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Here’s something I get asked all the time:
When you build your business, should you build it into a personal brand, or a traditional business brand?
Let’s talk about it.
But first, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page…
Personal branding entails building a business around your personal identity: your name, face, personal experiences and expertise.
Business or “corporate” branding entails building a business around a company name, separate from your personal identity.
With definitions out of the way, let’s get into it. First, I’ll list the benefits and drawbacks of building a personal brand. Then I’ll state clearly when it makes sense to build a personal brand. Then I’ll do the same for business brands (or “corporate brands,” as they’re sometimes called).
Finally, I’ll wrap things up with an interesting third option—an alternative to both personal branding and business branding. You don’t want to miss that!
|👍 Easier to get attention||👎 Inseparable from your personal life|
|👍 Easier to build trust||👎 Stuck with your name, even if it’s hard to spell or pronounce|
|👍 Stickier audience||👎 Impossible to sell|
|👍 People prefer people over businesses||👎 Can come across as less professional|
If you live in a city, you’re exposed to about 5,000 marketing messages every day. Chances are you don’t remember more than a handful of them.
That’s because your brain is two things:
Your brain tries to conserve as much energy as possible.1 Unless it thinks something is important to your survival, it will try to ignore it. And because it’s great at recognizing patterns, it knows to ignore most advertisements, because they’re not important to your survival.
But you know what is important to your survival?
Other human beings.
Your eyes are drawn to other people’s eyes like a moth to a flame. You’re trained to instantly notice faces, even in inanimate objects.2
Personal brands have an easier time attracting attention because they’re human. They bypass your brain’s instincts to filter out marketing messages and immediately cut through the noise.
If it’s easier to gain people’s attention as a personal brand, it seems obvious that it would be easier to build trust as well.
Unfortunately, the perceived trustworthiness of personal brands compared to business brands is under-researched. But here’s what we do know: 83% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know, according to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising report.3 According to the same report, 66% of consumers trust reviews posted by strangers online.
People put their trust in other people—especially people they know.
And as it turns out, many of us develop “parasocial relationships” with personal brands.4 Jessica Grose explores the phenomenon in her article, “When Grown-Ups Have Imaginary Friends.”5 It’s a fascinating read.
On the flip side, could you imagine someone feeling like they were friends with a faceless company? I doubt it.
When you have a personal brand, the audience you amass is likely going to be more sticky.
Let’s say your personal brand is all about how to become a successful freelancer. For years, you put out helpful content about lead generation and client negotiation. You help your followers become more effective in sales meetings, and you help them build lucrative freelance businesses.
But after a while, you lose interest in freelancing.
To the extent that your followers have grown to like you for you, they’re more likely to stay with you even if you switch up your content.
Now, if you decide to start talking about court fashion in 15th century France, you’re probably screwed. But as long as your new niche is still about business in some capacity (maybe you start talking about e-commerce) a lot of people will probably stick around.
What all of these benefits boil down to is this: people prefer people over faceless businesses. The more your business acts and feels like a normal person, the more benefits you’re likely to reap.
One of the biggest drawbacks of building a personal brand is that there’s no way to separate it from the rest of your life.
Depending on what kind of personal brand you intend to build, that may not be a big issue. Some personal brands are able to embrace multiple interests (although that is not easy). But if you’re pursuing a specific niche—take our freelance expert from earlier, or a solo Business Operations consultant—you may feel pigeon-holed by your personal brand.
If you have any interest at all in publicly pursuing other interests, building a personal brand around your main gig might not be a great idea.
Naming experts consider a lot of different factors when they evaluate business names. The most basic ones include:
When you start a new business brand, the naming phase can take days, weeks, and sometimes even months.
When you start a personal brand, the name has already been decided for you—decades ago, by your parents.
Sure, you’ve got some wiggle room. Gary Vaynerchuk goes by “Gary Vee,” for example. But you don’t have the freedom to change it beyond recognition: customers are going to feel cheated if the name that appears on their invoice is different from the name they’ve grown to like and trust.
So you need to consider whether your target audience will know how to pronounce and spell your name.
You also need to make sure your name isn’t the same as someone famous.
For example, I have the same name as two Swedish athletes: one pro soccer player, and one olympic table tennis player. Now, I might be able to outrank them on Google if I tried really hard…
But if your name happens to be George Bush or Oprah Winfrey, it’s time to ditch your personal branding ambitions.
The value of your personal brand is in your person. Without you, there’s no business. Personal brands don’t have an exit strategy.
I don’t believe this is something that should stop you from building a personal brand, but I need to mention it:
There may be some people that decide not to do business with you simply because you’re marketing yourself as a personal brand. In most parts of the Western world, I don’t think that number is large enough to warrant consideration, but in some parts of the world it may be. Use your judgment here.
You should build a personal brand if you have a brandable name, plan to sell a service or info-product, and don’t mind pigeon-holing your online identity.
|👍 Separate from your personal life||👎 Feels anonymous|
|👍 Can name it whatever you want||👎 Less inherent differentiation|
|👍 Easier to sell in the future||👎 Harder to pivot|
|👍 Easier to outsource tasks|
With a business brand, you don’t need to worry about pigeon-holing yourself. As long you keep your business brand laser-focused on your niche, you’re free to use your personal identity to talk about whatever you’re interested in.
You can make sure your business name is everything your personal name isn’t: easy to pronounce, easy to spell, and memorable, yet unique.
You may want to read my in-depth guide to coming up with a great brand name for your business.
If you’re just starting your business, selling it is probably not at the top of your mind.
But it is something you should consider. Fifteen years from now, when you’re ready to do something else, it sure wouldn’t hurt to collect a seven- or eight-figure payment, would it?
A personal brand cannot exist without your involvement. But with a business brand, your ability to outsource tasks is limitless. You can even hire a CEO to run the company for you.
It’s more difficult to get people’s attention and win their trust when you’re operating as a faceless company. People want to do business with other people.
There are far more business brands than there are personal brands in the world. Beyond that, personal brands start out at least somewhat differentiated (there’s no one else quite like you, after all), whereas all business brands start out completely undifferentiated.
It’s definitely possible to meaningfully differentiate your business brand, but your starting point is just a little further behind. If you want to find out more about how to make your brand stand out, my article about framing is a good place to start.
If you build a business brand, your audience won’t be nearly as sticky. To the extent that they like your brand, they like it mainly because of what your brand does for them—not because of who you are as a person. That makes brand pivots or extensions more difficult.
You should build a business brand if you plan to sell a physical product, if you do not wish to pigeon-hole your personal identity, if you have plans to sell your company at some point, or if your personal name is non-brandable.
The personality-driven business brand is a hybrid between the personal brand and the corporate brand. It is separate from its founder’s personal identity, but uses the founder as a highly visible champion of the brand.
|👍 Can name it whatever you want||👎 A lot of value is tied up in your presence|
|👍 Your business has a human face|
|👍 Strong differentiation|
|👍 Easier to get attention & build trust|
|👍 Easier to outsource tasks|
The personality-driven business brand is the perfect middle ground between the two other options.
If you’re not looking to build a pure personal brand, I recommend that you pursue a hybrid model rather than a pure corporate brand. People want to do business with other people: you’re enabling them to do that, while enjoying all the advantages associated with a traditional brand strategy.
Robson, David. “Neuroscience: why do we see faces in everyday objects?” BBC Future (blog). July 30, 2014. BBC. ↩
Hartmann, Tilo. “Parasocial Interaction, Parasocial Relationships, and Well-Being.” In book: The Routledge Handbook of Media Use and Well-Being pp. 131–144. Routledge. ↩
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