Personal Branding and The Crafting of Self

Jul 6, 2022 | Branding, Culture, Marketing

Tara McMullin is a writer, podcaster, and producer who explores what it takes to navigate the 21st-century economy with your humanity intact. Click here to support this work.

I remember the first time I had my picture taken professionally. The photographer belonged to an artists’ workspace in an old goggle factory. The top floor was an event space—just a big empty loft with the original flooring, exposed brick walls, and giant windows. I love the light in that kind of space—everything looks better in that light, as far as I’m concerned.

So when the photographer suggested we use that space to shoot the photos, I was psyched. I arrived for the shoot with my signature pixie cut, a black wrap sweater, and lots of handmade jewelry. I loved the photos—but they didn’t magically transform me into the more mature, sophisticated, or outwardly successful person I hoped they’d make me.

Me circa 2010

Over the next few years, I sat for a series of photographers. I hoped the new pictures would reveal an older, wiser version of myself each time. I experimented with different hairstyles, outfit choices, and makeup. Some photo sessions were more casual, even candid. Other sessions gestured toward something more formal, Successful.

Each time I received the photos, I thought they were good, but I still didn’t see myself the way I wanted to.

I took a break from photo shoots. Or rather, I took a break from paying photographers. Instead, Sean—who was experimenting with photography—helped me try to show up in pixels the way I hoped to be seen. That didn’t work either.

I stopped trying. I snapped a couple of selfies and called it good.

Then, last fall, I decided I needed new headshots. I didn’t look like any of the decent photos I had. My hair was now long and blonde. My body had dramatically changed shape. I didn’t dress the way I used to. I found a local photographer who stood out from the crowd of Pinterest-perfect family photographers that saturate my county. My photographer had tattoos; she had an unmistakable aesthetic; she was upfront about supporting issues that aren’t exactly popular around here.

As always, I thought about who I wanted to see when I got those pictures back.

This time, I just wanted to see me.

I wore black jeans, orange sneakers, and a black racerback tank sweater. I wore my hair long and wavy. My makeup was minimal because I’d virtually stopped wearing any a few years ago. I brought along a hair tie and a flannel shirt to change things up.

My photographer, Michelle, was fantastic. The space we chose had that same beautiful loft-like light. Michelle and I were definitely on the same wavelength about what these photos should be.

About a week later, I received a link to the finished photos. So used to being disappointed, not with the images but with myself, I felt my chest tighten when I got Michelle’s email. Ever hopeful, I clicked the link.

For the first time, I saw great pictures that looked like me. Not like someone I was trying to be. Not an aspirational self. But the self I inhabit each day. I don’t want to say that I “look like” this or that thing because the things I care about don’t have “a look.” But what I do see is nothing getting in the way of the identities and characteristics that are most important to me.

In this article, we’re digging into personal brands.

How does a personal brand form? What does it do to our sense of self? Does everyone in the 21st century need a personal brand to earn a decent living? And… when did the personal brand become a thing?

Let’s tackle that last question first.


Personal Brands: An Origin Story

For a short time in the second half of the 19th century, a photography fad gripped Europe and North America.

Cartes de visite were “small, inexpensive paper portrait photographs mounted on card stock,” according to media studies scholar Alison Hearn, whose work I draw on extensively through this article. “Cartomania,” as it was called, intrigued and engaged people from all classes. The trend established itself around 1861 and petered out by the late 1870s.

Cartes were not merely a way to obtain a picture of yourself or your family members. Cartes became collectibles: “Three to four hundred million cartes were sold each year between 1861 and 1867.” You might exchange yours with your friends and family, yes. But you might also go out of your way to collect the cartes of complete strangers or celebrities.

Hearn notes that cartes allowed photography to establish itself as a profession. But Cartomania also gave the average person a reason to consider their personal presentation for the first time and create “standardized visual codes and conventions” to express identity and status through the portraits.

Before this trend, of course, self-presentation took time. You had to sit for a portrait. Those portraits represented ideas more than living, breathing people. But cartes made it much easier to see famous people as people. And that allowed people to see themselves *as famous—*or, at least, trending upwards in social mobility. Hearn writes, “As access to visual information about celebrities was democratized via the carte de visite, regular people, in turn, were able to present themselves in styles and poses favored by the celebrated.”

Not only could people present their status or interests by mimicking the visual codes of the day, a collection of cartes told a story about the company they kept. An album full of wealthy, interesting people was sure to convey some of that status on the collector of that album.

The United States, to this point, was a fairly diverse mix of self-presentation as immigrants replicated the clothes and styling they were used to. But cartes de visite quickly codified the “ideals of conformity, status, and normalcy.” Now people knew how they were supposed to dress and carry themselves to be included in “respectable” society—a group still dominated by the white upper class.

Around the same time cartes became popular, the American economy wasn’t doing so hot.

People didn’t trust paper money because there was no single monetary authority determining its value. The face value and the exchange value of paper money just weren’t the same. You might have a dollar, but your local bank might declare it was only worth 50 cents.

Hearn explains that cartes provided both reassurances and more cause for concern about economic insecurity. On the one hand, cartes gave way to homogenized styles and self-presentation. On the other hand, since anyone could recreate that self-presentation, the relative value of “a look” was suspect. People were concerned about “both the coherence and dependability of personal character and identity” as represented in photography in the same way they were concerned about the coherence and dependability of money.

Hearn argues that anxiety about the “self” was stoked by this overlap of insecurity in both social and economic value. When everything around you is unstable and disconnected from what you’ve always relied on, you’re bound to turn the anxiety that creates back on yourself. The “self” seems to be the only thing you have control over.

Cartes made it possible to trade on that image of self, imbuing it with its own economic value.

And this, Hearn explains, is the origin of the personal brand. Since the image of self contained economic value, some saw that as an opportunity to increase the economic value of their image. Careful curation and attention to detail could render an image more valuable, more collectible. Hearn also notes that cartes quickly became personal advertisements—using social codes and warm feelings to relay trust in a product or service.

People turned to self-promotion and conformed to aesthetic codes to “…reassure themselves that they exist and are worth something indeed, to valorize themselves.”

Cartes went the way of the dodo in the late 1870s because new photographic technologies landed on the scene. But the economic value of self-presentation has never died.


The Value of Visual Codes

Me circa 2011

When I think about my headshots and profile pics over the years, it’s hard not to notice the visual codes I was playing with. In one set of photos, I wore a tan corduroy blaze—such was my desire to signal that I was part of the academic class. In another set of photos, I choose an outdoor setting in Portland—signaling my new citizenship in the quirky Pacific Northwest. Later, I sat for studio portraits in a white collarless blazer in front of a black background. I wanted look spendy and successful.

Symbols and visual codes communicate immense amounts of information.

We often utilize them without even thinking about it.

On a day-to-day basis, we decide what to wear to work, how to do our hair, or what accessories to don based on cultural expectations. Some conform. Others purposefully deviate. On a first date, we might think more about the story we want to tell or the feelings we hope to elicit in the person we’re meeting and channel that into our self-presentation.

Of course, different subcultures have their own codes and expectations. And those codes are often unfairly expected to take a back seat to dominant visual codes (that is, white, male, college-educated standards).

The rise of consumer capitalism made it all the easier to signal who you were, or even who you wanted to be. Cheap clothes, shoes, accessories, and makeup gave us ways to even present multiple identities.

Who needs the Spice Girls when you can be sporty one day, posh another, and scary another?

Okay, that’s a silly question. We all need the Spice Girls.

Actually, let’s stick with the Spice Girls for a minute. Each woman selected for the band was branded. Victoria Beckham, thought quite posh, isn’t Posh Spice. Posh Spice is a brand, a fabrication, a sort of costume of identity. It may be based on Beckham’s authentic self but the brand’s economic value was rooted in the brand rather the self. Beckham had to sing, dance, and do the work it took to frequently inhabit the persona of Posh Spice.

While you won’t see me singing, dancing, or being posh, I have certainly experienced this type of work—and continue to do it to a degree today. My home office is more like the set of a TV show than it is a room especially suited to reading and writing. I think about whether I need to put on extra makeup in the morning based on who will see my through my webcam. For years, the all-too-predictable need to snap a selfie or post a pic of my surroundings meant that I made sure that my self-presentation match my brand, day in and day out. My lifestyle wasn’t merely the way I lived my life. My lifestyle was raw material to leverage through immaterial labor.

Hearn writes that “processes of self-branding generate their own myths and stories.”

Those stories are then replicated through pop culture and social media. I remember when there was a popular persona in the online business space built entirely on gratuitous swearing. Naomi Dunford was one of the first I noticed—but that persona was replicated over and over again until any shock value or authenticity had been left far behind. The same thing happened with Danielle LaPorte. There were waves of emerging coaches, healers, and writers who deciphered the code of LaPorte’s self-presentation and recreated it—her manner on camera, the cadence of her voice, the design of her website.

The messages about how to present yourself today are decidedly mixed.

“They” tell us to be ourselves and leverage our uniqueness. At the same time, it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that there’s also a need to conform, to rely on the standardized “aesthetic logics” of the marketplace or media ecosystem.

When self-promotion and self-identity become intertwined, we enter into tricky territory. What is or isn’t of value is constantly up in the air. Who is or isn’t worthy of attention—today’s ultimate status symbol—becomes unstable. Or as Hearn put it, “under the contemporary conditions of zombified neoliberal capitalism, we risk becoming a population of ‘confidence men’ in a world of increasingly uncertain value.”


Self-Branding Takes Work

Today, Hollywood actors are celebrated for transforming into the characters they play on screen. Think Daniel Day Lewis, Octavia Spencer, Elisabeth Moss. Their faces are familiar, but their mannerisms, speech, and behavior are elastic, stretching into often unsettling patterns. This is their work and their art.

But while this kind of acting is common enough today, Hollywood studios produced a different kind of actor for decades. The “studio system” contracted actors for periods of time, rather than specific films. Together with the studio, the actor would develop a marketable persona. And they’d bring that persona into every character they played. Jimmy Stewart was always playing Jimmy Stewart while playing whatever character he was cast as. Judy Garland was performing Judy Garland while performing Dorothy Gale or Esther Smith. Most often, contracted actors were just playing different versions of the same characters over and over again. Performing that character was their work and art.

Isaac Butler argues that the shift from the studio system into what’s known as Method acting made the movies we watch more human in his recent book, called The Method. I think that checks out—the range of emotion, identity, and experience on display on our screens illuminates human life in staggering ways. But it would be wrong to mistake today’s “more human” acting for acting that requires less labor.

Alison Hearn explains that “the production of self must always involve some form of labor in order to create a public persona that might be of practical and relational use.” To put it another way, we construct public personae with market value. In the studio system, an actor channeled their labor into their public persona—the character that played other characters. The studios were able to turn that public persona into a commodity to be sold to theatre goers over and over again. In today’s film and TV market, actors’ labor is still translated into a commodity to be sold, but the market has changed. The “practical and relational use” of an actor’s labor today is the ability to transform into someone unrecognizable. Of course, many actors are also cultivating a persona of celebrity that they use as a commodity to be sold.

Personal branding isn’t just for actors and influencers.

As developing a personal brand became widely accepted corporate and entrepreneurial wisdom, we’ve all learned to craft a public persona. Branding consultant Chuck Pettis advises us to see ourselves as a “‘product’ with features and benefits, certain skills and special talents” and to use the skills and talents that are “highly valued by your ‘customer.’” Similarly, personal branding guru Tom Peters reminds us that every action we take or don’t take, every choice we make or don’t make, “communicates the value and character of your brand.” Peter Montoya defines personal branding as “taking control of the process that affects how others perceive you, and managing those processes strategically to help you achieve your goals.”

I mean, all of that’s true, right? It’s also true that this is work.

What effect does this labor have on us—on our bodies, our identities, our relationships?

David Harvey reminds us that the body, or the self, is an unfinished project. There are forces shaping and reshaping us—both internally and externally. The body is also not a “closed and sealed entity,” the body is made and remade in relation to its environment both physical and social. Work is one of those forces—as is the relation between worker and capital. If a large part of our work is consciously constructing a marketable self, then that work is going to have a real effect on our bodies.

What’s more, as I explored another article, social platforms have found ways to exploit this labor for their own gain. Hearn—writing while MySpace was still a thing…—suggests that we see social platforms as “inventories of branded selves” and that the logic of the platform “encourages users to see themselves and others as commodity-signs to be collected and consumed in the social marketplace.” Private identity dissolves into public persona, product endorsement, user, creator, and consumer. It’s impossible to see where one role ends, and the next begins.


Warning: Side Effects

Even as our private identities dissolve into public persona, many of us try to keep things separate. We erect a firewall between the self we project into the feed or onto the website and the self we keep for ourselves and our close relationships.

Tyler McCall, the former online business owner and Instagram influencer I spoke with about being “always on” for an earlier article, told me that therapy helped him see that he’d created a distinction between the two Tyler McCalls. Looking back, he supposes that creating that second identity allowed him to feel a sense of balance and safety as he lived his life “very online.” “Tyler J. McCall was the brand—the creator, the Instagram expert, the marketing strategist the podcast guest. The person online—that was Tyler J. McCall. Tyler McCall is who I was with my husband and with my friends,” he said.

The two Tylers weren’t all that different. It was less about establishing two different characters and more about creating a version of himself that wasn’t, well, him. This is textbook self-alienation and part of the process that Arlie Russell Hochschild described in her work on emotional labor.

Self-alienation is creating or experiencing distance from your own feelings or activities. You turn yourself into something other than yourself, often as a form of protection against trauma or abuse. “It’s not like I put a mask on when I opened up Instagram on my phone,” he told me. Instead, Tyler J. McCall allowed him to show up as that peppy, likable person that his fans expected him to be. “I think it was a bit of a trope.”

It’s interesting that Tyler uses the word “trope” here. Because along with self-alienation, this is textbook reification. Reification is the process of turning social relations into commodities—the word literally means “to make a thing.” In capitalism, workers are made into things through their labor. Workers are transformed from independent subjects to objects with use-value. Their labor power is the raw material for profit. In Tyler’s case, the trope was “the gay bestie.”

The gay bestie trope becomes a symbol, an object, a metaphor that can be used for profit. That’s not to say Tyler—or anyone reading—is thinking “I’ll make more money if I show up as X, Y, or Z online.” Self-alienation and reification often happen subconsciously. We almost don’t know it’s happened until the immaterial labor of keeping it up gets to be too much. The trope impacts every aspect of our lives—for Tyler, that included the clothes he wore.

Tyler became known for wearing shirts with stripes, often in gray, blue, or green. He told me that, while those were clothes he liked, “it got to the point where my entire closet was like a branded photo shoot.” He acknowledged that this could simply be a “brand play,” a strategic choice. But he also told me, “It was almost like it was armor.”

Curating a certain wardrobe might not sound like manual labor or the monotony of the assembly-line. But contemporary critics have called this the “social factory.” We internalize the logic of the market and produce what’s deemed to be most valuable.

We’re all learning how to be famous, after all.

In a popular essay for The New Yorker, MSNBC host Chris Hayes explored what it means to be “famous” on the internet—as in, everybody is famous on the internet. He wrote, “The most radical change to our shared social lives isn’t who gets to speak, it’s what we can hear.”

If the labor of personal branding was only about creative self-expression, I think it would be work many of us would find great satisfaction in. But what Hayes points to is how much of the working isn’t the act of self-presentation, it’s the work of responding. Maintaining flexibility. Adapting to changing market conditions. Working in the social factory, day in and day out.

Like Tyler, I tried to separate my self from my brand. I started by focusing on “What Works” as its own entity. I continued by actually changing my name when Sean and I got married. That’s not why I changed my name—I was tired of toting around my ex-husband’s name and my maiden name is difficult to spell. But transforming myself from Tara Gentile into Tara McMullin felt like a fresh start in my relationship with the internet. And for the most part, it has been.

When I showed up at that last photo shoot, I was certainly working. Posing for pictures isn’t something I’d probably do if it wasn’t part of my job! But I didn’t feel like I was trying to play a part. I wasn’t trying to be “Tara Gentile” and everything I hoped to represent or that others expected to see in me. I didn’t feel like I was trying to convey anything special. And so, when I saw the final product, I saw me. Not a personal brand.

What’s interesting to me is that I share more of myself today than ever before.

But what I share is less representational, less commodified, less reified than it was when I was conscious about building my personal brand. As a result, I have been able to limit my affective labor and create a stronger sense of self both online and off. By focusing more on ideas and questions I’m curious about, I’m able to avoid some of the nastier consequences of making myself marketable.

Last summer, I wrote a piece on the labor of authenticity. In it, I said I wasn’t against the personal brand. And I think I’m still not against the personal brand. What I am for—as always—is consciousness and awareness. I’m for rethinking shoulds and supposed-tos about how we use online tools. And I’m for recognizing how the work we do transforms us—in good ways and not-so-good ways.

If you’re at work in the social factory, and we all are, today is a good day to consider how the work has changed you. How has the way you know yourself shifted? How has your sense of value evolved? What have you decided is necessary to maintain a marketable mystique?

There is no amount of profit or influence that’s worth losing yourself to the social assembly line.

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