Are You in Personal Branding Prison?

Are You in Personal Branding Prison?

Reader Comments (110)

  1. James, another excellent post. That’s a powerful argument for making your business a brand rather than your name. Maybe I should brand my business as Get Paid To Write instead of my name – something else to think about. 🙂

  2. One of The Beatles once said that he felt sorry for Elvis when it came to socializing with swarms of fans. If John and Ringo needed a break, George and Paul could take over…fans were still getting “The Beatles.” But there was only one Elvis. Personal brand vs. business brand.

  3. James: I like this post, and I agree it’s important for entrepreneurs to understand the difference between personal and business branding. But isn’t it really a choice each of us have to make for ourselves?

    Take Seth Godin as an example. He’s a speaker and author among other things, which is all part of his personal brand. When he wants to take a break, he doesn’t have someone guest post on his blog (or maybe he doesn’t take breaks). But I’m not so sure he’d want to change anything.

    Having other people/systems contribute to the business allows the main entrepreneur to step away. sure. But the business brand can’t be the personal brand, and sometimes you want the personal brand.

    The worse scenario is probably not making a choice in terms of branding.

  4. Seth’s Blog = personal branding.

    Squidoo = business branding.

    It’s not necessarily an either/or… choose what you want to build and cash out of, and don’t confuse that with your personal brand.

  5. The question to brand you or your business does depend on your goals. Not your *now* goals – your later goals. Do you really want the enterprise you built from scratch to die when you want to step away? Seems sad to me…

    @ Joanna – Michael Martine inspired this one. Your contribution sealed the deal 🙂

  6. James,

    You made me think of something. If a person chooses to go the personal branding route, and needs to take a break, wouldn’t it be neat for someone to create a WordPress widget that a blogger can activate that randomly chooses an archived post and populates the front page with it (without creating a duplicate archive). When the blogger comes back from vacation or business, they simple deactivate the widget. (You reading this Chris Pearson?)


  7. James, you’ve hit on one of the questions I get most frequently from my clients.

    I tend to agree that branding the business is usually the best path, but there are some exceptions.

    The one big exception I’ve run into is with professional authors and speakers. In those cases they usually go the route of creating a business around their personal brand.

    Think about Dale Carnegie. His business is still going strong, and he’s been dead for years.

    For most people though that path isn’t easy or feasible, which is why creating a business brand is still usually a better choice.

    Great article,

    – Mason

  8. @ Mason – Thing is, if Dale Carnegie’s business still lives on, he’s done the right thing by putting assets into his business and not just himself. He found a way to have his business survive after he was gone.

    That’s the trick. Many people brand themselves and create a job, not a business. There is a way to brand yourself effectively by putting value in what you offer – not just YOU.

    It is a tricky situation though… no wonder people puzzle this one over!

  9. James, You’re absolutely correct.

    He didn’t treat his business as a personal thing, even though he had a personal brand. He treated it like a proper organization.

    Small business branding certainly is a can of worms, but I think you nailed the best general advice: create a solid brand for your business.

    That said, there are plenty of exceptions and opinions to have a great discussion 🙂

  10. I don’t know about getting “stuck” by personal branding. The late David Ogilvy, one of the all-time greats in marketing…branded Ogilvy & Mather on his name. Also, there are a number of sub-companies (i.e. OgilvyOne, OgilvyInteractive, OgilvyAction, etc…) that were branded on his last name.

    And…no one can access David anymore, but the name is the brand essentially.

    So, I would understand that to be a prime example of branding yourself so strongly, as to be a worldwide brand, right?

  11. The important thing to take note of is that both of those examples reinforce what James said.

    Ogilvy spent his entire life building his brand and his business. It may not have felt like being “stuck” since he enjoyed it so much, but he definitely couldn’t have transferred himself or his brand to another industry without consequences.

    The choice is in the hands of the business owner, of course, but you should definitely think deeply about choosing a personal brand over a business brand.

  12. 1. Name your business something remarkable.
    2. Create a benefit rich tag line.
    3. Create value that makes the brand meaningful (<- this is what branding really is). Who wants to write that post? 🙂

  13. Excellent food for thought and fodder
    for discussion!

    I’m either guilty or like Ogilvy — not sure, yet. 🙂

    I AM the kickass copywriter right now. So, if I
    had a BIG following on my blog (which I don’t, yet) …

    I love Buck’s idea about that, though.

    Thanks for the important question!


  14. Duh …

    a complete sentence may be helpful! 🙂

    As I was saying … If I had a big following on my blog and had to be away, I’m not sure what I’d do.

    Hire someone to blog or blog from afar?

    And I still love Buck’s idea!

  15. This is exactly why I’ve shifted to product creation rather than one-on-one coaching … I hit the “no more Dave to go around” ceiling pretty quick.

  16. Mr. Clark – *raises hand* I would definitely not mind writing that post! 🙂

    James- another good article. I think so many people get wrapped up in personal branding they don’t think about it early on in the beginning. That’s why it’s important to think about your marketing strategy and have this be one of the most important aspects before ever going to development of a product. First question I’d ask is: do I want to be the only one on the planet that can ever sell this product, interact with customers, etc.?

  17. Speaking of Branding, isn’t it better to leave your name AND your website name when commenting on blogs?

    I’m no SEO expert, but it seems like a wiser Branding opportunity missed by some people here.

  18. James, for some strange reason, this post was screaming at me the entire time I was reading it.

    I felt like I was in church and the pastor was speaking right to me.

    Interesting post–it gave me a new perspective on my current dilemma.

  19. I think you make some excellent points. I think it really depends on the kind of business you are setting up. If you are selling rugs online, it probably best to have a blog called rugs info, or whatever. The advantage of a personal blog, however, is that people really get to know you. If they like you (and why wouldn’t they, if they keep coming back to your blog) you can should be able to constantly leverage this into other opportunities (at least I would think you could).

    – Dave

    PS – and I agree with Bucktowndusty above me 🙂

  20. @ Buck – Bingo. Which is why you’ll always see my name and my business name.

    @ Jesse – Mmhm… I know 🙂 You’re at the point where you need to consider this.

    @ David – People can always like you and come back for you. And when you’re gone… will they still come back? The branded business says yes. The personal branding? Nope.

    @ Brian H – People get all excited at first to see their name in lights. They don’t think further ahead. They love the fame. And then what? What happens when they realize they’ve just stuck themselves and can’t grow?

    Brian C’s title is correct – personal branding cages and limits you with restrictions. You can never grow your business.

  21. James, James, James you and your darn thought provoking posts! I purposely branded my company rather than opting for a personal brand. However, with the blog I opted for personal to pave the way for my future as an author. 🙂 You are absolutely right though that it is imperative to clearly identify your strategy and brand accordingly.

  22. The one question I do have, though, is:

    Which works better (personal branding or business branding) as a freelancer if you’re mainly focused on getting work now, as opposed to leaving a legacy long after you’re gone?

    In other words, which approach tends to build the actual business and bring in more money now?

    Or is it a wash, with the real success dependent on other things?

  23. @ Jesse – I’ll answer your question with a question:

    Neither approach, in my opinion, brings in more cash now. But if you want more cash later and you want the ability to grow, you can’t brand just you – you’ll plateau and tap out at some point.

  24. @ Buck – since I’m the only one that didn’t link back to a website, I assume that comment was directed at me. 🙂

    Yeah, I’m pretty green at all of this.

    Thanks for the clarification, everyone.

  25. Jason K.

    No, I counted at least 6. (Well, 6.5 – you now got the link part right but you could have put your website address in the “name” field, too. That way, they both show up as text on the page. 🙂

  26. James,

    Point well-taken.

    With a business name, you can add contributors and other employees and so on.

    With just your name, people will expect you to do everything.

    You’re right.

    Now…what’s just as relevant to this discussion, I think is:

    Should one’s domain name (url) be the same as one’s business name? For example:

    Nike —
    Apple —

    How important is it that your domain name matches your business name or is it important?

    Some businesses have longer names that might be too long for a url–is it wise to shorten it so the url is easier to remember and type?

    For example, a company named Jones Hardwood Interiors–that would make a long url.

    Would it be wise to do something like or

    Or is it better to have a consistent brand throughout, with matching domain name and business name?

  27. @ Jesse – My opinion is that your domain name should match your business name as close as possible. I’m a freelancer, but my domain is

    As for properly choosing a business name/domain name, I’ll point you here:

    Type it, talk it, say it, test it, google it… and find what fits best. If you can’t say it easily or type it quickly, find a way to shorten it.

    Or choose something cool that is close enough or that is SEO rich.

    My two cents, though. I’m sure others have different opinions on what makes a good domain name.

  28. Well put, James. I established “The Article Writer” three years ago to take some heat off of my name. Besides, if I ever get to the point of selling it, then I have a marketable asset to move off of my books.

    Not so if my name is always front and center.

  29. Excellent post.

    I teach my clients an “Attention Marketing” concept centered around creating a personal brand while re-branding your business tightly around a strong USP.

    I think that’s the key…

    Riding the “Attention Age” celebrity-bias when it comes to getting attention, but continually selling and highlighting “your system” (business brand) going forward.

    Great post, though. It’ll definitely have me thinking about this for the next few days.

  30. @Mason Hipp

    I disagree with your assessment of Ogilvy.

    He could have personally left Ogilvy and Mather or any one of the sub-branched businesses and they still would have grown. He branded using his name, but he was not personally needed for the business to continue to grow. So, he was not personally “stuck.”

  31. Very valuable distinction, great post.

    Consider this:

    ->selling product = business brand

    -> selling service = personal brand

    Great men in business started with their own names on the door: Kellogg’s, Ford, Proctor & Gamble, Macy’s, Remington, Hoover, dozens more that we now consider giant brands. They sold STUFF. In a different era, but they built their name into a term synonymous with the stuff they sold. You can all name those products.

    Great men today sell stuff, but they invent or adopt appropriate words as brands: the examples given of Apple, Nike, and Sony — the difference is that it still took one (or two) men with the vision and the passion to convince investors, staffers, buyers to hand over whatever was asked of them. THAT passion built “unnamed” companies on the back of a man with a name and a vision.

    For those offering a service that provides an experience or a product (both an asset to the buyer), they are coming to you because you promise to fulfill their dream. They pay you for a service to produce for them a design, a sentence, an artwork, a mindset, a checklist, an insight, an education, a good time — whatever. That’s what your service produces.

    BUT the BENEFIT to them is the DREAM that your service advances. They don’t just want a cleaner website, they want a successful website. They don’t just want a clever tagline, they want clever new business from clients who love their new tagline, etc. Your service is a means to their dream — once you look at personal branding this way, you’ll see new ways to brand YOU+YOUR SERVICE = BENEFIT.

    “Kat Klark’s Klever Kartoons” is a person, a tone, and a product. The benefit is felt by the potential buyer: “wow, she made me notice her, maybe her ‘Kartoons’ on my whatever will make buyers notice me.”

    Got a bit carried away — glad you didn’t ask for taglines!

    Thanks James, for writing smart posts that attract interesting discussion ~! (And for using a by-line.)

  32. James,

    Nice post, on a subject near and dear to my heart.

    Everything else has been said, so:

    1. Apple did suffer when Steve Jobs wasn’t there. Not from lack of his name, though, but from lack of his genius. Sometimes even if your company is well-branded in a business way, the business can’t hold up without you. That is obviously a post for another time.

    2. I’d buy Steve Jobs. ‘Cept he’s already bought.



  33. If you convert your personal brand into a corporate one, you can still run into problems when the company reaches a certain size. At some point, the organization has to learn how to replicate -you- the reason for the success in the first place.

    Doug Tatum writes about this in No Man’s Land. The book was designed for tech companies on the fast track, but the lessons are good for any business created by a visionary founder.

    Great post, James!

  34. Certainly food for thought, James. Especially appropriate to me at this time in my career. Thanks for the contribution here.

  35. I’m late to the dance again, dammit.

    Still, let me add my thoughts:

    I believe branding is one of those things that can evolve over time. Take Meijer, for example. Fred “Meijer’s Thrifty Acres” was a local grocery and department store in West Michigan 80 years ago. It had a very home-town feel, and you could walk in every day and see Fred Meijer and his sons. Today, “Meijer” is a regional grocery giant in the Midwest, but they still push the “hometown” aspect. Fred Meijer is long gone, but his brand lives. It just had to evolve some to do so.

    Today, I am my blog’s brand. Right now, it’s all about my writing journey. Over time, that will likely change. It will become more about my readers’ journeys, once my tale has fully been told. That’s the point at which I can consider selling it off, but not before. Am I in personal branding prison until then? Maybe. But I’ve got a shiv handy, and I’m digging an escape route with my spoon 😉

  36. Holy think enough people left comments?

    As anyone on the internet can tell you, I have created a brand, The Masked Millionaire, which is recognized around the world and on three different planets.

    Branding yourself is dangerous. When Martha Stewart decides to take the long ride home her brand will probably do a belly flop. On the other hand Oprah (Harpo) could move on.

    Live From Las Vegas
    (Branding Capital Of The World)
    The Masked Millionaire

  37. This is a good idea indeed. We do start a small business and most of the time (at least in the beginning we are the only ones doing the job). I have also tried to market the “portfolio” or the design firm if you wish and less my own person since I am aware that in some time I’d need employees, otherwise I’ll die from exhaustion.

  38. (Bob, you weren’t late to the dance, you were just helping me carry the beer.)


    You really made me think on this one, and that’s a good thing – it will help me to set things up properly, before I jump on a couple of opportunities.


  39. James- Exactly. They’re all attracted to the fame at first sight. They don’t realize they’ll be doing 100% of the work themselves. Sometimes the only thing that will give clients confidence in the service is the personal name attached to it once it has been built up.

  40. I’m conflicted. I think the individual creates the legacy. What about The Tonight Show? Johnny Carson was the brand. Jay Leno carries it on. How does one influence their personal brand on others?

    Thanks James, for raising doubt!

  41. Years ago I use to play guitar in a band. We had one guy who basically wrote 90% of the music and I remember one of our first issues discussed was the band’s name.

    Should we go with the *star of the band’s* name, like Steven Tyler, or should we go with a unified band’s name, like Aerosmith?

    At the time, we were dreaming big; big label, big name. We knew our band would have a completely different image depending on which name route we decided on.

    The same holds true in business.

    When figuring a company name, you have to figure what your goals are.

    For example, do you want to be the star or do you want to build a business you can pass along to your children?

    For me, I want to pass it along. I feel I’ve done a pretty good job with my company branding my “business” while also telling everyone “there’s this cool guy named John floating around on the website who helps people.”

  42. @John Hoff: You have got the right question on whether this business is built to make ourselves as the star or whether the name will be able to pass onto other successors with easy transition with the integrity of the main business intact and trusted onto the next person in charge.

    Here’s a similar writeup in Winning Everyone: Built to Multiply

    With one question stated in that entry that goes:
    “Where would you be heading to and how long would you want the project to go on with or without you having control of it?”

  43. Your brand is your biggest asset. Great point, James.

    It must shine whether you are present to take in the rays or not.

  44. This is an problem I’ve been struggling with, and still haven’t decided which side of the fence I’m going to land on. As a freelancer, I’m incline to focus on branding my name, since I’ll want people to think of _me_ as the go-to guy when they need stuff done. But I do have some ideas for side products I’m developing, so I can see the value of branding the business name.


  45. Great post James. Interesting timing on the value of brands, as I spoke about this on the National Mall in Washington, DC this past week. My topic was about how the lack of positive and personal branding for the federal government was negatively impacting recruitment and retention among federal workers.

    My advice was somewhat similar to yours – strike a balance between personalization and organizational asset management. With 1.8 million civil servants, we can’t possibly brand all of them, but we can begin to localize brands among the 1000s of goods and services each agency provides. If you can tie this back to positive brand awareness of items we citizens take for granted (weather reports, highways, untainted food) we can begin to morph the brand of the government. Many federal employees want to begin blogging to start the process but are significantly limited in doing so.


  46. @Daniel and Matt Tuley

    Here’s the question – which route do you go if you have no aspirations to grow your business beyond just you?

    This goes for any business & not just freelancers. Small-time contractors, for example.

  47. Mark- thanks for posting that. The thought of our federal workers branding …hm, they would actually have to figure out the deliverables…benefits and features…there’s a highly entertaining thought….:)
    Actually isn’t the “Five A Day” one of these efforts… I have to go look.

  48. James – thanks for a superb article. There’s a major difference between awareness and credibility – and it’s all about finding that balance. I know several people who focus far too hard on simply “branding” themselves for the same of everyone knowing who they are, as opposed to associating themselves with thought-leadership on a particular subject / sharp-wit / comedy etc. They are geared towards sensational content to attract attention, as opposed to thought-provoking insight.

    I view running a blog / website as more like tending a garden. It’s something that stays with you throughout your career / life. You nurture it over time, and sometimes people want to come and hangout in your garden… but not ALL the time,



  49. Excellent advice, but it does depend on the size of the business. your customers are usually looking for the experience and expertise that you have as well as the service that you can provide.

    In my case as a motivational speaker and business coach, I am under demand, exactly because of my experience, but I have a team that can deliver all the services our company offers.

    Even so some of our clients still say they want me to provide the service, which means a careful balance between the quantity of time in business and the quality of time at home.

    The important point that you make is still very valid and planning for succession should be one of the most focused tasks of any good business leader.

  50. Simply great post. Personal branding tends to the be the long-term pitfall of many solopreneurs, bloggers, and business people. Down the road, it can really hinder the growth of the company, as a whole.

    Maria Reyes-McDavis

  51. It doesn’t take long to be late to comment party on this site, does it? James, I’ve been thinking about that conversation we had ever since. It has been foremost in my thoughts.

    And at SOBCon, Brian completely hammered it home when he said “build an asset, not a job.”

    Thank you both, James and Brian, for the inspiration. I’m working on it.

  52. I run a small creative network that is made up of freelance designers, illustrators and photographers. When I first started as a freelancer my instinct was to brand “myself”. It just seemed to make sense.

    Eventually I realized that to grow my business it would be beneficial to both myself and my clients to offer additional services above and beyond what I was able to do alone. At this point is was no longer just about “me”.

    The most beneficial result of this realization is that it changed my mindset from personal branding to business branding. This allowed me to step outside of my work and really see my business for what it is…a BUSINESS. Every decision is a business decision with goals and visions that encompass a much larger picture than just “myself”.

    Thanks for the great post. I am sure many will benefit from the ideas here.

  53. Excellent post, really thought-provoking and really useful for where I am at with my (nascent) business. The one question I would ask is ‘what is the implication of writing a blog or using social networking as a tool as far as business branding goes’? They tend to bring out the person rather than the business, so do you think this detracts at all?

  54. James, you’ve just described our business branding almost perfectly, except one thing…

    We use our business and it’s name as a means to brand personally. This works for us well, but only because we’re all self employed contractors who pull together on a lot of projects under the one Tactic Group name.

    Our not-so-regular blog is simply an example for each contributor to demonstrate our knowledge as individuals, helping both the branding of the business and our personal branding.

    We’ve only been running 1 year so far, but have actually had more individual contracts than team contratcs, even though we brand the business name first and our individual names second.

    Ultimately, it’s about building a brand that suits the type of business and the business’ model.

  55. Great article and true in most cases. However, like most other things it depends on case by case basis. Strong human face/leadership might be better for a business sometimes.

  56. We were just having the same conversation about personal branding and whether it matters.
    We find that it’s a catch22, though. You start out as a sole proprietor, and people identify you with your company, even if you try to brand the company.
    But, after reading your argument, I have come around to think it’s good advice to put the company first. Relying too much on one individual for success is a recipe for a lifetime sentence with your work.
    Build trust and relationships with the brand, hire people who support the brand and make sure every touch point is consistent (that is an entirely different conversation).

  57. I dont think it traps you, for example, il use Guy Kawasaki, if he chooses to add/develop himself in a new area, its just a development of himself and his brand, it can change, the same way a business/artist brand can change – look at Madonna and Apple.

  58. I love this blog post because I’ve always considered branding the business first me second, so the business can survive without me being the one always in the videos, doing the telesimiars,etc. I believe in providing quality products and services with my team caring out the majority of these task while I concentrate on building the business.

  59. Allthough I agree with the outcome, it is not always the best way to start as a ‘corporate bizniz feel’.

    I would recommend to start as you. Since you DO make that difference, the reason why they want to do bizniz with you(r company) in the first place.

    As soon as things are picking up, speeding up and improving, switch to the corporate feel and inform all your current customers why. Since they are the pioneers of doing bizniz with you, they’ll understand.

    And all the new clients won’t know any better.
    Double advantage!

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