If you’re an entrepreneur – whether that means you’re a strategist, designer, copywriter, journalist, musician, or whatever your particular hustle happens to be – I’m sure you’ve encountered it again and again: articles from so-called “experts” emphasizing the importance of building your personal brand.
Branding is a concept that was long relegated to companies and corporations, but not anymore. In today’s neo-liberal economy, each of us is taught to think of ourselves as more than human. These puny humans are frail things that wither and die. Brands, however, are robust personas that transcend our all-too-mortal flesh.
As an entrepreneur, you’re taught that – if you’re to succeed in a marketplace that rewards individual drive above all other social concerns – you must think of yourself as a business. And that business extends to every facet of your life.
For those who are the most successful at erecting their personal brand, there is no living – there is only the fluid, ongoing act of conducting business. That, and constantly auditing their online presence, as if they are engaged in the construction of some digital monument to their persona that will stand long after they pass on.
The digital pyramids of countless private pharaohs.
When Masks Become Irremovable
I’d like to delve into a word that I’ve mention twice above – persona.
The word “persona” has been passed down to us unchanged from its Latin origins. Today many people hold a rather vague concept of its definition, but a few millennia ago its meaning was very clear. A persona was a mask worn by an actor.
The major difference between the persona of antiquity and the persona of today involves the fact that at the end of a classical performance, the mask was removed. Today the entrepreneur’s persona is a fixture in her life. It is a façade that takes over the reality. A character that subverts the actor.
For a time, this is an exciting experience. It’s a challenge to build the façade, and even more of a challenge to push it to the point of popular acceptance. Success comes to those who’s personas are the most believable and unique.
But we’ve all seen what happens when people wear their masks too long. The audience becomes aware of the guise. Eventually they see behind the curtain, and they are unimpressed and a little disgusted to find that the Wizard was an imperfect human all along. Then the wearer of the mask tends to become all the more obsessed with the maintenance and assertion of it. From there it’s usually a rapid spiral toward the depressing.
The most obvious examples are actors and rock stars, but we also see it with politicians and of course business personalities. When the mask comes off, you can usually tell because suddenly the person in question is all over the news for all the wrong reasons.
Desperation is never a pretty sight.
Why Personal Brands Are Bullshit
I spent years building my personal brand.
I’m the eccentric, irreverent writer whose work is informed by bizarre adventures and a lack of concern for accepted ideas. My goal is to deliver what I consider to be the best piece of writing – not necessarily the writing that was asked for or expected. And because audiences unfailing enjoy my work, those who contract me continue to trust my judgement.
At the same time, part of my brand involves being more professional than the competition. In other words, I might be kind of weird, but I also beat deadlines, remain abreast of the latest industry developments, and I’m adept at communication and strategy.
The bottom line is that while I might deliver strange, I still unfailing deliver quality. These are both prized qualities in the modern neo-liberal marketplace – out-of-the-box individuality, and a strong sense of business savvy – and I am compensated accordingly for presenting a persona that appears pleasing to the all-mighty market.
Lucky for me, it wasn’t difficult to develop such a brand. I am a unique thinker and I am highly organized and professional. Both of those characteristics existed long before my business. And again, authenticity is a quality that is applauded.
But channeling that authenticity into a marketable brand took a pretty much constant stream of effort. For months at a time I would work 10+ hours a day, every day. And when I wasn’t working I was still on the job – networking, considering the angles, keeping up the hustle.
And it grows tiresome, and almost alarming at a certain point. Eventually the brand grows to the degree that it takes on a life of its own – Frankenstein’s monster syndrome.
Here are a few of the problems I have with the entire personal brand concept:
- It’s dehumanizing.
I come from an entire generation of people who are taught not to think of themselves as humans but as highly-limited corporate enterprises. This is a rather damaging concept. It’s the same mindset that drives people to think of the environment as a conglomerate of natural resources to be exploited rather than a natural habitat to be protected.
Which brings us to my next point…
- It’s sociopathic.
When you think of yourself and by extension everyone else as a brand or company rather than a person, empathy becomes a hindrance. Manipulation and success trump all human concerns.
- It’s inauthentic.
It doesn’t matter how close to reality your personal brand happens to be. Wear it as a mask long enough and you’ll begin to see the daylight between who you are and what you’re attempting to portray.
And so will your audience.
- It’s exhausting.
The constant need to keep up appearances takes it out of you over time. Not only does it require a great deal of actual work hours making it physically tiresome, but it’s emotionally draining too.
When you’re a brand rather than a person, there is no such thing as time off. You might be relaxing on the Mediterranean when you strike up a conversation with someone who turns out to be a potential contact (and you quickly learn that everyone is a potential contact in some way or another), and suddenly there it is – the persona – eating into what you hoped would be a chance to let your hair down and chill.
- It’s boring.
At first, building a personal brand is an exciting endeavor. It involves a lot of risk and experimentation. But anyone who spends too much time thinking about themselves becomes a bore, both to themselves and others.
Change for the Sake of Solution
So what’s the solution? It’s not as simple as just stopping. The personal brand concept is, for better or for worse, an integral part of doing business in the modern world. And unless I want to go live in a cave (and oftentimes I do want to go live in a cave), I’ve got to keep up the business, which means keeping up the brand.
So I’m developing a few solutions.
- Keep ‘em guessing.
For me, my biggest problem is the monotony of the whole branding thing. The solution? Keep things interesting. That means dodging expectations and playing cards out of sleeve. To put that in more concrete terms, it can mean anything from radically adjusting the voice of my writing from piece to piece, to strategically reserving my best ideas for key moments, to changing the way I dress and present myself aesthetically.
Change is good. It staves off boredom.
- Unplug and step away – often.
Over the years the maintenance of my brand has made digital connection a constant necessity. I’ve had to work continually to uphold my various contact and presentation channels, whether that means social media, my websites, email, text, or whatnot. It’s also meant maintaining the entrepreneurial mask everywhere I go, in every situation.
It certainly helps that my business has hit a fairly self-sustaining level, but in any case the time has come to spend more of my life disconnected from the whole thing. That might mean going out into nature, or spending time with friends sans persona, or whatever. It means getting some distance from the brand.
It is also time to take business in a new direction and to find new outlets and ventures. The most natural option for me is the one I’m currently shifting toward – writing fiction.
But it’s not limited to one path. I can also take up writing journalistically about new topics, step into new copywriting niches, or expand my business into a realm completely outside of writing. Whatever the case, it means looking down new avenues.
The funny thing is that all three of these solutions are pretty traditional tactics for business and branding – reinvention, rest and recovery, and refocusing. What’s more, they are all fairly “authentic” to my existing brand. It seems that the remedy for my branding involves still more branding.
But as I’ve already mentioned, change is good. It’s the difference between remaining invigorated and going stale.
So what takeaway do I hope that you glean by reading this?
I’m not saying that you as an entrepreneur shouldn’t work to build your brand. It’s kind of an inescapable aspect of making that cha-ching in the modern world.
What I am saying is that you should not get stuck behind the mask. Make changes regularly, expand in new directions, and be sure to give yourself plenty of time vacationing from behind the curtain.
And if I can impart one final piece of advice on the subject, it’s this: don’t take your brand too seriously. Otherwise you run the risk of melting down every time someone sees the mask slip, and you might fall into “Charlie Sheen Syndrome”. Or should we call it the “Axle Rose Disorder”?
Whoever – pick your own celebrity mess. The bottom line is that you should never confuse what your brand happens to be with who you are. The result is a psychological catastrophe.