“What do you think my brand is?” a friend asked me last week, popping up on WhatsApp in the middle of the day. They had just posted a meme on Twitter, inviting followers to sum up their ‘brand’ in two images: who they were generally perceived to be. The answers were often absurd, generally irreverent. But the idea that someone might have a ‘brand’ – a consistent, public-facing reputation in the manner of a company or corporation – was not absurd. In fact, it almost was a given.
From its first appearance in a Fast Company feature written by Tom Peters in 1997, the ‘personal brand’ has taken on a life of its own. Thousands upon thousands of books and articles have been written on the topic, and there are even self-branding workshops, where for several hundred pounds you can be taught how best to market yourself. In the next few weeks alone more than twenty such workshops are being held in London, the cheapest costing £35, the most expensive £650. Even the Guardian has got in on the fad, offering a £99 Masterclass on the topic.
If you’re building a business, such expenses might be understandable. But as my friend’s genuine question proves, the idea of a personal brand is so ubiquitous and so pernicious that we now talk in its terms outside of the workplace, too. Whilst they weren’t sincerely thinking about themselves as a corporate entity as they pondered how they were coming across online, nor even vaguely contemplating spending money to hone this performance, they were using the language of business – the self as a discrete, marketable and fundamentally pliable unit.
Under neoliberalism, this is no surprise. Neoliberalism aggressively favours the free market: competition, not exchange, is centred, and we’re encouraged to think in those terms in our personal lives as well as in our work. We are not just individual entities, but individual economic units, corporations of one: as sociologist Gaile S. Cannella puts it, we start to think of ourselves as “egocentric bodies of innovation, enterprise and productivity”. Of course we’re all worried about our personal brand – we’ve been primed to.
And nothing could illustrate the symbiosis between self-branding and neoliberalism better than Peters’ 1997 article. “The Brand Called You,” he wrote, “regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.” Later in the article, he doubles down: you’re not an ‘employee’, he writes, nor a ‘worker’. You’re “every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop”.
As freelancers, untangling this narrative can be a complicated thing. In many ways, it perfectly reflects freelance life: in a legal and often practical sense we are companies and think of ourselves as such; we set our own hours and control our own workflows, just like bosses do. In many cases, we’re also forced to market ourselves aggressively online, and because many of us work in hyper-visible conditions we feel constantly in competition with one another. One particularly sticky lie of neoliberalism is that it enables “flexibility” – and what better illustration of that than freelance life? ‘Insecure work is good!’ we’re told. We have more ‘opportunities’! We have more control over our time! The many exploitations of the so-called gig economy, however, put paid to that idea pretty quickly.
Despite knowing all this, however, it can be hard to think of ourselves in any other terms. When my friend asked me what their ‘brand’ was it alarmed me, though not initially because of the obvious political implications of what they said: that came second. Rather, I felt anxious because I didn’t have a brand; I didn’t know who I was or what I was trying to say on my Twitter feed or my Instagram, in any of the places where I faced the world alone.
No matter what Peters or his cohorts argue, you’re not like Nike, Coke or Pepsi, nor are you operating completely alone: friends and peers are neither enemies nor simply ‘networking’ opportunities, there to further your own career.
I’d started cutting down on my Twitter use, at first using the site in big, desperate gulps when the in-browser timer I used to control my social media site elapsed, then with less and less interest. I barely had to block it anymore, such was my disinterest: I’d click onto it once or twice a day, listlessly scroll past ten or twenty tweets and then promptly close the tab. I’d previously assessed myself by Twitter metrics: how many likes I’d got indicated how funny I was, how sensitive, how insightful. Without that quantification, I felt a little lost.
At the same time, perhaps not entirely unrelatedly, I’d come to a professional crossroads. I’d spent most of my early career writing about one topic, mental health, and whilst I was still interested in it I also wanted to branch out. I was thinking about what sort of writer I wanted to be, yes, and how I wanted to make a living doing it. But I was also thinking more deeply about what it was that I cared about, what impact I wanted to have on the world, questioning whether what I was doing was leaving a positive mark at all.
Professional and personal crises of identity are not unusual – in your late twenties, in fact, they’re pretty much par for the course. But the fact that my anxiety had clustered around my ‘brand’ – not around my creativity, my identity as a writer or as a person, or even around a fundamental worry about how to make enough money to live – seemed significant.
Perhaps, as Phil Jones writes in a new report on self-branding from think tank Autonomy, we’re so seduced by the idea of the personal brand precisely because our work lives and associated identities are so fragmented: making them something coherent and whole is a tempting thought. But, Jones says, this is a trap: what we think is stability and opportunity is, in fact, precarity. He argues three things: that self-branding puts the onus of responsibility to find work onto individuals, giving us the false hope that insecure working conditions represent ‘opportunity’; that this forces us into creating a cohesive ‘personal brand’ in order to market ourselves; and that attempting to follow through on our promises to the market means our work encroaches more and more on our leisure.
The last point is key. Jones points out how significant social media is in self-branding literature: we’re told that anything we post online is part of our personal brand. But as we use social media so consistently outside of work hours, “self-branding [becomes] an activity that takes place during leisure time”. Networking falls into a similar category. Jones quotes a branding book that describes “every situation you encounter with friends, colleagues, family and teachers” as a networking opportunity: a basic “collapse [of] the boundaries between intimate and professional relationships,” as Jones puts it. In the language of self-branding, relationships aren’t fulfilling in and of themselves: they’re an opportunity to find more work. In this sense, self-branding is an insidious form of invisible labour.
How do we fix this? Failing the full-scale destruction of neoliberal capitalism, there are structural changes that, if implemented, could loosen the grip of ‘employability’ and ‘brand’ on our working and personal lives – the socioeconomic context in which we operate, no matter what we’re told, has a significant impact on how we do so. Making work less precarious – particularly for those who work in unstable industries – is key; the work IWGB are doing to support workers in the gig economy is one step, and regulation of such platforms is another. The four day week may also take pressure off workers. And joining a union always helps.
We also need to stop thinking of ourselves as independent units and our peers as rivals, rejecting the neoliberal lie that we must function both individually and adversarily. As Dan Hancox wrote for this website, freelance work can foster “competitive isolation and silo-like individualism” – it’s this, he argues, we should push against. Talking about our ideas and what excites us, and collaborating on our work is vital. So, too, is collectively discussing wages, fees, and working conditions.
None of this is to say you should throw caution to the wind and start tweeting every single thing that goes through your head, public appearance be damned. But trying better to reject the pernicious grip of the personal brand is one way to stop your work and life merging into one. No matter what Peters or his cohorts argue, you’re not like Nike, Coke or Pepsi, nor are you operating completely alone: friends and peers are neither enemies nor simply ‘networking’ opportunities, there to further your own career. And it’s thinking in these terms – building solidarity, working collectively – that could prove to be the only way out of the individualistic trap that’s been set for us, and that we set for ourselves every day.
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