THE TROUBLE WITH SELF-BRANDING

Brand

So here’s something I think about all the time. Bloggers, writers, other creative professional type of people, maybe you’ve had it too:

Is personal branding ridiculous?

I think it might be.

+++

Ok, let me back up. I don’t think all branding is ridiculous. As a freelance writer, one with a handful of corporate and small business clients, I actually think I’m pretty great at branding. I can help companies find their voice. I can write a snappy tagline.

But as a blogger and an entrepreneur-ish person, I have felt, for the past few years, like I should have a stronger brand. Like I should pick one profession (blogging? Writing? Yoga? Aerial? Handcrafted origami wedding invitations made out of bark?) and promote the shit out of it.

That’s because I understand the utility of branding. I get it that in our digital age, having a sharp, awesomely designed, easily understood brand attracts more eyeballs than we ambivalents. I also get that people with strong opinions, right or wrong, are sorta compelling. Westboro Baptist Church? Horrifying, but compelling. And well-branded. I think they’ve successfully cornered the market on the “God Hates Fags” space.

But personal branding - not self-improvement, but self-branding? I call bullshit.

Here is why:

“Personal branding is the process whereby people and their careers are marked as brands. While previous self-help management techniques were about self-improvement, the personal branding concept suggests instead that success comes from self-packaging.” -Wikipedia

Yeah. This makes me…suspicious.

Why? Well, it seems like branding is its own cage. Like I wonder if super famous chefs, Rachel Ray for example, ever lay awake at night thinking, “I don’t want to cook another damn pork tenderloin. I just-” sniffle, “-I just want to paint!

But she can’t paint, because she is Rachel Ray. Her packaging is a perky chef lady, and if she tried to paint, people might laugh at her. (Not me, Rachel. Not me.)

So it was incredibly refreshing when I read an interview with local author Neal Pollack recently on the AV Club, and heard him express a lone, dissenting opinion on personal branding.

In it, he talks about his 2008 book Alternadad, and how as successful as it was, it threatened to turn him into a one-dimensional writer brand. Here’s a sample:

“I wrote a piece about that for Playboy, of all places. It was called “Daddy Blogging Ruined My Life.” I spent a lot of years trying to turn myself into a brand because they told us self-branding is a way to success. And I kind of believed the hype. It’s just not true. To this day, I see writers publishing their first book or their second book and I can just see them going overboard with the marketing and getting all hyped up about it. You just have to write. If something good happens for you, post it on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or wherever you make your social-media home, but don’t overdo it. Enough with the marketing! Enough with the goddamn marketing already! I’m sick of it.”

Yes! So much YES. Preach, Neal Pollack.

There are lots of cultural forces that encourage creative people to self-brand, and if you are an early 20s person who had a Facebook (or, MySpace!) account for most of their formative teenage years, well, I can see why self-branding is compulsory. To an extent, that’s sort of what Facebook (and ye olde MySpace) is all about.

Also? The Internet is all about packaging. So naturally, as we’ve spent more and more time here, we’ve become more attuned to the power of packaging.

And yet! And yet.

I’m beginning to think that self-branding is a trap.*

Now, as an individual who is perpetually tempted to brand this blog and brand myself better, whatever that even means, maybe I’m just trying to reassure myself. Because, and this happens all the time, I’ll often stumble on some super pretty website and think…oh my God. I want that site. Life. Identity.

But only for a split-second.

Because I am afraid to get boxed in! And identity is just a lot more fluid than personal branding allows.

I always want to interview people like the Design Love Fest gal, Bri, or the Beautiful Mess people, and ask them: “ok dude, be honest. Do you ever want to do something else? Not that your profession isn’t awesome, but do you ever crave something…else? Just to be radically different? To walk around in somebody else’s skin for a day? Do you ever get bored?”

Do fabulous people get bored?

Maybe this whole thing is a complex for my generation: those of us who grew up in the 80s during the self esteem movement, and heard that we could be anything we wanted. In my case, I maybe took that directive a little too much to heart…but as a result, I like my life a lot now. This freelance writing/yoga/aerial stuff. Granted, not every day I wash my hair – but still. Personal hygiene aside, self-employment has definite perks.

So. Here is my question.

If you are a writer, or a yoga teacher, or an aerialist, or Rachel Ray, or someone handcrafting origami wedding invitations made out of bark: Do you self-brand?

Does it give you an anxiety complex?

Or, do you think that we are a small, but vocal, minority beginning to rise up against self-branding, in favor of displaying our messy/complicated/gray area personhood instead?

Because I’ve thought about this a lot. And each time I do, I conclude there are basically two options for me: Either I’m onto something BIG, a sea change of sorts, or…I’m a tragically behind-the-times schmuck.

The latter is entirely plausible.

*For further reading on this idea, check out James Altucher’s great post.

  • kwillis512

    Amen sister. It’s like your in my head this morning. As a freelance writer, I face the same quandary and have yet to find a great answer on how to handle it. Here’s to figuring out how to juggle without getting boxed in.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      Yes to the juggle!

  • http://www.spangledparaphernalia.com/ Chelle Lynn

    Dude. I just posted some thoughts about my own self-branding crisis not five minutes before I saw this. GET OUT OF MY HEAD, CHARLES.

    Anyway, yes. You’re on to something very real here. When I first started blogging many moons (aka 10 years) ago, it was just all about being who you were and people participating in that. But, the longer blogging was around, people found that they could strategically post content in order to project a specific image and readers would respond to that. So, I bought into the hype, wanting to be like all these perfect, fabulous people. The validation of an online community seemed real and important. Blogging about style and taking outfit pictures was great for a while – it boosted my self-esteem and helped me focus on self-improvement. BUT! I branded myself so narrowly that I had no flexibility to be what I wanted to grow into.

    Thinking about it, this isn’t really a new phenomenon – people have been using the anonymity of the internet for always as a sort of escapism from having to be themselves. Because on the internet, we can be anyone we want! I think, though, that this can lead to real identity crisis, and I see people fighting back against those expectations and ridiculous standards.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      Michelle! I was just going to write you and say GOOD FOR YOU on the blog move, the Etsy shop (holy shit. You are so talented.) and the new Tumblr. How can I leave praise-ful comments on it? Do I have to have a Tumblr too? (Grandma needs help with the Internets.)

      • http://www.spangledparaphernalia.com/ Chelle Lynn

        No worries, I’m in the same blue-haired boat. I just got Disqus up and running on the Tumblog (apparently that’s what the cool kids are calling them). Praise away! :)

  • Abby

    Thank-you so much for writing this, Tolly. I’ve been working through this on my own lately, and it gives me so much anxiety. I really don’t know where I stand on it. I often fall into the trap of poring over other writers’ blogs and sites and comparing mine, wondering if mine is too this or too that. If something I’m posting or saying is “off brand.” But that is such crap. How can something be off brand when it is YOU?

    To answer your question, I do try to self brand, because it’s what I feel I’m supposed to do, but the whole time I’m doing it with a weird Grumpy Cat face because I’m confused and I’m not really sure about it all.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      YES! The part about “If something I’m posting or saying is “off brand.” I worry about this, too. All the time. And then I notice when something gets lots of likes and then when something else doesn’t, and I’m like “oh clearly I should do more of the first thing if I want to build this Brand” but…you know what? F-k that. Not that I don’t care about my readership, but, artistic output should come from somewhere real and mysterious, I think. If you peddle TOO much to your readership, then your art starts ringing hollow.

      But I digress. I do think self-branding can be effective. I’ve seen bloggers/writers/photographers/graphic designers build successful businesses because they are branding badasses. So when you are trying to sell a product…branding works. There’s no denying that.

      However! As a writer and as a creative person, you probably have a good BS detector, Abby. And that’s just the thing…self-branding, even when it’s really good, just kinda seems like BS sometimes. So I wonder if we’re beginning to wake up from the marketer’s dream of self-branding?

  • kiah

    Ahhhh! Right as I sit down to organize my images for a massive facebook page update…. :) I don’t do too much work in the personal branding arena. I don’t want to pin myself down to any particular style/genre/look/feel/whatever; plus, it takes a lot of effort to keep up with it all. Creatives are always evolving and learning and growing. I think the way you live your life through your work is what counts, and just having a relatively stable online presence of some sort is enough. I also don’t think having too many interests is ever a bad thing! Your audience just expands as a result… And, actually Tolly, you do have an enviable type of great personal branding: a well-rounded and enthusiastic entrepreneur and lover of life. (So its refreshing as all hell to read this post from YOU!) Personally, I think a little “mess” is great, and being clean, neat, and perfectly branded sounds absolutely stressful – and it would be so boring if everyone was like that! Also, who knows what goes on on the other side of the computer screen or instagram feed – it probably isn’t nearly as great as it looks anyway.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      I have wonderful timing, eh? ;)

      Anyway, go for it + update that FB page, Kiah. You will be fine, since you’ve already got that internal wisdom: “I think the way you live your life through your work is what counts, and just having a relatively stable online presence of some sort is enough.”

      So much yes to that. What I get anxious about is that my “brand” isn’t tight enough, but that’s just because I’ve listened to too many marketers for too long. Thoughts arise like…I should be doing so much more with Austin Eavesdropper!! Or forget Austin Eavesdropper entirely and just be a yoga/aerial person!!! -Stupid stuff like that.

      But really, that’s no way for a creative person to live. To zoom in on just one form of art to peddle and call it a day. My big hope is that culturally, we all start taking your (and Neal’s, and James’) approach: treating brands as an organic, natural outgrowth of one’s work, rather than the other way around. Over the past decade we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we – people! Messy, contradictory, people – need to transform our whole being into one monolithic, easily understood Thing so that we can sell our work more effectively. But, I just don’t think that life works that way.

      Shiny/pretty/sparkly will always be attention-getting, and I’m OK with that. I like shiny/pretty/sparkly. :) But the art (writing, visual, aerial, etc.) that freaking MOVES me is just plain…good. It’s created by people who have spent a long time honing their craft, people who have had artistic ups and downs, and people who have, over time, developed interesting, original points of view. People like you!

  • Chantelle Wallace

    Great post! I dislike self-branding, but apparently it’s mandatory for those of us wanting employment in any type of marketing/advertising/PR field. A career coach told me that marketing types don’t want to hire you to brand their clients if you haven’t successfully created a strong brand for yourself online.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      In a way I get that, Chantelle, bc I used to be a PR person. And it would always break my heart when I’d get a wonderful client (they were all authors), and they had a hot damn mess of a website. I was like…oh noes! We’re not going to get you any media at all! People are going to be so turned off by your ugly site!

      So there IS a utility to branding. It helps you sell a product. In this case, for job interviews, the product is you.

      But reducing oneself to a brand, a commodity, is what troubles me. I guess more on a social/spiritual level than on an economic level, because I believe so strongly in that Walt Whitman platitude…”I contain multitudes.” And sometimes, it just seems like the personal branding model isn’t breathable or big enough for multitudes.

      So listen to that career coach- in terms of getting a job, they probably know what they’re talking about. (Much more than me.) But let me ask you, are just starting out in the marketing/PR/advertising field, Chantelle? Because if so, I think you have a great opportunity to create a breathable brand – one that doesn’t put a vise grip on your identity. One that displays your work, but one that also embraces your beautifully weird, multi-faceted self. Everyone needs to make a living, but don’t let anyone tell you that you need to be a super tight, just-one-thing BRAND in order to succeed. Because it’s just not true.

  • Mary Parsamyan

    Yes, yes and YES! Thank you for writing this. I am in the process of designing my blog and trying to make it look “good” and all these questions that you stated above run through my head all the time.

    Cheers to not getting boxed in! = )

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      Hey Mary! I refer you to Dan’s comment above – he articulates a possible solution to this conflict so well.

      Good luck with your blog!

  • http://www.dansolomon.com dan solomon

    I’ve given a lot of thought to this, too, and what I’ve come up with is that you can have a pretty wide “personal brand,” and it can encompass all of the things you care about the most, if it’s about perspective rather than content.

    Like, I’ve worked really, really hard not to be “music blogger guy,” because that’s so fucking boring I could fart blood. But I like writing about music a lot. I’ve had to make sure I’m not seen as a comics blogger, even though I like writing about comics, because no one can make any money doing that. I write about sports, but being a Sports Guy Blogger isn’t a brand, it’s tossing yourself into an ocean of similarly-colored fish.

    I’ve tried (no idea how well I’ve succeeded) to establish my “brand,” such as it is, as “guy who is thoughtful about a lot of areas of culture.” That way, the only things that are really off-brand for me are things that are stupid, and hopefully I won’t want to post that stuff too much. But if I decide that, after blogging exclusively about football and comic books for a month, I want to start writing about menswear or bikes or food, I hope that the audience that likes me for the perspective I bring to that stuff will stick around for it, because the “brand” (I just can’t type that word in reference to myself without scare quotes) is the same — it’s the subject matter that’s changed.

    But I’ve also built my whole career around not being a specialist, for reasons that have little to do with wanting to be successful and a lot to do with the fact that I get really bored really easily, and I’m a cranky teenager inside who immediately starts flipping the teacher off if she thinks that she knows who I really am. (Weirdly, I also had a really long conversation with Andrew WK about this earlier this week [new brand: dude who namedrops celebrities in blog comments!] that made me feel a lot better about it, and helped me solidify why I think this is much more satisfying for me than the alternative.

    Other people’s mileage will obviously vary on some of this, but I think the key in most cases is to build a brand around your perspective on the world, which is unlikely to change, rather than your interests, which can start to feel like traps. (There’s also the fact that there are a zillion bloggers in the world who like the same stuff you do, so there may not be much margin in branding yourself by those things, while your perspective is much more likely to be unique.)

    Thanks for bringing this up — it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Also, Andrew WK and I are best friends.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      [Slow clap]

      Dan, I feel like you successfully brought my thought train into the station. That it’s not content, but perspective, that you can build a breathable “brand” (the word, especially today, is starting to sound sillier and sillier to me) around.

      And you know what? I feel like you DO do that successfully. In every piece you write. The thoughtful-man-meets-cranky-teenager.

      Do you ever worry, though, that your perspective rests on shifting sands, too? Just as much as your interests?

      For example. My perspective on this topic, self-branding, is a little…hostile. I was hot when I wrote it.

      But my perspective on, say, the Sahara Lounge (I just pitched a story on the Sahara Lounge) will probably be much different…curious, and probably kinder.

      So, how to reconcile that? I’m not sure I feel as stable in my writerly perspective as you do.

      (Maybe this is just a long way of admitting that I’m still finding my writer’s voice. I’ve got a phone call with Andrew WK though and we’re going to talk about it.)

    • http://iouart.blogspot.com/ Rebecca

      Dude who namedrops celebrities in blog comments – love it!

      Your blogs sound really rad, I need to check those out. I enjoy music a lot but have circumvented it being part of my art blog so far for no real reason other than I feel like musicians should have a specific brand of blog. Art means a whole lot to me, and it is what I believe elevates this life beyond the boring stuff. So that is a perspective, and my own approach to it is to learn and share knowledge with it/through it and to help creatives get their work out there.

      Will there be any money in it? That is yet to be seen. I hope I don’t give in to having ads on my blog. Still getting my bearings, then see what comes next. I project it will be about a year before I truly try to have a “take” of any kind outside of just pure self-satisfaction.

  • http://iouart.blogspot.com/ Rebecca

    My name is Rebecca, and I have a blog brand. ;-) I do see all your points and feel like branding is not for everyone. and am so glad I don’t feel trapped. Yes I “brand” often (see icon on left) and I market – hey I am doing art promotion, my tag line is “a blog celebrating creativity” it is built-in. I do not brand myself as a person though, it is all as applies to my art blog. The logo/icons/blog name I can drop like a business card (which is on my list of things to get, just not quite there yet). Anyhow it came about naturally as a way for me to “decorate” my blog and I have built a whole scheme just made it up as I went. Having fun with it too, you should see my Theta 1 custom vinyl figurine, I built my own blog mascot and muse! I like your brand, it keeps the blog open to be whatever you want. Mine is about whatever I think relates to creativity. It is an excellent past-time. I have yet to go pro, much much much more to learn. Been at it only since March.

  • Rachael Genson

    This is why I always love reading your blog, Tolly! You make me stop and consider an entirely different route. As a PR person, branding is bookmarked as a regular word in my vocabulary, and when I start blogging myself, I just assumed I would need to brand myself and my blog. But you make me think differently. Yes, it’s important to make sure that people know who you are. But, there’s no need to jump so far in that you’re stuck. Thanks for the new perspective!

  • Jessica Lonett

    this just made my brain explode in the best way possible.