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Self-branding: how the modern world forces us to market ourselves 24/7

Precarious work and persistent data trails mean everything we do is part of how we are judged.

Ann Bastianelli was five years old when she first learned about self-branding. When she reveals this in her TED Talk, I’m confused, having thought of self-branding – the act of marketing your identity as a product – as the domain of weary millennials and YouTube influencers, not pre-schoolers still crayoning in shaky script.

“As the middle child, I was starved of attention,” Bastianelli says in the talk. “My dad was a busy guy, and I never wanted to miss an opportunity to impress him. So, one day, I asked him for a drink. And he said, ‘Do you want milk, or water?’ I answered, “Both. But get me the water first, so you don’t have to wash the glass when I have the milk’. 

Bastianelli smiles, recalling how her father called her a “clever little girl”. She tells us that personal branding is not about ourselves, but about the way we project ourselves to others, in order to win their attention. She is a CEO and a marketing expert now, but I imagine her infancy: strategising and modifying, editing every interaction to optimise affection.

“The brands in the supermarket are all there because they benefit people,” Bastianelli continues. “It’s the same with your personal brand. You’re not entitled to a place. You have to earn it.”

Self-branding is crucial in our uncertain economy. Freelancing has risen by 43 per cent since 2008 and short-term job contracts are the norm. From updating social media profiles to co-ordinating our online and offline actions to express success, we are increasingly marketing our identities for the interest of employers. Not for the guarantee of a stable job, but for the privilege of competing for one at all. 

Human beings have always sold their skills. It’s a basic rule of the marketplace. If you bake bread that tastes better and is cheaper than other people’s bread, you’ll be more useful to customers and make more money. Yet, in an era marked by intense digital surveillance and a scarcity of jobs, jobseekers are forced to advertise more than just their skills, but also mine the intimacy of their thoughts and personalities for anything potentially marketable. What we might once have considered unquantifiable, our preferences, opinions and instinctive reactions, can now be edited into a five-point plan for growing a personal brand.

“Self-branding puts the burden of gaining work entirely on the individual," says Phil Jones, author of the Autonomy reportWorking to Labour: self-branding in an uncertain economy. “If we don’t recognise that work isn’t working, that automation is taking jobs and that the jobs we do get are precarious, then self-branding will only intensify."

Self-branding is an attempt to manipulate the online presence presented by most millennials and on which they will be judged. Articles and videos on self-branding warn us that our data trails are all over the internet and our digital footprints tracked and sold. We can either buy into the process by marketing ourselves or fail to gain employment.

“Whether you like it or not, in this digital age, everyone has a personal brand,” says influencer Aileen Xu of Lavendaire. “It’s how people perceive you. If you have any accounts online – a Twitter, Instagram or Facebook – then that is your personal brand.”

This means that, because I opened a Facebook account when I was 14, to talk to a creepy online boyfriend and write statuses in unreadable slang, I now have to work for free honing my digital presence, or risk being rejected for jobs. Rather than questioning the ethics of large tech companies, with their intrusive knowledge of personal details, including the exact age of your children and how likely you are to keep taking your medication, we tell people that it’s their responsibility to manage how people perceive them online, no matter how aggressive the surveillance. 

But self-branding isn’t only about working for free to cultivate a strong, digital presence. The expectation to market oneself seeps into every part of human existence, under the guise of authenticity. More dangerous than a large, soulless corporation, is a corporation which hides its soullessness under the appearance of being real and human. 

“I don’t think that entrepreneurs should create a personal brand, because they might [only] present who they think they are,” says Eitan Chitayat, in an interview with Inc. “A personal brand needs to be an authentic representation of who you really are, not a role you are playing.”

In our heavily digital age, people are growing weary of technology, of the monotonous ease of automation and the drone of recorded voices at supermarket checkouts. As processes are increasingly digitised, and marketers grow obsessed with how companies can increase human connection, our authentic humanness is an attractive and valuable resource. 

Self-branding has moved on from the coarse, commercial language of its origins, when, in 1997, Tom Peters declared that, “We are all CEOs of our own company, ME Inc. You’re as much of a brand as Nike or Coke." Now, self-branding disguises itself as an exercise in self-discovery and personal truth, while encouraging us to use our individual quirks to meet a demand for authenticity. Ana Andjelic, in an article for the US business magazine Fast Company, manages to turn millennial burnout and the desire to spend time alone into an opportunity to further market yourself: 

“Enjoying time alone and having a personal brand was once considered a contradiction in terms. 

“Today it might be the winning approach. We can flip the switch and turn the traits of unplugging into our collective aspiration.”

In other words, your authentic nature is always a source of profit. Even the time you take out of working and marketing yourself can be converted into commercial value. In a world which insists on turning everything into a marketable product, even deficits and absences must be extracted and quantified. Self-branding encourages people to use their free time to grow their personal brands, just as technology companies gain a monopoly on people’s desire to decrease their screen use, by creating features which map every moment people spend on their devices. 

The pressure to be authentic and consistent leads to an existence where even being in private is inseparable from self-promotion. In a video on personal branding, motivational speaker Brian Tracy says: “Your behaviour behind closed doors should always match your brand." This expectation, that people should be unrelentingly genuine in their interactions with the world, is alarming. Self-branding erodes any difference between the internal and external self, introducing a hyper-consciousness into our inner selves and disrupting the natural make-up of our thoughts and instincts. Self-brand literature demands that we embody our authentic selves, while cultivating them for the pleasure of employers, a paradox which leaves no part of us uninfected by work. 

“People are starting to feel that they have to appear employable all the time”, says Phil Jones. “It has the potential to be a major mental health crisis”.

Although self-branding markets itself as benefitting the individual, it actually justifies the existence of an untenable job market. With the pressure to market ourselves as unique, innovative and reliable in the hopes of gaining some work, we become the human marketing tool of a poor employment situation. Rather than companies supporting potential solutions to poverty and precarious employment, for example, introducing a universal basic wage, they squeeze free advertising out of our own lives and leisure time.

Self-branding encourages us to evaluate every human interaction in terms of profit to ourselves and our careers. But the more we see human relationships in promotional terms, the less we see ourselves – and each other – as inherently valuable. Brian Tracy says that we should cultivate a series of acts that people will remember us by.

“I have a friend who puts a dried flower in every card she posts,” he says. “People always remember her name because of it.”

But what happens when every human action, every unthinking kindness and instinctive favour, is co-opted for the purpose of promoting ourselves? Will passing a tissue to a stranger or giving up your seat on the bus, become branded acts? Will we still help people in need simply to alleviate their distress or carry out ever act of kindness with an eye on our reputation?

And what about the members of society who can’t offer anything in "return" for support and love, except their need to receive it? Perhaps children will start to market themselves as attractive and deserving enough for food, milk and affection. People who are sick or disabled, and need medical and financial help, aren’t likely to have the energy to maintain a personal brand, if even getting to doctors’ appointments is difficult. Yet, we live in a society where brutal benefits cuts mean that fewer people receive disability benefits, and many have to attend lengthy tribunals prove their illnesses. It is disturbingly clear, from the YouTube videos advising people on attending tribunals, that people with disabilities must increasingly market themselves as sick enough to receive financial help. One video advises against taking too much medication for a tribunal, even if you’re in a lot of pain, because they need to see you at your worst.

There are clear similarities between self-branding, and official systems already in place to reward or punish citizens’ behaviour. China’s social credit score system, which punishes people for infractions such as playing video games too often or running a red light, encourages a culture of constant self-monitoring, where people must exhibit flawless behaviour at all times. But while social credit scoring is repulsively and psychologically intrusive, an increase in self-branding may mean that we don’t even need it in the future. Self-branding outsources the responsibility of monitoring our behaviour to our innermost selves. It encourages us to collect data on the minutest of our actions and edit every thought to align with our self-promotion. Self-branding forces us to brand our very natures, to make corporations and start-ups of our souls. 

Emily Beater is a former New Statesman Danson intern.