The most over used cliche of the last five years is career branding. I know because shortly after Tom Peters wrote the article that appeared in the August 31 edition of Fast Company, I snapped up that idea and began incorporating it into my numerous career management presentations. It was the hot new thing and built into a tsunami of brand creation, brand awareness, brand strategy, and even brand re-imagination. In the interest of transparency, I am one of the guilty — an early adopter who beat that good idea into buzz phrase mush.

Brand ManagementLately, however, I have thought about it a lot, so it was with great interest that I read in David Brooks’ excellent column in the New York Times on Friday that he, too, had his misgivings.

A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.”

That line was but a tiny part of his wonderful column on Chance the Rapper (believe it or not) and his revealing and authentic performance on a Monday night on the Late Show With Steven Colbert. Brooks’ line jumped from my iPad because, surprisingly, I found myself agreeing. What started out as a unique and good idea has been overused, misused and abused to the point that today it is approaching a trite phrase.

Here is why I have moved from beating that crumb.

Branding is a concept. You talk about it but it really does not compel action or change. I know executives who talk about evolving their brand but they do nothing that fuels change. For some, the concept of career branding has been detrimental to their careers. They see it as a pick-and-choose cafeteria approach to advancement beyond what they are realistically capable of producing. Or, they can talk, talk, talk, convincing themselves that they are indeed focused on evolving their career, but in the end they do nothing.

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires action. Oh sure, I still talk about career branding but today, more than ever, I stress that the key to success in advancing your career in a crowded, noisy job market is differentiation, an essential strategy. That is not to say that you can take your reputation or image (brand) for granted. There are a lot of talented successful executives in the marketplace and more than a few are looking for work.

When I interview 10 to 15 candidates for a senior level position, I hear a lot of the same thing over and over. By the end of the day, so much of what has been said seems to run together. Yes, I take notes – a lot of notes. I even video candidates, asking them questions that are particularly relevant to the needs of the employer. But few answers rise to the level of being memorable. When someone is memorable it is exhilarating.

Candidates come in all shapes and forms but the ones that really stand out are those who come in well prepared and who differentiate themselves from everyone else. As I have written and said in the past, the best qualified candidate for any given position gets the job only about 35 percent of the time. The candidates who come prepared to show how their experience and success aligns with the needs of the client.

For others, career branding is a contrivance. People are doing what they think they need to do on LinkedIn and other digital platforms. They attend networking meetings, they pass out business cards and tell their story to anyone who will listen. You know the type, they are the ones who shamelessly label themselves as thought leaders or some other self-serving label. For those people, networking and their branding is a one-way, what-can-you-do-for-me street. The harder they work to “build their brand,” the more damage they do.

Branding is still relevant. Your reputation is important. You cannot take that for granted, but focusing on your brand is not going to land you that promotion or that next great job.