In the late 1980s and early 1990s social and cultural researchers and thinkers began to articulate how changes in the organization of global capitalism were affecting cultural life.
The shift toward networked forms of “just-in-time” production and the pervasiveness of consumption and market relations in everyday life was articulated in concepts like: “flexible accumulation”, “reflexive production”, “promotional culture” and “immaterial labour”.
One curious product of these changes has been the rise of the “personal brand”, particularly in immaterial and knowledge-based forms of labour.
For professional meaning-makers of all kinds – marketers, advertisers, journalists, political and policy advisors, academics and researchers – success increasingly depends on their ability to “brand” their value (skills, networks and immaterial qualities) as a competitive advantage to potential employers and investors.
The crafting of the personal brand began with what Irving Goffman (1959) termed “impression management”, evident in a more conscious attention to attire and corporate accessories like business cards, personal organizers and mobile phones.
Personal branding evolved alongside the development of post-war corporate culture (famously dramatized at its most excessive in the “business card” scene from American Psycho.)
The arrival of mainstream social networking platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, About.Me and Facebook in the past decade have intensified and expanded personal branding in two ways.
Firstly, aspiring professionals can adapt the techniques of corporate brands in the way they “mediate” their identity. And, secondly, the way we present ourselves as personal brands gets mixed up with our private social lives.
Much public discussion about the private-public nature of social media has focused on the potential negatives. For instance, media have fed panic about drunken photos on Facebook harming future job prospects, and many employers report “googling” and “facebooking” potential employees. This panic has subsided as professionals use social networks to scout for talent, interact with leaders in their industry, and build their personal profile.
Developing a personal brand can be a strategic and savvy activity for aspiring professionals in the cultural industries.
Greens Senator Sarah Hansen-Young advertised for a media advisor solely on Twitter, telling The Australian newspaper that “someone who is not on Twitter probably isn’t going to be the right person for the job”.
Latika Bourke was recruited from Fairfax to the ABC largely because of the Twitter profile and following she developed covering Federal politics.
In each of these cases a strong personal brand was the basis of career opportunities. For an exceptional few personal brands can also be commercialized. Mia Freedman has created a valuable personal brand through her Mamamia blog, attracting a lucrative audience of middle-class Australian women.
Natalie Tran, a 20-something media graduate, makes money from the shared ad-revenue of her CommunityChannel on YouTube and has been recently partnered with Lonely Planet to make a series of travel documentaries targeted at her young and educated audience. In each case, online presence, profile and connectedness are valuable commodities deployed by these individuals to enhance their professional profile or to make money.
Far from the panic of keeping everything online “private”, for aspiring professionals in the knowledge and creative industries, making themselves more “public” in a strategic and managed way cultivates a valuable self, visible and strategically positioned for future opportunities.
Aspiring professionals can use platforms like Twitter to follow the conversation within their industry, establish a presence, and interact with industry leaders. Employment in these industries has “always” revolved around personal connections and who you know.
Social media adds another layer to this process of image and impression management. The development of advertising in the 20th century was accompanied by increasingly sophisticated forms of market research.
One sign personal branding has become embedded in our work cultures is the emergence of online tools and services that track personal brand value.
In the field of personal branding, the emerging market leader is a service called Klout (others include Twitalyzer, Backtype and PostRank) which will give your personal brand value a “score” and a profile based on the size and quality of your online networks. Services like Klout encourage individuals to more self-consciously evaluate their online presence and how they can strategically improve it.
Personal branding is part of branding becoming a ubiquitous platform for social communication. On Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms, young creative folk both interact with brands, incorporate brands into their identity and present themselves using the codes and logics of branding.
Branding provides a model for imagining our self, constructing our identity, and our place in the world. As middle class individuals imagine and present themselves using platforms and techniques once exclusive to governments and corporations, are they becoming more empowered participants in economic and political processes?
Or, is this further evidence of daily life becoming more intensively plugged into a global infrastructure of cultural production where individuals are pushed into more competitive, and perhaps alienated, relations with each other?
Personal branding might make individuals “richer” within the current system of cultural production, but that doesn’t mean it enriches our social, cultural and political life. The “value-added” presentation of the self might make us more interested in out-manoeuvring our fellow competitor in the game of life rather than contributing to meaningful public conversations.
There are both utopian and dystopian views of personal branding. The challenge for media, cultural and political researchers is to assess the limits and possibilities of branding as a platform for social communication.