Authenticity is NOT a personal brand strategy

The pursuit of an ‘authentic’ personal brand is causing stress and anxiety for many, while it isn’t the silver bullet it’s made out to be. Let’s put the concept back into perspective.

Last Friday, I joined Carlos and Laurence of the Happy Startup School for a fireside chat on how to build a personal brand, the non-icky way. Lately, almost every conversation I’ve had on personal branding quickly veers towards the pursuit of authenticity. This conversation was no different.

Many of us are deeply uncomfortable with selling ourselves, and at first glance, authenticity seems the escape hatch out of that discomfort zone.

Chatting with Dr. Carlos Saba and Laurence MacCahill, founders of the Happy Startup School (and two of the most authentic people I’ve encountered online)

The popular wisdom seems to be: H2H (human to human) works to get customers. Be your full self, people will respond to it. Erase the boundaries between the professional and the personal. Be vulnerable, don’t be afraid to openly admit fears, failures, and setbacks.

Yet, judging by the questions I get lately, the escape hatch seems to feel a lot more like a trap door. And it’s causing a lot of anxiety and stress.

People feel like they are held at ransom: “Pay up with your private life, and you will get your professional success.”

After leaving the chat with Carlos and Laurence, I wondered, is authenticity still making us feel less icky? And is it getting us the customers that popular wisdom tells us it will?

To turn my work brain off, I went online to search for some inspiration for a weekend workout. Yet even there I could not escape the tyranny of authenticity. I ran into Wim Hof.

If you look up ‘authentic’ in the dictionary, there is a picture of Wim Hof.

For those of you who don’t know Wim: he is a Dutch athlete and wellness guru also known as the Ice-Man. He has been building his body of work for decades, became a minor celebrity in Holland, and recently took off globally through an appearance on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix show Goop Lab.

Wim doesn’t do styling. Wim doesn’t do de-cluttering. Wim doesn’t change his vocabulary.

And yet… Wim is a global phenomenon.

While watching his video mini-course, I was having fun imagining what it must be like to be Wim’s marketing manager.

Wim, maybe we want to put the plastic crocodiles away? Wim, could we clear the breakfast off the counter? Hmm… should we really shoot this in Wim’s kitchen? Does the fake grotto background kinda distract?

I can’t help but love Wim for being totally, unapologetically himself. And his marketing team must be keenly aware of Wim’s effect on people and decided to leverage his authenticity.

Wim’s example adds to the anecdotal evidence that putting your full self in the window display is a sure strategy for professional success.

Is Wim’s success more proof that authenticity works, and could work for anyone?

Over the weekend, I mulled over the conversation with the Happy Startup School community and my Wim Hoff encounter.

I work with many talented professionals who already find it hard enough to sell themselves well, and I don’t like to see more anxiety piling on for all the wrong reasons.

Before you put all of your eggs in the authenticity basket, it’s worth clearing up some of the misunderstandings around the concept.

Being authentic doesn’t work for everyone at every stage

If you pursue authenticity as a means to get customers, you should consider more than anecdotal evidence of its success.

Does authenticity really help you to get customers?

Hiring practices at big firms in the US give us some interesting clues. Though it’s not a 1:1 fit, the psychology of hiring employees is very similar to the psychology involved in hiring an independent consultant or contractor.

Research* has shown that during job interviews, only the top 10% of job applicants benefit from the display of authenticity and vulnerability.

Or to put it plainly,

being authentic and vulnerable gives you an extra edge once your expertise is established.

If you were part of the other 90%, your authenticity might make you more memorable, but it won’t get you hired.

This might be helpful to keep in mind when you are at the start of your career, you’ve just started your business, or if you are making the switch into a new professional field.

Authenticity can muddle your profile

The point of building a personal brand is to establish yourself in the minds of your audience as THE professional to help them solve a particular problem in their life or work.

But while all of us are so busy trying to show our full selves, we can forget about the perception that we are actually building in the minds of our audience.

A case in point from my own experience: I regularly need great brand copywriters. I follow a number of potential collaborators on Linkedin. Some are great in helping me understand what type of work they would be the perfect fit for through thoughtful posts that reflect on their work, philosophy and lessons learned.

Then there is one person who clearly follows the authenticity playbook, and is constantly busy being her full ‘authentic’ self, with posts stretching way into the personal sphere. I actually had forgotten she was a copywriter, to begin with.

Authenticity might help people build a fuller picture of you as a person (which can help build trust and preference), but it’s worth checking if that fuller picture isn’t obscuring what people might hire you for.

At the end of the day, having fans is nice, but having customers is crucial.

If authenticity equals ‘me, me, me’, it can turn people off

While the pressure is constantly on us to be our authentic selves, it’s easy to lose sight of the other.

No one likes a narcissist.

I have actually grown some resentment towards the above-mentioned copywriter: although her resume suggests that she is open to my business, she clearly has no space for me in her work-life.

She gives me no clues that she understands nor cares for the copywriting challenges that I face. As a matter of fact, I get the impression that she’d rather be something else than a copywriter. I certainly don’t get the impression that she would give her full self to my projects.

And maybe that makes me old-fashioned, but I still like to hire people who I think will do a great job for me.

Your authenticity only works for your business if it works for your customers.

Authenticity isn’t an escape hatch from the discomfort of selling yourself

We all find it humiliating to have to ask for business. We hope our product is so great, it will sell itself (fingers crossed it goes viral). We pray others will do the selling for us (hurrah for brand ambassadors!).

The authenticity trend seemingly offers us a way around the icky side of promoting our work: wrap the sales pitch in a personal story and it won’t feel like we’re selling ourselves.

It’s a little mind trick that allows us to fool ourselves into thinking we’re not really being icky.

But…

what originated as the simple notion that marketing is more effective and enjoyable when it is less manipulative and more human, is starting to feel very manipulative indeed.

Getting up in the morning and planning how we can come across as authentic as possible that day is pretty much the antithesis of authenticity.

When we reluctantly trade in our privacy and show off our full selves, our families, our love lives, our failures, our successes and our mental and physical health for marketing success, that’s next level icky.

Authenticity is NOT actually a brand strategy

When so much of our focus is on authenticity, we almost forget that it is not a strategy on its own.

Authenticity is merely a quality, or condition, of your expression.

A good brand strategy outlines what you will do and say to get your ideal clients or customers on board.

Being original and personable in how you execute that strategy can certainly help, but don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that being your authentic self is a solid plan to grow your business.

Let’s go back to the example of Wim Hof. I don’t think he is proof that authenticity works and could work for everyone.

Rather, I think he is an example of Wim authenticity done right.

Wim has earned his authenticity. It adds credibility to his expertise. He shows sincere care for people like me who want to be healthier.

Other than that, his brand/marketing department uses a pretty conventional playbook, which seems pretty non-icky to me as a customer. He understands that to make a difference in people’s lives, he needs to sell courses. No smoke and mirrors.

If the quest for authenticity is causing you sleepless nights, please take heart that it’s not the silver bullet popular culture makes it out to be. You don’t have to trade in your private world for your professional success.

Create a good brand strategy for yourself. Get to know your customers. Talk about what you do and who you do it with, with all the joy and passion that you feel for your work and the people you serve.

Chances are, people will love you for it, and you will be the first on the list when they next need an expert.

*As documented by organizational psychologist Adam Grant in his WorkLife Podcast episode ‘Authenticity is a double-edged sword’. An amazing information source that offers up many more science-backed arguments against authenticity as a silver bullet.

If you are struggling with your personal brand strategy, we’d love to help you get the brand you deserve. Check out our 8-week online program, Brand The Change Academy. The next cohort kicks off this September. Applications are open now.

Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.