Hello potential and future employers, nothing to see here. Please direct yourselves to the nearest exit.
A couple of months ago, I was asked to fill out a survey for my upcoming “Brands as Disruptors in Creative Industries” class. Wow, those are a lot of buzzwords in one title. But I guess it makes sense, since, as I would come to find out, the one and only educational framework of this class was “how to use fancy buzzwords and stylish logos to fabricate a fake brand identity”. But more on that later.
The survey our teachers sent us was essentially asking us to list our favorite brands (everyone loves Netflix these days, surprisingly to no one) and our least favorite ones (what do you know, people aren’t big fans of Facebook and the Zucc stealing their data). But the last question really struck a chord: “Do you think a person can be a brand? If yes, give examples.”
Obviously, if they’re asking for examples, then the answer must be yes, my college-educated, eager-to-please conformist self thought to herself. So, the academic research genius that I was, I listed the three first names that pop up when you type “can people be brands” on Google: Oprah, Steve Jobs, Kim Kardashian. It was only about a month later, when I was starting to apply for internships and work/study contracts (the infamous “alternance”) that I realized I had forgotten to put one obvious name in the list of person-brands: me.
Wait, was I supposed to have an identity?
It all started with a meeting I had with my academic advisor, during which she was supposed to give me guidance and advice on how to find internships. She asked me what I wanted to do and what my “dream job” was. “Marketing director for a progressive digital media company”, I answered without hesitation, even though this was less of a dream job and more of a “dream compromise”, a way to reconcile my passion for journalism and media with my equally strong passion for getting paid a living wage.
Anyway, the quick “dreaming for cynicists” sesh was followed by an admittedly useful CV boosting workshop and then, the question I had feared all along: “So, what are your hobbies outside of school? What are the things that define your identity and that would make your profile stand out to employers amidst an ocean of aspiring digital marketers?”
Boom! Just like that, the Pandora box of years’ worth of insecurities and illegitimacy fears was opened. What was my identity outside of school? Did I really have one? Does blogging count as a distinctive hobby if everyone else is doing it these days? Do feminism or environmentalism count as real convictions if you don’t have a Twitter account entirely dedicated to that? What good is swing dancing if you’re only doing it for fun and haven’t won any awards?
Those are just some of the implicit questions that my academic advisor raised in what was, I hope, a well-meaning effort to help me valorize my strengths and render my CV more unique. But rather than making me question the utility of all my life choices and time spent in the last four and more years, I think she had another objective in mind: to help me craft my own personal brand.
“You have a lot of interests and that’s good”, my advisor told me. “Now you need to streamline them and caricaturize your online identity”.
Fake it till you fake it
After all, it didn’t really matter to potential employers what I thought about climate change or what kind of books I read, if it wasn’t somehow incorporated into the oversimplified crash-course image of myself that I’m giving them in the form of an A4 piece of paper and a bunch of hyperlinks to my social media profiles. “You have a lot of interests and that’s good”, my advisor told me. “Now you need to streamline them and caricaturize your online identity”.
And that, I did. I changed my Twitter cover photo to a Michelle Obama quote about female empowerment. I picked up my zero waste Instagram again. I color-coordinated all my accounts. I put more storytelling and design efforts into my work portfolio than I’ve ever put into any of my actual work.
I just slightly adapted the image of myself that I was going to present to the requirements of the job. Isn’t this precisely what marketing is, anyway?
But I didn’t just stop there. Enter the shapeshifting: I started changing up certain parts of my CV and portfolio according to the job and company I was applying for. If it was an offer for a marketing analytics position in a more tech-oriented company, I’d focus on how “data-driven” I was and reference my (quite disputable) programming skills. If it was content marketing or a position at a media company, I’d highlight my writing skills and my experience working in the industry.
It wasn’t the cherry-picking of “relevant qualities” in itself that bothered me that much. It was how well it seemed to be working. Less than a month later, I had already landed an exciting marketing internship at a leading data software startup. I felt proud and accomplished. After all, why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I actually lied on my CV or on my interview (and don’t we all lie just a little bit?). I just slightly adapted the image of myself that I was going to present to the requirements of the job. Isn’t this precisely what marketing is, anyway?
Okay Google, can I be a marketing person with true convictions, oh, and also make money?
Ironically, my apparent mastering of the tools of my aspired professional field and my subsequent success led to my realization of its hollowness. Yes, crafting and successfully selling a curated brand image of myself was a useful exercise that my “Brands as Disruptors…” professors would be proud of. Certainly, it required resourcefulness and creativity and most of all, I had fun doing it.
But in the end, what was its purpose? Retweeting more articles about gender discrimination or posting more photos of my reusable coffee cup didn’t get me more involved in any of those movements. It sure made me want to get more involved, but I was too busy picking the right insta filters. Marketing may be a fun and creative way to communicate powerful messages (or powerful cat food ads, depending on your industry and your way of looking at it), but ultimately it doesn’t have any other proper value than the one you’re creating for the shareholders.
This professional nihilism may seem strange coming from someone who just got a great job offer from a great company that is hailed all over the internet for its quality products and services, good values and healthy corporate culture. And the fact is, I am very excited and looking forward to working there. Almost as excited as I am about getting paid and *almost*being able to afford living in Paris!
For the time being, my decision to work in marketing seems a strategically good one considering my living situation, my skills set and my aspirations. In the long term though, I’m not sure if I want my lasting “brand” to be that of the eccentric corporate exec who talks about class struggle and CO2 emissions while driving her Tesla and sipping on her 7-euro soy latte in her reusable coffee cup. Or do I?
As always, thanks for listening to my TED talk.
Featured photo by Kalina Yankova