Behind every influencer is a personal brand.
Consciously or not, these curated presentations of self provide the framework for content that catapults influencers into positions of popularity and influence.
Scholars of self-presentation theory have for years studied the ways we adapt presentations of ourselves for different audiences, both on and offline. Well before YouTube and #brandpartner campaigns, sociologist Erving Goffman conceptualized identity as performance. In his 1959 book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman uses the metaphor of theater to explain social interactions. On the frontstage, we know we have an audience and act accordingly. But backstage? When no audience is present, we tend to let our guard down.
Today’s most successful influencers are prized for their ability to navigate these two stages seamlessly. Most, in fact, are masters at inviting audience members backstage. The perceived intimacy of the setting usually reserved for family, friends and peers builds trust with the audience and, as a result, influence.
In an article analyzing the success of famous YouTuber and beauty guru Bubz of Bubzbeauty, Florencia Garcia-Rapp suggests that the question facing influencers is, “Are you authentic enough to deserve fame?” She describes the particular challenge of the YouTube beauty community, which seeks to reward authenticity despite the inherent visibility-seeking behavior of videotaping yourself applying mascara.
To earn not only the attention but affection of audiences, YouTubers must perform authenticity. In other words, successful influencers invite the audience backstage without making it appear to be part of the performance.
Where does that leave the rest of us? It’s rare to graduate college today without being told to curate a “personal brand.” It’s useful professional advice to clean up your social media presence or think about the presentation of your resume. But does that suffice? Articles warn that no one will work with you without a brand, and your personal brand is what gives you influence. It’s what makes you powerful, attractive and visible.
Where did this come from? The concept of the “personal brand” wasn’t popularized until the 1990s. Tom Peter’s classic article, The brand called you, shares tips to become the “CEO of Me Inc.” The more than 20-year-old article reads like an inspirational guide for today’s YouTube influencers:
The “important thing to remember about your personal visibility campaign is: it all matters. When you’re promoting brand You, everything you do — and everything you choose not to do — communicates the value and character of the brand.”
Peter’s take ultimately characterizes the packaging of self as more important than substance of self. By his view, those who hustle the hardest win. But in Garcia-Rapp’s analysis, the concept doesn’t hold true, at least not in the community she studied on YouTube. The pursuit of attention not backed by skill will be shunned by the community. She writes:
“The most important requirement to achieve legitimized fame seems to be expertise and talent, demonstrated by beauty related know-how during video tutorials. The implicit requirement of being an expert is – perhaps precisely due to its high relevance for instructional videos – tacit. It is as if it went ‘without saying’ that gurus need to be talented, creative and innovative to succeed, especially among such heavy competition. However, expertise still needs to be validated.”
Just ten years later, Fast Company, which published Peter’s original article, was rethinking the concept of “Me Inc.” It turns out everyday employees just didn’t care. Personal branding wasn’t for them. Those who did care about personal branding, the magazine asserted, were more likely to become part of a new class of wannabe “experts.” Only a few achieved real acclaim and success.
So it goes in today’s competitive influencer climates. Inspiring influencers who prioritize personal brand development over the development of skills, talent and contributions to the community will never succeed in growing large audiences. In Goffman’s metaphor, it’s the equivalent of advertising your play before learning to sing or act.
Andy Warhol’s 1968 prediction that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” is perhaps only overstated in its assertion of accessibility. Today’s influencers are leveraging powerful, constructed personal brands. The presentation may suggest that success is available to anyone, but fame, practically speaking, isn’t possible or desirable for everyone. Those who don’t actively seek to become influencers will find more success in the pursuit of being themselves than branding themselves. Influencers, in order to stay influencers, should do the same.
I’d love to know: Do you consider yourself to have a personal brand? Is it important to your everyday life and career, or a tool to becoming an influencer in your career or community?