There’s this idea I’ve seen floating around business and career websites for quite some time – a concept that touts the idea that we should all be building our personal brands in order to achieve successful careers. Sometimes, this even spills into our personal lives, and I increasingly see this concept promoted for social media networking and online dating. At face value, it’s a good idea; some aspects of brand promotion work well for personal promotion, such as promoting a positive image and keeping a consistent message. However, at its heart, I find the whole idea troubling.
The line between businesses and people seems to be ever thinning. On the business side, businesses and corporations often try to bypass regulations by claiming that they conflict with the personal beliefs of their owners and/or founders and assert political positions. Although this is especially true in the United States, it is not a completely foreign concept in other countries. Considering the “people” angle, it feels like there is a general commodification of individuals going on. In the realm of social media, users are the real products, and companies sell their views and clicks to advertisers. On top of that, the language surrounding being a human being has become somewhat commercial. We are told to “sell” ourselves when we are applying for jobs and universities. Slightly more disturbing is the way that people use this kind of language in terms of online dating, as if we were products on the meat market and not people looking for love. This is not new; we have been using this kind of language for a couple of decades now. However, it’s becoming more and more commonplace. The concept of “building a personal brand” feels like a further step in the depersonalizing process of associating people with products.
We are not products – we are human beings. Human beings are complicated and multifaceted. To different people in my life, I am a partner, daughter, sister, friend, or colleague. I am a writer, but I am also a musician. I have a background in marketing. In some ways, I am a traditional woman who takes on more conventional gender roles, but in other ways, I’m the complete opposite. As a kid, I was both girly and a tomboy, depending on my activities of the day. I have a wide variety of very different interests. I see the appeal of curating some of these aspects of myself in order to promote a consistent and memorable “personal brand,” but I don’t think I should have to downplay integral parts of who I am in order to stay “on message.” I am not a politician trying to sell a party platform to the public – I am a member of the public. Being a brand feels limiting to me, and it certainly does not feel “real.”
In addition, words are powerful, and I think that using the language of sales and commodities in terms of people has a negative effect. When we use this kind of language, we package ourselves into boxes and sell ourselves to the highest bidder. These words don’t leave much room for considering how our thoughts and feelings might come into play.
Instead of trying to “build a personal brand,” try a common alternative piece of advice borrowed from the realm of marketing – try telling a story. Be yourself in all of your complicated, multifaceted glory. Take the opportunity to explain not just who you are, but why and how you are different. Building a narrative around your interests, credentials, and achievements helps make those aspects of yourself more accessible to someone who doesn’t know you. A brand is a collection of symbols, designs, images, or words used to create a quick and memorable impression on the public. This may work well for products and companies, but it doesn’t really leave much room for the complexity that is the human experience. Stories can feature diverse and even conflicting narratives, and they can evolve as you go along. You can change the plot whenever you want without having to do a total reset. Stories may take slightly longer to digest, but they leave a much more realistic and lasting impression.