There has always been some unease with the idea that humans can be packaged, and personal brands often come under fire for being artificial portrayals of self-indulgent people. In 2012, the satirical online newspaper The Onion mocked the trend with the headline “‘I Am A Brand,’ Pathetic Man Says.”
The story goes on to describe “a sad, pathetic local web developer” who “sees his worthless daily blog posts, endless Facebook status updates, and aggravating Foursquare check-ins as ‘extensions of his brand name.’” The point the writer is making: no-one cares that much about the message we’re trying to project. We’ll be valued at work by doing a good job, not by attempting to project a consistently perfect image.
Self-promotion can also be exhausting.
“When people are trying to create a personal brand… they must be always on,” says Ilana Gershon, author of Down and Out in the New Economy. This might mean updating social media feeds several times a day with carefully curated content, palatable to the people they may want to socialise or work with.
This, she says, “introduces a new way of constantly policing yourself. It forces you to be far more instrumental about your personal life, seeing yourself as a perpetually performing for a business-driven gaze.”
Competition to outperform rivals is made more acute by the fact that it’s relatively cheap to buy artificially generated Facebook likes, Instagram followers, Twitter retweets, and all the other metrics of social-media success.
The British author Ella Woodward, who runs the healthy-eating blog Deliciously Ella and has more than a million Instagram followers, has spoken about her social-media burnout in interviews. “It’s easy when you work in a digital world that doesn’t stop, to never stop,” she told the marketing magazine Campaign, “and therefore share every aspect of your life. You can get quite exposed, and the bigger you are, the more you’re going to attract criticism.”
Against this backdrop, Sandberg’s opinion of personal branding could signal the death knell of the concept.
Others, however, believe the idea has merit.
Jennifer Holloway, a personal-branding consultant who lives in the Yorkshire Dales, says the criticism is based on a misunderstanding. “It’s not fakery,” she says of creating a personal branding strategy. “It’s ‘What brand am I already?’”