The logic of branding has slipped into every corner of modern life — but it doesn’t seem to profit individuals as much as some once hoped
Some ideas are bigger than others. Some even grow so large that they turn into paradigms, their logic organizing the way we see everything around them. And if you’re uncertain what framework dominates modern life, well, you can take it from the TED conference fixture and Advertising for Humanity founder Dan Pallotta, who put it bluntly enough in a 2011 article for the Harvard Business Review: “Brand is everything, and everything is brand.”
He was writing in the service of building his own brand, which is about rebranding other people’s brands. The brand, in fact, is such a ubiquitous organizing principle for so many things — companies, products, people — that it has been forced to spawn an expansive glossary of subcategories and varieties. There are “public brands” (civic institutions), “brand extensions” (new products from existing brands), “fighter brands” (cheaper brands released by costlier brands to reattract lost brand loyalty) and “brand leaders” (the very best brands). Even aspects of branding itself are branded, with “brand managers” (marketers) building “brand equity” (likability) through the cultivation of “brandface” (the way the consumer sees herself when she engages with the brand). The apotheosis of all this might be the “lifestyle brand” — a corporate bid to escape the humdrum reality of selling products, and instead market an entire way of being. Taco Bell is entering the category with a Forever 21 clothing line targeted at “making wardrobes a whole lot saucier.” Lexus has chased the luxury lifestyle into the sea by introducing a yacht. A vice president for Good Foods describes its guacamole as part of “a lifestyle brand that adds optimum nutrition and wellness, along with the fun factor that can be enjoyed during holidays like Cinco de Mayo.”
Now people act like companies, carefully monitoring the meanings we project into the world.
Anything that can be consumed is now understood as a brand — and on the internet, that’s every last bit of content. This is how a consultant like Eric Garland can, on the strength of a viral tweet storm about the “game theory” behind American politics, brand himself as a Russian conspiracy sage and market subscriptions to @gametheorytoday. It’s also why actual brands, like Hamburger Helper or Denny’s, choose to hang around social media masquerading as people, posting jokes and memes and roasting haters. Even the most cynical internet users speak semiseriously about our posts being “on brand” or “off brand.” There is no refuge from the logic of the brand — and if there is, some up-and-coming strategist will soon enough bolster her own brand by colonizing it.
Corporate branding first emerged as a practical measure. In the 1920s, the rise of American consumer culture produced a glut of products that couldn’t be differentiated from one another on sight. The branding that emerged around them has, at points, had a glimmer of utility to it, serving as a way to establish the authenticity and reliability of a particular thing from a particular source. But the idea of a “brand” rapidly spread beyond that seal of quality and subsumed a whole constellation of sentiments a company might provoke in a person, many of them wholly abstracted from the product itself. In her 1999 book, “No Logo,” Naomi Klein presents the acceleration of corporate branding as a kind of hollowing out: Companies that used to manufacture wares or harvest foods — that used to sell things — became brands, which sell ideas. Actual production processes became secondary, outsourced to far-flung subcontractors. The brand’s real investment was to imbue the products with meaning. “Nike isn’t a running-shoe company,” Klein wrote in the 10th-anniversary edition, “it is about the idea of transcendence through sports.”
At its core, branding is a process of humanization: It imbues companies with personalities. Often the personification is overt. Once there were Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker; now there’s the Trump Organization and Fenty Beauty. As the celebrity adman Bruce Barton once said: “Institutions have souls, just as men and nations have souls.” A company with a soul becomes relatable, but in a deceptive way: The more we think of it as a “brand,” the more our focus shifts away from things like labor practices and supply chains and onto issues of narrative and identity.
So Wendy’s, which used to be personified by a little red-haired girl or by its founder, Dave Thomas, is now personified by a social-media team renowned for its ability to tweet like a rude teenager. But if companies have come to act more like people, the reverse is also true: Now people act like companies, carefully monitoring the meanings we project into the world. The “brand management” of the Wendy’s team happens right alongside that of actual teenagers, who shape their images to attract attention and good will. Build up enough of those things, and a person, much like a company, can become profitable. A blockbuster persona like Rihanna’s might translate into the marketability of a $59 “body luminizer”; a “Bachelor” contestant’s persona might be limited to endorsing herbal supplements on Instagram; a popular internet figure might simply crowdfund to cover expenses. Companies still try to sell us things, but now we’re encouraged to pitch ourselves to them, too. A “lifestyle brand,” after all, is just a regular brand that appeals to people’s “personal brands” — which, in turn, are increasingly organized around courting relationships with lifestyle brands. It all collapses into branding.
“Personal brand” was coined by a writer named Tom Peters in a Fast Company article, “The Brand Called You.” This was in 1997, as lifestyle branding was beginning to emerge: “All kinds of products,” Peters wrote, “are figuring out how to transcend the narrow boundaries of their categories and become a brand surrounded by Tommy Hilfiger-like buzz.” At the end of the essay, he plugged his new CD-ROM.
Part of what Peters envisioned was human beings’ thinking of themselves in the same way. The internet had made people identical, too, just messages stacked in a virtual box; like the snacks and sneakers that came before them, they needed ways to differentiate themselves. Where “The Brand Called You” becomes fascinating, though, is when it applies this logic to employment. Peters saw personal branding as a way to liberate yourself from the constraints of corporate life; he described lifelong steady employment as “what we used to call indentured servitude.” In its place, he hailed the emergence of a new “project world,” where work “is organized into bite-sized packets.” To thrive in such a world, he encouraged readers to collect and market skills and connections — to throw out their résumés in favor of a “marketing brochure for brand You.”
Building a personal brand tends to be less valuable to us than it is, in the aggregate, to the companies that facilitate it.
He imagined empowered workers divesting themselves from corporate drudgery, but what actually happened was the opposite: Our corporations divested from us. Over the two decades since “The Brand Called You,” full-time employment has steadily atomized into casual, part-time and temporary work, culminating in the “project world” of the gig economy — microjobs driving for Uber, running errands for TaskRabbit or cooking up side hustles on Fiverr, a company whose subway ads glamorize pitiless overwork (“sleep deprivation is your drug of choice”) despite its being named after a woefully small amount of cash.
The opportunities to market ourselves online are never-ending, but the financial rewards remain elusive. Headlines heralding the multimillion-dollar incomes of YouTube stars can make cultivating a brand there seem like a real career option, but a recent study found that even channels among the top 3 percent of viewership can bring in as little as $16,800 a year. (When a would-be YouTube star opened fire in the company’s offices, it was perhaps the first workplace shooting of the gig economy.) Marketing money flows through Instagram, but few of the “influencers” there see much of it; the Cornell professor Brooke Erin Duffy has described them as engaging in “aspirational labor,” a “mode of (mostly) uncompensated, independent work that is propelled by the much-venerated ideal of getting paid to do what you love.”
They burnish their brands based on the unspoken assumption that a successful brand leads naturally to actual success. But this tricky conversion rarely takes place, and the work behind it tends to be less valuable to us than it is, in the aggregate, to the companies that facilitate it. All the time I thought I was building my own brand, seeding the internet with personal information in a bid to dominate the Google results — fending off challengers like Amanda Hess, the saintly doctor who delayed giving birth in order to deliver another woman’s baby first — I was enriching any number of tech companies.
Tom Peters encouraged us to break the chains of the corporate world in favor of pursuing a life of autonomous creativity. But now branding has taken over not just work but life itself, seizing control of our appearances, our social relationships, even our approach to civil society. After Starbucks staff called the police on two black men waiting in one of their stores — then closed 8,000 locations to conduct bias training for employees — a Forbes contributor praised the company for showing “brand purpose and promise” that could “provide direction for both Starbucks and society at large.” Even in the age of the personal brand, corporations rule.
By Amanda Hess