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The best books on Personal Branding

recommended by Cynthia Johnson

Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding by Cynthia Johnson

Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding
by Cynthia Johnson


We all have a brand, whether we want to or not, says Cynthia Johnson—the digital marketing expert and author of Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding. Here she selects five of the best books to help you build a better personal brand, and thereby boost your career.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding by Cynthia Johnson

Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding
by Cynthia Johnson

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You’ve selected five of the best personal branding books for us to discuss. Let’s start with the basics: what is a personal brand, and what power does it have?

Personal branding, from my perspective, is essentially just the evolution of our resumes. It’s everything people can find out about us online. It’s the story that’s being told when we’re not around, and it’s a thing that either hinders or helps our future opportunities. If we’re not in control of it, or if we don’t understand what it is or where it is, then it’s hindering us a lot more than it’s helping.

It’s important for people to realise that a personal brand is unavoidable. At this point, having nothing about you online is oftentimes worse than having bad things about you. So that is the basis of personal branding.

In your book Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding, you discuss brand development and growth from a personal perspective, and coach people on how to use strategies of personal branding to their own advantage. Could you tell us about your own personal brand and how you developed it?

Absolutely. Very early on I was using it for career advancement. This happens a lot, right? You’re either laid off, or you have a new job, or you’re looking to move into a different space and you’re thinking, ‘no one’s really listening to me.’ At the time I was in my early twenties, and didn’t have as much long-term experience as some of my colleagues, but in my field (digital marketing) experience isn’t always as important as ambition to learn.

So I just started talking about the things that I thought were fascinating. I began hosting Twitter chats, and I being very vocal about any problems I came up against, or things that I was seeing and found interesting. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. It slowly built into this thing where people were looking to the Twitter chats and the places I was writing because they were going through the same thing, and then they were writing about me in this very specific area.

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I limited my use of social media to work, primarily. My goal at the time was to trick the ad engines into thinking I was someone else, because the way digital marketing works in most cases is the more people talk about you in relation to a topic, then the more you become that topic and are suggested to people looking for it. So I kept most of the content I put out focused on work and the things I wanted to do, and it grew really quickly because of that hyper-focus.

What was really interesting was that it got to the point where I was so good at developing this work version of myself that I couldn’t even have a conversation with my own grandmother without her talking to me about my work. So many people these days are finding out everything about you online—even your own family.

That was a really strange experience. I got engaged and people were so confused. They said to me, ‘I didn’t even know you were dating anyone!’ So, there’s definitely a fine line as with how far you want to take it. But I do think that in focusing on one area, you can also protect yourself in a lot of ways. Because, again, you are putting a lot of stuff online. There are people you don’t know online who are be watching and following you. There are some things you need to do to be careful.

Maybe I took it a little too far, but I think that that hyper-focus of the digital conversation is what helped create my own personal brand.

Interesting. A new take on ‘dress for the job you want.’ You mentioned earlier that you have a background in digital marketing. Is personal branding a form of digital marketing? Or does it extend beyond social media?

Oh, it absolutely goes beyond social media. We’re already doing it. When we’re face-to-face or on the phone with someone, we naturally adapt to the conversation and the person. For instance, you wouldn’t go to a job interview wearing a pair of jeans and sandals, because they’re inappropriate for that situation. The reason digital marketing is the primary focus when I talk about personal branding is first because it doesn’t feel natural to most people in this medium. You don’t know necessarily who’s looking for you. Second, people also feel as though it’s not authentic to create this sort of a persona, this idea of yourself. But the truth is, we do that all day long.

Digital marketing and social media are just communication tools. Until we start seeing and viewing them that way, we’re not going to be using them the right way. So that’s the reason I focus in on that area, but we’ve been creating our own personal brand since the beginning of time. It’s just now there are new tools and we’re not quite sure how to use them.

Well, that leads us naturally to the first book that you’d like to discuss in the context of personal branding: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, by Marshall McLuhan. This was first published in 1964, decades before the advent of social media. Can we still learn from it?

Yes! I think it’s important that it was published in 1964, because it goes to show that the concept of advanced communication tools is not new. This book focuses on the platform, the medium in which the content is being distributed, instead of the content being distributed. Look at it as your voice being pushed through any sort of communication device.

Study how platforms work, then leverage that in the right ways to promote your content. If you’re creating content first, you’ll get lost in the mix. You find this a lot: people get very frustrated because they’re putting out this amazing content but no one sees it. Well, study Instagram a little bit more because if you can figure out why this is happening, a lot of times you can follow money or the company’s newest release—you can start to see where to focus. So, take Facebook. And Facebook owns Instagram. What are their corporate goals? Thinking like that can really help.

Okay, I think I follow you. We need to be presenting our information in a form that works for the medium we’d like to share it in.

This book will help change the way you think about digital marketing tools or social media tools, or any sort of communication device. Really focus on what do they do and how do they work first, and then create the content.

McLuhan suggests that the dominant media forms tell us about society. So, what does Twitter or Instagram tell us about today’s world?

Obviously it’s a much older book, but basically the idea is that every action—online or in media—and our response to those actions, is just an extension of who we are as a society or group and what we believe in. What we’re reading as a whole is an expression of what we are interested in. What we’re ‘liking’ is an expression of what we’re interested in. So we are essentially feeding this . . . I hate to say beast, but that’s the idea, right?

Instagram works like this: we put out content, people like it. If people like it, more people see it. Now they’ve learned what people like, and they’re trying to enhance the experience. So every time they make an algorithm change there’s a little bit of a bumpy road, but essentially the idea is that everything we’re reading is an extension of who we are, and everything we’re putting out is a response to what we are asking for more of. It’s an input, output system, basically.

Right. The algorithms themselves reflect what people are interested in, and exaggerate those tendencies further. Book number two is Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s How Google Works. Why do you recommend this book in the context of personal branding?

What happens is that we look at things Google, or Facebook, and we see these big corporate enterprises. We don’t see the fact that there are people inside running them, and there have been hurdles. Did you know that Google almost sold to Yahoo for, like, $200,000 before they became the greatest search engine in the world? So, it’s important, I think, to get the human perspective, to read about the people running these companies, because it lightens our approach.

It’s not so frustrating if you can connect to it, and it’s so much easier to connect to the human side of anything than to a large corporation that half the world is convinced is evil. It’s really just people sitting in an office trying to do the right thing, whatever the right thing is for them. That perspective and understanding, of seeing sort of how it grew and the ideologies and philosophies from the executives’ perspective from an early stage in the company until now, I think it’s very helpful.

From the perspective of someone working for a literary website, always having to think about algorithms—and Google’s ‘spiders,’ which are really very arachnid in my imagination—means it becomes almost impossible to think of Google as a body of people and not an enormous computer or at least a very faceless international organisation.

Yes. We start to see them as these governing entities, and the truth is they’re not. They’re not governments. If they want us to use their tools in a certain way, they should make better tools. Also, it’s important to know that people make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes or loopholes are a great advantage in marketing.

Finding these loopholes can advantageous in a lot of ways. In a way, that’s what marketing is. It’s: How do we leverage what’s given to us to get it in front of people? How do we make sure that that content is something that they want more of? Looking at it from the human perspective, it leaves a little room for errors.

What sort of loopholes?

I’ll give you an example. An old loophole used to be—they fixed it at some point—if you went to, if you had ever signed up for Twitter advertising, no matter whether you had used it or not, you could get to a URL that no one knew about. That URL would allow you to submit for verification. And if you had ever uploaded anything to iTunes, you would get automatically verified.

A fast-track way to appearing more official.

Things like that. You could bulk verify too. You could put an entire Excel sheet into their system and verify it. But very few people knew about it. A similar one was, if you wanted to be verified on Facebook or Instagram, if you downloaded their Celebrity app you could submit yourself to be verified. Of course, people figure it out and then they change them. But that sort of thing.

Gaming the system, figuring out little ways of making it work to your advantage. Got it. Well, let’s talk about the next book, which is rather different. This is Extreme You, by Sarah Robb O’Hagan.

Sarah became a CMO at Nike and Gatorade in her 20s. She launched Flywheel Sports. She’s just insane. And everything she did was an extension of who she was. Her personal brand was from was from the moment she woke up until the end of the day. She’s from New Zealand, she’s extremely sporty. Here’s someone who just knew who they were, knows who they are, and was able to apply it in everything she did at this very high level.

It’s just fascinating. You asked if personal branding is just digital marketing. No. It’s a lot of things, and I think when it comes to the story she tells, there’s very little that she did that wasn’t personal, in a good way.

Yes. I see what you mean. But Sarah Robb O’Hagan has been a global president of enormous companies. She’s also a mother and an endurance athlete. The mind boggles about how much she must get done on a daily basis. How much energy she must have. This begs the question: how much of this is personal branding, and how much is simply being an extraordinary individual? Does this book teach us we need to become extraordinary to build a better brand?

No. We just have to know that we already are extraordinary. The idea of branding is to be unique enough to stand out among the things that are just like you. As people, we tend to fall into the ‘everybody else’ syndrome because we forget who we are.

She’s a mother and an extreme athlete and an executive. But none of that sounds so extraordinary if you think that all of us know mothers and most of us will know endurance athletes. But half the time, we don’t even know they are endurance athletes. It’s how she’s presented it, and how she understands and knows that to its core, that’s what’s extraordinary. Not necessarily just her doing it, more so the way that she owns every element of it and has her priorities straight. It’s something I think we could all do a little bit more of.

Okay, that makes sense. But I wonder if this is one of the things that makes personal branding into a fraught subject for so many people. It gets caught up in existential questions about people’s sense of who they really are, how they want to be seen, and whether those two things align. Put like that, devising a personal branding strategy sounds like an emotional deep-dive.

Yes. I think it does have to be like that, a bit. Anytime you step out of your box and do something new, everyone that knows you is a little confused. But they’ll get over it. Any time you’re doing something that stands out, someone somewhere won’t like it.

You just have to be okay with a certain amount of criticism. Not a ton, but a certain amount. The other thing is, the more you put yourself out there, the more you run the risk of being wrong sometimes. That’s okay too, but you have to be okay with that. Those are the three main things that get in the way.

Everything else is technical, right? If you know what you want to say, saying it becomes easy. Understanding where to put it and how to do it, those are the technical elements. But at its core, if you’re not comfortable or if you feel like you’re not being genuine, then it’s never going to work.

“If you’re not comfortable, or if you’re not being genuine, it’s never going to work”

There was this woman—I tell this story a lot because it was what flipped a switch in my own mind—who was a national security advisor for the Bushes, the Clintons, through to Obama. She was saying how she gets so mad about these talking heads on television: that they all have an agenda, and they’re not painting security situations in the right way.

She said: ‘I feel like I could speak to it in a more honest and unbiased way” I said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ And she said: ‘Oh, no. I’m a political careerist, not a pundit. We don’t do that. We just do our job.’ Then—I don’t know why—I replied: ‘Then if the world falls apart, it might be your fault. You have the answer, and you didn’t say anything.’ Now she’s really doing well, I see her all over the place.

So I think we have to switch the way we’re think about personal branding—from a self-promotion and vanity tool to: if you’re the right person, you need to speak up because otherwise all the people speaking up are seen as the experts, when they’re not. We’re getting a lot of bad information. Information without any basis of knowledge. That is something I think people can really take into consideration. If they did, we would have a more fulfilled, more educated world.

Let’s talk about book number four, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. This is by Kevin Kelly, whose work comes up regularly in our discussions at Five Books. Why this book, and why in the context of personal branding?

You know, they forced the cast of The Matrix to read this book before they started filming. A lot of the content was based on this book. The first paper on the idea that we may already be living in a computer simulation was published after the movie, and this book was the basis of The Matrix. It goes down this rabbit hole of where machines begin and end, and where we fit into that. The entire idea is that as we move into this revolutionary, technology-driven world, we then also become parts of that.

An example would be genetic modification, implants, any type of medical devices. It’s just like this collision of both worlds, and we see a lot of that right now with internet technology as a whole, right? Google’s goal is that the internet will be everywhere, and that’s kind of where we’re at. The internet is sort of everywhere at this point. It doesn’t exist in one single area. You can talk to the internet on your phone, you can talk to the internet in your home, you can talk to the internet in your car. So when you talk about personal branding—well, where does it begin and end? Well, it begins and ends with you.

“They forced the cast of The Matrix to read this book before they started filming”

Coming back to your earlier question, is digital marketing personal branding, well, digital marketing or digital devices in general become very personal, and so they’re kind of one and the same, eventually. I think if we’re focusing so much on personal branding as a Facebook page or as an Instagram profile, or whatever tool you want to use, we’re really limiting ourselves.

We need to think about how we think about all of it in general, and develop a philosophy . . . because the tools are going to change. They’ll always change, and you’re always going to have to learn a new one. That’ll be forever. But why we are doing it and what the purpose of it is, that I think is what needs to be redefined.

This talk of a ‘matrix,’ or at least of being immersed in an increasingly digital reality, makes me think of personal branding as choosing the avatar that you move around this parallel internet world as.

That’s part of it.

Is that how you think of it?

Well, I just think of it as an extension of myself. It’s this is what I’m doing and this is who I am, and these are what my goals are. My goal is to reach these kinds of people to do these kinds of things, and then I look at the tools and ask which one can benefit me the most in order to accomplish these goals. Then I figure it out from there. As my goal has changed, so do the tools, so does the image.

But it’s goal-led. What are my personal goals? Because something else that happens is when you become really, really good at something and become known for something—maybe it’s social media or maybe it’s design—what happens when you don’t want to do that anymore?

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You have to be able to see yourself before all of this, otherwise it’s just depressing. You end up just doing the same thing over and over again. For me, I mean, I had this whole identity: ‘The Social Media Girl.’ Well, I’m not really a girl anymore. I’m in my 30s. I can’t really just be prancing around with this cartoon face any more. And also my goals have changed, right? Now I own a business, and I talk about technology in a different way, and I’ve learned a lot.

The ability to transform ourselves comes from making sure that we’re thinking about ourselves first and then the goals. Then then it gets into strategy and tactics. If strategy and tactics are first, it’s just going to be this cycle of the same thing over and over again. There’s always new people coming up, so you just . . . you have to be rebuilding all of the time.

Interesting. Because I think that’s another issue people have with personal branding: it can feel limiting to commit to a single, unified version of yourself. We all contain multitudes. But you’re saying, don’t think of it as forever. Your image can evolve with you.

The same guy that wrote that paper about how we’re probably living in a matrix is at Oxford University. He’s on the board of something called The Future of Life Institute. The Future of Life Institute talks about technology, and on the board were Stephen Hawking, when he was around, and a computer scientist named Stuart Russell who actually created artificial intelligence. He’s at Berkeley. Elon Musk is on the board too. It’s about 12 people. Big, big names, right?

One of the names is Morgan Freeman. Why? His title is ‘science communicator.’ That’s such a perfect example of someone who’s got a growth strategy for their personal brand. He’s not just an actor now. He’s not just a face or a recognisable name. He’s also a science communicator. I think it’s brilliant. He took something he was interested in and he attached himself to it. He’ll never be a scientist, but he can be part of science. So that an example of what I’m talking about at a very high level. When you’re thinking about what your goals are and you’re putting yourself first, just some really interesting things can come out of it.

Let’s move onto your final personal branding book. This is another classic text, this time published back in 1928. So tell me about Propaganda by Edward Bernays.

This is a short read. You can also find the PDF online. I believe it was first written for The New York Times—he was a columnist for the Times—and I think it was originally published as short pieces. Propaganda is exactly what it sounds like, a short guide. If you’re going to take over the world, this is how you would do it. It through content planning, and ways that you can confuse or change the way people think about things.

He was really the father of public relations. What people don’t realise is that PR was originally called ‘propaganda.’ After World War II, that word had such negative connotations that they changed it to public relations, but PR and propaganda are one and the same. So this offers a really interesting breakdown of how little has changed in, almost, 100 years.

Everything in there, the ideas and tools, are still being used today, even down to . . . I don’t know if you remember this, but there was some controversy with a Broadway play, Hamilton. Vice-President Mike Pence went to the play and then there was an uproar. They didn’t want to perform it front of him . . . it was this whole drama. I’m not saying this was propaganda, I’m just saying that if it were, it could have come out of the book, Propaganda. Edward Bernays’ Propaganda talks about how to use Broadway as a tool. It talks about if someone builds a building, build one next to them 10 stories higher. It’s a very creative media breakdown.

You mentioned the negative connotations around the word propaganda. I spoke to Seth Godin quite recently, and he said that we are not nearly suspicious enough of marketing and marketers. Because this is exactly what so-called ‘influencers’ are up to, right? The influence of, manipulation of, opinions.

I’m sorry for anyone that disagrees, but I think that if we don’t think of it as propaganda, then we’re basically just tools for it and not really looking at what our marketing, branding, and even social media posting is doing to the world. It is so easy to believe that we cannot or are not impacting our world, but we are, every single one of us. As a marketer more generally, ethics is really important, but something for us all to consider.

Let’s assume we’re all good at it, right? If you’re listening, you’re good at it. If you’re good at it, that means people will see it. If people will see it, it will change their life in some way. We really have to dive in and ask ourselves, are we okay with that? If we’re not looking at it as propaganda and we’re just looking at it as public relations, then we might convince ourselves we are when we’re not. So from a moral point or perspective, yes, it is one and the same. Anything that you put forth can change the perspective of someone else; that’s what propaganda is.

The second thing is, the only way to combat propaganda is with propaganda. The only way to compete with PR is through PR. The only way to beat influencers is via other influencers. So when you talk about being authentic, do you genuinely care about the thing you’re pushing? Do a little research before you take on campaigns, or work with certain companies. It could be really, really useful.

So, yes, I do think it’s important. I highly suggest you read Propaganda. I talk about it in my book. PR, propaganda, and even psychology are closely tied to each other, even from a familial perspective: Charles Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Ivy Lee (the personal brand, the father of modern PR and the first person to send a press release) was brother to Laura Lee Burroughs, the author and mother to William S Burroughs. The stories of how PR came to be is quite like anything else, it started with a smaller group of people and as it grew was passed down in some way to other generations close to them.

To close, let’s go back to putting what we’ve been discussing into action. If people are worried about their personal brand—or lack of it—what action should they take today?

Take the time to really think about it. Sometimes all you really need to do is lay the foundations. That means doing the research, properly creating a plan, and taking the time to understand your story so simply that others can understand it immediately when they see your profiles. It doesn’t have to be as big of a deal as how people paint it to be. You might find you actually really enjoy it, and take the next step or the next three steps. Then you will see huge changes in what other people know about you, the opportunities that are put forth in front of you, and maybe even an overall change in how you feel about yourself.

Sometimes, in putting the things you’ve done down on paper, at first you feel: ‘oh, this is so vain,’ or: ‘I’m showing off.’ But sometimes writing it down you think: ‘I’ve done more than I thought.’ You’d be surprised at what people don’t know about you. You’re being skipped over because no one knows about you. It’s time to tell them. Put it out there and see what happens. You don’t know what you are missing out on by not doing it.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

October 18, 2019

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Cynthia Johnson

Cynthia Johnson

Cynthia Johnson is an entrepreneur, marketing professional and author. She is co-founder of Bell + Ivy, a marketing and PR firm in Santa Monica, CA, and Las Vegas, NV. Previously, she was director of marketing at RankLab, a digital marketing agency. She has been involved in influencer and marketing campaigns for PayPal, Joseph Carr Wines, and several other leading brands.  Cynthia was selected as one of the top personal branding experts of 2017 by Entrepreneur. She has has had her writing published in Forbes, Time magazine and others. Her first book Platform was published in 2019 by Penguin Random House.

Cynthia Johnson

Cynthia Johnson

Cynthia Johnson is an entrepreneur, marketing professional and author. She is co-founder of Bell + Ivy, a marketing and PR firm in Santa Monica, CA, and Las Vegas, NV. Previously, she was director of marketing at RankLab, a digital marketing agency. She has been involved in influencer and marketing campaigns for PayPal, Joseph Carr Wines, and several other leading brands.  Cynthia was selected as one of the top personal branding experts of 2017 by Entrepreneur. She has has had her writing published in Forbes, Time magazine and others. Her first book Platform was published in 2019 by Penguin Random House.