The wild card bitch is back!
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.
This is how the advertising industry was built — by luring the best and brightest creatives away from their art with the promise of a steady paycheck and then transforming them into marketers making someone else rich.
So I just can’t get down with calling myself a “content creator.”
I don’t want to “create content.”
The very term turns my art, my ideas, my nuanced, unboxed, unbranded self into marketing for someone else’s business.
Can you imagine how history will regard this moment?
When we went from being artists to content creators?!
Don’t let the Attention Economy or the Age of the Personal Brand convince you that this is empowering. That this is freedom. That this serves you and your needs and ideas and dreams and evolving self.
It reminds me of that scene with Sarah and the junk yard in the movie Labyrinth. You know, the one with David Bowie in tiny leggings and Jennifer Connelly in an enormous 80s ballgown?
If you’re not familiar, the film’s basic plot is that 16-year-old Sarah has 13 hours to solve a labyrinth, to save her baby brother from being turned into a goblin.
Just go with me here.
In the scene, Sarah’s time is running out, she has just escaped from The Goblin King trying to seduce her at the world’s creepiest masquerade ball. Remember, she’s 16! This movie could only have been made in the 80s.
After escaping the creepy tiny tights Bowie Goblin, she finds herself disoriented in the middle of an apocalyptic junk yard. So things are going from bad to worse.
Until, she ducks into a pile of trash and — she’s back in her bedroom. Back at home. She plops onto her bed and hugs her teddy bear, looks around and says, “It was just a dream.”
And I remember, as a child watching this movie, feeling this huge sense of relief. Okay phew! The labyrinth is over. The tiny tights Bowie Goblin is gone. The end.
And then…she opens her bedroom door and there’s the apocalyptic junkyard.
She’s not home.
It wasn’t a dream.
She’s still in the labyrinth.
And the Bowie Goblin is still out there ready to turn her baby brother into one of his minions.
So, if you followed me all the way to the apocalyptic junk yard —
The Creator Economy, the Attention Economy, the Age of the Personal Brand offer us this taste of relief, this feeling of safety — in the apocalyptic junkyard of capitalism.
But make no mistake, we are not home here.
We still have to face the Goblin King.
And, just as in Labyrinth, time is running out before the whole planet becomes an apocalyptic junkyard.
To believe that we are brands as Tom Peters told us we were in 1997 and that packaging ourselves up is freedom...
To allow our art to be transformed into content, our ideas into commodities...
...is to believe that we are home again when we are really smack dab in the Goblin King’s clutches.
And the Goblin King in this stilted analogy is a terrifying Mark Zuckerberg / Elon Musk combo, who I think we can agree nobody wants to see in tiny tights.
But if you’re picking up what I’m putting down — if you’re here listening to this podcast — it probably means you’ve felt trapped in the labyrinth, too.
Because, either you run a business and you’re working through the emotional side of building a brand and “being” a brand and you’re wondering why it feels kinda fucked up...
Or if you do not run a business, you are still existing in the Age of the Personal Brand, funding the Attention Economy with your eyeballs, and you are probably grappling with how much our society still expects you to BE a brand, even when you have nothing to sell.
How do you escape the labyrinth and return home to yourself?
This podcast exists to explore that question.
To go back in history and figure how we got to this apocalyptic junkyard.
To map out the terrain so we don’t keep going in circles.
To find new ways of battling the goblin kings of our day.
To explore how to unbrand ourselves before it’s too late.
I believe there is a way out. But I also believe we’re going to have to find it together.
One wild card bitch is just not enough.
So, you coming? Let’s go.
About the Marketing Muckraking podcast
Welcome to Marketing Muckraking, the show that asks not simply what brand culture can do for us, but what it’s doing to us — with your host, creative director, brand strategist gone wild, and the court jester of online business, Rachael Kay Albers — making fun of business and making business fun.
This is the show for rebels, revolutionaries, and renegades who run businesses that burn the rulebook. If you’re sick of business podcasts with all the answers — I’ve got nothing but questions.
Where we swap B School for FREE SCHOOL, easy for honest, and goal digging for marketing in pursuit of meaning.
If you love the show and want to support more marketing muckraking, please subscribe, review, share with your enemies, and if you really want to make my day, you can go to BuyMeARobe.com and leave a little something on the nightstand.
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