The last post I wrote looked at how countries are attempting to portray themselves internationally through their brands. It is perhaps a bit odd to speak of nations through the lens of branding, as though they are things that can be commoditized and “sold” like sneakers and cola. However, I believe it is part of the zeitgeist; everything these days seems to have a commercial lens, and anything can be processed, packaged, and marketed for a profit. Call it the triumph of capitalism. (Lloyd Dobler would be unimpressed.)
Because the commoditization of everything has come to make a bit of sense to us, I want to examine in a bit more detail another concept I think is novel, and more than slightly alarming: personal branding. I do a lot of workshops about this at work because of its seeming ubiquity as a concept in the business world right now. But what does it really mean, and why is it so popular? Is it a change in how we see each other, or just an iteration of something else?
Some have criticized personal branding as emphasizing “packaging” oneself well over focusing on self-improvement. I don’t think that’s actually true. I went back to what some have identified as the first extended discussion on personal branding, a 1997 article in Fast Company titled “The Brand Called You,” by Tom Peters, to see how he positions it. Peters posits that in the late twentieth-century knowledge economy and era of the Internet, workers are no longer mere employees in others’ corporations – they are instead “CEOs of Me, Inc.” The new professional world is all about the individual. He advises readers to describe, in 15 words or less, what their unique skills and contributions are – their “feature-benefit model.” This is their personal brand.
I decided to do a bit of historical contextualization to determine if the advent of personal branding really did up the ante for artifice in the business world, of if it was just another incarnation of self-help advice. I started with one of my favourite books, Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” first published in 1989. His opening section discusses the history of self-help books, and distinguishes between what he refers to as the “personality” and “character” ethics. The character ethic – a long-term approach to self-improvement that gets at the fundamental roots of behaviour in order to integrate sound principles into one’s life – dominated the literature until about the 1920s, when a new idea, the personality ethic, rose to prominence. The personality ethic, he says, was much more about strategies for achieving success by, essentially, showing others what they wanted to see. By implication, what others wanted to see may not have been one’s genuine self, and in time those who subscribed to the personality ethic might be exposed as insincere frauds. (The implicit criticism of books like “How to Win Friends and Influence People” here is hilarious.) Covey calls for a return to the character ethic – a principles-based approach, over a superficial one.
So we see that, according to one of the leading writers in the genre, packaging oneself for success is not a new thing. Moreover, those who advocate personal branding do emphasize self-improvement. Peters in “The Brand Called You” clearly advocates building one’s skills in order to improve one’s personal product suite – but what he cites as the benefits are largely extrinsic. The difference, then, is not in the lack of focus on personal improvement, but in the desired outcomes from it. According to Peters, the beneficial outcomes are more power, more authority, and, most notably, more visibility. Presumably these benefits add up to personal happiness and fulfilment, but the link is not made explicit. Visibility in particular seems to be an end in itself. I suspect this is a change over the “personality ethic” kind of self-help, because that was much more focused at the interpersonal level.
To tease out the differences some more, I went back to the original in the self-help genre, Sam Smiles’s 1859 work Self-Help, widely considered the literary embodiment of liberal-progressive Victorian morality. Contrast the personal branding mantra of visibility with what Sam Smiles says about anonymous self-improvement:
Even the humblest person, who sets before his fellows an example of industry, sobriety, and upright honesty of purpose in life, has a present as well as a future influence upon the well-being of his country; for his life and character pass unconsciously into the lives of others, and propagate good example for all time to come.
Not exactly the same as buying a building to have one’s name on it, or founding a scholarship program, or sponsoring a business school. And the return to Smiles highlights another difference. A key part of the visibility end is that it stops at the individual, whereas Smiles advocates self-betterment for the “greater good.” National progress is the Victorian self-help goal, whereas advancement of the self is the personal branding-era goal.
Perhaps the most alarming difference is in the means by which personal branding achieves its goals of visibility – through the commoditization of the self. Such a concept had to be American, the true home of capitalism and democracy. It seems sometimes as though the history of the United States is the story of competition. Everything is settled through democratic process, and the best “product” wins. Think: religious freedom, competition among school districts, election of neighbourhood dog catchers, etc. (You can debate this concept with me in the comments section, if you like.) These days, it’s all about the money. How can I “sell” myself in a way that people want to invest in me?
Further evidence can be found in the fact that “self help” as a genre has gone from an offshoot of liberal political philosophy to sitting largely within “business literature,” because it is practical and concerned with, at the root, the effectiveness of capitalist organizations and the individuals within them. At least, that’s where the legitimate self help authors have gone, having geared their advice toward executives, or else they face relegation to the “New Age” section.
All of this leads me to believe that a desire for fame (or perhaps notability or notoriety would be a better word) is one of the defining characteristics of our era. But what do you think? I am taking too much from the visibility angle? Do you think self help does reside primarily in the business section now? And are you as alarmed by people casually discussing how to “brand” themselves as I am? I’d love to discuss this with you, so please leave a comment below if something is on your mind!