The Brand Called You

In several of my recent posts, I referenced a Tom Peters’ article in Fast Company entitled The Brand Called You. Tom Peters has been described as the best-selling business author in history, but he is perhaps most well known for his book In Search of Excellence, which he has said he wrote in response to the cookie-cutter MBA training that was the norm in the 1960s and 1970s.  I read Peters’ article during the writing of my dissertation, which reflected on the ways that market discourse was being used internal to a corporation.  The primary objectives of that discourse were to help employees become aware of and help the company respond more rapidly to changing customer demands and market conditions, while at the same time taking more personal responsibility for their own growth and development in response to those changes.  With the hundreds of books I read in preparing my dissertation, this short, popular press essay continues to stay with me.  So for this post I thought it might be worthwhile to re-read it, evaluate what was so compelling at the time, and reflect on whether Peters’ concepts are still relevant.

Part of what has historically made Peters’ work so successful is that he makes explicit trends that are already emergent in corporate America.  So while his messages are not always new, he accelerates the proliferation of these ideas and practices through his books.  In 1997, the article raised my awareness about the ways that marketing and branding practices were being used by – and coming to be expected of – people as they work to represent themselves in the market, whether for job search or other reasons.  In the Brand essay, Peters (1997) personalizes the concept of branding:

Start right now: as of this moment you’re going to think of yourself differently! … You don’t ‘belong to’ any company for life, and your chief affiliation isn’t to any particular ‘function.’  You’re not defined by your job title and you’re not confined by your job description.  Starting today you are a brand. (1997:86).

He goes on to say that employee loyalty is alive and well, but that it is a very different type of loyalty than what he describes as the ‘indentured servitude’ of years past:

As long as you’re learning, growing, building relationships, and delivering great results, it’s good for you and it’s great for the company.  That win-win logic holds for as long as you happen to be at that particular company.  Which is precisely where the age of free agency comes into play.  If you’re treating your resumé as if it’s a marketing brochure, you’re learning the first lesson of free agency. (1997:94)

In more recent work on his website, Peters argues that the imperative for personal branding is still there, and made all the more urgent due to the shifting financial markets, globalization, and other factors.  He says that Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for inventing the concept of micro-lending, starting with little businesses (and especially women) who often had no formal business experience.  Yunus said:

All human beings are entrepreneurs. When we were in the caves, we were all self-employed: finding our food, feeding ourselves. That’s where the human history began. As civilization developed, we suppressed it. We became ‘labor,’ because they stamped us, ‘You are labor.’ We forgot that we were all entrepreneurs.” Virtually everybody who was watching this two or three or four or five generations ago— both of your great-great-grandparents or whatever the magic term is—were entrepreneurs.

And Peters then elaborates that:

All of this new world is about behaving in an entrepreneurial fashion as if you did not have a standard career path ahead of you, because you don’t have a standard career path ahead of you. Independence is not an option. It is a must.

In retrospect, it’s fascinating to reflect on what Peters was saying in 1997.  There are now entire websites and toolkits dedicated to personal branding, and guidance at every turn about protecting and/or improving our own brand identity.  Take for example a recent article by Dr. Eric Schaffer, the CEO of Human Factors International (HFI), in which he writes about ensuring UX is well placed to impact strategic priorities for a company.  He says that good User Interfaces are now ‘basic hygiene’ and

If all we’re doing is setting up a radio button or checkbox our value is fairly limited.  As we move beyond that kind of detail to structural design, then to persuasion design, we move up the value chain.  What we’r talking about here is a final move up the value chain to strategy and innovation. … The value of a UX practitioner is in the extent of his or her influence and contribution to an organization, so this is something that radically increases our value. p5

In The Brand Called You, Peters argues that succeeding in the job market is about differentiating yourself, whether through extra work or extracurricular work is irrelevant.  It’s not what you do, but how you do it, and whom you get to know as you’re doing it.  The goal is to establish yourself as a successful, well-known node in a complex, interdependent network that extends beyond the walls of the corporation, and permeates into every part of your life.  In other words, the job market today is part of the free market system, and each individual consumes work, opportunities, and connections.  The study of networks and work is not new to the social sciences –  see for example Mark’s Granovetter’s work (The Strength of Weak Ties, and others), and a compilation of essays on Networks in the Knowledge Economy by Cross et al (2003).  But there appears to be growing interest in the topic now as the concept of social networks becomes more commonplace, and services  like Facebook and Twitter enable us to understand and visualize our networks in new ways.  The reach of the internet and the evolution of social media has brought a growing focus on our social networks – how they are constructed, how they operate, what purpose they serve … and of course, how they can be leveraged to help us achieve our goals (employment or otherwise).  The public interest in Connected – a book about Social Network Analysis written for a lay audience – speaks to that.  Covaleski and Dirsmith (1988:562) have argued that extra-organizational support systems are especially important in periods of economic downturn.  This is in part because this network of connections helps to defray the distrust that is inherent in a rapidly shifting working context.

Foucault described technologies of the self as a means of control in which people come to internalize the institutional discourse to which they are subject to such an extent that they begin to self-manage.  It was this blending of external and internal methods of control that I traced in my dissertation.   Grey (1994:481) argues that the project of the self and the discourse of career institutionalizes us beyond the bounds of any particular institution.  What we are being bound to, then, is not an institution but market discourse itself.  The objective of these new consumer relationships is to produce yourself – and in order to be successful there is no alternative – but the risk is both in marketing (producing) yourself properly and retaining some control over how you are consumed.  As many practicing social scientists are also in the business of selling themselves and their services in these market conditions, it will be increasingly important for us to extend our understanding of networks and mechanisms of control from inter- to intra- to extra-institutional.  We have to continue to monitor the evolution of the concept of personal brand (or Brand You), how it shapes us and our understanding of ourselves as working people, and remain cognizant of our role in both participating and perpetuating that discourse.

I’m working on a follow up blog post about the history of market discourse and branding, so if you’re interested in the topic, please check back soon!

References

Covaleski MA, Dirsmith MW. 1988. An Institutional Perspective on the Rise, Social Transformation, and Fall of a University Budget Category. Administrative Science Quarterly 33: 562-87.

Grey C. 1994. Career as a Project of the Self and Labour Process Discipline. Sociology 28: 479-97.

Hanson, Natalie.  2004.  Consuming Work, Producing Self: Market Discourse in Dispersed Knowledge Work

Peters, Tom.  1994.  The Brand Called You.

Peters, Tom.  2009.  More on Brand You.

Schaffer, Eric.  2010.  Design for the Big: How User-Centric Innovation and Strategy Can Move UX Up the Value Chain.

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