Take This Personal Brand and Shove It

by Robert Moorehead

Two messages came across my inbox recently, and I’ve been thinking about how they’re related. The first is a brilliant animated film that captures the rigors of the job hunting process, or shūkatsu, in Japan. (You can find some insightful analysis of the film here.) In their final year of studies at the university, students dye their hair black, get more formal business haircuts, put on matching black suits, and go out to try to show how well they can toe the company line and become good corporate drones. In the process, students can lose themselves and become a person they no longer recognize.

Failing in this process also stings, as applicants can feel that their personal worth is wrapped up in the outcome. You’re reducing yourself to a commodity and peddling it to companies, and finding yourself dehumanized in the process.

The second message came from a workshop on “The Power of Brand ‘You': Personal Branding for Career and Life Success.” The workshop is led by Peter Sterlacci, who, according to his own ad, is “known as ‘Japan’s Personal Branding Pioneer’ and is one of 15 Master level Certified Personal Branding Strategists in the world.” (Let’s set aside grammar issues with the excessive use of capital letters, and the questions about who, exactly, knows Mr. Sterlacci in this manner. Maybe it’s just him. Let’s also set aside questions about just what a personal branding strategist is, who certifies such a person, and how many levels there are.)

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In the messages on Sterlacci’s website, we can find a few kernels of truth. For example, the Japanese workplace places a high value on workers fitting into the existing hierarchy of the company. In a changing, 21st-century economy, workers need to look for jobs in a more global marketplace—and that marketplace can include settings in which workers need to promote themselves less as workers who can fit in, and more as workers who bring something unique to the company.

So far, so good. But the messages go further, to encourage workers to become their own “personal brand.” You are to be the brand, believe in the brand, and live the brand. But beyond Ophrah-esque messages of believing in yourself, listening to your heart, following your dreams, and opening yourself up to wealth, what does this mean? Am I a brand? (And if I am, are my children my “product line,” like from the iPad comes the iPad mini?)

In my introduction to sociology classes, I discuss Karl Marx’s notion of species being, which we can also think of as human nature. Marx states that humans are unique in our creative ability to produce things. Some animals can build bridges, and a few gorillas have learned sign language, but that doesn’t compare with humans’ ability to create things, from food to clothing, to buildings, to the global computer network on which you’re reading this.

In this sense, this ability is part of what defines us as humans, and we have an intimate connection with the things we create. We become alienated if the products of our labor are taken from us, or if we become little more than appendages to the machines in the factory. Think of the the satisfaction we feel when we make ourselves a nice dinner, compared to the disdain we felt toward the burgers many of us flipped in minimum-wage service jobs. (And if you ate any of the food I prepared at the Solano Drive-In in the 1980s, I apologize.)

In recent decades, our experiences at work have changed dramatically. Once-solid factory jobs in countries like the US and Japan have moved elsewhere, and workers find themselves struggling to find jobs that pay enough to support themselves and their families. Commitments from companies to long-term employment have practically vanished, replaced by temporary or contract work. We’re all free agents now, freed from being trapped in the same job and also free to go hungry while we search for work.

In this environment, it makes sense for workers to retool themselves for the changing dynamics of the workplace. Keep your resume up-to-date, and always be on the lookout for the next opportunity. Believe in yourself, market yourself, take charge of your destiny—think Stuart Smalley meets Gordon Gecko—become the product others want to buy.

And there’s the catch: are you a product? or a brand? or a commodity? or whatever synonym you prefer? What is your value in the marketplace? If you are your brand, and you live that brand all the time, 24 hours a day, are you really living up to your full human potential? Are you reducing yourself to your exchange value? What is your brand worth?

As I kid I remember my brother and I arguing with our dad about what something was worth. We loved some of our stuff so much that we imagined someone would pay us a fortune for it. Then we’d make all sorts of plans to sell our things and reap our rewards. Our father would then tell us that the things were only worth what someone would pay us for them, and that was probably a lot less than we imagined. Not yet schooled in the economics of capitalism, my brother and I confused use value and exchange value. The joy we got from playing with something (it’s utility, or use value) didn’t match the value of that thing in the marketplace (it’s exchange value).

So what happens when the thing we’re trying to sell is ourselves? And what if we buy so deeply into the process that we literally become the product, that we live the brand? Becoming and living your personal brand would involve not only matching the marketing of yourself with your skills and interests, but also shaping your daily life to fit the brand you’ve become. With the brand and the person one and the same, and the brand also a product that is marketed and sold at its exchange value, how in the world can we do this without reducing our humanity down to a tag line, a logo, and a website?

“What makes you unique, makes you successful,” says Sterlacci’s ad in bold print. But what if you’re not successful? Not everyone gets the job of their dreams, since capitalism requires there to be a sufficiently large population of people to be out there, looking for work. And if you don’t succeed, do you blame it on your brand? Do you reincarnate yourself as version 2.0? 3.0? 4.0?

While mired in this process and focusing on your personal brand, how can you engage your sociological imagination, to connect your personal experiences to the bigger picture? How can we find a middle ground, in which people can pursue work that rewards them without selling out and becoming tools. Or brands.

Got answers? Share your thoughts.

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5 thoughts on “Take This Personal Brand and Shove It

  1. I loved this post. I’m originally from the Detroit area and started studying Japanese due to the possibility of working for local car companies. Anybody from that area knows how difficult it is these days to tie your fate to a company. Since I now work internationally on a string of short term contracts and temporary positions, the only thing I can bring with me is my ‘personal brand.’ Without the brand, future employers may view you as a drifter or as unable to commit – despite the fact that it’s companies themselves which are reducing permanent positions and the ability to grow with a company.

    • Thanks for the comment. You touch on some really important points—workers lose opportunities for permanent positions, and have to take on the burden of presenting themselves as a brand for a company to choose. In this sense, the performance of work takes on much more than what’s required to do the job. There’s a fair amount of emotional labor, and we’re expected to have more of our lives tied to our work while at the same time accepting less from our employers. The deck’s stacked in one side’s favor.

  2. Hello Robert. Only came across your post here almost 1 year after you published it. Intriguing title I must say. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this. You raise some very good question about personal branding and whether we need to view ourselves as ‘products’. I often find that personal branding is misunderstood or even misused. Perhaps attaching the word ‘personal’ to the word ‘branding’ is where the misunderstanding often happens. I do not see the need for us to ‘become the product others want to buy’. This means we are not being authentic to who we are or demonstrating the personal values that define us. Yes, my coaching business does use the word ‘become’ in it’s title, but the first step is to ‘believe’ that we have a “unique promise of value” that we bring to the world. It is this promise that differentiates us from others and it is based 100% on authenticity and not on spin or image. People eventually see through spin and image. People also know when others are being genuine and real — and this is our personal brand. At the end of the day, each and every one of us has a ‘brand’, or perhaps we should say ‘reputation’. I do but the way firmly believe that what makes us unique also makes us successful. Success can be defined in many ways and as long as one’s success honors one’s true nature / being, then we can say we are living up to our promise of value. Just my 2 cents.

    Oh, and just to point out, I am certified by the only organization providing certification in this field – Reach Personal Branding http://www.reachpersonalbranding.com There are now hundreds of certified coaches around the world and I was the first one in Japan (there is one other guy in Tokyo now as well). I am also fortunate to be certified at the highest level which requires recertification every year. The tagline ‘Japan’s personal branding pioneer’ was kind of given to me when someone pointed out I was the only person (at one point) truly qualified to do personal branding.

    Thanks again for your views and I would be happy to dialog about this with you at any time. Cheers.

    • Peter, thank you for the very diplomatic reply. As you may recall, the title was inspired by the Johnny Paycheck song, “Take this job and shove it.” As I note in the post, I can see value in teaching a Japanese audience to package themselves to compete more effectively in a global job market that requires a different skill set. Japanese job seekers often aren’t trained to think of the individual contributions they could make to a company, so teaching them to promote themselves in this way could be very useful. But reducing a public issue (like surviving in global neoliberal capitalism) to a private matter (being true to myself) runs in the opposite direction of how I train my students to think.

      It reminds me of a Welcome Back Kotter episode from the 1970s, when Arnold Horshack recites his poem “No two snowflakes are alike, no two people are the same.” We all have unique qualities, and it’s great if we can find a job in which we can express ourselves. We’re likely to be happier if we find work that’s spiritually (and financially) rewarding. But let’s not focus so much on the trees that we lose sight of the forest. Workers in Japan, and around the world, are facing dramatic shifts in the nature of work, with less job security, fewer benefits, and lower pay becoming the norm. That’s the forest.

      Even though we know that we’re in a global recession, and that forces bigger than ourselves are shaping whether we find work, we still enter the job market as individuals, negotiating individually with employers. We also measure our success based on 1 employment statistic: our own. So, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, to blame ourselves if we’re not successful–to focus on the trees, and to ignore the forest. This helps drive the self-help industry and its Oprah or Stuart Smalley-like solutions. This discourages us from organizing collectively and pushing for social change. Instead we try to repackage ourselves.

      Maybe one solution could be collective, and not personal, branding. We do see such branding by corporations and the state, so maybe we need new branding to challenge it.

      And thanks for sharing information on the certification. The trend towards more certification/credentialing fits with demands for higher academic degrees for employment. Certification also sounds like a great business model: invent a need, create a solution to meet it, and then sell that solution to others. Of course, my career is also based on this model, as students pay significant sums to take my classes so they can get a university degree.

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