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.

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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.