Personal Branding Advice for Skeptics

You’re curious about how branding applies to you as a person, but you’re also a little suspicious of the idea of getting “branded.” That doesn’t sound fun at all. If you’re being honest, the whole idea of personal branding feels like a necessary evil. And you’re only half right.

A Personal Branding Hell

In the “Nosedive” episode of the dystopian series Black Mirror, characters live in a world where people are rated on a scale of 1 to 5. Their whole lives—where they work, where they live, their priority on hospital waiting lists—are affected by their rating. And while they use their phones to give stars and browse photos, people’s ratings don’t just live online. Anyone can see whether you’re a 1.8 (outcast) or a 4.8 (VIP) by just looking at you, thanks to a special augmented reality contact lens.

Lacie, the main character, becomes obsessed with increasing her rating from a 4.2 to a 4.5. But her master plan to leverage a toxic friendship to increase her score starts to fall apart when she loses her temper at an airport. (The show aired months before the viral United Airlines and American Airlines mishaps!) A security guard docks her a point and puts her on “double damage” as punishment for acting out. This one minor infraction causes her score to plummet and her sanity to break down in one night, as she struggles against the endless barriers that people with below-average ratings face.

Like every episode in the series, “Nosedive” hits close to home. If Yelp started rating humans or Facebook created augmented reality glasses (oh wait, they’re already doing that), it’s not hard to imagine our world looking even more like the show. Black Mirror captures a frightening vision of personal branding turned inhumane. Get your star rating up, and your worth as a human being follows. Get people to love you, or else your days will become a living hell. Life becomes the hollow pursuit of a 5-star reputation.

To be totally honest, this isn’t far off from how I used to think of personal branding: a popularity contest with unethical contestants. It seemed like the practice of those who know how to land high approval ratings, no matter the cost. I still remember the moment I realized that popularity was a game, with winners and losers. The year was 2000; I was ten years old. At the turn of the century, I promised myself that this was a game I would never play.

How We Became Obsessed with Brands

Fast forward 17 years. We live in a world brimming over with talk of personal branding (including 902 books on Amazon). We are ultra-aware of how we are perceived by others. And how could we not be? We craft multiple social media profiles and gorge ourselves on books like Blink and How to Make Anyone Like You. And that little girl who swore never to play the popularity game chose to launch an entire business dedicated to branding.

What has led to this branding obsession?

  • The ability for anyone to become an author, influencer, or superstar simply by sharing content on the web has taken the popularity game to new heights.

  • Politics, media, and business have been rattled as older leaders try to keep up with digital natives.

  • The relationship between employee and company is fundamentally changing, with more and more people working from home, changing jobs, and turning to freelance gigs every year. Workers need to think more like business owners than like traditional employees.

  • The relationship between consumer and company is evolving. For better or for worse, we expect companies to know exactly what we want and when we want it—for the lowest price, delivered with a human touch. Our relationship with brands becomes deeper the more we look to our lifestyle choices and buying habits as expressions of our identity.

And that little girl? She learned to put aside her disdain for popularity. As she made a career out of freelance writing, she began to see the necessity of building a reputation. And as a passionate lover of language, she also realized that branding is actually all about communication. The fact that some people lie (create inauthentic brands) shouldn’t prevent everyone from learning how to speak.

Personal Branding Advice from an ex-Skeptic

We’re obsessed with brands because we need to be. We’re so much more connected with so many more people than ever before, and we can’t have deep, soul-searching conversations with every single one of them. In a globalized age, a brand is just a shorthand for your identity in the community of 3.6 billion Internet users.

So here we are, at a crossroads in history. Technology is changing the world at the speed of a broadband connection—and the way we see ourselves, our worth, and our work is changing right along with it. We can either long for a simpler era... or learn how to thrive in this one.

My advice for anyone new to personal branding is this: Embrace it.

It would be amazing if all seven billion people in the world could see exactly who you are, what you stand for, and what potential you have—without effort, explanation, or augmented reality glasses. But people are limited by their stereotypes, their language, their attention spans, their time.

You can never be sure that you can get anyone to understand your value. But it’s your responsibility to try. Because the work of communication is the basis for all other work, whether or not it’s mediated by technology. It will be very hard to achieve your own goals or help others achieve theirs if you can’t communicate who you are and what you do in a way that makes sense to the person you’re talking to.