you have a brand then? An objectively absurd question, but one that is approaching
normality: the concept of the “personal brand” is, to use another buzzword,
A 1997 article by Tom Peters in Fast
Company entitled The Brand Called You has been credited with really kicking off the idea. Peters counselled
that it was “time to take a lesson from the big brands … that’s true for anyone
who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of
Notwithstanding the article’s enthusiasm, its message is simple: there’s no alternative. In One Market Under God, his study of the 1990s American business culture, Thomas Frank wrote that market populism “salutes choice and yet tells us that the triumph of markets is inevitable”, and the apparent need for a brand is presented in similarly stark terms. The language is all empowerment, but the effect is one of capitulation.
what exactly is a personal brand? One recent article seems to conclude it’s about “finding a
positive way to stand out at work”, possibly involving tattoos, and being
“unique” and “memorable”. In another telling piece, your personal brand is defined as living at the intersection of
the answers to three questions (What makes me great? What makes me unique?
What makes me compelling?), which suggests that developing one might be a bit of
a challenging endeavour for the self-deprecating.
basic points, though, appear fairly straightforward: know what you’re aiming to do and who you’re keen to
impress; self-promote like a boss; try not to leave a trail of devastation
in your wake that could backfire on you. That these elements are seen to comprise something
novel is symptomatic of a growth industry in which venerable concepts like “reputation” are repackaged and sold back
Of course, it’s
almost too easy to criticise personal brands, principally because it’s
impossible to talk about having one without sounding hilarious: one book is entitled, in all seriousness, “How YOU™ are like
shampoo”. Reading the endless, repetitive advice to adapt completely to the needs of the marketplace
while somehow remaining unique and authentic, or seemingly oxymoronic tips about “humanising your brand”, the thought occurs
that making fun of this sort of thing is akin to machine-gunning fish in a
if you were looking for a cartoonishly simple example of what’s wrong with
modern society, the “personal brand” might just be it: people are encouraged to
think of themselves in a deliberately dehumanising way in order to succeed. You
may as well tattoo the Nike swoosh on your forehead and offer your services to
students writing despairing essays about the soul of man under neoliberalism.
want to snark at people who read this kind of supercharged self-help material
in a desperate effort to climb a rapidly-vanishing ladder, or who yearn for a
dream job. There is also nothing inherently wrong with being ambitious (and to
pre-empt an obvious rebuttal, I’m certainly not pure: you’re reading this piece
because it was published online rather than being gaffer-taped onto a rubbish
bin in my local park).
It is however
worth unpacking the concept of the personal brand rather than simply sniggering
or shrugging, for it is a symptom of something bigger. It clings, remora-like, to a damaging cult of work in a world where busyness confers status and the workplace is often conceptualised as the place where humans are
most fulfilled (notwithstanding inconvenient realities).
notion of the personal brand flourishes in the uncertainty of post-industrial
capitalism. William Arruda writes in Forbes, “if there is nothing unique about your
strengths, you’re merely a commodity”. That is, seize the zeitgeist or suffer
the fate of the unbranded worker.
one book is entitled Fifty Ways to Transform Yourself from
an ‘Employee’ into a Brand That Shouts Distinction, Commitment, and Passion. This
change of mindset from “worker” to “brand” is visualised as liberating (the
company doesn’t own you! You’re not defined by your job!) but it could also be
seen as limiting: whatever the branded self is, it doesn’t look much like a
human being possessed of rights which must be respected by employers. Can one
imagine a “personal brand” consistent with joining a union?
humans have inconvenient characteristics not possessed by t-shirts and
sneakers: we are social animals who need others in order to flourish. Pouring
all our energy into “investing in YOU” would leave all but the most committed
sociopath feeling empty.
isn’t to say we can’t keep giggling at amusing branding advice, but let’s not
lose sight of the broader picture. We are citizens, not just consumers: don’t
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