Rob Walker | Essays

The Way We Live Now: Me, My Brand And I

About a year and a half ago, a colleague of mine whom I'll call Steve Theory walked into my office, shut the door behind him and asked my advice about some recent job offers. Without a hint of sarcasm, he explained, ''I just want to do what's best for the brand Steve Theory.''

I sort of nodded and tried to keep a straight face. ''The brand Steve Theory,'' I muttered, once he left. ''Who thinks about life in those terms? Sheesh.''

But in fact, Steve was right and I was wrong. Practically everybody seems to think of life in those terms these days, whether they state it so plainly or not. In the 1980's, Laurie Anderson had a funny line about how she figured out how to live life. Basically, she said, just look at what the government does and, you know, scale it down to size. That, of course, was back when people paid attention to the government. Now nobody cares about the government; we care about hot companies. And when we try to figure out how to advance our careers and live our lives, we figure out what hot companies do and scale it down to size. Ours is the age of personal hype.

There is something, I think, about the Internet — with its microtargeted discussion groups and virtual celebrities who are famous to 15 people — that ramps up the possibilities of personal hype. The padded resume is probably as old as the resume itself, but with one's own Web site, it is easy to showcase not just your padded resume but also complimentary blurbs from friends and colleagues, thoughtful sound bites, photographs of you with friends, etc. These little self-marketing monuments exist now by the thousands. Two years ago, it was rare for a serious author to have such a site, but now even New Yorker writers have them, successfully creating viral marketing campaigns that were not possible in, say, J.D. Salinger's time. Of course, the strategy isn't limited to published authors. I recently stumbled across a Web site that advised chat-room denizens on how to establish their personal on-screen brand. For starters: ''Develop a catch phrase.'' 

It is all part of the ''Brand Called You,'' a sort of life-as-company philosophy articulated by the management guru Tom Peters — and long since swallowed whole by the career-advice wing of the business press. Since the concept's debut, two big things have changed. First, the shrill self-promotion needed for a company to become ''hot'' has been ratcheted up to an astonishing degree. It is no longer enough for a company simply to go about the business of whatever its business might be. Companies market themselves not just to consumers but also to venture capitalists, to potential employees, to Wall Street analysts, to the trade press. An initial public offering is a branding event. The potential must, at all times, be astronomically fantastic. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted one unnamed analyst: ''Companies that tell the biggest stories can raise the most money and then can use that money to turn that story into reality.''

The second change, not surprisingly, is that ordinary people are more enthralled with companies than ever. And so, more recently, Peters has published a book called ''The Brand You 50: 50 Ways to Transform Yourself From an 'Employee' Into a Brand That Shouts Distinction, Commitment and Passion!'' The book is an extraordinary collection of screamed exhortations, with typography that Marshall McLuhan would find distracting and punctuation that would embarrass Tom Wolfe. ''Everybody is a package! . . . You have a personality. (Ask your close friends!) . . . Packaging is Expressed Personality.'' ''Work with what you've got! (Damn it!) (And make it special.) (Damn it!)'' ''Build a Web site that wows. (Period.)'' ''You are your own P.R. 'agency.''' 

You must, in other words, manage your career as though you are a growth stock. What is your potential? Is it limitless? Can you have a huge impact? Will you, in effect, change everything? If not, you are a stodgy Old Economy human being, and nobody wants to buy in. 

Self-marketing makes perfect sense in a world where — like corporations — we've learned to think in the short term. I have lost track of Steve Theory, but I have spoken to any number of young people working in, say, the high-tech tech field who view their careers in 18-month blocks: after that, a given job has done all it can for one's brand. Those who have been at it longer seek out arrangements with several employers, consulting here, working a project there, serving as part-time interim vice president of engineering someplace else -- resembling, in effect, little morphing conglomerates. Just as it is fashionable for a company to respond to change by constantly redefining its mission, these people are not so much building a resume as forever cranking out the next annual report. Even Bill Clinton's Letterman-esque video for the Washington press corps served mostly to rebrand him as America's entertaining first chum, a gambit all the more successful when compared with the lackluster marketing battle to succeed him.

Perhaps Tom Peters would conclude: Hey, that's O.K. We can all stand out! Obviously, that's not true — it is a familiar joke, like the universally above-average students of Lake Wobegon. But the easier it is for some of us to think this way, the sooner it will be necessary for all of us to. So I am working on my new personal home page. I hope it will have a huge impact. 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, May 14, 2000.  


Jobs | March 03