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The Branding Iron

News & Features | September 23, 2013

You are a brand. While Yahoo’s rebrand and Miley Cyrus’s Disney-defying antics made the front page, you slowly and quietly built your brand, whether you knew it or not. In the last decade, “personal branding” has gone from a gilding on the résumés of marketing MBAs and graphic designers to a required consideration for any application. Branding has outlived the brief lifespan of just a buzzword and become a synonym for identity itself. Today, your personal brand encompasses whom you follow, which hashtags you use, and which profile picture you select. But it doesn’t stop there: it’s how you dress, what you do, and who you are. With the rise of social media, the line that once existed between personal and professional lives has disappeared. If someone snaps a picture of you blowing off steam over the weekend, soon enough it will show up online with tags identifying just who you are, what you’re doing, and whom you’re doing it with. This can affect college admissions, internship offers, and even career prospects. The refrain goes like this: your personal brand already exists. And those pictures from middle school are part of it. So is that opinion piece you wrote for the Daily freshman year. In 2013, there is no more branding yourself; there is only rebranding.

These days, polishing your résumé means polishing your Facebook, your Instagram, and your LinkedIn—professionalism is the name of the game, but so is humanity, capability, and a dozen other traits. Users are expected to upload #twesumes, 140 character twitter bio summaries of everything they are and want to be. Digital rebranding is hard work. It’s no surprise, then, that this industry already exists. Services like Brand.com and Reputation.com provide what is called “online reputation management,” charging up to $10,000 for promises to remove negative information from web searches and only show the positive. These companies provide search engine optimization services, or SEO, to make sure that the links you want at the top of your results push everything else down. The website BrandYourself.com does this same thing, but offers free basic packages aimed at people like college students looking for work, but without ten grand to blow. In fact, Johns Hopkins University and Syracuse University have already hired them to provide reputation management for their students. The stories of BrandYourself’s customers include some like Brittany Perskin’s, the Vanderbilt cheerleader whose Google results changed dramatically last year when she had sex in a photo booth that uploaded directly to Facebook at a sorority formal. But personal branding isn’t just for the scandalized; it’s a generational requirement.

The mainstream personal branding movement grew with our generation. For students at Tufts today, Facebook is an extension of the real world. Choosing a profile picture is already an exercise in how you want to be seen. With this comes an emphasis on individuality so strong that the term “Generation Me” has been coined to describe it—and not for nothing. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory is a test designed to analyze narcissism based on the National Psychiatric Association’s criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Since its creation, scores have been increasing. Studies show that two thirds of college students today are above the mean scores from 30 years ago. Twenty-somethings today are three times more likely to have experienced Narcissistic Personality Disorder than their sixty-something counterparts. Traits related to narcissism are also increasing. Our generation is more likely to hold extrinsic values and to have increased self-focus; even our names and the names we choose for our kids are becoming more unique. Pronoun use is changing; an analysis of the American Google Books library for the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology by year found that use of words like “we” and “us” is dwindling while use of “I” and “me” is growing.

With social media, small ponds are gone, especially for college students. Gone are the days when competition consisted solely of the other members of your high school class. Your brand is now in direct competition with everybody who shares your name and everybody who wants to be where you want to be. At Tufts, the class of 2017 faced a record low acceptance rate of 18.7 percent. Meanwhile, Harvard took only 5.8 percent of applicants. Contained in the remaining 94.2 percent were, valedictorians, students with perfect test scores and more with countless other accolades.

Every year at Tufts, Lee Coffin, the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, makes roughly the same speech to the incoming class. In it, he quotes the new freshmen to make it clear just how diverse the population he just accepted really is. “I’m the only liberal, urban, multiracial male I know,” claimed one member of the class of 2015. “I aspire to be a sort of Irene Adler mixed with Catwoman,” a freshman wrote, “with a dash of Hillary Clinton added for dignified flair.” These are brands. Tufts applications require defining “I” and “Me” and have little use for “we” and “us.” The Tufts application process feeds on the narcissistic traits necessary to make yourself stand out, and to believe that you could stand out, among 18,420 other applicants. But in order to stand out, you have to commit—and that means a major change in how rebranding has worked for years.

Personal rebranding is hardly a novel concept. The idea of reinventing oneself has always been popular among college and high school students. Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club transformation from the basket case to the star athlete’s girlfriend seems so standard. “Right now,” one of Lee Coffin’s freshmen wrote last year, “I’m a tree-hugging quixotic agnostic who believes in aliens, but who knows how long that will last.”

It’s a turbulent age and the trope of reinventing yourself once you get to college is a classic one. An easy and ubiquitous tale is the one of the freshman who hated her name growing up and gets to choose a new one on her first day. That simple change was as powerful a rebrand as any, but the simplicity vanishes in a world where a name change means an edit to a Facebook profile that garners questions and views. And it’s same for your Instagram handle, your LinkedIn page, and your blog.

Neutrality isn’t an option; in this day and age, having no Facebook is a kind of branding too, and a suspicious one at that. To people without social media, the question is: do you have something to hide or are you just a misanthrope? Both Norwegian shooter Anders Breivik and Aurora shooter James Holmes were noted as having suspiciously limited Facebook presences. Within a day of the Navy Yard shooting, Huffington Post led its article on Aaron Alexis with the fact that he “left a scant social media footprint, though that could have been by design.” Not having a social media account has become a red flag; an unwillingness to put your personal life on display must be for a reason. History is essential to the personal brand, proof behind the claims, and each contradiction dilutes the brand.

For many Tufts students, internships are the key to résumé building, which means that they are the key to brand building. A relevant internship is the answer to the classic catch-22 of trying to find work without experience, and trying to get experience without work in an increasingly competitive job market. But a massive rebranding of career goals means that your internship in that art studio isn’t going to carry over well when applying for consulting jobs in the Financial District. Nor will your references or networking be of much use if you’ve tried to switch names or traits. This is all the more reason why consistency in brand is so crucial online.

Microsoft commissioned a survey that found that only 7 percent of Americans think that their online reputation has an effect on their job search. But in reality, according to a study by Jobvite, 94 percent of recruiters are looking at or planning to look at social media profiles when making hiring decisions. The number of hiring managers who say they chose not to hire someone based on social media, 43 percent in 2012, has double since 2008 and quadrupled since 2006. For Tufts grads, looking for young and relevant jobs, there is little chance that your online presence isn’t being scrutinized. Evidence of drinking and profanity, though pretty standard for college students and recruiters alike, can decrease your chances of getting a job. But rebranding your online presence is more than just cleaning up the negative; it’s about deciding who you are.

The personal branding movement draws from corporate rebranding, a practice that focuses on revitalization and refocus more than covering up the past. Yahoo’s unveiling of a new logo this month received a lot of criticism not because the logo was worse—their old one was undoubtedly dated and unprofessional—but because the new one lacks personality. This is not a new story. eBay, founded by Tufts grad Pierre Omidyar, straightened up the company’s logo last year with almost no public response. A few years ago, Tropicana ditched its illogical but iconic packaging of a straw-in-orange for a cleaner version with just a glass of orange juice on the front. Two months later, their sales were down 20 percent and the company was out about 30 million dollars. Meanwhile, their competitors’ sales all increased. The job market isn’t much different than the orange juice aisle; when your brand is too boring, all a recruiter needs to do is reach over to one that’s more compelling.

This was the refrain in the article in Fast Company that sparked off the personal branding movement. “You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop. To start thinking like your own favorite brand manager, ask yourself the same question the brand managers at Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop ask themselves: What is it that my product or service does that makes it different?” The number one thing that recruiters say they use social media profiles like Facebook and twitter for is “cultural fit.” The necessity of developing a personal brand that sets you apart is becoming more and mainstream.

Five miles from Tufts campus, students at Northeastern have the opportunity to take CMN 6061, Personal Branding, which “examines the importance of developing a personal brand in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace” and then teaches students how to develop theirs. Tufts itself is not far behind on this. They’ve brought speakers to campus to discuss “Me 2.0” and how to “Stand Out By Developing Your Personal Brand.” The Career Center dedicates a section of its website to resources for developing your personal brand. The career fair at the end of September is proud to feature a “LinkedIn photo booth” to provide profile pictures “for your LinkedIn account or any professional online branding.”

Tufts has long since recognized the importance of branding to its success. In 2005, the University conducted a yearlong brand audit, which included the development of the “Tufts Personality.” To be “Tufts” is to never be “verbose or pedantic”—oh, the irony—but to be “spirited, exuding enthusiasm for Tufts,” to be “intellectually substantial,” and to be “committed to genuine diversity, conveyed through voice, tone, and style.” Right there is the core of branding: the emphasis on presentation, on tone and style, over substance. A genuine rebrand requires both, but to make a substantial change, style has to blare so loudly that it overpowers the old brand.

No rebrand has relied so much on the flash and attention of style than Miley Cyrus’ at the Video Music Awards at the end of August. Make no mistake, Cyrus’ twerking on Robin Thicke was a full throttle exercise in personal rebranding. And for anyone paying attention, it was just another incident in a long train of haircuts, videos, and content to distance the now 20 year-old performer from her Disney star past. The tween audience she had almost a decade ago is much older now, and more interested in shock value than they are in wholesome Hannah Montana. Cyrus’ VMA performance played directly to that. And it worked.

During Cyrus’ performance with Robin Thicke, the twitterverse clocked in at 360,000 tweets per minute about the act. For comparison, last year’s VMAs peak never broke 100,000. In the days following her performance, she added 226,273 Facebook fans and 213,104 Twitter followers. The amount of brand exposure that Miley Cyrus generated meant that by the next day, she had completed her transition from Disney good girl to provocatrice. And this success isn’t limited to people talking about her. When her latest single, “Wrecking Ball,” debuted—continuing the shock and awe trend by featuring her demolishing a wall in the nude—it broke VEVO’s record for most viewed music video in 24 hours, with 19.3 million views in a single day. It has been downloaded over 400,000 times. It’s projected to take number one on Billboard’s Hot 100, a feat that even “Party in the USA,” released at the height of her Hannah Montana fame, never reached.

Miley isn’t the first to latch onto controversial performances to change image and rise to the top, a fact she openly acknowledged herself. “How many times have we seen this play out in pop music?” she asked. “Madonna’s done it. Britney’s done it.” In fact, Miley isn’t even the first to leverage the controversy of Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” as a rebranding tool. In a desperate attempt to rebrand, RadioShack released an ad featuring “Blurred Lines,” which flashed #UWANTIT over images of Thicke and scantily clad women wearing necklaces hanging with the RadioShack logo.

Rebranding through controversy is not a concept unique to today. The French painter Manet entered notoriety on the controversy of his Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, as it featured fully dressed men and nude women. Sound familiar? The Vanderbilt cheerleader of the photo booth scandal may have her BrandYourself.com profile on the front page of Google, but above it are no fewer than six results relating to the incident. For our technology-obsessed generation, seemingly temporary decisions may leave permanent digital footprints.

One of the personal branding articles that Tufts provides to its students advises that you “create a brand statement to guide you in making decisions that are “on-brand” and provide a filter for not participating in activities that are “off-brand.” The decisions you make, the activities you participate in, and everything you do is now part of your brand. “Every time you are in a meeting, at a conference, networking reception or other event, you should be mindful of what others are experiencing about you and what you want others to experience about you,” Forbes advised earlier this year. “Each of these engagements is similar to a job interview – expect in these cases you are being evaluated by your peers.” Constant judgment is no longer considered rude, but expected. Leaving the house is an exercise in unending vigilance about how you appear and what you do. Life is a business decision.

Our generation is uniquely suited to personal branding. Each of us runs a half a dozen social networking representations of our brand, with carefully chosen handles and pictures. Even our basic psychology has adapted to fulfill the needs of the age. Personal branding is a switch that, once on, can never be flipped off as long as you want to succeed. It’s an exercise that’s applied to every aspect of our lives—there is no escape. Tagged vacation pictures make it onto Facebook before you’ve even returned home; there are no hidden guilty pleasures when your Spotify choices upload live to your Facebook timeline. There are no more errors or contradictions in our lives, there are only damages to our brand. Personal branding is no longer a tool; it is our identity.