In the film “Miracle,” the story of the underdog USA hockey team that struck gold at the 1980 Olympics, there’s a running theme where coach Herb Brooks asks his players their name, their hometown and who they play for. For the latter answer, they say “University of Minnesota,” “Boston University” and so on, to Brooks’ stoic consternation.
After a lackluster performance in an exhibition, Brooks has had enough and has the team skating suicides for hours, to the point where they’re exhausted and heaving. Finally, eventual captain Mike Eruzione yells out his name and where he’s from.
“Who do you play for?” Brooks asks.
“I play for the United States of America!” Eruzione replies.
Brooks has finally heard the answer he wants, and tells his players they can finally call it a night.
Now this scene comes to mind every time I hear a college (mis)use the term “personal branding.”
If you mean “personal branding” as making sure a Google search first finds the good things you’ve done, your LinkedIn profile and positive impressions — instead of just photos of you at a frat party — then I agree. If you mean “personal branding” in terms of finding things you enjoy and can do better than just about anybody, and trying to figure out how to do that for a living, then I applaud.
If you mean “personal branding” as the equivalent of “make sure everything you do puts your own marketability and brand first,” then you’re doing students a disservice. And in the process, you’re contributing to the customer service shortcomings facing the higher education industry.
The fact of the matter is unless you go straight from college graduate to running your own startup (a very tiny percentage), ultimately you’re servicing someone else’s brand. Whether you’re a pro basketball player, reporter or cashier, putting your own need for branding ahead of your team or employer is not a successful formula. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t infuse personality, but ultimately you’re a part of a bigger brand.
In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Your Brand is the Exhaust Fume of the Engine of Your Life,” Nilofer Merchant perfectly explains that “the brand follows your work,” not vice versa. Any brand is what you do, who you work with to make it happen and what you care about. Creating a “personal brand” is a byproduct — not a determinant — of doing things the right way.
The “personal branding” interpretation is especially a challenge at many institutions where every school, department and office wants to “express themselves” and in turn hire graphic design students they encourage to “express themselves.” They run off and design logos that don’t use the right colors or fonts … or even the name (or right name) of the institution. (And they often are quick to design logos and slow to design useful content.) The main identity of the college is lost in countless subbrands that distract and confuse, diluting and contradicting the idea of working across the institution to better serve students.
Often departments will contact us to say they’ve hired an art student to “redesign their page” (we have a CMS and an aim for a common look and experience across oswego.edu), and ask how they get started. Besides training, we tell them to start with content. An awkward silence tends to follow. Signing up an art student to “make a website pop” without a content strategy is like repainting a restaurant without giving any thought to what’s on the menu. I don’t go to a restaurant because of its design, I go because I want a good meal. (I also feel like the “any art student can build a professional website” is demeaning to the industry. I wouldn’t tell the art department to just hire an English major to teach their courses because he must be good with words. This isn’t a dig against art students but a statement: Web communication is about subject matter and knowing how to tell your story, not merely making pretty pictures.)
If you’re looking for the ultimate example of the personal brand damaging the institutional brand, look no further than Syracuse University’s Twitter account earlier this year. At the end of the final regular season home game, a mysterious tweet under the university account appeared to be coming up with one of the biggest sports scoops of the year:
The link was to a blog by a local community college student full of speculation but empty of reliable sourcing. At that and just about every subsequent news conference, Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim repeatedly and with increasing exasperation denied he planned to retire, and he hasn’t. Why would the SU account — an official and popular representation of the institution — start a rumor so wrong and detrimental? Is it possible that someone trying to make a name for themselves in the business saw this as a great chance to put over their personal brand? Even if it was at the expense of the university trusting them enough to gain this valuable experience?
When I hire student bloggers, vloggers and videographers, I encourage them to show personality and honesty, because our students are our top brand ambassadors. But they ultimately understand this opportunity is also about supporting and enhancing the college brand. I would hope all of our employees at every level are about helping our students more than their own “personal brand” or creating a “personal brand” for a department or office that runs counter to what we’re trying to accomplish across campus. Helping students should be a core part of any college’s brand in the first place.
So ultimately: Who do you play for?