What happens to our sense of identity when we brand ourselves?
by Jane Harkness
Back in 1997, Fast Company magazine published an article titled “The Brand Called You,” in which writer Tom Peters alerted his readers that they were all “CEOs of Me, Inc.” We were years away from the rise of influencers, bloggers offering branding classes, or people selling services on social media platforms. Yet entrepreneurs were already learning that if they wanted to out-sell their competition, improving their images and promoting themselves with personal brands was one way to set themselves apart.
Before this, the word “brand” was typically synonymous with a particular company and the way they distinguished their product on the market—think Heinz Ketchup, Pepsi or Coca-Cola. When creative people and small business owners began using the Internet to connect with clients and sell their services, some of them also started branding themselves in order to distinguish their style from others in their niche. In recent years, it seems like the practice has exploded, and “establish your personal brand” is tossed around as general career advice for everyone.
Today, it’s not just self-employed individuals or creative freelancers who feel the need to maintain personal brands. Some doctors, therapists, lawyers, veterinarians, teachers, and even dentists have slowly begun building their brands online. The practice isn’t exactly widespread across these industries yet, but just a few years ago, it probably would have seemed out of place for medical professionals to maintain stylized social media profiles alongside beauty gurus, home cooks, and personal trainers. Now, it’s easy to find dietitians dispensing nutritional advice on their Instagram stories, counselors updating their followers with self-care tips, and even OBGYNs giving women the rundown on improving their hormonal health via Twitter.
Are we headed towards a future where the majority of us will be expected to put ourselves into aesthetically pleasing, easily marketable boxes in order to earn money? The idea of creating a personal brand isn’t new, but the practice is certainly more pervasive now than ever before. But when we engage in these branding strategies, we often neglect to express our true selves—instead, we’re commodifying ourselves.
In some sense, personal branding is a reasonable strategy for increasing sales, and despite its pitfalls, it doesn’t have to be written off completely. By cultivating a brand that clearly communicates what customers can expect from your business, you show potential clients exactly how you can help them out with little effort and research on their end. Plus, staying consistent with logos, designs, colour schemes, and general tone is a smart idea—it makes it easier to find your business on different platforms, and from a marketing standpoint, it looks much cleaner and more professional.
“Branding is a business concept. Having a clear and strong brand builds trust and streamlines understanding in the world of commerce, which is really important,” says Kristen Caven, a writer who has experimented with all sorts of creative mediums throughout her career. “But as a creative I really struggle with this need the world has to put everyone in a package. I’ve branded myself only to change it up over and over again.”
But with more people working for themselves or turning their talents into secondary income streams, personal branding isn’t just one tactic out of many that you can use to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Now, many see it as a necessity.
With so many mediums available for establishing a brand, people can invest several hours each week into crafting their identities across platforms. Personal websites, blogging platforms like Medium, apps like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, YouTube, email newsletters, Pinterest, and even podcasts serve as tools to strengthen their personal brands. From graphics to audio bites to profile photos to blog posts, every instance of online self expression is an opportunity to build and maintain a brand. It’s time consuming, it’s often exhausting, and of course, it’s become a big business.
Someone could spend thousands of dollars to work with specialized branding experts, attend events to learn how to improve their personal brand, and purchase online courses that promise to share the secrets of effective branding. And if sales begin stagnating with a particular branding strategy?
Well, then it’s time to start the process all over again with a “rebranding.” Helping people stand out in their respective industries has become an industry all on its own. We establish personal brands to make money, and people make money off our efforts to establish these personal brands—and naturally, all of these consultants have their own brands. When it comes to personal branding, we’re all salespeople, and we’re all customers.
This increased focus on personal branding is just one result of so many people turning to “gig work” in order to make ends meet. We’re our own CEOs, our own marketing departments, our own sales teams, our own web designers and social media associates and copywriters. Our leisurely hobbies become skills for monetizing, our side hustles become small businesses, our Instagram accounts become sales pages and online shops. It follows that we have to establish and maintain our own brands, as well—but at what cost?
When we try to curate our multilayered personalities into one-note brands, our identities become public performances, carefully practiced for consumption. If you’re building a streamlined brand, you can’t allow yourself to simply be yourself—you have to cherry pick the aspects of your personality that are palatable to your audience. Even people who brand themselves as contrarians aren’t necessarily paragons of truth in a sea of filtered, airbrushed identities—in order to remain attractive to those who want to hear controversial perspectives, they must always position themselves in opposition to the mainstream if they want to retain their audiences. Very few people are willing to risk alienating their customers and followers, and therefore, their livelihoods, by completely refusing to put themselves in any single box.
Does a lack of branding make it more difficult to succeed in a creative industry? Some say that it hasn’t affected them, but it’s a mixed bag. “I don’t think not going out of my way to create a brand has held me back in any way,” says Stacey Lastoe, Senior Editor at CNN Travel. “If an employer decided to judge me on that, I’d say that’s probably not an employer I want to work for.”
But some who have put branding on the backburner have had different experiences. “I have certainly felt that not having a personal ‘tagline' or easily digestible explanation has been to my detriment,” says Shani Silver, a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Refinery29, Nylon, Bustle, and more. “People have extremely limited attention spans, and also love putting others into easily understandable boxes. I had to get comfortable with not living as a sound bite, and I'm glad I did—I feel more like myself.”
There’s a strange tension between the branded self and the authentic self—people are encouraged to “be themselves” when establishing a brand, to let their unique traits shine through, but if something is curated, edited, and manipulated before it’s shared, is it ever really authentic? Yes, someone could establish a brand that does reflect the most important aspects of their personality, but when we take great pains to present a certain version of ourselves to the world at all times for the sake of making money, there’s a question of how “real” we can afford to be.
Years of pouring in effort to maintain a certain identity online can distort one’s sense of self. We consider what countless online users think of any given sentiment before we post it. We wonder whether or not sharing a particular piece of information will only serve to detract from our brands. The world may end up knowing a version of yourself that has very little to do with who you really are, and accepting it at face value. It’s easy to see how this can cause an identity crisis for some influencers—just look at Essena O’Neill, the Australian model who dramatically quit social media after amassing over 600,000 followers and posted a tearful video stating that social media “was not real life.”
The personal branding trend across industries is probably going to continue for the foreseeable future, and it’s true that having a personal brand can help you get ahead. How can you do that without losing yourself in the process? The answer might actually be pretty simple—and you probably don’t need to swipe your credit card for a personal branding course to figure it out.
Instead of setting out to intentionally create a brand, take a look at the work you’ve done so far and the people you’ve enjoyed working with and observe the patterns that you’ve naturally fallen into. Is there a certain type of client you tend to gravitate towards? Is there something unique about your workflow that sets you apart? Do all of your clients tend to compliment you on specific aspects of your business?
You don’t need to jump into the branding process right away, says Silver. “I think personal branding should develop really naturally. What you love to do, how you love to spend your time, the things that are important to you, everything authentic about you should naturally rise to the surface to help an audience understand why they connect with you.”
Focus on doing work that makes you proud, and then assess what makes you stand out. In the future, you can figure out how to structure your personal website and social media profiles to make sure that clients can find that information easily. You don’t have to spend countless hours creating and maintaining a whole new persona.
“The more contrived the brand, the more obvious it is that you've strayed from your authenticity,”says Silver.
Perhaps part of the problem with the current discourse around personal branding is the idea that we need to purposefully select a few aspects of ourselves to emphasize, and then go forward and establish a brand based around them, rather than allowing ourselves to work and create without judgment and then seeing what comes forth from that process. “Who you are in real life will probably be reflected on your social media platforms and on your website,” says Lastoe. “If it’s an extremely intentional branding that is quite distinct from who you are up close and personal, then you’re maybe a little disingenuous, and that seems so exhausting to me.”
Yes, the reality is that many of us need to learn how to market our services to make money. But at the end of the day, we’re not products on shelves—we’re human beings, and we should feel free to share (or not) with others any and all of the human experience. .