Personal Branding

6:13-17 “Therefore put on the full armour of the Mall, so that when the popular kids come, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to be cool. Stand tall then, with the belt of Armani buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of Lagerfeld in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the house of Prada. In addition to all this, take up the shield of Calvin Klein, with which you can extinguish all the bad odours from the evil one. Take the hat of Gaultier and the handbag of Vuitton, which is the word on the street.”

Advertising is a strange phenomenon. Between the stuff that we voluntarily watch, there are short films about how dissatisfied you ought to be with yourself.

Here in South Africa, there’s an ad running in which an attractive young woman passes a male social equivalent on the escalator, and he makes a fool of himself chasing after her. Catching up with her in a revolving door, she does what all people do under those circumstances: she exposes her armpit to him. The little animated trashcan up there and the immediate revulsion of her suitor tell us that her seemingly successful existence is being hampered by body odour. Naturally, the young man rejects her.

Ads do that all the time. You’re too fat. Your skin is bad. Your cellphone ought to be attracting gorgeous women to you but isn’t. Your car is boring, which reveals that you are boring (but we can change that). So it goes on. The purpose in all this is not merely to insult us (in fact, most often we seem not to hear the insult, because it comes in such a shiny package). Rather, companies attempt to make us brand conscious: they attempt to make us aware that we have a public brand, and by grafting their brand into ours, they can make us better.

Hermit Crab

Socialite Hermit Crab wouldn't be seen dead without the right anemones

The question is, for what reason do we want to be better? The answer that occurs to me is that we seem to think that a better personal brand will lead to increased popularity, which will in turn lead to greater love and acceptance and happiness. As the Counting Crows song incorrectly mopes: “When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely”.

Ironically, the opposite is as likely to be true. The trouble with personal brand-managing is that it forces us to calculate a series of complicated social equations that all aim at establishing the net gain to your brand, but which are destructive of relationships.

The tobacco industry continues to exist in spite of smoking being a smelly, expensive and deadly habit, because it provides instant ‘brand positioning’ for the user. Perhaps even more so because it’s life threatening, it continues to define the smoker as anti-establishment, as slightly rebellious and miserable, all of which is society gold when you’re eighteen.

When we’re slightly older, our vehicles often become our primary means of branding. I drive a rusting VW Fox, which puts me relatively low on the pecking order. Thus, the sickliest, feeblest individual in a hulking SUV becomes ‘dominant male’ on the roads, which would naturally not be the case were we to meet in person. But I also drive a 1000 cc BMW motorcycle, which enables me to feel better and more powerful than anyone on a 125 cc Chinese scooter.

These kinds of transactions are going on all the time, and never more so than when we buy into an advertising mentality about our personal brands. Inevitably, it means that we become ‘consumers’ of people – not physically, obviously – we become brand cannibals, perhaps. The people that I choose as friends will be regarded as my social equals, and this will cause others to form opinions about me on account of them.

What will it do for my brand if I am seen with people who can only afford those clothes?

If I’m in middle management, I can’t be friends with the postman, because I need to get in with the company directors, regardless of how much I get on with the postman and hate my boss.

If only I could be friends with a bona fide celebrity!

Consequently, concern with public image and popularity leads to rejection of people who are deemed unsuitable, and it leads to impenetrable social cliques that are organised for personal gain and not relational depth. The goal of cultivating popularity in order to find love, acceptance and happiness gives way to commodified relationships that have more to do with rejection, superficiality and alienation.

Wisdom in the Paradox
Philippians 2:1-5 addresses a community full of veteran Roman soldiers, in which church members had clearly begun to squabble and become defensive about their own reputations. In response to this, Paul urges Christians to be so united that they can be described as having one mind, and as being ‘co-souled’. He adds:

‘Do nothing according to strife or conceit, but in humility esteem one another above yourselves, each one not considering his own things, but also the things of others. Let the same attitude be in you that is also in Christ Jesus.’

If I were to translate the message into the language I’ve been using so far, it is that our primary concern should be for the ‘brand’ of the community, and not of ourselves. If we labour to improve the standing of everyone else in the community, and if we direct our attentions towards the concerns of others, then unity is the result. If love and acceptance is our desire for ourselves, then becoming someone who is loving and accepting of others (regardless of what they can personally do for your brand popularity) is the means by which this is achieved.

The Right Apartment: blow it up, Tyler

In short, advertising sells us the lie. You can buy your way into higher society, but money can’t buy you love, as the mop-haired ones once crowed. Carefully constructing your own brand can purchase popularity, but not the deep relationships that we actually want.

Once again, the paradox: serving oneself ensures that one’s needs are never met, and dying to self is the path to true life.

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2 thoughts on “Personal Branding

  1. LG says:

    Good article indeed. I certainly do my best not to subscribe to any foolish notions regarding how one looks, what cars to drive etc..and trust that my kids get the message to stand up to such nonsense in their daily lives…

  2. Hephaestion says:

    Advertising is a strange phenomenon. Between the stuff that we voluntarily watch, there are short films about how dissatisfied you ought to be with yourself

    One can’t understand advertising without having some understanding of human psychology, and for that we must look to science. Psychology is touched upon in physiology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, sociology, anthropology and evolution. Advertisers have known (for at least 100 years) that the science of the mind is essential to the advertising industry. There is even a new field of social neuroscience called neuroeconomics, combining psychology, economics, and neuroscience.

    Those who have knowledge of the brain have power over those who don’t.

    The question is, for what reason do we want to be better? The answer that occurs to me is that we seem to think that a better personal brand will lead to increased popularity, which will in turn lead to greater love and acceptance and happiness.

    One of the reasons is sex.

    Cars, for example, can be viewed as a proxy for genetic fitness. They *advertise* that the owner can afford that particular kind of vehicle, as well as being associated with its image (rich, powerful, sensible, sporty, rugged, cool, quirky, bold, green etc). We are projecting an image to potential mates and competitors, though the image doesn’t necessarily have to reflect reality.

    It is only the very rich who can afford, say, a Ferrari 360 Spider. This is not something that can easily be faked (though people try), and faking is a cost-effective way of attracting the interest of a mate who might otherwise give you the hard shoulder.

    Men are not above employing a little deception concerning their genetic fitness by, for instance, buying a car they can barely afford. They’ll spend most of their wages on a glitzy car while living off bread and water, so to speak. However illogical this may appear to the more financially “sensible” it might be a perfectly good strategy for attracting mates.

    Of course, it is not just men who advertise their fake or otherwise genetic fitness. Women are not above having breast implants, wearing lipstick, push-up bras, high-heal shoes, make-up (to conceal skin “flaws”) and such.

    We are born advertisers. We can’t help it.

    In short, advertising sells us the lie. You can buy your way into higher society, but money can’t buy you love, as the mop-haired ones once crowed. Carefully constructing your own brand can purchase popularity, but not the deep relationships that we actually want.

    As George Bernard Shaw once quipped, lack of money of the root of all evil.

    Research shows that wealthy men, all else being equal, are more attractive to potential mates. Of course, there is more to attraction than money, but it is a great help (as is a strong, tall, symmetrical body, for men). Having a mate means having sex, and having sex is strongly correlated with being happy.

    On average, the happiest people in many scientific studies are those getting the most sex. Also, sex is found to have an impact on the levels of happiness that is proportional to the level education (and wealth) of those involved. The corollary also holds: Many studies confirm that people who are depressed have less sex, according to psychologist and sex therapist Dr. Robert Hatfield of the University of Cincinnati. (Depressed women, incidentally, are more likely to experience painful PMS and crave sweet and salty foods.)

    However, is it that happy people have more sex or that people who have more sex are happier? It is not clear.

    Research by Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University involving a group of 900 women in Texas found that that the five most positive activities for women were, in order of preference: sex, socializing, relaxing, praying or meditating, and eating. A recent study involving 8,576 people across 12 European countries showed that a lack of sexual confidence can have a negative impact on a man’s overall self-confidence (and, hence, happiness). For men, the biggest concern (40% in Germany and up to 83% in Spain) was with their erections – thus explaining the popularity of Viagra.

    Money might not buy us love, but sex seems to make us happier.

    (Performing acts of altruism or kindness are also known to increase happiness, as are having strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.)

    The reason we like sex and helping people is that we are drug addicts.

    Experiments by neuroeconomist Paul Zak have shown that there is a significant boost in oxytocin experienced by strangers who are engaged in a fair trade with each other. Incidentally, this is one of the observations that Michael Shermer (in The Mind Of the Market) offers in his thesis that trade (a non-zero sum game) has made us better people, that is, has made us more moral. We lust for things that make us feel good, that release endorphins (which, incidentally, are released in response to nicotine) in the brain. We’re serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin addicts, and we’ll do anything to get our fix. The brains of people deeply in love, for example, do not resemble those of people experiencing strong emotions – rather, they look like those of people snorting cocaine. We’re also slaves to these drugs: 10 days before their periods begin women are more likely to go on a spending spree.

    Advertisers know more about you than you do. And now, everything we do on the Internet is tracked and processed. Somewhere, a computer knows more about us than we do ourselves.

    Ultimately though, we are simple creatures. George Best said it, er, best: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

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