I work in media, where the conventional wisdom is that to get ahead you must build your “personal brand.” In the age of Google and social media, you may as well not exist if your online presence isn’t carefully crafted to convey what you’re about and what you do.
This is problematic for me. The idea of creating and selling my brand nauseates me. It makes my skin crawl. I just can’t do it.
I can’t fire off tweets or build a personal website; my Instagram game is not on point; I will not express opinions on Facebook; I can barely bring myself to draw people’s attention to things that I write. You might be thinking, “Sounds like you are maybe in the wrong field”—which is a fair point. And usually, when I fail to do something that would likely advance my career, I assume it’s because of a fault of mine—that I’m too lazy or scared or whatever. But in this case I think it’s not just that I’m reserved and probably hyper-self-aware, though I am. I think there’s actually something deeply messed up about the whole notion of thinking of yourself as a “brand.”
To be clear, I think there’s a big difference between selling your brand and self-promotion. Of course it’s good to become an expert in your field, and trying to become better known for that work—via social media!—is perfectly good advice. I’m not so naive as to think my work will speak for itself; if you don’t make people aware of what you’re doing, they won’t know about it. But putting what you’re doing out there thoughtfully is not the same thing as sharing and doing and saying everything with your “brand” in mind. It’s the difference between “selling yourself” in the metaphorical, tout-your-accomplishments way and "promoting your brand" in a more literal and disturbing way.
The term “personal brand” was coined in an article in Fast Company in the late nineties, at the dawn of the Internet era. “Today, in the age of the individual, you have to be your own brand,” the article announced. Certainly, some people have always made money from creating an image of their lifestyle and marketing products related to it. But until recently, unless you were Martha Stewart or Oprah or one of Tyra Banks’ top-model contestants, coming up with a sellable personal brand wasn’t something you needed to worry about. Now, it seems like every professional needs to treat themselves as an aspiring lifestyle blogger trying to monetize their social media following, and you can’t browse the Internet for tips on how to beef up your LinkedIn profile without turning up reams of advice for how to brand yourself.
Take for instance this Forbes piece, headlined “7 Things You Can Do to Build an Awesome Personal Brand.” It’s typical of the genre and contains some truly terrible sentiments (no offense to the author, who looks like a very nice, relatable, professional person from her photo). “Every tweet you send, every status update you make, every picture you share contributes to your personal brand,” she advises. “Once you understand how you wish your brand to be perceived, you can start to be much more strategic about your personal brand.”
Sounds a little . . . fake. But the article assures us that “this doesn’t mean you can’t be human.” On the contrary, “authenticity is key” to branding. What this really means is that creating the perception that you are authentic is key to branding. Because I’m pretty sure that if “building your brand” were about being authentic, no one would need to read seven tips on how to do it.
I don’t think you can simultaneously be a human being and a brand. There’s a reason the word used to apply only to products and companies—those things can be bought and sold. Their value relies on consistency and demand. So, in my view, cultivating a personal brand turns people into those types of commodities. It’s a form of objectification. Which may explain why it feels so unnatural to me.
Creating a brand for yourself feels like the career equivalent of an online dating profile for your love life. Whatever I can bring myself to write in response to those awful prompts—“I am . . .” “I like . . . ” “Three words that describe me are . . .”—doesn’t truly tell someone else who I am or whether we would get along. It's an advancement, perhaps, in the age of connectivity, but in terms of authenticity, I'd say nothing beats the real you—the candid, unrehearsed, unbranded you. And like a dating profile, your brand must be constantly tended to. It’s not a one-time effort, as that Forbes listicle makes clear in a final brand-building tip: “Most importantly, remember that a strong personal brand should be ubiquitous and ever-evolving.” Yikes. Unlike a person, who evolves naturally and can only be in one place at a time, your brand won’t evolve without you pulling the strings. This sounds exhausting and awful to me, and I refuse to do it.
I might learn how to be good at Twitter someday, and I certainly hope to become known in my industry for my professionalism and work quality, but I will never have a #brand. If that means that not many people will know who I am or like what they find when they Google me or be able to fit me into an easily recognizable box, then I can live with that. I’d rather focus on cultivating my real life—offline.
Photo Credit: Kenny’s Army