The Age of Personal Unbranding

Marketing Muckraking

08-06-2023 • 9 mins

Welcome to Season 2 of Marketing Muckraking!

I started Season 1 with The Age of the Personal Brand — and because I love a good callback, I’m continuing this conversation as we kick off Season 2.

In my very first episode I traced back the origins of the term “personal brand” to Tom Peters and his 1997 Fast Company article “The Brand Called You,” when Peters told readers to “take a lesson from the big brands…establish your own micro equivalent of the Nike swoosh.

Peters positioned personal branding as freedom from corporate rule:

“You’re not an “employee” of General Motors, you’re not a “staffer” at General Mills, you’re not a “worker” at General Electric or a “human resource” at General Dynamics (ooops, it’s gone!). Forget the Generals! You don’t “belong to” any company for life, and your chief affiliation isn’t to any particular “function.” You’re not defined by your job title and you’re not confined by your job description. Starting today you are a brand.”

Don’t listen to him.

You are not a brand.

Because, a brand, by its very definition doesn’t belong to itself. And you do.

As I explored in Episode 19: “The Not-So-Subtle Art of Caring What Other People Think,” a brand lives in its audience’s mind.

A brand is a memory. And yes I’m going to quote myself here:

”Your brand is what people remember about you, based on a complicated mess of factors — what they’ve experienced, felt, heard, read, and seen — that ultimately becomes a paint splattered memory that people like me neatly fold up into a five letter word.”

The best brands are consistent in ways that humans are not built to be.

Brands only change when the market demands it.

Brands answer to sales — not themselves — because a brand doesn’t have a self.

The promise of personal branding is that you can “get paid to be yourself” but the capitalist disclaimer buried in the fine print — results not typical — hinges on whether the “self” you’re selling is what people want.

So much of what is taught about personal branding revolves around scaling the self, streamlining the self, sculpting the self around an audience.

Replacing “to be” with “to buy.”

The “get paid to be yourself” promise only comes true if you are ready and willing to surrender yourself to the version of you that the market will bear. And then package up that commodified you into a neat little box and get to work cranking out more, more, more in an assembly line of ideas to stock the shelves of the Creator Economy.

Let’s pause there — because just as “personal branding” promises freedom, when it’s really selling you a box you’ll never fully fit inside...

The term “Creator Economy” suggests an economy that belongs to creatives, when it’s really asking you to create for free, get paid in attention, and thank the platforms that profit off your labor for the opportunity to “do what you love.”

To be a “content creator” is to accept an unpaid internship in "The Attention Economy” (a more accurate title than “Creator Economy”) with the hope that it’ll turn into dollar bills somewhere down the line.

But the folks making the most money aren’t the creators — but the tycoons at the top of the pyramid re-selling the attention that creators capture for them...