name one person. (Although someone did once mention the character in the movie Office Space who covets his stapler and is relegated to an office in the basement. ‘Nuff said.) Yet few companies invest adequately in building the brand inside their company. They figure it’s covered by the training budget or, more frequently, they just don’t do anything about it.

There is a clear connection between what your employees believe about you and how much money you make. Are you investing enough in your internal brand?

50 Million First Dates

[Our guest blogger is Cool Friend Steve Yastrow. Find out more about Steve at]

You have shopped at a local clothing store for twenty years, visiting the store about five times each year. Today, you walk in the store again—it’s your 101st visit. A sales clerk approaches you and asks, “May I help you?”

In the 2004 movie, 50 First Dates, Henry (Adam Sandler) and Lucy (Drew Barrymore) meet, have a great first date, and plan to see each other again. But the next day Lucy acts like she doesn’t know Henry. Lucy has a short-term memory loss problem, so each day is a new “first date,” in which Henry has to attempt to rekindle the relationship.

Most people think of 50 First Dates as a romantic comedy. Not me. I think it is a business movie.

Isn’t this what it is like to do business with most companies?