Guiding our kids into their fast-changing futures.

First Take: In a Networked World, Does Every Child Need to Be a Brand?

Here’s a fact: Your children are going to be Googled or searched for online over and over and over again in their lives, from adolescence to old age. And what comes up in that search may have huge implications, everything from where they might get accepted to school, who might hire them, and even who they might spend the rest of their lives with. Like it or not, having a positive, impressive digital “brand” is an increasingly important aspect of professional (and personal) life these days.

The Wall Street Journal suggested this week that, The New Resume: It’s 140 Characters and offers up tips on how to build an employable profile on Twitter. And as Glenn Liopis in Forbes reminds us, building a brand is now a “leadership requirement,” one that requires a “a full-time commitment to the journey of defining yourself” both online and off.

And who exactly is teaching kids that?

For some personal thoughts on the branding of two teenagers, read on.

A couple of years ago, I bought my children what I was hoping would be a lasting gift for Christmas: their own domain names. I watched excitedly as they “unwrapped” the envelopes with the details inside, thinking they’d jump up and down like when they were little kids getting cool new toys to play with. No such luck. As my daughter would say today, it was “awk-ward.” As in “Gee…wow…um, thanks Dad. That’s so cool…ok, who gets the next present?” (Still not as bad as those who name their children based on the availability of the domain, however.)

Regardless, I’m happy I did it. They have a space online that they can fill with whatever they want, hopefully the good, important, creative work they’re destined for. (Hey, a dad can hope.) And I like the idea that when they do become the subject of that Google search that those domains will float to the top of the search, way above any missteps or mistaken identities that might drag them down. To put it simply, I want my kids to be Googled well.

But that’s only half of it, right? The “brand” they will most likely have to construct is more than a few Tweets, the number of followers or friends they have online, or some impressive artifacts of their work. In the more complex scheme of things, that brand is also going to be forged on the interactions they share with friends and strangers, online and off. It is, as that Forbes article suggests, and ongoing, full-time journey, one that is decidedly different from the one I was on as I grew into adulthood. And it’s one that’s going to require a great deal of energy and thought and smart decision making to be useful.

The “brand” is not on the test. It’s not in the curriculum. Shockingly, it’s not in the Common Core. And so, it’s not much on the minds of most teachers or administrators, aside from the potential negatives that can so easily go viral. Our kids have few adult models for the type of branding we’re talking about, that type that is a “requirement” for leadership. And all of that makes this a really, really important moment for us. It’s not just about giving kids space (which this important new project is tackling, by the way.) It’s also about helping them fill that space.

We adults, the parents, teachers, aunts, uncles and others who circulate in our kids lives, might need some branding of our own. Have you Googled yourself lately? Was that a good thing? Was it “any” thing? And what are the implications if not?

Would love to hear your thoughts.



  1. Hello, Will,

    The notion of “child as brand” elevates the notion and value of “brand” (and by extension, marketing) in an artificial and unnecessary way.

    Better to teach people (and not just kids, but all people) how to deconstruct the messages and stories that confront us. Better to teach people how to understand and deconstruct how brands get their message out, and how “viral” content is actually constructed. For those playing along at home, Google, “You didn’t make the Harlem Shake go viral—corporations did”

    People are awesome. Let’s teach them how to construct amazing things, and talk honestly about what they do and value.

    If some poor soul wants to minimize that under the name of “brand” so be it. But that’s a pretty meager goal given the possibilities.

    • Bill wrote:

      People are awesome. Let’s teach them how to construct amazing things, and talk honestly about what they do and value.

      - – - – - – -

      I love this quote, Bill — it’s powerful times ten.

      I don’t think it runs contrary to Will’s message, though. He speaks just as frequently about helping students to realize that they CAN do work that matters.

      I like his take on branding even if it can get reduced in the way that you describe. Here’s why: Currently, few people are even willing to CONSIDER encouraging their kids to “talk honestly about what they do and value” in online spaces simply because they’re afraid of “all the bad things” that are lurking on the other side of the internet connection.

      Perhaps reminding parents that online reputations can be positive is a good starting point towards breaking down the walls of reticence that so often get in the way of kids doing meaningful work online.

      Does this make sense?

      • Hello, Bill,

        This makes total sense.

        My issue is less with the concept, and more with the frame of brand, which feels (to me, anyways) like a reduction..

        And I completely agree that people need to work through the hesitation to let kids talk about their work online. But, part of that communication needs to cover the need to speak clearly and honestly, and “brand” implies a packaging that pulls the edges of truth.

        These things are easy to fake: see as just one example of an exercise in branding.

        I guess I’d like to see us move away from the concept of an online identity and back to the reality of just plain identity – with an awareness that our identity evolves with what we encounter an express in all places, including networked locations.



      • Thanks, Bills, for clarifying my thinking. ;0) I’m not a fan of the “brand” word either, and it is reductive. It’s more complex than that. The language around much of this stuff is frustrating.

        No question, at some point, the separation between real world identity and virtual world identity will melt away. Not quite there yet, however, as the bulk of it will be a generational shift.

        Thanks for chiming in.

  2. Wow! I’m still kind of reeling on this one. I embrace the idea of claiming and staking out your own digital space – a place to show off the best of who you are – where your blog posts, and your photos, and videos, and your social bookmarks and your articles, and your shared creations can go. This really resonates with me, because my stuff is all over the place, and I haven’t found a holistic space for it yet – particularly one that’s easy to collaborate in, and share with other people.

    Do I want this kind of space for my children (my own and those I teach), and am I willing to help them find and create it – yes, absolutely! Do I want to see that as building their brand? I’m not convinced of that. Creating a digital identity that echoes, reflects, expands on the person they are in their face-to-face interactions works better for me than the overtones of “packaging” that come with the word brand.

    Will unpack this more as I think about it. Thanks, as ever, for the great links that help me dive in deeper. Will also be sharing this with my Google+ blog-reading group.

  3. Lynne Thompson says:

    As usual, you are ahead of the curve and prescient. This is exactly what kids need to naviagate and learn as they grow.
    As scary as it all is to us, it’s just the world we have now and no one is preparing kids to deal with the new rules. Heck, some of us barely know them. But I can see the need and this conversation is important. Sometimes I feel like I give my kids “old fashioned” advice and what they really need are tips for judging sources online, being cautious about what they share online, and the like. My kids’ teachers are really good, but few know much about this kind of information.

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