The Downfall of the Institution, the Rise of the Personal Brand and How It’s Changing the Game

By J.W. Dicks Esq., & Nick Nanton Esq.

I (Nick) was sitting in a sushi bar in Los Angeles, thousands of miles away from my hometown of Orlando, FL. Having found a table, I asked the waiter to assemble my usual selections which included one order of Maguro, one order of Yellowtail, and one Steamed Shrimp, Cucumber and Cream cheese roll with a drizzle of eel sauce (the Nick Roll, as my friends have come to call it), and then I began to do what I do most of the time when I’m alone – I took out my iPhone to occupy myself.

I checked emails, read and posted a few tweets, and checked my newsfeed on Facebook to see what my friends were up to. I also engaged in a newer activity, “checking in” via geotargeted apps and games like Loopt and Foursquare (If you don’t know what these are, you should! Just Google them!). This particular meal was during a period of time several months ago, before Foursquare had been brought to the iPhone, so I checked-in via Loopt. Much to my surprise, I noticed that a friend that I went to law school with and who also lives in Orlando, had also checked in on Loopt and was just a few miles away from me in Los Angeles. I immediately sent him a text to say ‘hi!’ and to tell him I was just a few miles away. This prompted us to try and coordinate a chance to meet; the meeting would be for the sake of novelty, if nothing else.

This occurrence prompted us to take stock of what many of us do to bide our time (check-in, tweet, post on Facebook), and how it was not only becoming second nature, but what that means for the way we are going to conduct business in the future. Based on these hyper-connected, entertaining, and informative ways of passing information from person to person, we are really leaving behind a trail of everything we’ve ever done, everywhere we’ve ever gone, every opinion we’ve ever had, and, thanks to some less than scrupulous folks who tend to overshare and take pictures with their phones, everything we’ve ever eaten. You might be wondering where this trend is headed and what it all means.

Well, in the context of “The New Economy”, this trail is essentially a “Personal Brand Map”. It’s a record of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, all mapped out in chronological order, from which anyone in our networks (or increasingly, even someone who we haven’t allowed in our networks yet) can review and form an opinion about us.

In the New Economy, some might say that our Personal Brands are increasingly important. We’d go further, saying they’re all we’ve got left.

Think about it. The internet and technology have brought about the following changes:

• Removed the barriers of information flow, allowing us to find anything we want, anytime we want it.

• Made transparency a way of life, allowing the general public to piece together a story even if you aren’t telling it yourself – you can’t hide most things anymore even if you wanted to!

• Leveled the playing field by giving everyone on Earth an instant platform to publish anything you can think of, including thoughts, muses, obsessions, hobbies, photos, videos, business ideas, invitations to social events, collaborative efforts, and more.

We’ve seen this technology bring about the rise of the Personal Brand, while we have simultaneously witnessed the downfall of the institutions that we grew up believing in. This is a total game changer.

We’ve seen the banking industry fail us through credit crises and mortgage meltdowns. We’ve seen over-inflated real estate prices which are due, in large part, to the previous bottleneck on real-time information flow. In the past, we’d have to wait for all the data from real estate sales to drip down from title companies and city and county records in order to get a gauge on what was happening. Even worse, we might have to go to a physical location to view the records. Now you can find that all online, from anywhere in the world, with the click of a mouse. Simply revolutionary!

We’ve witnessed many a corporate meltdown due to lowered barriers to entry. For instance, it is now a very acceptable practice for any business person to schedule a meeting at a Panera Bread or Starbucks location. No formal office is needed, just a place to meet. We’ve also seen the increase in shared spaces replacing the more traditional executive suites and even some less traditional solutions like existing businesses renting out offices that aren’t being used to new businesses. We have seen increased international competition from countries like China and India, who are in a venerable race to bring their high-talent, low-cost human capital to America, with no plane tickets needed, using nothing but Skype and email. And, finally, we’ve witnessed those willing to compete and incur lower overhead in order to gain market share that previously would have seemed untouchable. This accumulation of corporate meltdowns has left many unemployed and without the pensions, retirements, or the security we always thought would be there.

This is a major shake up. In spite of the fact that many are calling it a “lost decade” (2000-2009), we instead look back and see a time of painful discovery and major shifts in the way information is shared, received, and processed. No longer do we look to journalists in last Friday’s newspaper to determine what movies we want to watch or what restaurants we should try out; rather, we look to social networks to see what our friends think and where they are right now.

There has been a shift of power. Power is now at our fingertips – in the hands of the many, not in the hands of the few.

So, how do all of these powerful cultural and economic shifts affect you? You, as an individual, have become your own brand, whether you like it or not. You can control your brand to your own advantage or you can let your personal brand be run by others who comment on what you are doing. In fact, whether you choose to document your life and your business or not, chances are someone around you is going to document it for you. You don’t have to post photos of yourself on Facebook or videos of yourself on YouTube for such photos and videos to end up there. You don’t have to post your thoughts on a particular concept or issue online, for them to end up on Twitter, as those around you are doing it for you whether you like it or not. So, the real choice you need to make (before someone does it for you), is to control your personal brand.

The good news is, if you learn how to effectively control your brand, you can also control your life in ways that were never before possible.

Think about it this way: in the past, if you were a superstar employee, you still got paid what your employer thought you were worth. Now, you can take your brand as a superstar employee to the internet, sharing your knowledge and building a following of people who are interested in your ideas and the projects you are working on. You can become an “internal evangelist” and a thought leader for your industry – all while working for someone else. This buzz about you in turn raises your profile and credibility, which then gives rise to the notion that no longer will you be an employee with limited options. You will now be a free agent operating no differently than the sports stars who are able to offer their skill(s) to the highest bidder.

This new ‘free agent’ marketplace is already occurring in limited scope through the use of social media sites like LinkedIn that are dedicated to connecting people for business, as well as through sites like Facebook that allow you to share text, video, audio, and even create custom apps to let people know what you do. Not to mention, we are just now in the early stages of internet platforms and tools to make those kinds of connections work to your advantage. The future will give rise to more of what one of our clients, Chuck Boyce, calls the “Independent Executive”. This label applies to someone who takes their knowledge from previous employment and sets out to create their own destiny, lifestyle, and income on their own terms. This philosophy takes personal branding to the next level, because it is not just important for the professional or the entrepreneur, but it is now very important for employees who are happy to work in someone else’s environment but who want to be recognized, both financially and emotionally, for their very real contributions.

In the past, an unhappy employee had limited choices:

• Do nothing but complain (with increasing disgruntlement)
• Quit and go look for a new job (which has no guarantee of being any different)
• Beg the boss for a change in circumstances (power, money, responsibility) without having any real say in the process

Now, in the new “Branded Economy”, you are all allowed to play the role you want in building your brand and building your value. If you don’t take control, you will risk becoming irrelevant and relegated to the position of a cog in someone else’s wheel. You will be at the mercy of a third party whose self-interest will always outweigh your own – just like the players in the sitcom The Office and the comic strip “Dilbert”.

Now that the game has changed, what will you do to control your own destiny? As we have gotten known for telling our clients, we’ll now tell you the same: You have the choice, to Brand or Die!