It used to be that only the famous had a “personal brand.” I’m a huge fan of Andy Warhol, for example, and one of the tenets of his art was that the “brand” of the person and the person him/herself aren’t the same thing. For example, one of his most famous paintings is “Double Elvis,” which you can see today at MOMA in New York City. I won’t take credit for this idea, but I heard it somewhere in the ether (so it must be true). The point of the painting – or at least one take-away – is that there’s the “Brand” of Elvis, the Elvis we all know from TV, movies, and music, and then there is (somewhere) the “real” Elvis. Not to mention there’s the “brand” of a cowboy (like we see on TV or movies in Westerns) and then there were real live cowboys. “Double Elvis” asks us to question whether we truly know Elvis at all, or just know the brand-projection of Elvis that was “created” by Hollywood and record labels. Elvis is nothing if not a brand – a brand so famous he lives on even after death.
What is your Elvis? Here’s what’s new since the dawn of the Internet and especially since the dawn of social media: everyone has a “brand.” Kind of whether you like it or not. Moms and Dads “google” the potential boyfriends and girlfriends of their children; boys and girls, teens and tweens “google” as well as Instagram, Facebook, and even TikTok their potential love interests, friends, professors, and so on and so forth.
- There is a “brand projection” that we have all projected onto the Internet.
Here’s a second point. This happens whether we like it or not, whether we want to or not. Like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, President Biden, Snoop Dogg…. or anyone, we project a brand. The difference is often that the rich, powerful, and famous “work” on their personal brand. They construct it in such a way that (hopefully) their target customers / consumers / followers have a positive brand image… and that this positive brand image does something for them. If you’re Snoop Dog, it means people buy your records or maybe buy your latest business endeavor (which I believe is a brand of cannabis); if you’re Joe Biden, it’s so that you vote for him and his party… and if you’re just a random influencer… it may be something related to who, what, when, where and why you want to influence.
You have a brand. You are a brand. Whether you like it or not. So much so that this brand may precede you (to a job interview, to a date, to a political appointment), and it may help (or hinder) what you want to accomplish in your career. It may be true. It may be false. It may be a mixture of true and false. But I would argue very strongly that you (and me) are the first generation that has a personal (Internet) brand. If we’d lived in 1940, then only the famous had them. But today, everyone does.
What is a brand? In marketing, I think of a brand as the “warm and fuzzy feeling” that we get around a company, product, or service, that “primes” us to like them and buy their stuff. Tesla has a strong eco-friendly brand (for example); Disney is a brand about families, fun, and fantasy; and McDonald’s is a brand about convenient, but pretty average (some would say below average) food that is easy to get, taste OK-ish, and is cheap. Each brand is a “warm and fuzzy feeling” that either works (or it doesn’t) and it primes us to “like” them and hopefully “buy their stuff.”
Ditto for your personal brand. The brand image that you project on the Internet should have a focus. It should be oriented towards some goals of yours. Maybe it’s to look cool and get laid. Maybe it’s to be cool and sell jewelry. Maybe it’s to seem super mathematical and tech-savvy and land a job on Wall Street. It can be anything. It can also be bad. It can be that off-color remark you posted to YouTube. It can be that Instagram photo that will never die. It can be something you said that was “politically incorrect” and got you cancelled. Your personal brand can follow you around your whole life, mercilessly closing doors and cutting off opportunities.
Brands can be pretty scary; especially when you (as the first Internet generation) realize that you are leaving a “digital footprint” behind you 24/7. Imagine running for President in 2054 and the attack ads that might be built upon your TikTok’s!
Now that you realize you have a brand. You are a brand, and you are BUILDING a brand every time you post to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or TikTok… you can start to think more seriously about your personal brand. It’s kind of hard. One reason – you may not know what you want to “do with your life.” (Spoiler alert: this will probably change). Another is you may have said or done some things “on camera” that you now regret, and you want to get out of. Or the least bad problem of all, you may have zero Internet / social media visibility. You’re an Internet Zero, a tabula rasa.
Some steps towards building your personal brand –
- Conduct a Brand Inventory. Image you are a “target” buyer persona, that might be a potential employer. A potential date. A potential wife, husband, or life-partner. A potential record label. A potential brand of jewelry that is looking for young and hip influencers on TikTok…. Imagine you are them; and then Google yourself. Instagram yourself. Facebook yourself. TikTok yourself. What do you see? What kind of “brand” are you already projecting? How visible are you (if at all). What’s positive or negative about your brand vis-a-vis the goal you establish?
- Write a PBS. I know this is kind of boring and stupid. And I’m not speaking about the boring public radio or public TV station. I’m talking about writing a PBS (personal branding statement). Describe yourself “as a brand,” as in: I am a young, hip, New York City resident with a passion for fashion. I wear vintage jewelry and I scour the city for the coolest, individual and vintage looks. If you want to know what’s cool and vintage in NYC when it comes to jewelry, I’m your man (or your woman). Or… I love numbers. Numbers are my world. Excel is my best friend, and I like nothing better than to scour the figures, facts, and formulas to make Excel tell me the true reality. Plus I love Crypto. So Crypto / Excel / money / fortune – that’s who I am and who I am becoming… So what is your PBS? Write one. (Spoiler alert: it will evolve).
- Audit your channels. With a PBS in hand and some target “customers,” re-audit what you already have. Delete, kill, purge, destroy embarrassing things that work against your brand image. It’s never too late to delete a tweet; it might work (it probably won’t), but if you’ve said things that are going to hurt your brand. Get rid of them, and then (note to self) realize that EVERYTHING you say, post, do video, photo, snap chat can (and might) be used “against” your brand. Think before you Tweet. La, la la.
- Begin to project the brand image that you want to be. Take the photos, post the videos, tweet that tweets that position you as a “helpful expert” and a “brand authority” in your personal brand. This can be very modest (you just want to get a job out of college), or it can be very ambitious. You want to be the next Cardi B.
This might make you cynical. Why? Because you might realize that you are projecting a brand identity, whether you want to or not. That you are the first generation for which everything is on camera (whether you like it or not). The first generation that actually does have a “permanent record” (just that it’s not in your High School records department but it’s on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok).
It might be kind of a bummer to realize that you are shackled to your personal brand (online, at least). That it’s really not much of a choice anymore. That’s kind of sad. But it’s a fact. You might also begin to realize that the Snoop Dogg you see on TV, the Cardi B you see on YouTube… that these aren’t the “real” people that they once seemed to be. That these are constructed, projected personal brands. Who the hell really knows what Snoop Dogg is really like? And you may never know who he really is. But, as for yourself, a powerful, coherent personal brand can be quite an asset in your career and in your public life. So there’s an upside, too, to the new reality that we are all personal brands.
Elvis, my friend, has left the building.