This article critiques the idea of personal branding – from pointing out how it is currently popularised and relied on the mythical notion of “true self” to being regarded as an effort for an affective regime. Additionally, the authors discuss three important guides for those who are keen to engage in personal branding.
The Myth of the True Self
In an earlier article (Wee and Brooks 2010), we made the point that personal branding strategies stress the importance of self-reflection and that proponents of personal branding, somewhat disingenuously, suggest that this process of engaging in self-reflection, if properly conducted via the techniques that they prescribe, allows each individual to unearth and manifest their “true selves”. We pointed out that this so-called “true self”, which is the target of the excavation process, is actually a very culture-specific construct, one that is influenced by a Westernised notion of personhood where traits such as tenacity, high energy and even a sense of whimsy are privileged and naturalised (2010: 52).
The “true self” is therefore an essentialised construct, one that is ideologised as always having been “there” and “within” each and every single one of us. In the context of personal branding, we are each enjoined to bring out our individual “true selves”. Indeed, this is a project that is presented as a moral obligation for, or so it is claimed, only by presenting our respective “true selves” to the friends, family members and professional colleagues that we interact with that we can forge sincere and satisfying relationships.
Regardless of whether the term “personal branding” is actually used, the fact is that we are all living in a world where, increasingly, the self is under pressure to be commoditised. This commodification of the self transcends academic debates over whether the self is a fundamentally unified entity or one that exists in multiple and sometimes irreconcilable fragments. Rather, this emphasis on commodification blithely calls for each of us to be consistent in projecting a particular persona (which is conveniently the “true self”) while at the same time also tailoring that persona to meet the specific needs and demands of different situations.
The myth of the “true self” is seductive because it reassures us that we each have an essence that is uniquely ours. This myth is especially powerful when conjoined with the call to engage in personal branding because it provides an apparently simple way to resolve a dilemma that we are all having to face as a result of the widespread influence of neoliberalism. As Hall and Lamont (2013: 4), point out, the neoliberal era is marked by a “reimagining of communities… and individuals faced profound redefinitions in the criteria for social worth as economic performance and market status became more central markers for social and cultural membership”. By seeing our “true selves” as naturally commodifiable (indeed, commodifiable because they are supposedly true, authentic and sincere), we avoid having to confront the more difficult question of whether this commodification of the self should at all be avoided.
Because the successful projection of those traits that are celebrated or valorised by personal branding ultimately rests on the ability to effectively manage both language and affect, we draw on our more recent works (Brooks and Wee, under preparation; Wee, in press) to highlight how the language-affect nexus can be critically conceptualised. Our contribution is therefore organised into two parts. In the first part, we elaborate on the interface between language and affect, conceptualising this interface in ways that allow for a more critical understanding of personal branding. In the second part, we suggest a number of principles that should be kept in mind for those who are keen to engage in personal branding.
Language, Affect and Personal Branding
Arlie Hochschild, possibly the most central figure in the sociological study of emotions, has observed that “emotions and feelings can to some degree be managed” (1979: 555). The sociological study of emotions, however, often does not distinguish between emotion and affect (Smith-Lovin, 1995). Whereas emotions are “culturally given labels that we assign to experiences” (Robinson, Smith-Lovin and Wisecup, 2006, p. 181, 183), affect refers to “any evaluative (positive or negative) orientation toward an object”. Affect is a more general notion that allows us to focus on phenomena that are not always clearly identifiable as emotions. For example, emotion labels such as “happy” or “depressed” often risk of being interpreted in Western-centric terms. Also, there are states or capacities, such as being socially resilient or alert, that would not be prototypically considered emotions. There is therefore a need for a broader notion such as affect.
Thinking in terms of affect is particularly useful when trying to better understand the phenomenon of personal branding. There are two reasons why this is so. The first is that the process of branding, personal or otherwise, is not situation specific. This means that the process of brand building cannot be reduced to the “feeling rules” that Hochschild (1979, 1983) discusses. Feeling rules are culturally scripted according to the normative expectations of specific situations. One does not build a brand just for situation X, let us say, so that the brand is irrelevant when it comes to situation Y. This is especially the case with personal branding, where individuals are encouraged to present themselves in a manner that builds their brand consistently, whoever they happen to be interacting with. The second reason follows from the first. If it is not possible to specify the specific emotions or feeling rules that a personal brand hopes to evoke, then the important fact that we need to keep in mind is the goal of being consistent. And of course, it is not consistency for its own sake. Rather, the goal of a successful brand is to range across specific situations in order to regularly evoke favourable responses. Putting the matter in terms of affect, a successful personal brand is one that always evokes a positive orientation.
This goal of trying to regularly evoke a positive orientation means trying to set up an affective regime. As Blommaert, Collins and Slembrouck (2005, p. 212-3) point out, “Regimes involve the production of subjectivities and may be transitory; regimes can be overthrown or they can be hegemonic…” An affective regime, then, refers to the set of conditions that govern with varying degrees of hegemonic status the ways in which particular kinds of affect can be appropriately materialised.
While the notion of an affective regime was originally developed to analyse how different cities and their neighbourhoods attempt to foster particular kinds of behaviours and attitudes, there is no reason why it cannot also apply to personal branding. In fact, there are advantages in approaching personal branding in terms of affective regime because it provides important correctives to some of the misconceptions that surround it. For one, personal branding rather unfortunately still tends to be construed at the level of individual strategising. In contrast, the idea of a regime highlights that the successful cultivation of any particular affect is not the result of any individual’s activities, much less a display of his/her “true self”. Instead, it is a joint and collaborative process and as such, can be to varying degree hegemonic or transitory.
A second advantage is that because the joint and collaborative nature is highlighted, personal branding need not be seen as a zero-sum game where individuals compete to ensure that their brands stand out in comparison with others. This second point cannot be over-stated. Practitioners of personal branding need to anticipate that the other people that they are interacting with at any given moment may also be engaged in personal branding activities of their own. Thus, viewing personal branding as an affective regime helps to reinforce the sociologically more plausible idea that any successful interaction which leads to a strongly positive affect can and should be understood as the result of group-level activities (Collins 2004). In Brooks and Wee (under preparation), we refer to this as the stitching together of multiple affective regimes.
Finally, our definition of affective regime uses the term “materialised” for good reason. This is because in effective communication, language works in concert with other modalities (dress, gesture, posture, etc.), and it is not even necessarily the most important, especially when the aim is to convey sincerity or authenticity. There has even been a regrettable tendency to overuse particular phrases (“Let’s take things to the next level”, “Moving forward …”) to the point where they have come to acquire the status of clichés and lost their pragmatic effectiveness.
Closing: Some Guiding Principles
Avoid Clichés, and, More Generally, Scripting. Scripting (Cameron 2000) occurs when an individual follows a script or prescribed manner for interacting. This is most commonly observed with call centres, where workers may be expected to project a “smiley voice” or use specified phrases such as Yes, I see; Fine, etc. in order to assure their clients that they are engaged in “active listening”. Scripting is also a danger in personal branding because we are all prone to developing and repeating routinised ways of interacting. And while this can facilitate the transmission of information, it can also undermine any sense that the person we are interacting with is being treated as a unique individual. Therefore, it should be avoided or at the very least minimised.
Be Multi-Modal. Communication is most effective when resources from the various modalities are working in alignment. Most of us worry about what we want to say, but pay insufficient attention to other semiotic resources, such as dress and gesture. It is only by working across the different modalities that our chances of fostering the desired affective regime
Personal Branding can be Collaborative. The problem with current approaches to personal branding is that they emphasise it as an individual-level strategy, thus conveniently ignoring the question of what happens when the individuals who are interacting all happen to be trying to push their own brands. But sustainable affective regimes come about only when there is collaboration, and it is therefore important to instead see personal branding as a group-level activity where individual brands can actually enhance each other’s “unique value proposition”.
About the Authors
Lionel Wee is a professor in the Department of English Language & Literature at the National University of Singapore. A linguist by training, he has strong interests in language policy, new Englishes and social theory. He is currently working on a book about Singlish.
Ann Brooks is Professor of Sociology and Head of Research and Professional Development in the Department of Social Sciences and Social Work at Bournemouth University. Her latest books are: Genealogies of Emotions, Intimacy and Desire: Theories of Changes in Emotional Regimes from Medieval Society to Late Modernity (Routledge New York, 2016) and The Emotional City (with Lionel Wee) in progress.
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