Don’t Let Personal Branding Stifle your Authentic Voice

by cv harquail on June 9, 2009

There is a battle brewing between the concepts of Personal Brand and Authentic Voice.

If you’ve been paying attention at all (and I’m sure you have) you’ve seen the articles and the individuals touting personal branding. Everyone from Tom Peters to Seth Godin to Dan Scwabel is online telling you how to create your personal brand so that you can attract customers, jobs, and attention . Some even go so far as to suggest that personal branding can be good for you , that  it can help you define who you are and where you are going.

To all of these personal branding proselytizers I say:

Back off.

Back off, because too much attention to “personal branding” will stifle authentic voice.

And none of us should stifle authentic voice, because authentic voice is fundamentally who we are.

What is Authentic voice ?

You may not have heard much about authentic voice lately, unless you have roots in the communities of confident writing and/or liberation studies.

_116_296085476_20613d5e13.jpg Authentic voice is the expression of self that is created:

— when you speak your truth,
— when you tell what you know about yourself,
— when you argue for what you care about,
— when you tell the world how you see things from your unique perspective,
— when you argue for your own wisdom, in your own unique way.

Authentic voice is about articulating outward as you discover what’s inside you.

  • Authentic voice grows from within.
  • Authentic voice evolves with you as your learn and grown.
  • Authentic voice is liberatory.
  • Authentic voice creates authentic relationships.
  • Authentic voice is power over how you are positioned in the world.

Above all, voice is a political construct. Voice is about having the means and the ability to speak and have one’s speech heard and be taken into account in social and political life. Voice is about coming out from under subordination, coming out from under the shell of what you have been told to be, what others want(ed) you to be.

And what is Personal Branding?

Personal branding is all about selling.

Personal branding is a strategy for crafting a social persona around characteristics that you think other people will pay attention to. Through personal branding, the projection of ‘who you are’ is shaped from the outside, by nipping and pruning and enhancing characteristics so that “you”/your personal brand fits the ‘niche’ where you want to attract attention.

In contrast to authentic voice, personal branding emphasizes what others want. To establish your personal brand, you are to evaluate what other people are looking for, or what other people need, and craft your self-presentation so that you appear to match this.

If you take a feminist lens to this description, you can see that personal branding is making yourself like what (you think) others want you to be. Personal branding asks you to subordinate who you really are and to prioritize instead how to present yourself as what you think (others think) will be desirable.

This is not the same thing as being real. Not at all.

Personal branding tells you to treat yourself like a product.

  • Personal branding comes from a discipline that emphasizes “selling” and “being bought”.
  • Personal branding puts satisfying the desires of others ahead of satisfying your own curiosity about who you are.
  • Personal branding emphasizes being attractive to others over evoking your innate character.
  • Personal branding is steeped in a commercial, mercenary mindset where what is valued is (only) what others will pay for.

There are some folks, bless their hearts, who confuse personal brand and authentic voice. They use the term “personal brand” and the marketing tactics of branding but they enumerate the qualities of authentic voice. They don’t see the gap between the marketing methodology and the demands of genuine personal expression.

I think people miss the contradiction between personal branding and authentic voice because:
(1) They don’t realize that authentic voice is a construct of its own,
(2) They are uncritical or maybe naive about the self-objectifying and self-commercialization of the personal branding conversation, and
(3) They have not yet understood the emancipatory power of discovering and unleashing ones authentic voice.
Whatever the reasons, it’s a shame.

It’s a shame to use the words and tactics of personal branding to frame the challenge of how to present your self socially. The mindset that these branding tactics represent is fundamentally antithetical to the mindset needed for developing an authentic voice. The tactics distort the process of self-discovery and the words diminish both the challenges and the joy of finding ones authentic voice.

Taken to its logical conclusion, personal branding will have you focus on your outside instead of on your inside. It will lead you to emphasize selling yourself, when instead you should be learning to speak for yourself, as yourself.

Personal branding will stifle your authentic voice.

So back off.
Stop telling us how to package and brand ourselves.

encourage us as we invite each other to speak our own truths.

Boy on guitar by KatieK2 on Flickr


Miss Unconventional June 10, 2009 at 12:22 am

This article is so wonderful. It was initially so hard for me when online because I wanted to be myself, but I thought that other people might be offended. When I decided to just be myself and everyone else can take a hike, it was so liberating. And the funny thing is, I started to begin to make more contacts than when I was being fake. It’s most definitely true that you should do what you love and everything else will fall into place.

Joseph Logan June 10, 2009 at 5:15 am

What a good example of authentic voice this article is! Possibly related:

CV Harquail June 10, 2009 at 10:19 am

Thanks Miss Unconventional for your comment…Voice *is far more liberating! Something that I think artists understand better than marketers (or academics) do. Even though being ‘yourself’ can encourage a wider range of behaviors than being a ‘brand’ might allow, they are all still connected to the same foundation (you) and ultimately make it easier for people to trust you, I think.
Joseph, I’m tickled that you’d think of that Venn Diagram, which I saw and retweeted last week, because I was wondering how to do something similar to identify the sweet spot of overlap between authentic voice, what others want, and what others need. Or maybe there is another /different space to include? you’ve got me thinking more, as per ususal.

Graeme June 11, 2009 at 11:19 am

Beautifully argued piece that could also stand as a riposte to much of the employer branding material pushed out by organizations. I’m going to use this as an exemplar tomorrow with a group of HR people – as an argument and as an example of what web 2.0 can do for them.

Ryan Jones June 11, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Well written piece! I am reading Life, Inc. by Doug Rushkoff at the moment. Doug really rails on the corporatization of everyone & everything…especially in the US. He mentions that we live in a landscape of corporatism: a world not merely dominated by corporations, but one inhabited by people who have internalized corporate values as their own. It is one thing to work for a corporate; it is another thing to adopt the mindset lock, stock & barrel.

I have to admit that when I return home (to the US) I feel that our people are, sadly, on the bleeding edge of this trend. It is scary (and weird).

David Zinger June 13, 2009 at 9:16 am

CV Harquail

I really appreciated this article. I need to go away and think about this as I find myself nodding yet I also find myself seeing some value for myself in personal branding. Thank you for the invitation to speak my personal truth.

At least for me, some focus on personal branding does not stifle my authentic voice it has contributed to and heightened my voice. I define personal branding as (Strengths + Value + Visibility) x Engagement. When I think of value I think not only of economic but social value, etc.

As I said, I will have to go away and think about this because I feel a sense of authenticity when I work on personal branding, it is much less of a marketing mechanism and much more of a focus tool. I believe there is the potential for authentic personal branding and for some people it connects them to a wider community as they think about their voice AND their impact on others.

For me at least, it may be ironic that I found my voice in a stronger way through the lens of branding. I found a deep strain of poetic expression. So as I read your find article I found myself nodding my head up and down and also left to right.

Thank you so much. I so much appreciated a blog post that can get me thinking on a Saturday morning.


CV Harquail June 13, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Hi David,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and generative comment. It sounds to me like your experience with personal branding has been more like a focus on authentic voice and less on the branding part. Especially given your definition, you’re already outside the box of branding as a marketing, mercenary construct and practice.
Based on what I ‘know’ of you from your own writing, I would expect that your approach to personal branding really isn’t about branding at all. So, I wonder if you would find any additional power in the process (for yourself and your clients) if you were to replace the language of branding” with the language of voice. I wonder if this switch might also help clients etc. surmount or even avoid some subliminal objectification that might otherwise be in the way.
My gripe is with personal branding is with (1) treating the self like a product to be sold, and (2) with focusing on what “the market” wants over who we know/can learn ourselves to be.My gripe is not with the idea of clarifying, focusing on and offering who we really are… I love that process and advocate for it.
I personally would prefer if “personal branding” fans started first with finding and strengthening their personal voice. I probably should write more about the political implications of taking a ‘voice’ approach over a ‘branding’ approach, so that I can spotlight this contrast more effectively.
As another colleague has commented, there is a middle ground, and I am not recommending that folks reject the clarifying processes. I do want folks to reconsider (and okay, I admit it) to *reject* the frame of self-branding and all of its baggage. (Important caveat: If you actually ‘sell’ yourself as a consultant or coach or similar, branding is (1) less harmful, and (2) slightly different). So these are all important points for me to clarify and articulate as I keep working through these issues. David, I really appreciate your head moving in agreement and resistance. I’ll keep working at it so that I can offer more ‘value’ to you.

Chris Bailey June 13, 2009 at 9:56 am

Like David, I’m moved to comment that there may be a viable middle ground here between the inner-focused authentic voice and external-focused personal brand.

I’m a solopreneur and business anthropologist who consults with organizations on building online communities. And whether I like it or not, I have a brand that I project to the outer world. But this is where I have a choice to pursue authenticity in my own voice. Actually, I’d argue that any individual must begin inside before they can even attempt to project themselves outward (as much as it often pains me to say it, Chris Brogan wasn’t too far off the mark). But I also know that when it comes to telling people about my services, I better have my brand fully in their mind. So yes there is that degree of selling myself, but I’m not selling something that I’m not…rather I’m selling a focused idea of exactly who I am.

I will argue that a personal brand isn’t fixed and locked in stone. Because we’re not fixed, we grow and change. And so as we change inside, we can make similar changes in our outer projections.

Like David, I’m highly appreciative of your writing and this particular post. It has spurred a new avenue in my own thoughts about how to make my own personal brand more true and authentic to who I am. There is still middle ground to explore here.

Robyn McMaster June 13, 2009 at 10:35 am

My thought is that in personal branding we make personal choices based on our authentic voice. If we slip over into being what others expect us to be it is no longer personal branding because then we let others make choices that should be ours. In making these choices ourselves from our own framework, then we are creatively expressing who we are. I think these go hand in hand since they are truly interconnected. We need to be tapping into both the logical and creative sides of the brain to show our inner person in the public wrapping that truly exemplifies who we are.

David Zinger June 14, 2009 at 8:29 am


I am still nodding. I think voice is key. It is interesting that I recently wrote about becoming your own Inner Voice coach at

I think there is room for fusion of voice and branding. Perhaps that is partially what I am after: a re-branding of personal branding inclusive of voice. I think personal branding has captured many people’s attention and just like you have shown the problems inherent in the commodity approach I think this can also be done from inside branding concepts.

Perhaps I will change my Personal Branding Formula to (Strengths + Voice + Visibility + Value) x Engagement. I can almost see you shudder at contributing to a personal branding formula. I always liked Walt Whitman’s line: “Do I contradict myself, very well I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I also remember the old TV show Branded: Here is a snippet of the lyrics —
Branded, scorned as the one who ran.
What do you do when you’re branded, and you know you’re a man.
Wherever you go, for the rest of your life
You must prove, you’re a man.


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