Is Building A ‘Personal Brand’ Embarrassing?

For those of us in creative industries, is this the new resume?

08.30.16
Building-Your-Personal-Brand-Man-Repeller-Feature-3

I don’t know what it is about hashtags, but just one can send the most apathetic of Instagram scrollers into a tailspin of eye rolls. Subtext: She’s so clearly trying to get followers. I’ve cringed at their abundance underneath an outfit shot and wondered why it was at all necessary for a friend to put a hash before the word “latte.” (Are we actually unsure of what’s in that cup?) (What if it were a cappuccino?) But it’s not the hashtag itself that makes us scoff, is it? We scoff because the whole thing is a little bit embarrassing — and it’s embarrassing, I guess, because it seems self-promotional.

Except…isn’t building up your personal brand a smart thing?

Take Dria Murphy, for example. She has 24.2k Instagram followers and an endless stream of eye-pleasing photos. Think: bodies of water, flowers, sand, succulents, glasses of wine, dinners, the occasional fitness shot — and lattes. It appears to be the makings of a blogger on the rise, yet in no way is that the case. Not even as a hobby on the side. Instead, she’s the founder of Alise Collective, a branding and public relations company that she began in 2015.

Murphy began using Instagram for the same reasons most of us did: for fun. She was doing PR for Topshop at the time and saw how it was being used for campaigns and initiatives, how it could be used as a discovery platform and to connect new people, and how it could get the word out about something to a larger audience. So she started treating her own account as a guinea pig. “I wanted to see what was working,” she told me of her non-strategy strategy. “I came at it from a career standpoint. But also, I enjoyed it.”

Her goal was never — and still isn’t — to “become Instagram famous,” but was she mad at new followers? Of course not. For Murphy, the hashtags, accruing followers and getting likes were just part the Insta-package — might as well embrace it all. I compared it to attending a football game: Fair-weather or diehard fan, why not wear the team colors, drink beer from a plastic cup and embrace the silly paraphernalia?

“Exactly,” she said.

Now she uses her personal account to refine the strategy she suggests to her own clients — and potential new clients.

“It helps that they can see what you’ve done on a personal level because they relate it to what you can do for them. It expresses my aesthetic and personality, and it has created a layer of trust. I have people who email me and say, ‘What’s the best restaurant in X neighborhood to host something? Who should I talk to for Y?'”

Before Alise Collective, Murphy worked at a start up that disbanded her department and with it, her role. What I wanted to know was whether or not having this pre-existing personal brand — before she formally founded Alise Collective — helped her get her own company off the ground.

“I wouldn’t give my Instagram account all the credit,” she said, “but it definitely helped a lot. I’ve had clients find me through it. They liked what I was doing and wanted to know how I could apply it to their company.”

I also wondered whether or not anyone gave her shit for the hashtags and the sunsets. Not her followers, but friends or family.

“Definitely. There’s a lot of sarcastic ‘Are you gonna Instagram that?’-type questions from my brother,” Murphy said.

Natalie Zfat is a writer and social media entrepreneur. She has 19.3k Instagram followers. On her website it also says that she is a “hashtag creator extraordinaire.” She echoed Murphy’s sentiments about the benefits of building your own personal brand: that potential clients and/or employers have the opportunity to see what you’re all about.

When I brought up that it can be kind of “embarrassing” to build your brand — to hashtag and post about articles you’ve written, to self-promote in any way, she acknowledged my discomfort but believes personal branding to be just the opposite.

“We’re taught from an early age that it’s not natural to toot our own horns,” she explained. We’re taught that it’s not polite to focus too heavily on ourselves or speak to our strengths in a way that might be viewed as self-centered. But personal branding is not a bad thing. There’s a lot of value in it, especially if you’re an author or a blogger or an artist. You want to reach a wide audience to get your name out there. It’s very much about finding a delicate balance between sharing accomplishments and passions without seeming…”

“Annoying?” I interrupted her.

“There are always going to be people who aren’t in your fan club,” she said. (File that under things I know but never can seem to keep in my head.)

“The reality is that personal brands have the ability to be authentic and transparent and grow trust with followers in a way that corporations have a harder time doing,” Zfat continued. “There are companies who do a great job of building trust and producing authentic content, but it’s easier for consumers to relate to a personal brand because we care deeply about people. Their experiences are relevant to ours. It’s about that human-to-human connection.”

Max Stein, founder and managing director of Brigade (his Instagram account is private and his management company does not have its own Instagram despite representing creatives with sizable followings) reminded me that this idea of building a personal brand isn’t exactly new.

“Before social media, it was just called your reputation,” he said. “It was about making and managing good relationships.” Which is still true. Instagram definitely gives us a more public platform, but we’ve always needed connections, portfolios, resumes and good references to get our feet in various doors. He doesn’t discredit the value of a social media following, but even when advising his clients to post more frequently, he thinks of their numbers as an added bonus: “Followers shouldn’t have to justify years of experience,” said Stein, “but in this day and age, name recognition is an advantage.”

He also brought up an interesting point: “With social media, you can build a brand, or you can build fame. There’s a difference.”

Which is exactly the thing, I think, that causes people to roll their eyes at friends who hashtag keywords under selfies or second-guess posting their own noteworthy accomplishments: perception and assumptions. And as every therapist will tell you, you cannot control anyone’s but your own.

Danielle Prescod, BET’s lifestyle editor, has 21.6k followers on Instagram. She was a fashion assistant at a magazine when the app first became popular and downloaded it because, industry-wise, she thought it was important to have one. She saw it as a way to express her taste and style during a level in her career when she was expected to follow her boss’s protocol, not interject. It allowed her say, “This is who I am.”

As for me, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m wary to post anything that could even remotely come off as, well, anything. Whatever that means. I said as much and asked if she felt the same.

“Nope. Be proud of the work that you do, proud of who you are, and the work that you do as a person. It’s not bragging,” Prescod said.

Now that her following has grown (totally organically, she says — she has no strategy beyond posting selfies, tagging brands that she either buys or receives as a gifts without any sort of compensation, eliminating captions to avoid any misinterpretations, and using hashtags when events call for them), she keeps up her posts as a way to stay involved and relevant.

“If the past four years in this industry have taught us anything, it’s that these jobs are fragile,” said Prescod. “When I was in between jobs, my Instagram showed what I was up to — that I was freelancing. You could disappear if no one’s checking for you.”

And in that one statement — which, if you know her, you know that she’s at least half joking — Prescod confirmed the one unavoidable truth about building your personal brand: that the point of all of this is to be seen and heard. As for whether that’s good or bad, well, who cares? Personal branding is all in the eye of the beholder.

Feature collage by Emily Zirimis.

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  • *reads the phrase “tailspin of eye rolls” and raises hand*

    Building a personal brand in 2016 is important and generally worthwhile for anyone in a remotely creative role, but I think if you put too much effort into the “building” portion, it’s only a matter of time before your presence on the internet machine starts to feel inauthentic. Take the hashtag: I get the point of a thoughtfully used hashtag or two, I get that they build followers, but unless you’re a company, setting aside the vast majority of your caption for hashtags feels…cheap?

    (Sidenote: I do not have 20K instagram followers so…to each their own?)

    • Amelia Diamond

      Each person I spoke with used that word: authenticity. In general, as consumers, our gen doesn’t just *prefer* authenticity, we require it. We assume it’s there unless it’s GLARINGLY not. No one WANTS to come off as fake… Even if what someone is portraying is sort of…picture-perfect, the intention is often from a genuine place. I really want to share this with you; I truly thought this was beautiful; I definitely thought my outfit looked good today and needed you to know.

      It’s just also undeniable that the hashtag gets that authentic message out. One can still be real and want others to see their realness?

      I’m being a little idealistic here, and playing devil’s advocate, but…

      That said, you I hear ya. The hashtags *can* feel cheap. I think it depends on what you expect to see when you follow someone.

      • it’s funny how everybody talks about *authenticity* yet a lot if not all the most famous Instagram accounts display the EXACT. SAME. PICTURES/STYLE haha

        • Max

          Yes, but “authenticity” is not the exact same thing as “uniqueness”. I am not saying you are wrong here, but the words do not exactly mean the same thing.

          • I agree and typed a little fast (I meant it as a funny comment), though I still think that uniqueness and authenticy are tied to each other. Because the kind of Instagram accounts I’m talking about lack both. Or they lost their authenticity when they gradually became more similar to each other. As a photographer, I feel like it really is not easy to gain an audience on Instagram when you post creative and unique photographs vs cliché Instagram shots.

      • Totally hear you, and *totally* agree that the intention is often from a genuine place. But in the end it’s all about what people perceive, not the intention behind what a person puts out there. I think that’s what makes it such a sticky thing; there aren’t a list of cut and dry rules we can all follow to seem approachable and authentic on social media…everything we post def will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

        It all comes back to what Natalie said, that in terms of personal branding and social media, there are always going to be people who aren’t in your fan club. (Which I also can NEVER seem to keep in my head.)

        • Amelia Diamond

          “But in the end it’s all about what people perceive” – sigh, for sure, but yup! Fans and h8ers = welcome to the internet (or life??)

      • Jac Young

        “I really want to share this with you; I truly thought this was beautiful; I definitely thought my outfit looked good today and needed you to know.”

        Social media seems to be so intimate and yet so superficial at the same time. It gives me serious anxiety. I am not exaggerating. The quotes you have above are so helpful to me. I put so much thought into my posts and care about the aesthetic deeply, but I get derailed the moment someone I know says I am being showy or whatever. If I put more of my heart in the caption maybe I will own my posts more and not hit delete every time a family member makes fun of me for trying to create a brand. =( ALSO, when I grow some more balls and get back on Instagram my plan is to say NO to friends and family who I know will judge me and try to keep me down. It’s too bad I have to think that way though when I really am coming from a happy positive place.

        Thank you for those caption examples.

    • Totally agree. I might even sub the word cheap for desperate?

    • Caro A

      Right? I’m with you on the 20k followers, so to each their own. I have to constantly remind myself that everyone has a different motivation for the use of hashtags, for using instagram to build their brand/reputation. It makes me roll my eyes but I think that says more about me than about them. It does feel cheap when the creative types/style bloggers around me use them. And often they’re stuff is in the same vein or same stylized aesthetic as their next door neighbor, etc. So that makes me scratch my head. It seems like the people who have the feeds that make me say “Yeahh!!!!” are not using earnest hashtags. I don’t know, I like a dose of reality and I feel like hashtags like #capturethemoment etc. are just SO silly. Am I mean??? Too cool for school??? Am I just jealous I don’t have more followers? Do I want more followers?? Is that what a reputation is these days?

  • As long as the hashtags are relevant to the picture/account I really don’t see the problem? Majority of my caption is hashtags, if people wanted to read more of what I have to say they’d go to my blog. I still think instagram is for photos!

    I didn’t realise anyone had a problem with hashtags until now. Eye roll all you want, doesn’t affect us hashtaggers! 😉

    Amber Love Blog

    • Amelia Diamond

      totally – danielle prescod talked about that a bit – that instagram is for the photos. if you want to read something she’s written, you can visit her work online! i, personally, LOVE a great caption. sometimes i have the caption and then just WAIT to get the photo. it’s a personal thing!

      • Caro A

        I love a great caption! A little sarcasm, a little something that shows you’re inside the joke or at least you don’t take this stuff too seriously (although maybe I should, who I am, should I develop a brand, what am I doing???) I don’t know, I use insta as a SOCISL tool, to stay in touch with family, keep jokes running with my friends, to connect on a social level, not necessarily a professional level…because argh, I don’t know, I just feel like it’s such a silly, social thing that it’s hard for me to want to take is very seriously…but then I think, “well maybe that’s my brand: a lot humourous, honest, a tiny bit professional.” I don’t know! I’m young, here’s to ironic hashtags!!! (My friend @gnsorenson has the best hasgtags in the biz IMO)

  • What’s your motivation? This might be the key to understanding authenticity. I IG and blog about my (self-funded) experiences as a way to break down mental barriers women might have about stepping outside their comfort zones. Most of my fellow bloggers in Seattle do it as a way to ‘pay back’ the free shit they get. It appears fake because it is fake and followers can spot this malleable authenticity.

    • Amelia Diamond

      “What’s your motivation?” always a good thing to ask yourself, right? It re-sets the focus and intention and helps keep you on your path 4 sure

  • C

    I LOVE this article and so happy to know I am probably not the only one overthinking Instagram. This is a constant internal debate I have when I am posting to social media, particularly as I am currently on the job hunt. How do I find a balance between building a personal brand / not “annoying” my friends / not being cliche. I am not as concerned with growing a following as having a place future employers/clients can reference if they want to see what I am about. Recognizing that this is 100% champagne problems, it is definitely something that I *stress* about.

  • BK

    I would like to comment something savvy and insightful on this but I have no idea how to network/what networking is and get frightened when someone new follows me on Instagram, what with all the unspoken “follow back” implications (I never do), so I’m just going leave this post and get back into the bath

  • Jolie

    Such a good discussion topic and something I think about pretty often. I find it embarrassing to hashtag photos on Instagram, but I want to build my career in communications, marketing, social media, and PR, so I feel like I have to do it sometimes. Then I end up deleting the hashtags hours later when I feel ashamed.

    Also, like, have you guys noticed that every teenage girl has like 1000+ followers on Instagram?! All my younger cousins and their friends have huge followings, and they’re just regular high schoolers. Why is this a thing?

  • I am a blog writer, always looking for more work, and the whole brand unity is something I should be doing and always just beyond my level of self-interest. I like Max’s interpretation of it; it’s being consistent, in as professional a manner as my anarchic soul can muster. But no, I use Twitter for one thing, Instagram for another and Facebook to troll my meatspace college friends. I am very inconsistent across platforms.

    On the other hand, at work I am a member of a marketing team, and god help me, running someone else’s twit feed (because I am the dolt who noticed its impact on the website business one random day at work on Google Analytics). It does build a brand. It certainly generates sales. Which is job security.

    Once I got paid to write. Okay, pity party over.

  • Nicole E. Spears

    If you’re embarrassed about whatever you’re promoting, it’s probably not authentic. I respect people that are confident enough to pursue their influence. Taking pride in the things you work hard at–whether that’s sharing an article you landed, posting about a fitness goal you reached, or Instagramming the meal you made yourself (or paid $$$ for)–isn’t embarrassing at all. It’s bold and real and I love it.

    • I share the same thoughts. When you have authentic work and unique content it is hard to get embarrassed by this. Let’s keep it bold and real. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Chloe

    I find it embarrassing using loads of hashtags on Instagram, but since I started working in PR i learnt that cultivating your own personal brand is incredibly important. Now i just try use one or two hashtags (definitely not #tagforlikes) and just be me.

  • Wow! This was a very refreshing post to read about personal branding. As social media as evolved over the last 2-3 years, I’ve found myself getting lost with my personal brand and actually holding back from sharing. This perspective has inspired me to truly embrace who I am as a person as well as a professional, and bring that personal online.

  • bikegypsy

    The common (and extremely annoying) problem with personal branding is that there’s way too much branding and not enough personal. It’s all a muddy fuzzy blurry ocean of boring sameness…. Dull dull dull people trying to convince the rest of us that they’re interesting.