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Within the personal branding movement, people and their careers are marketed as brands complete with promises of performance, specialized designs, and tag lines for success. Because personal branding offers such a startlingly overt invitation to self-commodification, the phenomenon invites a careful and searching analysis. This essay begins by examining parallel developments in contemporary communication and employment climates and exploring how personal branding arises as (perhaps) an extreme form of a market-appropriate response. The contours of the personal branding movement are then traced, emphasizing the rhetorical tactics with which it responds to increasingly complex communication and employment environments. Next, personal branding is examined with a critical eye to both its effects on individuals and the power relations it instantiates on the basis of social categories such as gender, age, race, and class. Finally, the article concludes by reflecting on the broader ethical implications of personal branding as a communication strategy.
Management Communication Quarterly
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/0893318904270744
2005 18: 307Management Communication Quarterly
Daniel J. Lair, Katie Sullivan and George Cheney
Marketization and the Recasting of the Professional Self: The Rhetoric and Ethics of Personal Branding
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The Rhetoric and
Ethics of Personal Branding
University of Utah
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Dan Lair and Katie Sullivan are doc-
toral students; GeorgeCheney is a professor.An earlier draft
of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the
National Communication Association, Miami Beach,
Florida, in November 2003. The authors would like to thank
Lars Thøger Christensen, Stephanie Hamel, and Ted Zorn
for their helpful suggestions toward revising this work.
“. . . because
personal branding
offers such a
startlingly overt
invitation to self-
the phenomenon
invites deeper
Management Communication Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3, February 2005 307-343
DOI: 10.1177/0893318904270744
© 2005 Sage Publications
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Within the personal branding movement, people and their careers are marketed
as brands complete with promises of performance, specialized designs, andtag
lines for success. Because personal branding offers such a startlingly overt invi-
tation to self-commodification, the phenomenon invites a careful and searching
analysis. This essay begins by examiningparallel developments in contemporary
communication and employment climates and exploring how personal branding
arises as (perhaps) an extreme form of a market-appropriate response. The con-
tours of the personal branding movement are then traced, emphasizing the rhe-
torical tactics with which it responds to increasingly complex communication
and employment environments. Next,personal branding is examined with a criti-
cal eye to both its effects on individuals and the power relations it instantiates on
the basis of social categories such as gender, age, race, and class. Finally, the
article concludes by reflecting on the broader ethical implications of personal
branding as a communication strategy.
Keywords: personal branding; popular management discourse; organiza-
tional rhetoric; identity; professional ethics
The business self-help genre of management communica-
tion traces its roots at least back to Dale Carnegie’s (1936/
1982) How to Win Friends and Influence People. Countless other
authors have followed Carnegie’s path, offering eager audiences
insights to the keys of success, including Steven R. Covey’s (1989)
wildly popular Seven Habits for Highly Effective People.Keyto
these self-help management moments is the idea that individuals in
the corporate world can achieve success by engaging in a process of
self-managed self-improvement. In a 1997 article in the trendy
management magazine Fast Company, however, influential man-
agement guru Tom Peters gave a name to the next self-help man-
agement movement: personal branding.
In many respects, the phenomenon of personal branding shares
affinities with the self-help movements it drew from by offering a
programmatic set of strategies for individuals to improve their
chances at business success. But despite these continuities, the per-
sonal branding movement also represents something of a radical
departure from previous self-help movements. Rather than focus-
ing on self-improvement as the means to achievement, personal
branding seems to suggest that the road to success is found instead
in explicit self-packaging: Here, success is not determined by indi-
viduals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather,
by how effectively they are arranged, crystallized, and labeled—in
other words, branded.1
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Branding itself is not a new concept or set of practices, although
its uses have clearly reached new levels of market penetration in
recent years. Branding of some sort has been evident in product
development and promotion since the mid-19th century with the
linkage of certain stores and factories to particular products
through print advertising. In this article, we define branding as a
programmatic approach to the selling of a product, service, organi-
zation, cause, or person that is fashioned as a proactive response to
the emerging desires of a target audience or market (see Cheney &
Christensen, 2001). In personal branding, the concepts of product
development and promotion are used to market persons for entry
into or transition within the labor market.
These concepts cover a variety of personal branding practices
ranging from concrete branding products such as the personal
advertisement brochures (which resemble, in many respects, the
slick promotional materials sent by colleges and universities to pro-
spective students) offered by Peter Montoya (n.d.) to the more
expansive packaging of a total identity such as Genece Hamby’s
“Personal Branding D.N.A.,” which asks individuals to project
concise and coherent identities based on the questions, “What is
unique about you and distinguishable?”; “What is remarkable and
notable about you?” and “What is genuinely real and authentic
about you?” (Hamby, n.d.).2Although the use of such strategies for
self-promotion in the business world is certainly nothing new, per-
sonal branding as a movement broadens their impact by turning
branding from a simple business tactic into an ideological under-
standing of the corporate world capable of an embracing influence
over workers’ very sense of self.
As a trend in popular management and employment consul-
tation, personal branding appears to be enjoying a surge in popu-
larity. A keyword search for the term personal branding yields
books, magazines, web sites, training programs, personal coaches,
and specialized literature about how exactly to brand yourself for
success in the business world. At face value, these various re-
sources promise their consumers an appealing, proven strategy to
negotiate the chaotic employment environment around them. How-
ever, because personal branding offers such a startlingly overt invi-
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tation to self-commodification, the phenomenon invites deeper
This essay offers such a critical-empirical interrogation of the
personal branding movement centered around four questions: (a)
How has the personal branding movement positioned itself as a
sociocultural institution? (b) What are the principal rhetorical strat-
egies and appeals of the personal branding movement? (c) What are
the cultural biases and constraints of personal branding, particu-
larly regarding gender, race, class, and age—both for the individual
self and for the larger society? and (d) What are the ethical implica-
tions and limitations of personal branding? Addressing these
questions is the primary purpose of this essay.
In answering the four questions above, we consider both the ex-
pressed motives for the personal branding movement as well as its
implications. Our analysis in this essay is centered on the discourse
of the personal branding movement: We make no claims regarding
the measurable effects of this discourse or as to howsuch discourse
is taken up by its audiences. Instead, we are concerned here by the
potential identifications invited by personal branding discourse
and the limitations of those identifications should they be adopted
by audiences uncritically. We start by examining parallel develop-
ments in contemporary communication and employment climates
and exploring how personal branding arises as a rhetorically fitting
response. We then trace the contours of the personal branding
movement and emphasize the rhetorical tactics with which it re-
sponds to increasingly complex communication and employment
environments. Next, we examine personal branding with a critical
eye to both its effects on individuals and the power relations it
instantiates on the basis of social categories such as gender, age,
race, and class. Finally, we conclude by reflecting on the broader
ethical implications of personal branding as a communication strat-
egy. In doing so, we suggest that personal branding is more than a
simple and necessary strategy for individuals to negotiate a turbu-
lent economic environment; it also carries with it long-range and
potentially damaging implications, unanticipated and unacknowl-
edged by its proponents and practitioners, as it promotes a vision of
the working self that is superficial at best, devoid of opportunities
for self-reflection and improvement.
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Personal branding emerged as a movement in the late 1990s at a
time when observers of both the corporate communication and
employment worlds were making similar but largely independent
observations about the increasingly complex and chaotic nature of
each environment. Personal branding, however, connected these
developments in practice where they had not been in theory by
positioning itself as a communicative response to an economic situ-
ation and allowing its practitioners to stand out both as communi-
cators and (prospective) employees. In this section, then, we trace
the parallel developments of the contemporary communication and
employment environments to illustrate the unique position of per-
sonal branding as a sociocultural institution to respond simulta-
neously to both of these trends.
The organizational environment of the late 20th and early 21st
century is marked by turbulence spurred by economic globaliza-
tion, new arenas of competition, and rapidly evolving information
technologies (March, 1995). As Cheney, Christensen, Conrad,
and Lair (2004) observed, that turbulence is often framed in explic-
itly communicative terms. The common narrative is that an ever-
increasing number of messages in the corporate communication
climate demands increasingly innovative communication strate-
gies for organizations to stand out (cf. Blythe, 2000; Ries & Trout,
1981; Schultz, Tannebaum, & Lauterborn, 1994). Paradoxically,
communication emerges as both the cause of and the solution to the
crowded corporate communication environment. The history of
branding as a corporate communication strategy is but a microcosm
of this overall development.
Although the metaphor of branding derives from the designated
ownership of livestock, in the world of corporate communications,
it represents an attempt to make direct, clear, and persistent bonds
between symbols and products or services. As a communication
strategy, branding is most traditionally associated with consumer
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products. The idea of a consumer brand emerged in the late 19th
century, and consumer branding—the association of consumer
products with a readily identifiable brand name—enjoyed its hey-
day from approximately 1920 to 1970. Here, advertising focused
on mundane, primarily household-related, consumer products tar-
geted especially at housewives (Olins, 2000). Brand products were
marketed as unique goods able to provide unique advantages to
consumers; it was the brand name that distinguished a product—
for example, Spic’N’Span—from other household cleaners.
The 1970s and 1980s, however, saw increased competition in an
expanding market, both for consumer products themselves and the
media through which they were marketed. The advent of cable tele-
vision in particular posed new challenges as well as opportunities
for branding as a communication strategy, because television now
addressed broader audience groups (e.g., CNN’s global audience
by the 1990s) and audiences organized around more specific inter-
ests (e.g., Lifetime, Animal Planet, and Outdoor Life networks).
The result of this simultaneous expansion and fragmenting of audi-
ences was the elevation of branding’s importance as a communi-
cation strategy in navigating a crowded market. As Christensen and
Cheney (2000) observed, “The market of today seems to be de-
manding well-crafted identities, identities that are able to stand out
and break through the clutter” (p. 246). Because branding is so well
suited to present images as identity, branding as a strategy has be-
come increasingly important as a flexible response to a crowded
communication world.
This flexibility has driven the evolution of branding as a commu-
nication strategy in several important ways. According to Olins
(2000), consumer brands are no longer primarily associated with
products; now brands represent services, too. In fact, service
brands appear to be more innovative than many product brands and
are becoming increasingly dominant. Consider, for example, the
widening array of personalized services—including even personal
shoppers—who bill themselves as able to handle the personal de-
mands of an affluent but extemely busy client. Olins also observed
that brands are now promoted in increasingly varied and complex
ways. Although conventional advertising through paid media
maintains a strong strategic presence, multimedia promotion
involving e-commerce is becoming more and more common and
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promises in some cases to become the lead medium of branding. In
some instances, the preparation of the market before the product
arrives effectively creates a consumer frenzy for the label/com-
modity, as was the case in mid-2004 with the anticipation of the last
episode of the popular TV program Friends. Finally, economic and
cultural forms of globalization have led to the growth of major
worldwide brands, an overall decline in the numberof brands, and a
growing flexibility in the use of brands.
In addition to consumer branding, types of branding include
retail brands, product brands, corporate brands (Olins, 2000), and,
we would add, personal brands. With retail brands, retail corpora-
tions have begun to cash in on their brand name by selling products
that go far beyond what they are traditionally known for. Thus,
Costco and Safeway sell gasoline, Super Wal-Mart sells tires and
lettuce under the same roof, and AT&T sells Internet access and
cable television. As corporations diversify their product lines, they
must deliberately create differences between their own internal
brands to project product brands. So, for example, Toyota markets
its non-Toyota-identified Lexus brand to consumers in markets
similar to other high-end Toyota models. Corporate brands repre-
sent the growing efforts of corporations at branding themselves
somewhat independently of their product lines. Nike is perhaps the
example par excellence of a corporate brand, offering advertise-
ments that promote only the corporate name and logo with no asso-
ciation to a specific product. In branding themselves, corporations
seek to (a) project an image of unity to various stakeholders and (b)
unify multiple brands under one umbrella brand.
The phenomenon of personal brands represents the logical ex-
tension of these previous brand forms. Increasingly, celebrities are
cashing in on name recognition to brand themselves: In the late
1990s, David Bowie’s initial public offering in “Bowie Bonds”
raised $55 million, and James Brown sold $30 million worth of
stock in his future earnings (Peters, 1999). In fact, celebrities such
as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Madonna serve as the pri-
mary examples held up by Peters (1999), Montoya (n.d.), and other
consultants to demonstrate the efficacy of personal branding. As
these celebrity examples are offered as lessons to the lives of or-
dinary professionals, they speak to a long history of professional
packaging movements: Carnegie’s (1936/1982) How to Win
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Friends and Influence People, first published in 1937; the 1970s
“Dress for Success” movement; and Games Mother Never Taught
You (Harragan, 1977), to name a few that promise to give individu-
als control over their own economic destiny by shaping the package
they present to others.
The marketing culture has matured at the same time that the
communication explosion (or implosion) has begun to encounter
its own logical limits (Baudrillard, 1988; Belch & Belch, 1998;
Cheney & Christensen, 2001; Ewen, 1988; Fill, 1999; Laufer &
Paradeise, 1990). That is to say, the society of symbols has become
so cluttered and the juxtapositioning of different signs so rampant
that the sheer cry for attention (see Davenport & Beck, 2001)
becomes the a priori aim of any media, advertising, or public rela-
tions campaign. In a symbolic environment where arguments are
made through apparently novel linkages between symbols, ethos is
recast in transitory terms (Cheney, 2004). For what is credible,
really, is what is appealing at a particular moment: The standing of
a product, brand, or political candidate, no matter how much it rests
on tradition, can be undermined at any time if the new alignment of
symbols (style, spectacle, scandal, whatever) is no longer in its
favor (Baudrillard, 2000).
Branding itself may be seen within this broader communicative
and cultural context. The progress from consumer branding to
company branding to the branding of a person and a career is hardly
surprising when we consider the push for consolidating the brand-
ing movement via an ideology of individual efficacy, identity, and
control. In a way, this development represents the ultimate mar-
riage of marketing culture with the mythos of the American indi-
vidual: In a world of change and opportunity, you can create and
recreate yourself so as to be the master of your own destiny. In addi-
tion, personal branding carries the elevation of image over sub-
stance one step further: The world of appearance is not only articu-
lated and accepted, it is valorized and held up as the only reasonable
way to negotiate the contemporary world of work and professions.
In short, the personal branding movement positions workers as
irrational when they attempt to preserve and promote what they
experience as their true or authentic selves. Personal branding,
then, promotes a hyper-individuality based on a lack of deeper
identity and self-awareness.
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The major economic shifts in the industrial world since the mid-
1980s have been well documented (V. Smith, 1997, 2001). Signifi-
cant trends include the widespread privatization of public services,
corporate mergers and consolidation of industries, technological
replacement of many jobs, elimination of middle management in
many firms, reduced labor costs through industrial relocation, dis-
aggregation (or molecularization) of the organizational value chain
(Tapscott, 1997), outsourcing of non-core functions, and team-
based restructuring with a new emphasis on individual entrepre-
neurship. In some nations, notably the United States, there has also
been a widening gap between the rich and the poor, an increase in
the number of persons working two or three jobs, and a dramatic
increase in the length of the work week (Schor, 1992, 2003). The
transition from an industrial to an information-based economy has
unquestionably produced dramatic upheavals in the social organi-
zation of work (Casey, 1995; Castells, 2000; V. Smith, 2001).
Work in the industrial economy was, in certain ways, far more
stable; jobs were comparatively secure (i.e., for those who had
them), retirement benefits were more reliably and readily available,
and workers stayed with jobs and companies for extended periods
of time. The twilight years of the 20th century, however, saw a
transformation of these employment conditions (see Ackerman,
Goodwin, Dougherty, & Gallagher, 1998). Work became much less
stable as companies such as IBM—famous for their promise of life-
long employment—began to lay off large numbers of workers for
the first time in their history (see Sennett, 1998); benefits packages
shrunk; available jobs were increasingly located in low-paying,
part-time service sectors (Noyelle, 1990); and temporary and con-
tract labor became increasingly prominent (V. Smith, 2001). In
fact, temporary workers make up the fastest growing segment of the
American workforce with Manpower one of the United States’s
largest employers (Zorn, Christensen, & Cheney, 1999). Contin-
gent employment includes part-time, seasonal, episodic, contract-
based, and so-called temp work and is characterized by (a) dimin-
ished or absent job security, (b) comparatively lower pay, (c)
reduced or absent benefits, (d) lower status, and (e) minimal per-
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sonal identification with the organization (Gossett, 2003). These
disruptions leave workers working longer hours to make ends
meet and worrying about the erosion of benefits (Sennett, 1998;
V. Smith, 2001).
In the era of the information economy, not only do workers con-
front the traditional specter of unemployment, they also must navi-
gate the increasing uncertainties of contemporary employment.
Management fads such as downsizing, reengineering, and change
for change’s sake (e.g., see Hammer & Champy, 1993) have in cer-
tain ways ruptured the traditional relationship between corporate
financial success and job security for many employees. Taken
together, these trends create an employment environment that par-
allels the complexity of the contemporary corporate communica-
tion climate and, like that climate, places a high emphasis on stand-
ing out entrepreneurially as a prerequisite for success.
Unlike corporate efforts to stand out in the communication envi-
ronment, however, standing out in the contemporary employment
climate is an almost entirely individual affair. Casey (1995) argued
that such structural dislocations, coupled with the increasingly spe-
cialized organization of work in the informational economy, have
led to the erosion of traditional social identifications along lines
such as class. The effect of this individualization of workers is the
privileging of worker agency (V. Smith, 2001). Workers are en-
couraged to view themselves as entrepreneurs within corporate em-
ployment or while seeking corporate employment. Accordingly,
workers often view themselves as responsible for job loss or job
dissatisfaction, even when they know that larger social forces are
primarily responsible for casting their lot (cf. Sennett, 1998). This
tension is problematic for workers, for even though work becomes
increasingly decentered and unstable, work remains a primary
source of individual identity (Casey, 1995).
The notion of a career is not new. It was well established by the
time Weber (1978) was observing the careers of public servants at
the turn of the 20th century. For him, the idea of a career, especially
in a public-sector organization, involved commitment to the value
of fairness, grounding in technical expertise, and aspirations
toward the public good. In this way, Weber did not fear but, rather,
trusted the dedicated and experienced bureaucrat. It was in the
temptation to elevate formal over substantive rationality in the per-
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formance of a job in any sector that vexed Weber. That is to say, he
wanted bureaucracies to somehow avoid what he saw as an almost
inevitable turn toward the calculation of narrow means rather than
maintaining a fix on important ends (such as the public good or the
manufacture of an excellent product). For Weber, as for Durkheim
(1964, 1996) and other observers of what we now consider to be
modern industrial society, the notion of a career is distinctly social
and not something held or pursued only by individuals. Weber’s
career person may have become narrowly preoccupied, but she was
not self-centered.3
In scholarly as well as popular writings on the career, the con-
cept has become noticeably desocialized. In fact, it can be argued
that career is seldom associated today with anything other than
individual choice, pursuit, and possession, even though any indi-
vidual’s career may certainly have a social or societal orientation.
In the United States especially, but also in a number of other West-
ern industrialized nations, the career is a more vaunted idea than
“just a job”; it is also an increasingly portable holding by a per-
son—an intangible marker of identity that individuals may carry
from job to job, from organization to organization. For the individ-
ual career person, the career is something serious and suggestive of
identity (Clair, 1996). Finally, the prevailing root metaphor for
career in the United States is undoubtedly linear, as crystallized in
the term the career ladder (Buzzanell & Goldzwig, 1991). So pow-
erful is this root metaphor—often made explicit in everyday dis-
course—that flat careers, career cycles, or dual ladders are often
inconceivable, thereby leading people to question as unorthodox or
simply crazy decisions not to accept promotions, transfers, and
other options for advancement. Thus, although the career is de
facto commodified as something the individual carries with him
from organization to organization and city to city, its interpretation
is shaped by powerful social norms and pressures. In the era of late
industrial capitalism, those very norms and pressures have become
increasingly unstable.
Within this arena of trends, entrepreneurship (du Gay, 1996)
became a buzzword in the late 1980s; today it continues to serve as
a center of mythic energy. Originally used to refer to small enter-
prises launched by creative and resourceful individuals, entrepre-
neurship gradually came to symbolize the aggressive and dedicated
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performance of employees of established firms as well as capturing
an approach to specific projects. As du Gay (1996) explained, we
have reimagined our lives as an enterprise with the individual
responsible for managing that enterprise and the language of entre-
preneurship (rather than bureaucratic management) being central
to how that enterprise is conceptualized and managed.
The personal branding movement to some extent relies upon the
image of an independent, resourceful, creative, and aggressive pro-
fessional. This person is expected to be agile in a fluctuating job
market, responsive to any opportunities, self-motivating, and self-
promoting. As we will see in our analysis of books, web sites, and
seminars related to personal branding, the movement treats society
and work chiefly at the individual level. This cosmology (if you
will) does not presume that everyone can be effective at personal
branding, but it does try to foster an implicit identification with a
fairly large segment of educated, experienced professionals who,
for one reason or another, are at a juncture in their career path.
Against this backdrop of destabilized work conditions, personal
branding emphasizes control over one’s work identity as the pri-
mary solution to structural uncertainties in the work economy. In
that regard, it will be important to observe the extent to which per-
sonal branding extends to a range of jobs not typically considered
professional but nevertheless subject to packaging.
The popularization of personal branding is generally attributed
to Peters’s (1997) article in Fast Company, entitled “The Brand
Called You” (cf. Diekmeyer, 1999), although Montoya (n.d.), the
other of personal branding’s two most prominent proponents, also
lays claim to pioneering the concept in 1997. In the years since the
idea of personal branding was first popularized, a virtual personal
branding industry has blossomed. At least 15 popular management
books were explicitly devoted to the topic from 1997 to 2004; many
more incorporate the issue as a part of a more general discussion of
branding in the contemporary marketplace (Tamsevicius, n.d.). A
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web search reveals dozens of web pages of consultants offering
or specializing in personal branding services. Montoya has even
issued Personal Branding, a quarterly magazine devoted to the
In this essay, we examine a representative sample of personal
branding texts from a variety of sources. Although our focus is on
the most prominent and widely referenced texts in personal brand-
ing discourse, we also analyze representations of personal brand-
ing on the web sites of prominent individual consultants. Thus, we
read a diverse collection of personal branding texts ranging from
popular books such as Peters’s (1999) The Brand You 50 and Robin
Fisher-Roffer’s (2000) Make a Name for Yourself to promotional lit-
erature for Peter Montoya, Inc., the most prominent personal
branding consultancy, to several web sites of other consultants
offering personal branding services. Our purpose in collecting
these texts is not to offer a comprehensive survey of personal
branding discourse but, rather, to offer a fair representation of the
various themes and issues presented in that discourse from a variety
of sources. (In fact, we did find the same relatively small set of
names of consultants and writers in this area to be recurring across
the variety of texts and artifacts we surveyed.) We feel that such an
approach is well suited to our analysis: the personal branding litera-
ture, regardless of its source, displays remarkably similar themes
across authors and contexts.
At its most general level, the rhetoric of personal branding
encourages and endorses the process of turning oneself into a
product—in effect, engaging in self-commodification. This call to
self-commodification is the common denominator across the per-
sonal branding literature. Peters (1999), for example, continually
exhorted employees to conceive of themselves as products:
I am as good as my last-next gig. (p. 5)
Survivors will “be” a product . . . and exhibit clear cut distinction
at . . . something. (p. 9)
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Everybody is a package. (“He’s a ball of fire.” “She’s a pistol.
“He’s the biggest bore I’ve ever met.”) The trick for Brand You
is making sure you control your package and the message it sends.
(p. 46)
Other consultants and personal branding advocates echo similar
calls. For example, William Arruda of Reach Communications
Consultancy argued, “Gone are the days where your value to your
company or clients is from your offerings alone. Today, people
want to buy brands–unique promises of value” (Arruda, 2002, p. 5).
Similarly, Jan Austin (n.d.) encouraged clients to view themselves
as products rather than people who actively sell products, observ-
ing, “Branding makes people, products and services ‘easy to buy’
because brands operate like magnets. Wouldn’t you rather be a
magnet that attracts business than someone who sells?” (¶ 5).
Arruda, Austin, Peters, and others all frame the idea of personal
branding in a fashion that at least implicitly recalls the unique sell-
ing proposition (Olins, 2000) of more traditional forms of branding
by encouraging individuals to discover and develop their unique
qualities as a product and use those qualities as selling points.
Although such statements treat the individual as unique, they do
so only on a superficial level. Peters presents Brand You as a veneer
of individuality standing in for the real thing. Phillipson (2002)
summed up this process:
Peters’ latest book [Brand You 50] is a blatant call to transform the
self into an instrumental object that is constituted and directed by
the market. It fundamentally eschews a self that longs for true rec-
ognition and acceptance. Instead, it places a premium on those of us
who can shift our needs and personae to accommodate the twists
and turns of today’s economy. (p. 99)
The model of power exhibited in personal branding discourse’s call
to self-commodification is a different brand of power than the overt
commodification-as-domination thesis offered by Marx (1867/
1967). Instead, discourses such as personal branding invite individ-
uals to consent to their own self-packaging all the while celebrating
their sense of personal efficacy. To the extent that this process and
the associated discourses rise up from and contribute to a larger cul-
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tural milieu, personal branding may be seen in terms of the two-
sided process of hegemony (Gramsci, 1971). Participants are not
cultural dupes, but neither are they as free as the rhetoric of the
genre in which they indulge would assume (cf. Mumby, 1997).
Employees are encouraged to buy into the personal branding
discourse with three strands of argument working together to create
a unified vision of personal branding as the perfect solution to a tur-
bulent economic environment. Peters (1999) captured these themes
in identifying the general ethos of personal branding:
The point of this book series:
Peters’s remarks exhibit the general tenor of the personal branding
discourse. Specifically, the themes sounded by Peters—and the
legions of other consultants advocating personal branding—meld
together a series of arguments about personal branding as inevita-
ble, as inextricably linked with the American mythos, and as posi-
tive or upbeat—a rejection of both cynicism and resignation. We
treat each of these themes briefly in turn.
Conveying inevitability. Peters (1999) and others argue that—
like it or not—personal branding represents the only way to survive
economic dislocations. The argument goes that, because the eco-
nomic environment is out of the control of the individual, the indi-
vidual must be ready to respond to that turbulence. Peters, for
instance, argued that “IT IS THE NEW MILLENIUM. YOU CAN-
NOT STAND ON A PAT HAND. PERIOD. . . . Unless you’ve got a
trust fund up your sleeve, this radical reinvention of yourself . . .
into Brand You ...isanecessity!” (p. 23). Similarly, personal brand
strategist and coach Catherine Kaputa (n.d.) claimed that “there is
no security in a job, any job, unless you add value to what the com-
pany does, or add value to what the customer gets for his money”
(¶ 22). For Kaputa and others, a personal brand is the method by
which one demonstrates their ability to add value to the company
thus providing oneself with at least some degree of security. Taking
control of your own success and security in a turbulent economy
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through the development of a personal brand becomes even more
urgent as personal branding becomes more popular. Reach Com-
munications Consultancy explicitly advances this argument on its
web site, arguing,
It is only a matter of time before your peers or competitors jump on
the “brandwagon.” So uncovering, building and nurturing your
brand now will ensure that you get out in front of the pack and expe-
rience professional success beyond your dreams. (1-2-3 Success!,
n.d., ¶ 4)
Thus, personal branding attempts to guarantee its success through a
cycle of inevitability: Economic turmoil is inevitable; personal
branding is the solution; others will brand themselves; therefore,
you must brand yourself to succeed. Consultant Jan Austin cap-
tures this personal branding imperative well on her web site with
the admonishment that “everyone must learn to use unconventional
methods in order to stand out and command the attention of one’s
audience. YOU MUST BE A BRAND!” (Austin, n.d., ¶ 1).
The root metaphor of much of this advice, as in most advertising
for technology, is that of a race that must be run. The fear is con-
stantly of falling behind or not being able to catch up.
The American mythos. The highly individualistic nature of per-
sonal branding resonates strongly with the by-your-own-bootstrap
mythos that has historically played a central role in American cul-
ture in general and American business culture in particular, as well
as with the neoliberal economic philosophy that has become so
prominent for many Western governments. In this manner, per-
sonal branding speaks into the long-standing presupposition—
perhaps most famously articulated in Horatio Alger’s (1990) 19th-
century novel, Ragged Dick—that a strong work ethic, centered on
individual initiative, is the key to realizing the American dream.
The personal branding literature consistently positions individuals
as responsible for charting their own futures. Kaputa (n.d.), for
example, played on the bootstrap theme by writing on her web site
that “self branders establish the greatest freedom, which is respon-
sibility. Self branders make their own luck [and] create their own
opportunities. Self-branders are always working for themselves,
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even when they are working for a boss” (¶ 24). Not only does
Kaputa draw on American notions of self-reliance, but she also
connects such self-reliance to the equally American celebration of
Such connections are common from personal branding consul-
tants; often, the turbulent economic environment is portrayed as a
uniquely exciting venue to exercise Americanism. Nowhere is this
connection more striking, however, than in Peters’s (1999) explicit
connection of personal branding to the American mythos:
America has always been the Self-Help Nation. Bootstrap Nation.
Pioneer Nation. In the early years of our democracy, everybody
provided for themselves and their families (and their neighbors in
times of need). Nobody expected to be taken care of. Self-reliance,
independence, and the freedom that goes with them were what we
stood for, what defined us. And then, about 150 years ago, when
Giant Corp. arrived on the scene (Giant Govt. came about 75 years
later), we started to lose “it.” Our Franklinian “it.” Our Emersonian
“it.” We succumbed—exactly the right word—to Babbitry. To Big.
Corp.-That-Will-Be-Mummy-and-Daddy-for-Life. (p. 14)
Here, Peters positions personal branding not only as a highly Amer-
ican phenomenon but also as one that restores traditional American
values lost in the era of Whyte’s (1956) Organization Man. Per-
sonal branding is desirable because it affords individuals a strategy
to negotiate a turbulent economy and it recaptures the ideals of self-
reliance and self-sufficiency embodied in American icons such as
Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horatio Alger.
Disidentifying with cynicism. Finally, the arguments for per-
sonal branding are unassailable within the walls of Brand You: to
attack the idea is to be cynical; and to be cynical is to throw your
hands up and take what the economy gives you. Peters (1997, 1999)
repeatedly railed against cynicism, often using Dilbert cartoons as
a target of his ire:
We want (desperately) an anti-Dilbert character. (I love Dilbert.
He’s right. He’s funny. But I hate the cynicism, except as a wake-up
call. It’s my life, and I’ll not spend it pushing paper in some crummy
cubicle. And you?) (1999, p. 39)
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Other consultants similarly frame personal branding as a positive,
solution-oriented effort. Kaputa (n.d.), for example, argued that
“acting like a self brand arises out of the decision that you want to
take control and that there is more to do. You want to be part of the
solution, not complaining about the problem” (¶ 23). Personal
branding advocates consistently stress a positive outlook consis-
tent with both the portrayal of economic turmoil as inevitable and
the call to American-style self-reliance: To give in to the turbulence
is to accept defeat; to lose faith in one’s ability to succeed is to give
up on the American dream. Cynicism, then, is not an option; it can
only prevent one from succeeding. Instead, personal branding
encourages individuals to embrace the challenge of the contempo-
rary economy by using personal branding as a strategy to succeed,
leaving the cynics behind to have their situations dictated to them
by the whims of the economy.
Taken together, each of these general appeals works to form an
interlocking series of arguments insulating personal branding from
criticism. Personal branding proponents demonstrate an awareness
of the potential criticisms of personal branding and attempt to dis-
miss them outright. For example, Peters (1999) wrote, “I don’t
know about you, but I don’t feel in the least bit offended, de-
meaned, or dehumanized by the thought of Brand You or Brand
Me. Or Me Inc., another of my favorites” (p. 26). Similarly,
Montoya (n.d.) argued, “A Personal Brand is not you; it’s the public
projection of your personality and abilities. That doesn’t mean you
are losing ‘you the person’; it does mean you are shaping the per-
ception people have of ‘you the person’” (¶ 1). Each of these
defenses of personal branding is in fact bolstered by the circularity
of the arguments above: Professionals should not feel guilty about
branding themselves, because branding is a necessary response to
inevitable economic turmoil and a very American response in
terms of the celebration of individual enterprise. And, after all, any
criticism of the strategy is just plain cynical. In effect, then, these
arguments work together to close in on the discursive space neces-
sary to resist the encroachment of branding discourse into deeper
issues of personal and professional identity. We would characterize
this argumentative containment as a prime example of what Deetz
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(1992) termed discursive closure, referring to the control of com-
munication where alternatives to the dominant position scarcely
have a chance to be heard.
Personal branding is by its very design reductionistic because of
its style of expression. Also, it diverts attention from what Weber
(1978) would have called more substantive aspects of individual
rationality and identity and toward superficial and technically exe-
cuted representations. Weber was certainly aware of the power of
representation in his interpretive sociology of organizations; in
fact, he accorded organizational images a certain reality when peo-
ple acted as if those images were important. On the other hand,
Weber was deeply concerned that modern rationality would play
out in such a way as to obscure penetrating questions about values,
identity, and decision making. This was a concern for organizations
as well as individuals. Although we are certainly not suggesting a
sharp line between substance and representation (see Burke, 1945/
1969), we do observe ways in which one’s identity (and role perfor-
mances) can be represented in more or less reductionistic ways.
Reduction, as Burke (1945/1969) observed, is a type of representa-
tion and, in his way of thinking, an expression of motives. But just
as the representation can stand for the thing represented, so can the
thing represented stand for the representation. So, the real ques-
tions become the following: What sort of symbolic equation are we
favoring by using personal brands? What does brand identification
highlight? Obscure or conceal? Ultimately, in this case, one can
choose (or not choose) to surrender identity projections to the fleet-
ing dictates of fashion.
With personal branding, the rhetorical adjustment of the self to
the whims of management and how-to trends becomes not only a
strategic activity one has to do but what one actively pursues as a
personal goal—at least if we take the web sites of personal brand-
ing consultants seriously. Personal branding offers itself as a pro-
active, personal option and in some ways, it is. But it also suffers
from the constraints of an overpackaged, time-bound genre of self-
expression that scarcely asks for much self-reflection. Indeed, per-
sonal branding leaves little room for audiences to experience au-
thentic selves (or in Burke’s, 1945/1969, terms, multiple “motives”).
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Once one steps outside of the circular arguments with which per-
sonal branding insulates itself from criticism, the unintended con-
sequences of the strategy become apparent. In addition to (or per-
haps because of) persuading employees to turn themselves into
saleable commodities, the personal branding discourse under-
scores several ongoing social pathologies including overwork and
the erosion of personal relationships.
Certainly, the by-your-own-bootstrap themes echoed by per-
sonal branding consultants call on individuals to stand out from
their competitors through hard work. Unfortunately, hard work is
often defined in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. Psychol-
ogist Phillipson, in her recent book Married to the Job (2002), drew
an explicit connection between the Peters’s (1999) ideological
stance toward work and the pathological role that work plays in the
lives of her patients. Phillipson offered a unique and compelling
argument that our obsession with work is due not only (or even pri-
marily) to our drive for consumption (cf. Schor, 1992) but, rather,
to the fact that work increasingly provides the emotional connec-
tions that we lack in our (post)modern lives. Framing work through
personal branding seems to strengthen the forces driving the dra-
matic increase in the American workweek at a time when some
other industrialized nations are decreasing their working hours.
Time spent is a zero-sum game. If we spend more time working,
we spend less elsewhere. Phillipson (2002) certainly saw this con-
nection in her patients. But personal branding’s effects on rela-
tionships threaten to be more direct by calling for the worker to
sacrifice family and relationships in the interests of developing and
maintaining Brand You. Peters (1999), for example, wrote,
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If Brand You is about your signature WOW Projects . . . and it is . . .
then you must somehow (consult the Time Management gurus)
weed out the 96(!) percent of distractions . . . and Work-the-Hell-
Out-of-Your-Signature-WOW Project (come Bloody Hell and
Bloody High Water). We all know folks who are going to . . . start a
business . . . write a book . . . learn to skydive a house
soon as they “find the time.BULLSHIT! When you CARE you
MAKE the time . . . and if that means saying “NO!” to your friends,
your spouse, your kids (hey, I never said there would be no sacri-
fices), well, there it is!
(When I’m at work on a book—i.e., now—I am unspeakably
rude to friends, family, colleagues. Sometimes correspondence
goes unanswered for a . . . year. And far too many Little League
games have been missed. And Mom has gone far too long without a
phone call. Etc. Fact is: I don’t know how else to do it?! And there
may well be no other way?) (p. 72)
Here, Peters calls for individuals to place their brands above their
relationships. Other consultants take the idea of branding even fur-
ther by arguing that personal branding as a strategy should be
imported into relationships to save them. Consultant Chuck Pettis
(n.d.), for example, relayed the narrative of one of his clients to
make this point: “Will theorized that ‘Branding works for our cli-
ents, why won’t it work for me and help me ‘sell’ my ‘product’(i.e.,
me) to my ‘customer’(i.e., my wife?)” (¶ 11). The discourse of per-
sonal branding, then, threatens to either lead people to ignore their
relationships or to commodify such relationships within the frame
of a market discourse.
Certainly, areas of personal life beyond time and relationships
are jeopardized by the incursion of branding discourse into issues
of personal identity. In this essay, however, we would like to focus
our attention on personal branding’s implications for broader so-
cial issues revolving around dimensions such as gender, race, age,
and class.
We will develop the gender-based analysis in some detail be-
cause of gender’s obvious presence in the texts under study. With
race, age, and class, we wish to make parallel observations in terms
of their potent absence from the discourses of personal branding.
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Personal branding has the potential to objectify all workers;
however, for women, the concept of personal branding may be even
more problematic than for their male counterparts. In particular,
personal branding promotes a feminine surface identity and a mas-
culine internal identity, all the while perpetuating the work/home
dualism. Personal branding encourages women to get ahead at
work, work as hard or harder than their male counterparts, and
reach for the top but also to look womanly, take care of their exter-
nal appearance, be there for their children and husbands (if a
woman has them—but recognize that if she does, she may not be
viewed as a 100% company woman), and routinely act in the care-
taker role at work.
Although women are urged to adopt the external appearance of
culturally defined femininity, the personal branding literature also
insists that women internally deny that same feminine identity.
Since the 1970s, books about organizations such as Games
Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women
(Harragan, 1977) and The New Executive Women: A Guide to Busi-
ness Success (Williams, 1977) have been telling women that to suc-
ceed in industry, they must diminish the feminine and embody the
masculine—but not on the outside, of course! The message is that
femininity is deficient when it comes to organizational success and
that, to succeed, women need to adopt particular strategies to deny
the feminine. Personal branding sends the same message but in a
much more covert manner. The danger for working women who
buy into personal branding lies in what personal branding rules out
while offering the appearance of empowerment.
An example of this can be seen in Fisher-Roffer’s (2000) Make a
Name for Yourself: 8 Steps Every Woman Needs to Create a Per-
sonal Brand Strategy for Success. Fisher-Roffer’s book, a promi-
nent text in the personal branding literature, explicitly takes the
personal branding concept into a gendered context thus affording
an excellent window into the gender-based implications of
personal branding discourse. Fisher-Roffer claimed she targets
women because “I haven’t found many [books] that resonate with a
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woman’s emotional experience in striving to get ahead in work”
(p. 8), going on to claim that:
Building a personal brand strategy allows us to wield our truest
selves. Instead of an assault on the marketplace, we come bearing
the gift of our own best qualities, packaged in a way to attract pre-
cisely the people who need us, and want us, and will appreciate us
the most. (Fisher-Roffer, 2000, p. 8)
Although at first glance such statements seem relatively innocuous,
a closer examination of the ways in which women are asked to
brand themselves proves to be problematic. Women fight against
the stereotype of being a sex object in the workplace (Wood, 2001).
Fisher-Roffer did not say that women should attempt to be sex
objects, but her book does contain an entire chapter on how to pack-
age your brand, complete with hair, make-up, nail color, and cloth-
ing tips. Fisher-Roffer also makes more difficult the very real work-
home dualism that many women face (Hochschild, 1989). Personal
branding exacerbates the problem by simultaneously telling
women that they need to act like a brand, be indispensable to their
organization, handle every situation, network with the higher ups,
and at the same time “be the good girl scout” and have a backup
plan for their children’s crises (Fisher-Roffer, 2000, p. 101).
Fisher-Roffer (2000) is just one example of how personal brand-
ing strategists target working women to make them feel as though
they have no other option to get ahead than to brand themselves.
Hamby (n.d.) explicitly targeted women by equating personal
branding to a marriage. She claimed that you have to treat your
brand like a marriage giving it your “unique strengths, values and
talents.” If you don’t give your brand everything you’ve got, that
you will inevitably go through a “brand divorce.” Brand divorce,
Hamby argued, occurs when women do not give their all to their
personal brand and do not accept that fact that “the reality is that we
are each responsible for our own business succeeding or not” (n.d.,
¶ 7). Hamby places the burden of success squarely on the shoulders
of women and tells them that failure is because of their own flaws
and mistakes. Similarly, personal branding strategist and coach
Kaputa (n.d.) offers a specialized seminar on personal branding for
women. Kaputa claims that in this seminar, women will learn to
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“break through the glass ceiling through effective self branding.
Women will learn to look at themselves as a marketer would look at
a product that she wants to make a winning brand” (n.d., ¶ 1). Once
again, women are asked to perceive themselves as products, and to
do it willingly and happily, in order to get ahead.
The discourse of personal branding, then, carries with it particu-
larly troublesome gender implications by simultaneously suggest-
ing women feel as though they need to brand themselves to get
ahead while at the same time making them feel individually respon-
sible for failure, thus effectively placing women in a discursive
double bind. Brands connote consistency of roles, a promise of suc-
cess, and a standard mode of operation—a daunting task for any
human being to achieve. In their double role, working women with
families are at risk of suffering an even greater work-home tension
by committing themselves to becoming a brand.
Personal branding treats race, age, and class in a similar manner
by excluding them from conversations of who is allowed to succeed
through personal branding. An article found on
(Personal Branding Books, 2003), stated,
It’s not clear that everyone can or even should be branded, however.
Speak, for example, finds it easiest to teach personal branding tech-
niques to corporate employees; other consultants prefer to work
with self-employed entrepreneurs. Montoya, for his part, doubts
that everyone has the ability to do the soul searching required to
become a brand. Although he feels that the ability to look at oneself
honestly and openly is the most powerful and important skill in
becoming a good personal brand, he says, “Some people have it and
some people don’t. I’m not sure if it’s something that can be learned
or not.” (¶ 13)
We would agree that personal branding does not appear to be for
everyone, nor does it send the message that it is. Personal branding,
by the language it uses, the depictions of those who use personal
branding on promotional materials, and the implicit absence of any
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discussion of difference, tells us who can be a brand and who can-
not. The message of personal branding is problematic for workers
in general, but it poses additional problems for workers who fall
outside the realm of a White, middle-aged professional.
Age is one aspect that personal branding either ignores or views
as a downfall to personal branding. Bergstrom and Holmes (2003)
observed that the U.S. labor force will dramatically grey as the
number of workers aged 55 to 64 increases by 11.3 million by 2010.
The necessity and/or desire of many workers to remain in the work-
force longer is often met with resistance, as older workers continue
to face discrimination in the face of evidence that demonstrates that
they are equally competent on the job (Bergstrom & Holmes,
2003). When older workers apply for jobs, they may run into dis-
criminatory hiring practices; when struggling to stay in their cur-
rent jobs, they may run into obstacles as well.
Personal branding, for the most part, rarely mentions the unique
difficulties faced by the older working population; however, one
example stands out. Kaputa (n.d.), a self-described company and
personal branding strategy coach, has developed a personal brand-
ing seminar specifically for the 50+ market. In this seminar, Kaputa
explains why the self-brand concept is crucial for people older than
50. Personal branding asks older workers to turn themselves into
products to secure or maintain employment. Older workers are told
to “reinvent themselves” for the “second act” when they should be
experts in the “first act” (Kaputa, n.d.). From the perspective of per-
sonal branding, then, the experience and expertise that come from
years of work are beneficial only to the extent that they can be
branded as a marketable commodity.
Although age has at least one mention in the current personal
branding literature, race does not. We have not found discussions of
race, whether in books, on the Internet, in articles, or in marketing
materials such as newsletters and brochures. A thorough examina-
tion of personal branding web sites and promotional materials
revealed only two web sites that had pictures of people whose race
was other than White; in all of the pictures, older workers and non-
white-collar-looking workers were absent. In short, the literature of
personal branding is overwhelmingly silent on the issue of race.
The only non-White personal branding consultant we found was
Stedman Graham, author of the personal branding book, Build
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Your Own Life Brand (2001). Graham is probably best known for
his long-time association with Oprah Winfrey and Graham fre-
quently mentions Oprah as a model in his prescription for personal
The racial blindness of personal branding speaks to the larger
racial blindness apparent in organizational studies within the
United States. Cheney and Ashcraft (2003) claimed that “organiza-
tional communication scholars have said much lessabout the racial
dimensions of work than they have about gender dynamics” and
urged “sustained attention to the racial division of labor, for we
observe that the images of many professionals are coded for White-
ness, even when the intention to do so is below the surfaceof aware-
ness” (p. 16). Personal branding appears to support the status quo
image or brand, if you will, of the professional as largely White.
Ashcraft and Allen (2003) have argued that if a person of color is
admitted into the organization, they are expected to conform to
the general practice of Whiteness to be viewed as a professional,
whereas the white-collar worker is never asked to perform anything
other than simply being White (i.e., culturally speaking). Personal
branding not only helps to fix the idea of the White professional but
also leaves little room for alternative identities.
As for issues of race, issues of class are largely ignored in the
personal branding literature. The personal branding literature ex-
hibits a marked absence of class awareness. Although this literature
is certainly addressed to a white-collar audience, Peters (1999)
framed that audience as “ninety-plus percent of us” (p. ix). Regard-
less of the accuracy of Peters’s “fact,” such a statement speaks vol-
umes about the presumed applicability of personal branding as an
employment strategy. This elitist perspective, with its implicit
assumption that everyone is climbing the ladder, is blind to the lim-
its on possibilities imposed by class positions. Consider, for exam-
ple, the class differences implicit between the types of jobs avail-
able to those in Peters’s Brand You world versus those jobs in the
condemned Dilbert world (see the appendix). The assumptions
behind these differences are predicated on a white-collar work
world, presenting options that may not be available in the work-
place for those whose jobs offer significantly less room for indi-
vidual initiative and freedom.
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The seemingly classless perspective advanced in personal
branding discourse, then, functions as a double-edged sword. On
one hand, it serves to recast the other side of the self-reliance-
equals-success mythology—in effect, blaming the poor for pov-
erty. By invoking the rags-to-riches Alger (1990) myth through its
emphasis on the individual’s ability to succeed if only they can find
the right way to promote themselves, personal branding discourse
leaves those who are economically marginalized as responsible for
their own lot. Their economic failures become simply a result of
their inability or unwillingness to package themselves correctly.
Missing from this perspective, however, is how service workers—
seemingly cast as white collar by Peters’s reckoning—are to de-
velop the skills and resources that they would need to market them-
selves; they certainly could not afford the $5,000 Fisher-Roffer
charges for an initial three-hour personal branding consultation
(Noxon, 2003).
The message is clear: If you’re working in a Dilbert (low-paying
service or technical) job, it is because you have not successfully
branded yourself; it is no fault of your employer or broader struc-
tures or policies. If you are an older worker who is struggling with
developing or keeping a career in the current employment climate,
it is because you have not found a way to brand yourself for the
“second act.” And if you are not White you will have trouble find-
ing a prefabricated seminar that seems to invite your ethnic identity.
We believe that by ignoring issues of race, personal branding func-
tions to keep the image of the White professional intact. The mes-
sage is clear in its absence: Race does not appear to be a brandable
The broad tendency of personal branding is to shield itself from
ethical scrutiny. This is in part because of the way it wraps itself in
an upbeat celebration of democratic choice and opportunity—per
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the ethos of marketing in general. As we will show, an ethically
conscious rhetorical critique of the personal branding movement
reveals the true limitations of the movement’s claims regarding per-
sonal agency and efficacy. At the same time, the movement dis-
plays rather narrow conceptions of gender, race, and class. Finally,
the movement can function to distort social relations through a fur-
ther commodification of intersubjectivity. To develop in more spe-
cific terms our ethical critique, we would like to consider these four
areas: the implied audience of personal branding, the implied indi-
vidual person, the distortion of social relations, and the diversion
from systemic analysis.
We are now in a good position to comment on the implied audi-
ence (cf. Black, 1970; Wander, 1984) of the personal branding
movement. We have already observed some of the gender-oriented,
race-based, and class-specific aspects of personal branding—at
least as the movement has been articulated by its key proponents.
We can now say that the primary audience—though not the exclu-
sive one—is a largely White, male, professional class of middle
managers and other dislocated professionals who are seeking a new
formula for success in a world seemingly turned upside down. To
the extent that other groups are addressed by personal branders,
they are either assumed to fit this dominant mold (i.e., by being
conspicuously absent from the discourse and imagery of the books,
web sites, and seminars) or they are implicitly instructed to resolve
individually any tensions that might be present between their cul-
tural norms for work and career and those of the packaged pro-
fessional. From the sources we have surveyed, we would say that
the personal branding movement makes a nod toward diversity in
the category of gender but that it in fact perpetuates stereotypes
of women and does not adequately deal with either the second shift
or the glass ceiling. Age is rarely mentioned; when it is, it is treated
as a problem that one must overcome by developing the perfect
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The personal branding movement, as revealed in the web sites,
books, and seminars treated here, draws heavily on an ethos of self-
reliance and atomized responsibility and on the mythos of the mar-
ket as a democratic domain of possibility. The position of the indi-
vidual within the discursive universe of personal branding is both
elevated and highly constrained. Although the individual is being
told that he or she is the center and urged to formulate and reformu-
late a distinctive identity, there is little talk of internal spiritual or
emotional growth and even less questioning of the system that
supposedly requires the branding of self and career. The personal
branding movement presents itself as the only reasonable alter-
native for individual success but does not engage the fact that the
range of options under discussion is remarkably narrow, especially
when seen in a wider historical and cultural context.
In his controversial book, The Corrosion of Character, Sennett
(1998) described well how the contingent work culture has not only
undermined bonds of loyalty between employer and employee but
also has fostered a kind of shallowness in human relations at work.
At the same time, organizations of all sorts are renewing their per-
suasive campaigns that portray their work environments as warm,
friendly, supportive, and attuned to the needs of individuals and
families. Put in neo-Kantian terms, the ethos of personal branding
offers little concern for others and no regard, in logical terms, for
the results of generalizing the very kinds of behavior and think-
ing that personal branding promotes. That is, a professional work
world where personal branding predominates would also be one
with few enduring bonds and little trust but a great deal of political
maneuvering, competition, and cynicism. Social values have little
depth beyond their packaging and promotion, and inhabitants of
this marketed world would not be expected to hold or demonstrate
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lasting social commitments. Players would be looking at them-
selves in the mirror as well as over the shoulders of others while
they strive tofashion and refashion themselveswithout concern for
values, deep satisfactions, or contributions to society.
Ultimately, personal branding suggests a highly individualized
professional world of activity and relationships within the parame-
ters of conformity and cynical game playing. In our survey of major
sources and resources for personal branding, we have found little to
suggest the importance of collaboration and even less to suggest
that people work together to change the rules of the game. In this
case, the lack of systemic reflection equates perfectly with a lack of
ethical self-examination. If a form of virtue ethics were employed
alongside the promotional discourse of personal branding, there
would be some hope for the noble professional. Instead, an exceed-
ingly narrow form of instrumentality underlies the main discourse
of personal branding, and it offers no encouragement to the indi-
vidual professional to reevaluate or apply values.
In sum, by capitalizing (pun intended) on a crisis image of
economic turbulence and individual disorientation, the personal
branding movement threatens to perpetuate individuals’ sense of
alienation. At the very least, we find nothing in the books, web
sites, or seminars to encourage individuals toward self or social
transformation. However, because our analysis here is focused on
the possibilities of subject positions invited by personal branding
discourse, it cannot speak to the ways in which that discourse is
actually taken up and used (or misused) by its ultimate consumers.
An interesting extension of this analysis of personal branding
would be to follow the path of other researchers (e.g., see Nadesan
& Trethewey, 2000) to explore the reactions of actual consumers of
personal branding and to see how they manage the tensions of iden-
tity presented in the discourse.
For the study of organizational communication and for organi-
zational studies in general, the case of personal branding offers an
important way of illuminating the contemporary relationships be-
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tween work and culture. In personal branding, we find yet another
application and extension of marketing’s concepts, in line with
U.S. individualism and as a response to the changing nature of the
labor market and professional life. Personal branding represents
yet another reason that we should question the container model of
organizations as a set of boundaries for our analyses (Carlone &
Taylor, 1998; Cheney & Christensen, 2001; R. Smith, 1997).
Although a certain kind of communication is offered by the per-
sonal branders as the solution to economic disadvantage and dislo-
cation, that communication itself may contribute to social alien-
ation as well as to a delay in the necessary structural changes of the
We are at risk in this essay for offering a one-sided critique of
personal branding. We have adopted a critical standpoint that pre-
sumes, to some extent, real, foundational depth to personal identity.
This position is tempered, however, by postmodern understandings
of the multiplicity of identity and rationality, the ongoing play of
symbols, and the folly of neatly elevating what we would deem to
be substance over what is apparent on the surface. Our commentary
is certainly not unidimensional in its attention to issues of gender,
race, and class, but we sometimes talk about personal branding as if
it had both a monolithic message and a univocal possibility for
expression. This is, of course, not necessarily the case. Diverse
studies of consumerism and marketization (broadly speaking)
reveal that even within genres of experience and communication as
seemingly constrained as personals ads (!), multiple avenues of use
and expression are possible and actual (Coupland, 1996). Just as
Gabriel and Lang (1995) have pointed out the doors to multiple
consumer identities, we wish to be open to meanings and practices
of personal branding still unforeseen. For example, how might
savvy, self-reflexive, or even cynical appropriations of personal
brands actually lead to a form of social transformation—on the
level of the individual, organizational, professional community, or
even beyond? So, what is your brand—er, stand?
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Employment in a Brand You World
Brand You World Employee World
Working on a memorable (WOW) project.
(If it’s not WOW . . . I’ll make it WOW
. . . or bust trying!)
Doing what’s assigned
Committed to my craft. Intend to be incred-
ibly good at s-o-m-e-t-h-i-n-g
Working assiduously on in-box
Chose this project because it will add to my
learning/because it will s-t-r-e-t-c-h me/
because it allows me to hang with cool
It’s what the boss told me to do.
(Give me a break.)
Don’t waste a single lunch . . . networking
is my mantra
Lunch is my business!
Understand that Projects-Are-ME. Period.
(This ain’t funny: I am my project
I show up. I don’t make waves.
Piss some people off. (Because of my
strong beliefs.)
Don’t rock the boat!
Would love to have been with Washington
at Valley Forge!
I’m almost vested. Don’t tread
on me!
It’s better to ask forgiveness after the fact
than permission before. (Always!)
Don’t expose your butt.
SOURCE: Peters (1999, pp. 6-7).
1. We shouldoffer several observationsabout terminology. First, we recognize
a cluster or constellation of interrelated terms, all dealing in this case with the
intersection of market forces and social affairs. Besides commodification, the key
terms in this group are marketization,commercialization, and McDonaldization
(Ritzer, 1993). We might well add objectification, although it is broader in scope,
simply because of the long tradition in social criticism for observing the treatment
of persons as objects in advertising and other institutions (Cheney & Carroll,
1997). Although we could easily devote an entire essay to defining these terms or,
more usefully, capturing the orbits of meaning surrounding them, here we would
simply observe, following Desmond (1995), that commodification refers broadly
to the substitution of an objective product or humanly defined part of the natural
world for an aspect of the social world. Following Marx (1867/1967), this means
that something’s fundamental “use values” become colonized by exchange and
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sign values, thus reducing the range of meaning (or even life force, if you will) of
the part of society in question. Although such issues are beyond the scope of this
essay, for now we wish to comment on the obvious commodifying and reduc-
tionistic aspects of branding a person while at the same time being open to the
ironic possibilities for creative uses of those meanings by the persons using them
or by others (as we address briefly at the end of the essay).
2. Perhaps somewhere in between Montoya’s (n.d.) product-centered and
Hamby’s (n.d.) identity-centered visions of personal branding is Peters’s (1999)
invitation for readers to write short “Yellow Pages” ads for themselves. Asanex
ample of such short, pithy self-descriptions, Peters cited Erik Hansen, whose per-
sonal Yellow Pages ad reads:
Funny, irreverent, cynical, optimistic, thrill-seeking Gemini thrives on working hard
with smart people. Former North Sea fisherman, steel sculptor, glass blower, explo-
sives man, world traveler has settled down ...tobecome an anal-compulsive-detail
oriented project manager/editor. Won’t work with whiners. Wonders why no one
seems to know how to load a dishwasher properly. Guiding Motto: from Henry
James: Be one on whom nothing is lost. Motto #2: Work hard. Play hard. Eat well.
Buy Art. Motto #3: If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing the write thing. (1999,
p. 36)
3. None of thisistosaythat the empirical, rather thanideal,persons occupying
the careers of late 19th- or early 20th-century Weberian-style bureaucracies were
not motivated by self-interest but, rather, to heighten the dangers lurking when
even the checks described by Weber (1978) are removed from worker’s career
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Daniel J. Lair is a doctoral student in communication at the University of
Utah. His research interests lie in organizational communication and rhet-
oric with a particular emphasis on issues of work and identity, work life,
and corporate discourse.
Katie Sullivan is a doctoral student in communication at the University of
Utah. Her research interests lie in organizational communication, gender,
sexuality, and conflict resolution.
George Cheney (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1985) is a professor in the De-
partment of Communication at the University of Utah. Also, he is an ad-
junct professor in the Department of Management Communication at the
University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. His research and teaching
interests include identity and power in organizations, employee participa-
tion, quality of work life, professional ethics, the marketization of society,
and globalization.
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... Khedler (2014) shows that individuals undertake personal branding by enhancing their human capital through investing time in continuous learning and social capital through increased visibility, giving them access to financial success and economic profitability. For individuals seeking employment,to those seeking advancement in their professional life (Gratschew, 2016), personal branding tactics facilitate entry, and movement within the job market (Lair, Sullivan, & Cheney, 2005) and in portfolio careers (Peters 1997). ...
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