This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2017

Death to the personal brand

In today’s hot job market, professionals are encouraged to sell themselves. But what happens to our sense of worth when we’re commodified?

Marcia Walker


A few years ago, at a freelancing workshop, I participated in an exercise about the power of personal branding. I had my doubts but was not quick enough to duck out, like other attendees. It was the dreaded “get to know you” session of the workshop. We moved our chairs to the centre of the room, forming two lines across from one another and sat down. A few extraverts leaned in enthusiastically, while the rest of us glanced longingly at the exit.

The instructions were simple: 90 seconds to tell the person across from you about yourself and your work. After that, a buzzer went off and they got their turn. Then we shifted to the chair on our right and began all over again until we had “pitched” ourselves to everyone in the room. We were advised to make our 90 seconds matter. Be clear, stimulating, and authentic. Go!

At the end of it, my parched throat could barely croak out my name. I remembered no one. Embarrassing snippets of my elevator speech nagged me on the way home: In a breathless, hurried voice, I had said, “I’m a writer with purpose!” and then vainly tried to convince both of us what that meant. Words like “lifestyle,” “content creation,” “specializing,” and “communications” buzzed through the room. I remembered feeling that this type of promoting involved physical stamina and that perhaps I needed to work out more. I was exhausted.

When I returned home, my fatigue morphed into disgust. What had I just done? Why did I feel emptied of personal integrity? What happened to the complexity of the human soul? I had reduced mine to a minute and half of blather. To what end? To commodify myself?

What a concept, personal branding. The private and the personal on the one hand, and advertising and product on the other. How did these two oppositional words ever transform into one concept?

Tom Peters is largely credited with coining the phrase in his 1997 article, “The Brand Called You,” published in Fast Company magazine. He proposed, in an enthusiastic self-help tone, to think of yourself as a company or “free agent,” and to know your “worth on the open market.” Over the years the lines between commercial and personal interests have blurred to such an extent that we no longer appear to notice. Individuals are told to “invest” in themselves; people are considered “markets”; stories are “content”; and corporations have the status of “person” under the law. Dating sites, places designed to foster intimacy, look like catalogues with people to purchase. No wonder we’re confused.

In an age like ours, where many are overworked, overwhelmed, and distracted, there is a panic and pressure to whittle yourself down to a pithy line so you can get on with the business of life. On top of that, less job security and the growing replacement of traditional employment with freelance and independent contract work creates growing pressure to solidify your reputation.

By 2020, it’s estimated freelancers will make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce. In Canada, almost all of the job growth in 2016 was due to part-time work. People feel compelled to reach out to as many “markets” as possible with information that is pre-packaged, easy to digest, and prepared in small bites.

Even after an hour of personal brand training, I felt the pressure to turn myself into something snackable—not a meal, but a mere morsel, the small snack that you forgot you ate later in the day.

Yet, marketing yourself has only grown in popularity. Books, such as You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself, Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success, and the popular and aptly named “Personal Branding Blog,” advise readers on how to build and protect their most saleable qualities.

And personal branding does not just happen during work hours; it also bleeds into your personal life. The real work is online, maintaining profiles on your website, your blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. The number one tip from a Globe and Mail article about building personal brands urges us to “be visible and accessible.” The second tip? “Show the real you.”

Of course, promoters of personal branding don’t actually mean that. They’re referring to the best you, the sellable version. The parts that have little or nothing to do with making money are shunted to the side, as are the intriguing facets of the self that contradict one another. Authenticity can’t be possible when the essence of branding is selling yourself.

I’m not saying articulating who you are and what you stand for isn’t powerful. But knowing yourself is a process. It’s fluid; it changes and grows. Part of my difficulty with an elevator speech is that it’s rehearsed and performed. It’s static. Who wants to repeat the same version of themselves over and over? Spontaneity, or at least not rehearsing what you’re going to say, leads to the possibility of real dialogue and connection. It may not be slick, but it just might be memorable.

Clearly, I will never master the elevator speech. My personal brand will suffer. I may miss out on opportunities. But I’m in this life for the fullness of the experience, professionally and personally.

It’s a feast. And it takes a lot longer than 90 seconds.

Marcia Walker’s writing has appeared in PRISM international, Room, Event, Antigonish Review, the Globe and Mail, CBC Radio, and elsewhere. She lives in Toronto.

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