Pin It
Personal Brand (1)

The rise of the personal brand: how selling out became cool in the 2010s

K-Hole co-founder Sean Monahan looks at how we’ve all become celebrities in waiting, in an era where faking became making it

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

Going into the New York subway is like descending into the city’s id. The advertising hums with the anxieties of contemporary urban life: exhaustion, sluttiness, depression, indulgence. All packaged in the aesthetics of the age. The copy reads like a failed comedian’s Twitter. The matte pastel color palette is an aesthetic every influencer claims. An ad from the delivery company Seamless reads: “Satisfy your craving for zero human contact.” Bedding start-up Brooklinen features a diptych of a man sleeping with a book on his chest and a woman pleasuring herself: “For me time or ‘me’ time.” Real estate app StreetEasy sighs: “No doorman for me. I have enough people in my life judging me.” Parachute, another sheet start-up, wistfully opines: “If I die, tell naps I loved them.” Everything is agoraphobia, anonymous sex, eating – presumably in bed. As you hurtle beneath the East River, crowded between Trader Joe’s grocery bags and New Yorker totes, you think. Maybe Lena Dunham isn’t the voice of my generation. Maybe it’s these goddamn ads.

The language of marketers has a toxic effect on how we experience reality. As some flavour of a marketer, I accept partial responsibility for this. Personal brand is our most egregious invention of the last decade. Like all terminology born in the boardroom, yet now found in culture, its definition remains slippery. What exactly is a personal brand? A progressive makeover of the fusty and Puritanical reputation? A power grab by savvy entrepreneurs who realized in a post-United world where corporations claim to be people, the next logical step would be for people to claim to be brands. Or simply the only available language for our social media status quo, where we manage our content with the meta-level remove of a digital strategist, agonising over styling, editing, image selection, copy, posting cadence. The only difference being the client is you…

We’ve taken on all three definitions unthinkingly because having a word for something lends a certain obviousnesses to the idea. Other people will have impressions of you, why not manage them? Our culture is defined by brands, shouldn’t you have one too? And, of course there is some meta-level of remove! Haven’t you heard a recording of your own voice? Accidentally opened the front-facing camera, only to see yourself distorted, frog-faced from the ungenerous under-the-chin angle? Making yourself into a media product can never be fully transparent and improvisational – or to borrow more marketerspeak – authentic. Candid photographs may not be posed, but they are selected.

Personal brand was sold to us on the idea of control. We want to be seen as we want to be seen. It operationalised aspiration and self-actualisation, allowing dictums like Fake it Till You Make It and Dress for the Job You Want, Not the Job You Have to become a full-fledged social crisis of phoniness. Everyone dog-piled Donald Trump when he made an assistant run down to a local butcher shop in West Palm Beach and claimed the steaks he brought back were Trump brand. But is it really any different than every teen skater’s Instagram bio reading Creative Director? Pseudo-influencers buying products and erroneously tagging their thirst trap as an ad?

“Personal brand was sold to us on the idea of control. We want to be seen as we want to be seen”

Personal brand is a speech act, a way to enact a reality, without necessarily having to live it. Sometimes the fraud is humorously blatant, like Tom Brooks from 90 Day Fiancé screenshotting other people’s flexes and posting them as his own. Other times it simply strikes us as a bit awkward to acknowledge in public, like influencers Caroline Calloway and Tavi Gevinson admitting they employed people to help them create and manage their pages. It’s like your parents’ sex life or factory farming: no one wants to know how the sausage is made. And then of course there is the explicit fraud, the Fyre Festivals and WeWorks and Anna Delveys of the world. Scammers that achieve infamy for taking these ideas to their logical conclusions: faking it is making it.

We are desperate not to be the person in the subway ads: quietly aging with singleton roommates, paying for toilet paper fractionally through Splitwise. The advertisements anticipate what everyone already knows: the empty vessel theory of consumerism is on its way out. You can’t cobble together an identity out of purchases. At best you can buy your way out of the question all together. Uber is a way to not buy a car. Airbnb is a way to not stay at a hotel. Postmates is a way to not go to a restaurant. Amazon Prime, perhaps, a way to not shop at all. Convenience and customisation are ways around the messy, overdetermined meaning of the market – the real one, not the metaphor – where you run into friends in the checkout line, the restaurant, the hotel co-working space slash lobby. Where you are the contents of your basket. 

The empty vessel theory of consumerism is a double-edged sword: it trains us to see ourselves (and others) as a culmination of purchasing behaviour. The conscious consumer judges and is judged based on the values, beliefs, and behaviours of corporate brands. Is it really so surprising then that they have Chick-fil-A delivered under cover of darkness? Sometimes people just want a chicken sandwich. Personal brand was the upsell on surveillance. If you were always being watched, it was simply in service of your own (algorithmically-aided) self-actualisation.

“Personal brand was the upsell on surveillance. If you were always being watched, it was simply in service of your own (algorithmically-aided) self-actualisation”

It’s a personalised take on the now-dead mass culture of older generations. What did it mean to be a Coors Guy or a Budweiser Guy? It certainly had nothing to do with the Rocky Mountains or Clydesdales. It was more an issue of taste and regional identity. The same issues are currently at stake in sports fandoms. Do you root for the Miami Dolphins or the Buffalo Bills? These are questions of allegiance to place and community. They are untethered from the marketing logic of buying into a brand to find meaning, to find your tribe. Contemporary attempts to make choosing Brooklinen over Parachute have the same existential weight as domestic beer preference are founded on misinterpretations of the data. Your Boomer uncle chose Coors Light because all his friends in high school chose Coors Light. Brooklyn yuppies choose Parachute because it offers a promo code. Scenes invest brands with meaning – not marketing.

Like all good end of the decade takes, this one includes some insights honed ten years prior, in that lost world where the ubiquitous Millennial lived their teenage dreams: the 2000s. Mean Girls (2003), arguably the last good teen movie, plots out the group dynamics of digital life without once mentioning the internet. Remember the cafeteria montage? Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) carefully maps the cliques for new girl, Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan): “Where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial because you got everybody there. You got your Freshmen, ROTC Guys, Preps, JV Jocks, Asian Nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity Jocks, Unfriendly Black Hotties, Girls Who Eat Their Feelings, Girls Who Don't Eat Anything, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet, and The Worst. Beware of The Plastics…” The line can be easily madlibbed into our present: Who you follow online is crucial because you got everybody there. 

In Mean Girls, information is leverage. The socially adept hoard secrets that they deploy in attempts to destroy one another’s reputations, or as we say 16 years later: cancel each other. What is the Burn Book if not a physical version of group chat screenshots, receipts. But in the final scenes, after queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams) and Cady Heron wage a war of mutually assured destruction revealing all of each other’s lies and scheming, the cancelling is revealed to be a MacGuffin. They destroyed their friend group in the process, and thus the only leverage they really had. 

High school is a loosely networked group of scenes. When the cool girl Plastic clique explodes, the social aftermath is a rewiring of the cafeteria’s social network. Gretchen lands with the Cool Asians, Regina with the Varsity Jocks, Karen becomes micro-famous as the weather girl for well-endowed North Shore High’s in-house TV station, and Cady finds her true place with the Art Freaks, Janis and Damian. The irony of cancel culture is that it is dependent on institutions – all of which have been in decline throughout the last decade. To truly cancel Cady, Regina needed to get her expelled, not turn her into a momentary social pariah. Because, of course, as Janis Ian’s introduction of the cafeteria explained, the Plastics were social pariahs all along. 

This September in New York, I went to a Red Scare podcast taping in Gowanus, a neighborhood teetering between ruin and gentrification at the edge of the Brooklyn waterfront. Full oxygen tanks in flimsy metal cages at a construction site across the street convinced me I should stub my cigarettes with care. Single file, the crowd enters the ticketed event. Lined up are aspirational professionals in Theory suits, post-hipster Brooklynites in Bonobos, plaid, with manscaped beards, and trendy young things who would dress like Timothy Chalamet if they had the budget and occasion to. It was Dimes Square meets DSA meets the D train, an audience only interested in that night’s guest, Caroline Calloway, due to the media mess she’d found herself in. 

Known for her Instagram presence with her 750K followers, Grand Tour-esque content, and long narrative comments, Caroline was a case study in how not to manage a personal brand. Her reputation had taken a series of knocks over the years. First, the abandonment of her memoir, And We Were Like in 2017, then her failed attempt an international creativity workshop tour in 2018, and finally a viral article in The Cut by her former collaborator and alleged ghostwriter, Natalie Beach in 2019. This was her first public appearance since the takedown trended. 

The controversial podcast hosts entered: Dasha Nekrasova (who full disclosure: is a friend) in a black Fred Perry polo and matching tennis skirt; Anna Khachiyan in Balenciaga boots, a sharp contrast with their guest, in her simple button-fly flared denim, white peasant top, and, of course, requisite on brand flower crown. The effect of scared animal baring her soul for the inquiring minds of New York is soon lost as Calloway stammers and starts drinking the complementary Pinot Grigio straight from the bottle. She discusses her Adderall addiction, her father’s mental illness and recent death, ongoing issues with the advance for her never completed book, and inevitably Natalie, the frenemy who had outed her as the productised version of herself, the personal brand, we always knew Caroline Calloway was.

The crowd was drunk, leering, rowdy. Rumours that Ryan Murphy via Netflix had acquired the rights to Natalie’s essay for a million dollars were shouted out by the audience. Calloway admitted she was headed to Los Angeles for meetings the next day. It was a flame war Twitter thread rendered flesh. The raucous vibe didn’t read as malevolent. If anything, it felt like a hazing, an invitation for her to bear her dark soul and take her place among the infamous: the cancelled and the conmen, the edgy personalities that increasingly keep New York media going around.

The irony of the event was that despite Calloway’s recent troubles, she was not the only contestant on stage who had ostensibly been cancelled. Dasha and Anna had faced their own troubles stemming from their dirtbag left politics and unrepentant vocabulary: Twitter suspensions, unflattering media coverage, troll campaigns. I’m not going to enumerate the micro-controversies. They’re Google-able and besides the point. Namely that campaigns to cancel political adversaries seem less like slam dunks and more like Streisand Effect. Natalie Beach’s “I am Caroline Calloway” had reinvigorated an influencer’s failing career, shipping off its namesake to Hollywood to shop life rights. 

Attempts to banish Khachiyan and Nekrasova into the social ether had a similar effect, garnering the duo more followers and a growing Patreon war chest. The Woke Left can’t cancel a member of the Dirtbag Left. One scene can’t cancel a member of another. You can’t kick someone out of the party when they’re not even there. In some ways, the adversarial relationship between scenes is a result of this unfortunate truth. We can’t get away from each other online. While in the past, a simple unfriending would’ve done the trick. Today, screenshots and alt-accounts circumvent blocks. And if an odious public figure is infamous enough, the controversies that follow them will inevitably find their way into your feed. What is the impeachment if not the ultimate attempt at cancelling Trump? 

The frustration and flailing that has accompanied scaling up our social world to an audience of billions is to be expected. We’ve grown our platforms, without expanding our institutions. Unwittingly, we conceded to the demand that we manage ourselves like celebrities in waiting, taking on all the attendant anxiety and risk, without any of the attendant staff. It’s not so much that we failed to find any meaning in the marketing, but rather that the meaning we found waiting there was not what the brand managers intended.

“We conceded to the demand that we manage ourselves like celebrities in waiting, taking on all the attendant anxiety and risk, without any of the attendant staff”

Brand will grow and morph onto whatever social graphs emerge over the coming decade. A certain DIY aesthetic is lurking at the edges of streetwear, either through modding pre-existing icons – Air Force 1’s painted with the Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam – or product substitution—Telfar’s iconic bags taking on the annoyingly accurate epithet of Bushwick Birkin. Meme merch declaring tribal allegiance continues to grow in popularity. (At the Red Scare event, sweatshirts with dildo ISIS flags were on sale.) In a culture endlessly bemused by logohacking, brand is destined to be an input for meme makers rather than a constraint on consumers.

But personal brand, at least in its smarmiest twenty-teens incarnation, seems doomed to be swallowed by the accelerating rowdiness of the Extremely Online masses. How can one be universally liked in a time of polarising tastes and tribal instincts. One answer will surely be reputation management. Though personal brand at its most conservative is destined to be be deeply uncool, in that smiling through gritted teeth, I secretly hate all my friends sort of way. Think reactivating LinkedIn Premium for yet another free trial and taking the career coach sponcon seriously. Write Medium essays, comment on field-relevant news and articles, share project links (complete with breathless thank yous), in short do what everyone else in your feed is doing. Render your personal brand as the HR-sanctioned SFW version of your life. It’s your CV, animated and ventriloquised with periodic editorial content. This will likely be where the vast middle land, with an implicit windfall for consultants to help manage replicating best practices. Personal brand will make the same transit college education did. Once shiny and aspirational, it will come to be seen as just another stepping stone to a moderately successful life.

For those who have won and those who have not yet given up on winning, it will evaporate or mutate. Currently, we use personal brand as a way to explain the phenomenon of entertainers whose primary platform is online, TikTokkers and YouTubers and podcasters. Segregating the fame of these entertainers off from traditional recording artists and movie stars seems archaic in 2019. Within five years it will be unthinkable. Our internet personalities will take their place in the celebrity firmament and the idea of them fixating on personal brand will seem as quaint as James Franco having ten university degrees. Only instead of trying to come off as bookish, they’ll be trying to come off as relatable.

And still for those remaindered as the not-yet-famous, personal brand will become something else. After the Red Scare event, a friend from Los Angeles called and asked how New York had been. I told her about Caroline Calloway, the crowd’s frightening energy and how in a counterintuitive way, it all seemed likely to benefit her in the end. It occurred to me while we were talking that this was a familiar trajectory (especially for women) where traction in the is only achieved through infamy. Think Kim Kardashian circa the Ray J sex tape, mocked for years as Paris Hilton’s maid; the lingering Stefani Germanotta, you will never be famous Facebook group. We thought personal brands only worked when you were liked, but when we take off our rose-coloured glasses, being hated seems to work, too. “Do you think I should be more unlikeable online?” my friend asked, no irony in her voice. 

The next generation, raised to be sanguine about fame, will translate the power politics of the cafeteria to the platform. The meritocracy we call popularity, like the meritocracy we call business, does not include being well-liked as a prerequisite. Just ask Regina George. It does however require collusion. Those who win tomorrow will win because of their alliances. As that fact dawns on more and more individuals, the cultural churn beneath the stars will begin to unmistakably reflect it.

The scene is the solution hiding in plain sight. Latent in all group dynamics, scaled somewhere in the neighbourhood of Dunbar’s Number, and designed as anti-fragile formations, resistant to the boom-bust cycles of internet outrage. The ultimatum of the twenty-teens was brand or be branded, your ass is getting seared either way. The ultimatum of the twenty-twenties will be to thrive together or fall apart. You vs. the internet was always an asymmetrical social dynamic, destined to implode. Scene vs. scene however – that evens the odds.