The Internet and social media, in particular, have turned the world into a global marketplace for attention. People, products, companies, political parties, NGOs and governments all need to present a “digital image”. How to be noticed and perceived positively in the digital space is a tedious and often painful exercise in self-promotion.

It can also be hugely rewarding.

Social media doesn’t make you famous

Here is the hard truth: social media doesn’t make you famous. Ellen Degeneres doesn’t have 55 million Twitter followers because she knows how to tweet. Apple doesn’t have millions of fans because it knows how to use Facebook. Every Instagram celebrity you can name has done other things besides making awesome posts. Every YouTube celebrity has peppered their way to fame with live appearances, participation in gaming tournaments or singing contests, or appeared on television.

It is most of all the things you do OFFLINE which help you get noticed ONLINE. Digital personal branding is more your about non-digital life, not your online click-through rate.

By being global, social media sites exacerbate the problem. Ever noticed how many profiles in Asia are faceless? I spend a lot of my time advising people and companies on their overall digital strategy. The subject which always comes up is self-esteem. “I don’t want I put my face pic because I’m ugly.” “We don’t want that because we are not a real brand.” “I don’t want people to see me, I want them to see the product.”

A lack of personal presence harms your corporate performance.

It’s all about meaning

Corporate brands aren’t liked because they are cool, but because what they produce adds value to consumers’ lives.

What all these clients miss is the concept of meaning and value. Oprah isn’t famous because she’s good looking. She is liked because what she does gives meaning to people’s lives. Corporate brands aren’t liked because they are cool, but because what they produce adds value to consumers’ lives.

The Internet has taught us that appearances are important. They are not as important as you may think. Actions are way more important. If you deceive your customers with empty promises they will desert you. If your online posts are blatant advertisement or copies of other people’s ideas, or just “thin content” as Google calls it, you shall be unfollowed.

Even seemingly shallow accounts – of handsome people, posh houses, or fabulous holiday destinations – are about meaning. These are aspirational accounts, they show people what they could achieve or at least dream of, a lifestyle or look they can never achieve. While this may have negative psychological implications especially for young people, it is still all about meaning added to user’s lives.

Be an inspiration

No matter how ugly you are and how bad your brand image, if you offer genuine value to other people, you will be noticed. So ask yourself this: is what I am doing useful to anyone else? Is my online presence an inspiration to others?

Or simply, why should my friends or customers care?

This is the hardest question you can ask yourself. It’s also the most important one, as a person, and as a brand.

In the past, we have clearly distinguished between corporations and people. People used to hide behind corporate brands.

In a digital economy that is no longer viable. Companies are made up of people. People have brands, just like companies do.  Your profile picture on LinkedIn isn’t a photograph, it’s a personal logo. Apple is as much linked to the image of Steve Jobs and his successor as to the utility of its products. Alibaba’s brand is both formed by its online offering and the persona of Jack Ma. TSMC’s story is a lot less compelling without the father figure of Morris Chang. And Tesla’s branding is all about the personality of Elon Musk, rather than the actual features of the cars.

Companies outside the US, in particular, have a hard time with that concept. European companies tend to overemphasize corporate culture and values, product functionality and company tradition.

Asian companies sometimes forbid their employees to have explicit online profiles, fearing that individuals could damage the company’s image or overshadow the owner or founder’s brand. On the other hand, their leaders are often so reclusive the don’t have an online presence at all. Try finding the bosses of Asia’s top 100 companies on LinkedIn! In these collectivist cultures, the group may come before the individual, but that is problematic in an age where users focus increasingly on authentic experiences.

It is much easier to have an “authentic” experience with a brand that puts people first, rather than intangible assets.

Corporate vs. private branding

The fortunes of companies and organizations, in general, are increasingly linked to the image of their leaders or the influencers with whom they are associated. You cannot hide behind a corporate brand. You are part of it.

Which brings me to my passion: digital marketing. It’s much more effective if it’s personal. If you only espouse corporate values you won’t get far.

It is personal values as much as corporate integrity which attracts customers by adding value. Personal stories resonate more with people than all the blah blah about your corporate vision and values. Who reads these corporate mission statements anyway? 

A corporate leader or influencer espousing the right values has more power than a mission statement, corporate values, or cool brand image.

Not everybody can be a charismatic leader. Not everyone has the ability to inspire millions. Not everyone has the confidence or looks to stand on stage and represent a brand.

But in a digital world you only have one choice: Put yourself out there or be left behind.