Saturday, 20 February 2016

Do we all need 'personal brands' now?

Earlier this month, Vanity Fair released its annual Hollywood issue, with a cover starring some of Tinseltown's finest leading ladies. There's up-and-coming Alicia Vikander, all sequins and cheek bones, and Lupita N'Yongo giving excellent shoulder, while Charlotte Rampling and Helen Mirren continue to fly the flag for effortless glamour. But even with all that going on, your eye can't help but be drawn to one Ms Diane Keaton – standing there on the right hand side, resplendent in the distinctive look she's been sporting since she first made dressing like a boy cool, circa 1975.

The Internet, of course, was quick to pick up on it. 'Never underestimate Diane Keaton's commitment to her personal brand', somebody quipped on Twitter. While this comment might have been made in jest, there's no disputing the fact that Diane Keaton is a woman who knows the power of her personal brand, and sticks to it.

'Personal branding' is just the type of puke-inducing corporate phrase that has me reaching for the nearest sick bucket. It's something I'd never use in reference to myself without adopting an Ab Fab 'sweetie darling'-style sarcastic drawl. Keaton's might have come about before the phrase even existed, but in recent years, with the advent of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, younger celebrities have no choice but to cultivate one of sorts, or risk being lost in the overpopulated quagmire of the digital world. T-Swift built her squad. Lena Dunham started a newsletter. But are us normals falling under the same pressure?

While it comes under the guise of irony, my friends claiming they won't post something on Instagram after all because it doesn't correspond with their 'grid vibe' is a prime example of personal branding. We carefully curate the image we present to the world: allowing people only to see the glamorous pictures from the night out, followed by the glorious brunch that followed the next day – conveniently missing out the time spent staring sadly into the toilet bowel in between. In this heavily filtered world, it seems there's no room for the real us. Ironic, in the age when alongside personal branding, 'authenticity' is apparently key.

It's funny, too, how if you go the other way and steer well away from Instagram and pooh-pooh it as wanky hipster bullshit, this is a pretty clear cut case of guilt by omission: by not participating, you're also sending out a very clear message about how you'd like the world to perceive you. Someone I know who has neither Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or any other form of social media has come to be known as an 'enigma' – a mysterious kind of millennial who no doubt capitalises on her elusive absence from the Internet.

The personal branding extends beyond our personal lives too, since we all leave a digital footprint that's not exactly difficult for others to find. The Internet is like a millennial woodland – scattered with the breadcrumbs of social media posts that, much like Hansel and Gretel, could easily lead us into trouble. A good LinkedIn profile is often cited as vital to career success, and if your Facebook profile is public, you can be sure that your future boss has stalked you prior to an interview, meaning you walk in there with preconceived notions to either affirm or shake off.

Of course, it's quite possible to manipulate this to your advantage. Prior to Twitter and Instagram, Victoria Beckham's trademark poe face in pictures had everyone thinking she was well, a bit of a miserable cow, really. Now though, the carefully selected snapshots posted on social media offer an alternative viewpoint. The funny gifs she shares, the willingness to post brilliant parodies of herself and the way she gushes about the Beckham clan are all an excellent way of changing the narrative. Beyoncé's ethereal reputation and deity-like status, meanwhile, are only enhanced by her tenuous link to social media.

Further down the celeb scale, the likes of YouTubers and fashion bloggers are another prime example of the power of personal branding. Love her or loathe her, Zoella's sweet as pie social presence has built her a 10 million strong fan base, along with book deals, an eponymous beauty line and a multi-million pound empire built entirely upon the strength of her own personality – or the one she presents to the world, at least. There's a danger to it, certainly: the majority of successful bloggers share similar characteristics - they all have perfect teeth, enviable homes, longterm boyfriends. But we don't really know what's going on behind closed doors.

If I ever tell someone I write a blog myself, I do so almost apologetically. I acknowledge that I'm well aware that I fall into the cliché of a 20-something writer; yet another keyboard warrior using Wordpress to do what can sometimes feel like merely shouting into the void. And the knowing chuckle from whoever I'm talking to indicates that they're aware of the stereotype too. But the fact is that if you call yourself a writer today and you don't have some kind of website, you're way behind the curve.

Whether it's finance or social media you want to work in, the jobs market is more competitive than ever before. Nepotism is rife, as it no doubt always has been, but following Blair's 'education education education' mantra there are also now more graduates than ever before entering the pool on an annual basis, their 2:1 degrees about as much use as the faux scroll they were proudly pictured with on graduation day. 

I'm not suggesting that it's necessary to alert the world every time you consume avocado on toast, but like it not, the way you present yourself to the world is important. It's easy to be swept aside – no matter how talented you might be. This doesn't mean having to make sure every thing you do is picture perfect or amassing a massive following: simply do your best to work out who you are, and what sets you apart. Instead of seeming like just another faceless cog in the corporate machine, do something that interests you, and tell people about it. It's not just the likes of Jay Z and Kim K who have the power to brand themselves.

Whatever that 'thing' might be, having your own side-hustle and simply sharing it with people could make all the difference. This isn't, of course, your guaranteed golden ticket to the Sunday Times Rich List, but it does mean that as future employers are fishing through thousands upon thousands of CVs, yours might have that added bit of sparkle. Depressing, maybe, when your CV even factors into the decisions you make outside of the office, but unless we want all the vacancies out there filled by the Octavias and Hugos whose Daddys just happen to be friends with the company CEO, it's worth sucking it up and (*whispers it*) building that brand.