Personal Branding: Is It Destroying Civilization?

December 13th, 2011

Remember Ickey Woods? He played running back for the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 80s and early 90s, when they were actually decent. He invented a special end zone dance called the “Ickey Shuffle.” The trendsetter for self-promotion, right? Well, the now retired Ickey (how do you go through life with that name?) is not a fan of the contemporary end zone dance. After a recent, particularly involved end zone production, Ickey offered this nugget to Yahoo Sports’ blog, Shutdown Corner:

“A lot of the celebration now is self-motivated — it’s about me – it’s not to get the fans involved, it’s unfortunate.”

Ickey offered the following criteria for why his famous shuffle was not self-centered, like current players’ celebrations: he never practiced it; he never did it at away games, only shuffling at home; he never got a penalty or a reprimand for it; it was never malicious or targeted anyone; and his motivation was to pump up the fans.

An interesting list. To what extent is self-promotion desirable, or good, or acceptable? Is it a good thing to have your own dance? And what happens for followers of Jesus, when you throw in adherence to a faith that bids us to come and die to ourselves? Am I being a buzzkill?

When I was in seminary, an Australian friend commented to me that we Americans like to toot our own horn. He said that in other countries (I think he was speaking for the rest of the civilized world), folks were less interested in self-promotion and more interested in the good of the organization. This was in 1995, before the rise of the Internet and self-publishing. Now, it’s all about positioning yourself as an expert. Self-branding was inevitable, really.

For all the newbies in the room, personal branding is….

  1. having your own presence, or digital footprint, in the form of a blog, social networking accounts, speaking, writing, a slogan, a logo, and so on,
  2. the new version of the “modern man” with a hefty Rolodex,
  3. an idea entrepreneur,
  4. this man,
  5. making yourself look like the coolest kid in class,
  6. the end of Western civilization.

I am sure the Personal Brand Professionals could provide a more comprehensive definition. And, okay, maybe it’s not the end of the world. But seriously, what’s going on?

Consider that personal branding leads to bio sketches such as this one I recently read on Twitter:

Avantgardist, serial entrepreneur, storyteller, witness of God’s goodness, family man, disciple of Jesus, lover of mankind

Or this self-description on Google Plus:

Thought leader

These descriptions come from friends, in the social networking version of the word. Nice people, I am sure. And–hypocrisy alert–you’re reading this on my blog, and I too have a Twitter account with a series of one and two word descriptions of what I do. Obviously I participate in the whole game. And part of me wishes I had started a blog with my name as the domain about ten years ago, instead of tying myself to my employer’s fortunes. (How quaint.)

But is there a downside to all of this hipsterism?

We’ve become a society of specialized individuals. We all tote around products beginning with the letter – the word – ”i”. Our young adults all grew up getting trophies for just stepping on the field. There is no visible shortage of self-esteem.

But when we’re all experts at Me, what happens to the concept of team? What happens to the welfare of an organization when the primary goal of most members of the organization is to look out for themselves?

Perhaps it is time for a backlash against personal branding. Perhaps we need to tone down the half-baked personal marketing campaigns. Perhaps we need to focus a little more on our churches, organizations, friends, and families. Or does this just make me Ickey, with a partially realized sense of self, neither President of Me, Inc. nor fully committed to others: the Generation Xer who has just enough sense of the old order to manifest a little irony in our collective self-aggrandizement. God help us when we are all someday masters of our personal domains.

Now, back to working on my blog.

Len Wilson is Senior Leadership Editor for Abingdon Press. He blogs at

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