Revisiting NO LOGO by Naomi Klein on its 22nd birthday, I opened the book to this:
“You might not see things yet on the surface, but underground, it’s already on fire.” - Y.B. Mangunwija
The pages are thin enough to form a kind of collage between this quote and the ominous title page beneath it:
Klein was researching and writing NO LOGO, the adbusting book that rang a warning bell about just how big brand culture had become, when Tom Peters coined the phrase “personal brand” in his 1997 Fast Company article, “The Brand Called You.”
Just as NO LOGO was about to bust brands like Nike wide open, Peters told us to “take a lesson from the big brands…establish your own micro equivalent of the Nike swoosh.”
Funny, marketers have spent almost 200 years trying to make brands that feel like people.
Now, marketers will spend the next 200 years trying to make people feel like brands.
“You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop,” wrote Peters.
And he had no idea how right he was.
Almost 25 years after the term was coined, we are living in The Age of the Personal Brand, where we apply market logic and corporate strategy to our selves, whether employees or entrepreneurs.
As Peters sold it, branding our selves offers an exciting and empowering personal escape 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.”
Here’s where this thinking starts to fray:
A brand does not belong to itself.
Brands belong to their customers.
When Nike’s audience changes, Nike changes.
The brand has no “self” to contend with. It answers only to sales.
So when we apply brand logic to people — to OUR selves — who or what do we answer to?
“The Brand Called You” heralded personal branding as the path to freedom from the clutches of corporate culture that NO LOGO would soon urge us to flee.
The value proposition of becoming "CEO of Me Inc." is that you can finally be "brand loyal" to yourself, first and foremost.
But can you?
What happens when the market shifts?
What happens when you shift?
And what if that shift isn’t “profitable”?
Brands answer to sales.
People answer to themselves.
Put them together and you’ve got a world of people shaping our selves around what sells.
And that doesn’t feel like “freedom” to me.
Klein called it:
NO SPACE. NO CHOICE. NO JOBS. NO LOGO.
So, what's next, RKA?
I'm not in a hurry to find a happy ending here.
Because I’m a brand strategist, I’ve felt tethered in my exploration of this topic, bound by my OWN personal brand, which is branded around branding.
Caught in that tension between answering to sales and the self, I started to lose my grasp on whether I was pursuing ideas because they were profitable or because they were “my” authentic ideas.
If I were to “think like [my] own favorite brand manager,” as Peters puts it, then I would answer to the many people in my audience struggling with this same ambivalence, and neatly package my conclusions into a branded take on personal unbranding.
BURN IT DOWN ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK OR YOUR MONEY BACK!
This is where self-branding slowly erases the self.
I think I am free, empowered, loyal to Me Inc.
All the while I am training “my” “self” to think in commodities.
My mind may be “free” to roam, but my internal brand manager makes sure I stay safely inside the bounds of what’s sellable.
Soon I simply can’t distinguish between what I “believe” and what is best for my brand.
And this is what FREE SCHOOL taught me.
Earlier this year, I had a breakdown somewhere at the intersection of Self and Brand. I started FREE SCHOOL, which I called The Greatest Biz Art Experiment Of All Time (yes, I branded my own breakdown ) where I vowed to “burn down the rules of online business to see what was left standing.”
It started by burning down my allegiance to industry bullshit.
Then my life, my marriage, my family caught fire and I found myself completely unable to control the flames. (If you know, you know. You really had to be there.)
I soon found out that when you burn it all down, the only thing left standing is you.
FREE SCHOOL brought me back to school — it showed me just how much the age of the personal brand, not online business, had miseducated me about what it is to be my self.
As Klein revealed in NO LOGO, our modern brand culture has replaced innovation with image.
It’s been decades since Nike was in the business of making shoes.
Today, the only thing Nike manufactures itself is marketing.
You’re not buying the product, you’re buying a feeling.
Personal brand culture, too, privileges perception over true progress.
It’s less important that you actually innovate than your audience THINKS that you do. (And it’s easier to look like an innovator than to become one.)
“Fake it ’til you make it” is the anthem of this age, but in practice, if you fake it well enough, you might not ever need to “make” anything at all.
In this way, the most successful “thought leaders” often earn that title simply by following the cues of their audience and what the “market” of ideas will bear, without leading them anywhere new.
At the time I started FREE SCHOOL, standing between Self and Brand, I knew that in order to choose one, I had to burn the bridge to the other.
And this is where you find me. In that treacherous territory that lies beyond the safety of the sellable self.
Exploring all the ideas and questions and possibilities I had in me all along, the ones I didn’t dare visit because I knew I couldn’t get back to brand headquarters by dark.
The thoughts too heavy and unwieldy to throw in my backpack and re-sell on my return.
If you’re reading this, you might have googled "personal brand" and felt betrayed by SEO when you found this where you expected a helpful How To.
Maybe you subscribe to my newsletter or watch my show, where I initially promised you my thoughts on building an unforgettable brand and marketing your business without selling your soul.
Or maybe you heard a brand was on fire and brought your popcorn to watch it burn.
I invite you to stay if you, like me, are interested, not only in what branding can do for you but what it’s doing to you.
And what to do about it.
The age of the personal brand is not exclusive to entrepreneurs — and it’s not something we can opt out of.
It’s something we must work around.
It’s easy to say “You are not your brand,” but harder to navigate what that really looks like at a time when every inch of our lives is commodified.
Where our very attention is bought and sold thousands of times a day.
I don’t have The Answer™, nor am I looking for one. I’m pursuing the questions I’ve been too afraid to ask because I knew there were no easy-to-monetize solutions.
What is branding doing to us?
How did we get here?
Who does this serve?
And how do I become my own person, before brand culture sells me a Safer Self®?
Disclaimer: Safer Self® is HIGHLY FLAMMABLE. Buy in at your own risk. May result in burning down your entire life.
I did it and you can, too! (But I don’t recommend it.)
I’m not closing my business or leaving the world of branding and marketing behind.
I’m still working with rulebreakers and renegades who have stuff to sell, but want to take their souls off the market.
The difference is, I’m finally being honest about the fact that I specialize in questions, not The Answer™.
My 12 years in the business of branding has shown me that when people hire an agency, they give up their agency, and default to whatever Safer Self® their strategist suggests. (And it’s usually in the shape of a dickfunnel.)
The age of the personal brand isn’t black and white, but the industry conversation about branding is.
Here, I deal in rainbows.
Which I love/hate to say...is very on brand for me.
p.s. Sick of business newsletters that have all The Answers™? Well, I've got nothing but questions. For more marketing muckraking and brand strategy gone wild, sign up for my emails here:
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