As an author on social media, a content creator, brand consultant, and a digital marketing specialist, I get asked the same question pretty frequently: “how do you brand yourself?” This broad, sweeping question usually has some other smaller questions nestled within, like “how exactly did you decide how to present yourself online”, “how do you stick to such a strong aesthetic sense across platforms”, or “how do I do what you do without feeling fake about it?”
I’ve condensed my varied responses down into one article based on my own experiences that I hope will help people integrate their own values and sense of self into a dynamic, authentic personal brand that others can connect to. This isn’t so much of a quick-and-dirty-social-media-hacks guide as it is a philosophy of personal branding in the internet age, and a discussion of my own strategy for content creation.
Let me start by saying that “personal brand” is a concept that is being pushed hard right now on people, even very young ones. We live in a society where its not only possible but encouraged to curate your online presence into a recognizable essence, often with the unspoken aim of getting people to like and trust you so that someday they can invest in you financially or pick you out of the crowd for a job or project. This is not an inherently bad thing, and can be very fun and useful if leveraged in a healthy way! But it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you need to brand yourself to exist and that you need to live up to the color-coded, curated, narratively unified version of yourself that exists online.
Before I continue I want to direct you to two amazing video essays about this issue, Lindsay Ellis’ essay on the way creators manufacture authenticity, and Natalie Wynn’s Ted Talk on how performing a hyper-stylized versions of different philosophical opinions on her Youtube channel have helped her protect herself from as much harm as possible. They’ve both been really helpful to me in A.) branding myself and B.) learning to see myself as separate from my “brand”. Let’s continue.
I am a creator in the age of the internet. To be specific, I am an author and a poet and occasionally a public theologian. For me, my ~aesthetic~ is yes, a way to express myself, but it’s also the way I let potential readers get to know me, my vibe, and my writing. All of this serves a purpose, so that when I announce I have a new book out, my audience already like and trust me enough to buy it, and they already have a sense, however nebulous, of what they’re getting into. I hope this doesn’t sound callous; I have a very meaningful intimate relationship with my readers that I see as having spiritual value, but I also know what I’m doing when I post selfies or chat posts that go with the witch-saint-loving aunt thing I have going on Twitter of Instagram. And I think that people who aren’t trying to connect the right people with what they have to sell, artistically or in terms of services or otherwise, have to worry about branding a lot less.
I’ve been maintaining a social media presence as a writer for almost ten years now, and my brand has become more streamlined as I have grown into myself as an adult woman. I love this woman and respect her enough to know that she may change tastes and change her voice as she ages, and that’s fine too, but one thing that I’ve been moving towards in my mid-twenties is having what I call a “partially opaque” brand.
A non-opaque brand is one of total messy off-the-cuff realness with almost no boundaries between creator and fan (Amanda Palmer does this well) and a totally opaque brand is put forward by a person who seems so unified, so separate, so enigmatic, that the lines between creator and fans are quite stark (think Donna Tartt). I used to have pretty much the same aesthetic that I have now but a brand that was almost entirely non-opaque; I posted my feelings and opinions on everything, talked openly about every single update to my religious, mental health, sex, and social life, and was 100% accessible at all times to readers. In an effort to protect my time, energy, privacy, and art as I’ve grown, I’ve learned to have more boundaries, but I still post selfies and life updates (generally with a bit of an ~aesthetic~ veneer but not always) and encourage people to ask me questions because being warm and accessible and loving is important to me. It is, additionally, part of my brand. 100% opacity is not right for me because I want to be able to show up at book cons and hug fans and answer life advice asks and be honest about things like burnout or spiritual doubt or personal branding (how’s that for meta). I think if you are a creator on the internet it is very important to decide from the get go how opaque you want your brand to be.
For me, adding more opacity helped me distinguish my own life and value from what people on the internet thought of my work or my opinions, and it helped me to stop giving an excess of energy to places where I wasn’t getting it back. Being a bit more of a mystery at times has opened up space in my life for leisure and getting back in touch with who I am when the lights go down and I am no longer on a virtual stage.
The Fragmented Self
No one out here, not even the most deliriously aesthetic dark academia blogger with a watertight color scheme, is just one thing. When we brand ourselves (and yes it can be an intimate act of connection and self-revelation when done right) we bring forward things about ourselves that are important to us and have narrative cohesion. When I do branding consultations for small businesses like Fratres Dei spiritual direction, we do long self-exploratory sessions to determine which facets to bring into the light. But all of us contain multitudes and oftetimes our lives don’t have the sense of narrative cohesion the internet thrives on. Sometimes we can leverage that (I learned early on that there was no hiding my love of traditional religion and of experimental esoterica, my heavily spiritual life and my wildly doubtful faith. They were already so present in my writing that I stopped trying to hide it and Lo and behold I found the right readers) and sometimes we can’t, and that’s okay.
I suggest locking on to the things about yourself that you feel are most essential and have the most vitality, and then putting them into conversation with each other and trying to find connections. If there are ones that don’t connect to the others, that’s lovely, that’s a holy thing, but it may not belong in your online personal branding. Maybe that’s a private thing for now to be enjoyed between you and loved ones, to germinate until it can find a place in your public life, or to stay blessedly secret.
My advice? Always leave a part of yourself at the end of the day for yourself. You don’t own this internet hellscape every ounce of you.
In summary, a successful brand is an authentic version of yourself, just a little bit more tailored, and part of that success is deciding up front how much of yourself you want to share with others.