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On Personal Branding, Being Authentic, and Avoiding Irrelevancy

by Shari Graydon

Speaking to a group in 2017

I’m speaking to a select group of rising star business women. In mid-sentence, I pause to pull off my suddenly too-warm jacket as I smile and murmur “hot flash”. At the end of my talk, the marketing VP of a major credit card company approaches.

“You’re so authentic,” she exclaims. “That really works for your brand.”

This makes me deeply uncomfortable on several counts. Can authenticity be a brand? Aren’t the two concepts mutually exclusive? (And wouldn’t it be better if authenticity were everyone’s default and we left the branding to the makers of ketchup and running shoes?)

Having decried the objectification of women in advertising and pop culture for decades, I resist the notion that we should all seek to commodify ourselves. Doing so feels reminiscent of laws that treated women like chattel, and practices that continue to barter young women’s sexual and reproductive labour around the world.

Also, how do you actually connect with people at a human level if a part of what’s driving your interactions is the conscious cultivation of your “unique selling proposition”? Brands are essentially ways to distinguish yourself from the competition; brands vie for category share and market dominance. Even if they’re complementary, their relationships are often transactional in nature, in the service of generating business.

Then I get to wondering what “authenticity” means in this instance. What if I’m really just exploiting my body’s temperature fluctuations as a means of cultivating relatability. Can you still be authentic if you’re deliberate about what you reveal and to whom? (And would I have as readily confessed my hormonal roller coaster to a mixed audience?)

This also leads me to question whether authenticity is an asset when you’re a woman over 50 in a world that often treats you like your best-before-date passed several decades before — never mind that you feel like you’re at your creative and productive peak.

Charlotte, age 2, in her sticker phase

Maybe I should stop flagging my impending irrelevance with references to my grandchildren. (Technically, Sam, Charlotte and Harrison, as the offspring of my stepdaughter, are not my grandchildren. But they don’t know that the absence of my blood in their veins renders me extraneous. And my heart doesn’t either.)

That’s why lately, in pursuit of motivating people to care about the chronic absence of women’s voices in public conversations, informing the decisions being made about public policy, I’ve been sharing photographs of five-year-old Samuel kissing week-old Harrison, and three-year-old Charlotte sporting a sticker on the tip of her nose.

Sometimes, given the story I tell immediately before the images, and the comments I make about the kind of future I’d like to see these kids inherit, people get teary-eyed about their own aspirations for the children in their lives. Research has documented how much more likely that emotional connection is to inspire them to respond positively to the call to action I’m about to make. That’s why I always supplement data with stories, and why I put names and images to the people in them whenever possible.

Is it possible to be authentic and manipulative at the same time? And if the end goal is greater equality for women and a tide that raises all boats, benefiting men and children too, is that OK?

Let me know how you reconcile any or all of these issues…