Recently, someone told me I needed to “consider my personal brand.” I can’t share the exact details of the circumstances that led to this comment, because it’s not a good idea to share everything on the Internet. But rest assured, it was intended to be judgmental, and I was pissed off.
It would have been inappropriate in context, but of course, I wanted to respond by saying, “I don’t care about my personal brand. I am not a brand.” Also, “fuck you!”
The thought that part of being a person now means viewing your life and interests through the lens of your ‘brand’ is both horrifying and boring to me. Brands are meant to sell you something. They have an ulterior motive. They aren’t looking to get to know you, be your friend or help you with your problems. I am not a brand, I’m a person.
It is hollow to reduce your personality to a set of carefully curated hobbies and traits for the sake of business. This feels like the ‘influencer’ mentality, where everything is a means to more followers, more engagement and more money. I cut my own hair not to be able to classify myself as quirky or relatable or thrifty but because women’s haircuts (especially for curly hair) are outrageously expensive and curly hair is notoriously forgiving. My decisions are not part of some grand strategic plan designed to make me maximally appealing to some third party.
Look, I have a personality. I want people to know who I am and what I stand for. In some ways, yes, never wearing make-up and reading a load of books and being proud of my capacity to eat a terrifying amount of spring rolls are things that I think contribute to the bigger picture of who I am. But to think of yourself as a ‘brand’ makes you a commodity – something that can be bought or sold, for the right price. It also poisons your interactions with people who don’t make choices based on their personal brand, because they assume that, for example, you like to travel as part of some greater narrative you envision for yourself and that someone might invest in at some point, rather than the reality of shrugging and saying, “travel is fun. I like new places and things. It would be an interest of mine regardless of whether someone was watching or not.”
It’s difficult to argue against the personal brand idea because a) a personality and a brand can be the same depending on your attitude and b) who wouldn’t like money just for being themselves?
Yes, I guess if you do like fitness and veganism because of how likeable and purchasable it makes you, then your personality is your personal brand (though I’d argue that if you choose your personality based on how much other people want to monetise it, it’s not much of a personality). I appreciate that it’s difficult to separate the two. If you like working out, and then people start taking an interest in your athletic skills and figure and maybe offering you money or opportunities because of it, the line is blurry. A legitimate interest turned business venture.
But the thing is, you aren’t being offered money for just being yourself. You are being offered money in exchange to sell something, where ‘something’ might be an actual product or the idea of a certain lifestyle. It is classic advertising rhetoric. ‘Buy our product, and you will become a happier, more attractive, better person – and now you have the person popped in front of you as evidence!’
But it’s not real. It’s not real! Anyone who makes a living off their personal brand (or carefully curates their personal brand in order to make themselves more employable, dateable or likeable) has done so not to be authentic or become the most real version of themselves but to get something from someone else, may that be a job or money or a relationship.
The comment was made in relations to my clothes, as if the most important consideration for how I dress should be how I can leverage my appearance or ‘brand’ to get something from other people, rather than wearing things that I feel comfortable in and make me feel good. Yes, professionalism is important, but making choices to look or act professionally while at work is different from being overly concerned with how I appear to others in all matters or outside of the restrictions of the official dress code. Even when I’m at work, I remain myself, as much as possible. In the same way that I behave differently around my grandparents than around my friends, I alter my behaviour a little at work too. Part of being an adult is knowing how to behave appropriately in different contexts. But the motivation is never about my personal brand, it is about wanting to be a productive member of my workplace. Being professional and viewing yourself as a brand rather than an individual are two different things.
The rise of Instagram and influencer marketing has commoditised the individual, and boy, is it lucrative. Despite only being around for a few years, Forbes estimates that the influencer marketing industry is worth $2.5 billion and some think it might be worth $10 billion by 2020. You are always an ambassador for the business of you and you should make decisions accordingly, which is insidious. Look, if you want to become a sanitised, curated, polished version of yourself to make money, then be my guest. Even the decision to not be perfect becomes calculated, as authenticity and relatability make you more attractive to consumers. But if I want to wear what I want, eat what I want, go where I want and talk about what I want, then don’t shame me for refusing to buy into the reductive, consumerist and shallow idea that I am a brand first and foremost, making decisions to make me a better investment, rather than living as honestly as I can by just being myself.
Cut your own hair. Cancel your gym membership. Eat pizza or salads or brownies or smoothies. Just be yourself. Fuck that noise.