For Benjamin Franklin, it was “early to bed and early to rise”. For Dale Carnegie, it was the dictate “to do and dare”. For Stephen Covey, it was seven simple habits.
The gospel of self-improvement has taken varied forms throughout history. But in the digital age, the idea of improving yourself is under siege by a similar-seeming but utterly different gospel: that of self branding.
Public face: Online ‘findability’ is of utmost importance in today’s world.
The Internet-connected class worldwide faces growing pressure to cultivate a personal brand. Ordinary people are now told to acquire what once only companies and celebrities required: online “findability”, thousands of Google hits and Twitter followers, a niche of their own, a virtual network of patrons, a personal Wikipedia page and dot-com domain.
“The Internet has forced everyone in the world to become a marketer,” says Dan Schawbel, a personal-branding guru and the author of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success (Schawbel, 26, has around 100,000 Google listings for his name, 70,000 Twitter followers and a self-styled niche as the “personal branding expert for Gen-Y”).
The rise of the personal brand reflects changing economic structures, as secure lifetime employment gives way to a churning market in tasks. It suggests a new unscriptedness in institutions as we evolve from the broadcast age to the age of retweets. It augurs a future in which we all function like one-person conglomerates, calculating how every action affects our positioning. What distinguishes personal branding from other self-cultivation is its emphasis on reputation over talent, on “explicit self-packaging”, as scholars Daniel Lair, Katie Sullivan and George Cheney have observed: “Here, success is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are arranged, crystallized and labelled.”
As personal-branding experts see it, they are merely responding to new economic realities. It is no longer enough, they say, to join an organization and ride its brand for decades. Companies are outsourcing aggressively; globalization is creating and destroying industries more rapidly than before; the Web is fostering job hopping; the recession is throwing millions on the street.
In this new world, personal branders argue, self-packaging rules. Employees are told to run permanent marketing campaigns to build an audience that follows their tweets and maintains ambient Facebook-level awareness of what they are doing. This audience belongs to you, not your organization, branders say; it will follow you and attract employers to you.
Companies, too, are wrestling with personal brands. Jonny Bentwood, the head of analyst relations for the public relations firm Edelman, says many clients were torn between the view that multiple voices cheapen a brand and an emergent sense that attracting talent requires tolerating brands-within-a-brand.
In a much-blogged-about episode, Forrester Research, a market research firm, this month moved to prohibit star analysts from publishing analysis on personal blogs. The move was widely interpreted as a backlash against personal brands.
Personal branding will, of course, change not just big institutions but also the lives of brandable individuals. Will it improve job security or simply increase our anxiety? Will it divert power and influence from the well-educated to the merely well-branded? Will brand-building distract us?
There is great pressure from personal audiences to say hello from Beijing, to speed-review Avatar, to broadcast the meeting's latest insight.
But is society always better off with the undigested utterance, the instantaneous attempt at positioning?
And in marketing ourselves, will we neglect the pursuit of actually improving?
©2010/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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