Personal Branding is Scary

I remember talking with a close friend of mine about how much I dislike a very popular professional networking site and how she has no other choice but to use it. The conclusion we reached was that a lot of young professionals are stuck using social media to court potential employers, and in order to best accomplish this they must build a ‘personal brand’. This struck me as almost dystopian — have we given up so much control over our own lives that we have no problem with allowing companies, during hiring, to probe into our personal life to determine our job eligibility when it has absolutely no bearing on the job itself? Has our culture become so focused on the worship of image, prestige, and reputation that we have forgotten about privacy, modesty, or the idea of work-life balance? Is giving the perception of perfection more important than the truth, the truth that we are all imperfect humans living in an imperfect world?

Brands as they exist today are inherently dishonest. The modern brand, as opposed to being seared into the skin of an unlucky cow, is instead a collection of qualities designed by marketers in order to give a product or service a ‘personality’, so to speak. That’s not to say that all businesses are deceptive, as all companies and businesses are created by people, complete with their own personalities, dreams, and flaws. This is why we might walk an extra block to a cafe despite there being a different one next door — perhaps we like the atmosphere, decor, or other aspects that have little to do with coffee and more to do with the personality of the owners and employees being reflected into the space in which they work. This personal touch is absolutely necessary for small businesses to succeed, let alone grow.

This is the human element that so many bigger companies desperately try to maintain as their company gets larger and the original humanity evaporates. As a company climbs the ladder from small and simple to big and complex, the original spirit that made the company and its products a success in the first place often begin to disappear because priorities shift. Small business owners don’t always have vastly different goals than those of corporations in the sense that each is seeking profit, but a key distinction is that the small business owner still occupies a relatively small niche in time and space and thus still exert their own special influence on the company for better or for worse. The larger a company becomes, however, the larger a niche in time and space it begins to occupy. The original spirit of the owners becomes diluted by the concerns of an ever-increasing number of shareholders, eventually giving the impression that the company has taken on a life of its own. This dilution serves to water down and eventually strangle the human influences, which allows the quest for maximum growth and profit to take over completely.

This kind of imbalance in the priorities of a company will eventually cause harm, in this case because the discovery by consumers that the company only cares for profit and not at all for their employees, customers, or the environment will turn people away and thus impact cash flow. Because deeper human values have been mostly stripped from the company philosophy (whether or not it is openly acknowledged), rather than focus on actually correcting their goals to something more humane the solution most growing companies have decided upon is the formation of a brand.

A brand is like the face a serial killer wears when he walks home from a grisly crime to hug his wife and tuck his children into bed. It is an artificial personality constructed specifically to give something the appearance of humanity for the sole purpose of deceit. In this particular case the deception is the portrayal of a soul where there is none in order to convince consumers to purchase a brand or service. A brand is a stunning intellectual construction, often the work of millions of dollars of careful research and design, designed entirely to trick us into perceive profit-seeking as something more. As companies becoming more proficient at creating brands, we become more used to their presence and influence and have begun to lose sight of the fact that this is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Since the advent of the modern advertising industry, brands have become increasingly integrated into our collective cultural consciousness. We look to brands for a sense of identity and belonging and we have a difficult time separating ourselves from branding because brands are designed specifically to integrate themselves into our culture and into our personalities. In this sense, a brand marks its consumers as much, if not more, than it marks the company that created it. It’s pretty impressive that when I think of laundry detergent or beer, a variety of soft, fuzzy company mascots and macho beer logos parade through my head completely without invitation. I don’t buy brand-name detergent, nor do I drink the big-company beer brands if I can help it, and yet they are seared into my consciousness.

Companies operate behind the front of brands, so much so that we often do not even know what company owns the brands we consume daily. Brands give a company a nicer face, a human touch, and thus it is very easy for us to form what often feels like a very personal connection with a brand. Many companies also hire social media ‘experts’ to speak with the public, often making jokes and posts on social media that almost make the brand feel like a real person. What we seem to keep forgetting, however, is that brands are simply masks that magnify the good, hide the bad, and outright lie about the intentions of the people who create them. When brands integrate themselves into our identity we are submitting to an illusion and allowing a faceless company to teach us what to think. When we desire to turn ourselves into brands, then, what is it we are actually doing?

Why would I want to dehumanize myself by turning myself, a human being, into a hollow, lifeless brand? Possibly more importantly, am I just picking nits here? Does it matter if business language, the language of marketers, snake-oil salesman, and oil barons, seeps into the way we define ourselves?

Personal branding matters because it is inherently objectifying. Brands are inhuman, a farce, a tool used to manipulate and control. Turning yourself into a brand is to lie to yourself and the world around you about who you really are and what you represent. Personal brands spit in the face of authenticity and genuine social discourse because they present a sterilized, infantile version of ourselves and attempt to pass it off as reality. Who are you, really? The person who scratches their butt and sniffs their fingers, or the person who wears a bracelet they got in Nepal (and is sure to tell everyone where they got it)? The person who climbs mountains, or the person who sometimes spends the whole evening crying into a pillow because they just feel terrible for no reason? Is the ‘real you’ the picture you show the world, or is it the hazy stream of consciousness that ‘you’ inhabit during every waking moment?

By turning ourselves into a brand, and thus an object, we open ourselves to the scrutiny of the outside world like never before. The division between employment and private life, already on shaky ground, is obliterated when the personal become corporate and the corporate become personal. When we become a brand, we must sell ourselves to everyone, in particular our employers, and even more problematically to ourselves. Many of those who push personal branding sell it as a way to become more in touch with who you really are. What they don’t mention is that we have little choice but to push a sanitized, positive shell of who we are or else face the consequences when it comes to employment. Here the consumer-brand dynamic is flipped on its head, and it is the corporations that employ so many of us choosing amongst various ‘brands’, previously known as job applicants. When society, perhaps in the form of a potential employer, insists on seeing and then refuses to accept the human imperfections that we all have, we often respond by forcing ourselves into the idealistic mold we have created for ourselves. We create ourselves in their image, and in this case it is a recipe for misery.

We scream into the void, trying to push our way into a world that is ultimately illusory and meaningless, because we all want to mean something and be successful. We ‘brand’ ourselves because our society relinquishes more control to private, monied interests every day and we feel powerless to fight back, if we even want to fight back at all. We have unwittingly given all of our power to the rich few by allowing them into our brains in the form of brands, then by allowing them to commodify us in turn.

The difference is that corporations are not people, despite what society might try to tell us. We cannot objectify them, because they lack humanity by default. But because we have humanity, objectifying us denies us our soul and our rights as human beings. It forces most people into a corner where we must debase and dehumanize ourselves to feel good about ourselves, or even more tragically, to make ends meet. It puts all accountability on the shoulders of the worker-consumer-prole by blaming the employee for not ‘building a brand’, the consumer for not following the propaganda pushed on them, and the proletariat for asking for better conditions. We are just selfish, they say, and want something for nothing.

It’s not our fault, though. The desire for basic dignity and freedom from the meddling of outside influences is a basic human desire, one that is very threatening to the wealthy and powerful. If we want to retain our basic humanity, we need to reject the corporatized, sanitized, unnaturally positive, boot-licking definition of success that society tries to spoon feed us. We need to refuse to build ‘personal brands’ because we are not, nor should we try to become, a commodity for big companies to use as they please. If our models of success are corporate, if the culture around us is corporate, and if our definition of what it means to be human includes the corporate, then we will become corporate as well.

A writer living in the PNW who just wants to tend to his garden.

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