Can Public Figures Craft (and Measure) an Ethos That Rings True?

personal brand, values

Marca Global, Colleen Birdnow Brown, personal brand

By Colleen Birdnow Brown, Founder, Marca Global®

I greatly enjoyed reading Trip O’Dell’s thoughts on having a personal ethos (as opposed to a “personal brand”) in his Aug. 6 editorial in Fast Company (“You Are Not a Brand”).

O’Dell is at his best here when he discusses the dimensions of authenticity that get left out when we craft personal brands:

Ironically, ‘brand’ is a concept with an identity crisis. The idea of “personal brand” sounds phony because it is. Brands are carefully contrived; they are not real. Brands are flat, soulless, and artificial “personalities” designed to convince others that the brand is something it is not.

The rise of social media in the 2000s was contagious to the degree that leading platforms coaxed large user bases to use their profiles as vehicles for crafting and promoting “personal brands,” individual phenomena whose arcs mirrored the ascendance of the media themselves. Remember Tila Tequila from the MySpace days?

Now we have YouTube vloggers and Instagram celebs who have refined personal brand-building to the point of farce: Faking travel shots, self-destructing in ill-advised bids to one-up other personalities in the incessant war for attention, or most recently, faking motorcycle accidents (complete with suspiciously staged beverages). 

To me, these examples are the apex (or rock bottom, depending on your perspective) of the personal branding inauthenticity that O’Dell decries. Yet, without swimming in these waters, worthy public figures like corporate leaders, artists, actors and athletes may never get the chance to do their best work.

O’Dell advances the idea of “personal ethos” as a deeper, more resonant public expression of self that transcends crass, two-dimensional self-promotion: “[Personal ethos] sounds so much better than “brand” doesn’t it? Where a “brand” is artificial and phony, ethos is an authentic expression of your values and identity as a leader. Ethos includes your accomplishments, mastery, reputation, knowledge, and credibility.”

How Much of Your Ethos Can Be Measured and Managed?

O’Dell makes an interesting Aristotilian analogy when breaking down what he sees as the fundamental elements of an ethos: “Aristotle is the father of Western philosophy because he didn’t focus on likes, engagement, or followers. Aristotle focused on the nature of authenticity; what it means to be real but also persuasive. He broke the requirements for persuasiveness into four simple elements: ethos (reputation/authority), logos (logic), pathos (feeling), and kairos (timing).”

I would be the last to argue that every facet of an ethos is reducible to a metric. (Omit things like your presence and pathos and all of a sudden you’re in the same race to the bottom as the mass attention seekers.)  But understanding your reputation and authority does have a quantitative dimension, one that can be measured far beyond page views and followers.

When taking stock of yourself, understanding these factors can help you see—and remedy—the sometimes-fatal gaps that exist between the wonderful things you believe about yourself and what the market actually thinks. (Fun fact: the things you see when you Google yourself are just the tip of the iceberg; the subtle causal factors impacting what you see are wildly complex and take sustained effort to catalog, much less manage.) 

This goes beyond remediation: If the gatekeeper of your next opportunity needs additional evidence that your ethos is more than cosmetic branding, you can prove your reputation, credibility and authority. This creates serious leverage for an author seeking a book deal, an athlete working with an agent to propose contract terms or the person who wants to make a case to party brass that they’re the one who should have access to donor coffers when primary season hits.

If you can articulate and live your ethos, you have a stronger story than anyone with just a “brand.” And if you can prove your reputation and authority, your ethos will be a master key for countless doors of opportunity.