When you hear Paris Hilton’s name, what thoughts come to mind? Spoiled rich kid, dumb blonde, or brilliant entrepreneur? Some refer to Hilton as "famous for being famous," but it’s more accurate to state she is famous for being herself. Hilton branded herself the same way Mentos coined itself the "freshmaker" and Sprite declared, "image is nothing, thirst is everything." The only difference between Hilton and Sprite was that she was branding her personality as a product.

Personal branding is a concept where one can apply marketing strategies to their own persona. Companies have been doing it for years, trying to make the audience associate their product with a certain lifestyle, ideology or quality. Some argue personal branding has existed for just as long.

"[A] personal brand is the overall emotions, sentiment, feelings that people have about an individuals and how they connect to their community, their business, their friends and family," said Mitch Joel. He has written the upcoming book, 6 Pixels of Separation, that explores how online personal branding will one day rival the branding of large companies.

Everyone already has a personal brand whether they know it or not, said Joel. When a person’s name is brought up to a group of associates, the thoughts their peers connect with that person’s name is their brand. "The personal brand is again not necessarily who you are and what [your] personality is, but it’s more about how the people who surround you or that are surrounded by you uniquely and genuinely feel about you," said Joel.

This is how a personal brand differs from a personality. A personality varies in different situations but a brand is consistent. A personality is who you are, whereas a brand is how people around you perceive you to be.

The Internet has opened the doors for people to become a brand and use it to their advantage, said Joel. Through social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, people have the opportunity to present themselves in a certain way and make their name synonymous with certain ideas.

"We live in a very, very unique and different time and suddenly we have the opportunity to really put out there who we are and help that message connect to the world," said Joel. Personal branding online is about connecting yourself to certain channels and groups either for personal or financial gain.

Personal branding isn’t just for those who are outgoing said Joel. It’s for anyone wanting to connect to groups online. "Some people think ‘I’m really shy and introverted. I’m not out to self promote’– that’s not what it’s all about…Being introverted is still a personal brand," said Joel.

Melissa D. Johnson, a branding expert, also agrees with Joel. She says everyone already has a personal brand that he needs to discover. "I say everyone has a brand…it’s really all about how are you able to become aware of what your brand is and how are you able to manage it in a way that helps you get the most value for whatever it is you’re doing."

Some people choose to use their personal brand to start a dialogue within a blog, others to advertise a service. It’s a way for people to showcase a certain aspect of their identity and converse with likeminded users.

Johnson compares the Internet to a large party where it’s up to each individual brander to decide with whom he wants to communicate.

"It’s really about how do you position yourself, and the right messages you give, and the way you engage in conversation, the way that the web is moving now, it’s not about just pushing a message out there, but it’s about creating a conversation," said Johnson.

Both Johnson and Joel emphasize how your personal brand has to reflect who you really are. If there is a disconnect between your online brand and your real personality, your brand will not succeed. One thing he’s most proud of is when people meet him in real life and their response is: "Wow, he really is that way," said Joel.

While the world is on the edge of a technological revolution, the idea of identity has changed. People can choose how they wish to depict themselves. Personal branding is one way in which users can connect to each other.

Personal branders, however, must remember anything that goes on the internet lives forever. That’s why managing one’s personal brand can be as, if not more important than, creating one in the first place.

Brands of the Titans

Online personal branding is all about finding a narrow niche and making yourself the undisputed expert in that area. By harnessing the networking power and informal style of the Internet, young entrepreneurs have been able launch wildly successful careers built largely around their own personalities. All it takes is a lot of hard work and attitude. Below are a few examples of people who have transformed themselves into instantly recognizable brands, and maybe picked up a few million dollars along the way. Whether it’s sock-puppet tech commentary or punk-rock wine reviews, these start-ups know the power of personal brands.

Loren Feldman, the Web’s most notorious tech puppeteer

He’s called himself "one of the biggest assholes on the Internet." And although he won’t admit it, he’s also one of the biggest brands. The founder of video production agency 1938media, Feldman calls the idea of personal branding "bullshit." But through his fiery and controversial video blog posts and satirical puppet antics, he has built a brand as a scathingly funny tech reviewer. At this point, Feldman’s name overshadows his company’s brand by a long shot. Don’t believe us? Search ‘Loren Feldman’ and ‘1938media’ on Wikipedia and see which one has a page.

Gary Vaynerchuk, the wine guy

This hyperactive potty mouth has virtually cornered the market on the video-blogging wine evangelist. The host of Wine Library TV, with his trademark wristbands and New York Jets spit bucket, has made wine appreciation accessible to young audiences. Vaynerchuk has translated his love of wine into one of the most recognizable brands on the Internet. He was awarded the 2006 People’s Choice Vloggie in the “Cooking” and “Instructional/Educational categories” and his book 101 Wines reached No. 1 on Amazon’s food and drink book chart. With an estimated 90,000 viewers, Vaynerchuk may be the poster boy for online personal branding.

Sarah Austin, Pop17

Manhattan-based videographer and lifecaster Sarah Austin has built a brand out of, well, being Sarah Austin. This young woman began broadcasting her life over online social networks like Mogulus and Justin.TV, letting viewers follow her as she wandered around the city. She has now parlayed that into her own show, Pop17, where she offers her views on the tech industry and interviews various bloggers, vloggers, and techies. Pop17’s "About" page describes the show as “a two-to-three minute daily exploration to track, analyze and understand the new cultural phenomenon of online micro-celebrity.” She should be a guest on her own show.

Amber MacArthur, your favourite tech-talk sweetie-pie

Amber Mac got her start as a television tech columnist, but she has successfully transferred her brand of chipper tech-talk to the Internet. She has been a part of several TV and online shows, including the award-winning podcast This Week in Tech and the video cast commandN. But through it all, her bright, upbeat character has remained the same. An avid social media user, she preaches the importance of maintaining a consistent image both online and offline. She is currently working on creating a social network of her own with motivational guru Tony Robbins.

Kevin Rose, Digg founder and all-around social media whiz kid

For many people, the name Kevin Rose conjures an image of a guy sitting on his couch, drinking beer with his friend. This may not be what you would expect from the founder of a $60 million company, but it’s this laid-back image that has helped Rose connect with millions of Internet surfers across the world. With his weekly video podcast Diggnation and quirky-intellectual blog posts, he is the living embodiment of the attitude projected by his online creations.

Protecting your online brand

Remember when you posted hilarious pictures of that keg stand you did last summer? Sure, those memories of the past seem great, but they’re probably not going to help your future.

In an increasingly "online" world, many first impressions are made on the Web before they’re made in person. What first impression are you making?

Joel, the branding expert, furthers the idea that establishing a positive and consistent online brand is much more than just shameless "self-promotion." It’s about being able to "communicate who you are and your knowledge to other like-minded individuals," he writes on his blog.

Developing a brand might seem simple enough, but maintaining it will determine its success. Part of that maintenance involves controlling what comes up when people search your name online. For example, while it’s difficult to control what others may say or write about you, you do have a degree of control over what you put out on the Web yourself. William Arruda of Reach Communciations and co-author of "Career Distinction: Stand Out by Building Your Brand," says, on BloggingandBeyond.com, "You are your Google results."

Blogger and web designer Jonathan Snook of Snook.ca encourages individuals to use their real name, because "if people search for you – it makes the process quicker and easier," he writes in a blog entry. If safety is a concern, a pseudonym can be used, but "be consistent and be professional," he writes.

In terms of consistency, Snook also notes the importance of having the same logo or avatar everywhere you are on the net – a literal brand. Constantly changing your profile picture or your logo will confuse people and they’ll more easily forget who you are, he writes.

Another key to keeping your online brand on track is monitoring your image on social networks. Websites such as MySpace and Facebook let people connect, and sometimes it might feel like it’s just you and your network of friends on there. But potential employers and clients who might search you are looking too. Keep it clean, use the privacy settings offered and edit the content so that it reflects on you positively and authentically. It’s important to consider your "digital footprint," writes Eden Spodek in "How Do You Manage Your Personal Brand?" on OneDegree.ca. "When employers are using social networks, they’re checking to ensure profiles of prospective employees are ‘clean,’" she says.

Another aspect of the Web that can make or break your brand is online video. Leesa Barnes, podcasting expert and author of Podcasting for Profit, warns of the risks involved in online videos. It’s important your video reflects the audience you’re speaking to, she wrote in "3 Ways Online Videos Can Ruin Your Personal Brand," on MarketingFit.com. "If you’re teaching people how to create a six-figure income, your video better look like that," she wrote.

She also recommends not forcing yourself to put on a phony persona. "Imagine what your target market may be thinking, seeing you sweat and look uncomfortable when you’re supposed to be their empowerment queen?" Work with what you know and what your strengths are – your audience will appreciate it.

Finally, your online brand continues offline as well. If you have one brand on a blog or podcast that reflects particular aspects of your personality, but you make decisions on a daily basis that contradict that brand – it’s almost like false advertising for your audience. "Be consistent in how you present yourself and it’ll pay off in spades," writes Snook.

Along with a brand goes authenticity. Being true to yourself and your strengths will make your brand more reliable and earn you respect.

While maintaining a brand requires effort, it’s worthwhile. Whether you’re looking to branch out on your own, or to eventually work for a company – keep your brand consistent. Remember that what happens on the Internet stays there forever, so why not leave something positive?


Jessica Ireland, Rosaleen O’Mahony, Josh Freeman, Cameron MacLean and James Carruthers are students in the MA Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario.

Who R U? An Exploration of Identity at the Edge of Tech, is a collaborative feature series created by the students of the 2008 Online Journalism class at the University of Western Ontario, Instructed by Wayne MacPhail. The series looks at how technology is changing our identities and our idea of identity. Each of the nine episodes includes a feature article, a podcast (part of the rabble podcast network) and a video segment on rabbletv. We’ll feature one episode a week, each Thursday here on rabble.ca. Hope you enjoy Who R U? We welcome your feedback, as do the great students who produced the series. Thanks to all of them for sharing their work with the rabble audience.