When success can be measured in followers, likes and click-throughs, the concept of the “personal brand” seems a sound investment—but Debbie Millman isn’t buying it. Here, the revered designer and brand consultant looks at the challenge of turning the messiness of humanity into a market-safe commodity.

Illustrations by Evan Weselmann.

The cult of personal branding has never been stronger. It’s hard to read anything about business, culture, entertainment and politics these days without bumping into yet another think piece about how critical it is to build a personal brand. There are classes about personal branding. There are books about personal branding. There are even people who create personal brands for other people.

I’ve been a brand consultant for nearly my entire professional life. I’ve helped create brands for some of the biggest fast-food restaurants, carbonated soft drinks, and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals in the world. While I believe branding is one of the most significant cultural influences of our day, there is no doubt that the condition of branding reflects the condition of our culture. But the present preoccupation people have with the development of their personal brand is fraught with inherent contradictions and some rather unsavory connotations. 

The idea of a “personal brand” isn’t new or unique. It was first introduced by author and salesman Napoleon Hill in his 1937 book “Think and Grow Rich.” Originally promoted as a self-help text, the book proposed that a person’s personality could potentially supersede skills and talent to create wealth. To date, the book has sold over 100 million copies, and over the years, the idea of a personal brand evolved to become more mainstream, as celebrities began to endorse brands in print and television ads. 

In the 1956 book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” author Erving Goffman investigated the concept of “self-presentation,” or how people can control how they want to be seen and perceived by others. He used the term “dramaturgy” to refer to “looking at one’s own persona as a drama and treating one’s actions as an actor in a play.” He posited that a person could control how they’re viewed by others by carefully selecting what they present to the public. 

In “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind,” published 25 years later, Al Ries and Jack Trout suggest that it is possible to advance a career by clinically applying business strategies to individuals, but it took another 16 years before the term “personal branding” became mainstream.

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Imagine if we could design a way to share who we are without shame or hubris.”

In 1997, in a conference room of one of my corporate clients, I first came upon the business magazine Fast Company. The cover of the issue featured clever art mimicking the iconic Tide laundry detergent package. When I examined the design more closely, I was startled to see that the headline “The Brand Called You” had taken the place of the classic P&G nomenclature. Suddenly the more traditional visual assets of fast-moving consumer brands were being applied to people.

The cover story was written by the author and brand consultant Tom Peters. In it, he boldly declared that a new construction of our corporate selves was now required in the modern marketplace. This identification of the individual as brand was a recognition of cultural trends that reached an apotheosis in the 1990s, led by the concert sponsorships of Michael Jackson and Madonna—brand partnerships that had previously been shunned and considered “selling out.”

Brand thinking became more pervasive, as had the use of media both as a form of personal expression and a business tool. As sexy as it seemed at the time, I’m not sure anyone understood the gravity of Peters’ proclamation and how quickly it would become table stakes for entrepreneurs, business executives, celebrities and pretty much anyone selling anything. As for me, I was newly minted in the branding business, and desperate to make a difference. The first sentence of Peters’ article—“It’s a new brand world”—became my mantra and I applied the tools of personal branding to the marketing plan of the brand consultancy I led at the time.

The dramatic growth of social media over the last two decades has fueled what is now the professional management of personal identities. While Martha Stewart and Tony Robbins sold their values alongside products, by the turn of the 21st century, celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian used the then new social media tools to become famous more for what they projected than any form of actual achievement. Even former President Donald Trump used the idea of a personal brand to win the 2016 election.

But what are brands, exactly? Brands are, by intention and design, manufactured meaning. They are differentiated by symbols that telegraph beliefs. We use these symbols to communicate our allegiances and then use all sorts of made-up things—religious marks, national flags, family crests, wedding rings, campaign buttons, baseball hats and running shoes—to signify these affiliations. People love brands. Everything we consume now—even the most basic commodities like water and salt—are brands. Experiences are brands. Buildings are brands. Broadway musicals are brands. We place logos on eggs and toilet bowls and, in the form of tattoos, we even use them to mark our bodies.

But brands don’t actually exist until we make them. Brands are constructed entities people conjure and create with imagination and innovation. The success or failure of that projection is measured by how many people become engaged and invested in the communication. Brands only become significant when there is consensus from enough people who all believe the same thing. But brands are not really real—not in the truest sense of the word. They don’t have a moral compass. They don’t have consciousness and they don’t breathe. They don’t bleed or cry. They don’t feel. 

Brands very well may be the promise of an experience, but brands don’t ever get to experience or reflect upon that experience. Brands can’t direct themselves. They have no autonomy. And no matter how much brand consultants try to inject “personality” or “soul” into the “heart” of a brand, most people don’t trust them. And why should they? Organizations that own brands have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders; they are legally obligated to do everything possible to provide a return on their investment of funds. This creates a moral conundrum: how do you guarantee long-term profitability and ensure that your brand is ethical, sustainable, and good? It’s nearly impossible as corporations attempt to straddle the requirements of Wall Street and the demands of an increasingly woke culture.

Humans, on the other hand, are complicated and messy and inconsistent. We are remarkably imaginative. Sometimes we are generous, sometimes we are kind, sometimes we lie and cheat. No matter who we are, we have autonomy, and (if we are lucky) are free to decide to do whatever we want for whatever reason we want. Then, we can change our minds and decide to do something altogether different. Or not.

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When a person aspires to be a brand, they forfeit everything that is truly glorious about being human.”

When a person aspires to be a brand, they forfeit everything that is truly glorious about being human. Building any brand requires consensus. When we position ourselves as a brand, we are forced to project an image of what we believe most people will approve of and admire and buy into. The moment we cater our creativity to popular opinion is the precise moment we lose our freedom and autonomy.

Now, the creation of a personal brand has become de rigueur with a whole new generation of social media influencers aspiring to become brands. This calculated construction of self has become calibrated, molded and organized around followers, likes, click-throughs and monetization, as hundreds of millions of people live highly filtered lives publicly punctuated with a constant barrage of personal pixels.

Now don’t get me wrong: people can certainly own brands. They can invent and direct brands and they can design, manufacture, and promote brands. But rather than manufacturing a personal brand, why not build a reputation? Why not develop our character? Imagine what we could learn from each other if we felt worthy as we are instead of who we project ourselves to be. Imagine if we could design a way to share who we are without shame or hubris.

Ten years after Tom Peters first published “The Brand Called You,” I had the opportunity to interview him. I asked how he felt about the far-reaching influence of the ideas he had introduced in 1997. I was surprised by his response. He bemoaned how often the “Brand You” idea was misinterpreted. He conceded that while it did indeed relate to the concept of the individual as brand, he felt that it took a narcissistic turn he never intended or anticipated.

Perhaps it’s time we leave the branding to the brands and the living to the living.

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