I do a lot of embarrassing things. Sometimes, when I feel like my life is falling apart, I procrastinate by messing around with my LinkedIn account. It fuels my fantasy that, some day, I’ll become a real person with a real job. A girl can dream.
Last Tuesday, I was engaging in this very activity when I noticed LinkedIn’s newly revamped profiles that incorporate bigger pictures, updated editing features and interactive “visual insights.” In a video interview with Computer World, Aaron Bronzan, a product manager at LinkedIn, explains that the profile redesign makes it “easier than ever to build and manage your professional brand.”
But what does that even mean? To a lot of people, branding is something marketing departments do to differentiate big, faceless businesses from competitors. It’s for selling products and making money. Or it’s something Wharton does to appear as though their community values learning. Have you seen that banner in Huntsman Hall that reads, “Knowledge is the muscle of business”? (You can’t see it, but I have my skeptical face on.)
The idea of branding ourselves seems, at times, cold and inhuman. As marketing professor Keith Niedermeier explained, “People have complex, nuanced views of themselves, and they don’t want to be pigeonholed or reduced to a tagline.” We see ourselves as unique individuals with wide-ranging skills, distinct qualities and intellectual interests. Condensing and repackaging those attributes into succinct, easily communicable messages can feel artificial and even dishonest.
It doesn’t help that the literature on personal branding is often fraught with pretentious business jargon. Even worse, much of the non-academic writing on the topic drips with what Neidermeier calls, “airport-book hokeyness.” After a quick perusal on Amazon, I found titles like “The 10Ks of Personal Branding: Create a Better You” and “Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future.” Ew.
Personal branding induces significant agita for people outside the marketing universe. In an age where there’s a wealth of information about us on Google, it makes sense to manage our reputations. But branding? Do we have to?
The reality is that branding is a game we’re all forced to play and there’s no way out. The earlier you start thinking about it, the better. Or as Wharton junior Elaine Huston put it, “People are going to put you in a box. You might as well pick the wrapping paper.”
You don’t have to attend a seminar or fill in a goofy workbook. And you definitely don’t need to follow the newest eight-fold path to become a malnourished reality-TV star slash purveyor of overpriced cocktails and perfume. All you need is a basic awareness of how your reputation is formed and why it matters.
Impressions are made in an instant — whether in person or online. That’s simply the way humans process information. Nobody can understand us with the degree of complexity with which we perceive ourselves. The best we can do is to try and manage those impressions by actively choosing the associations we want people to make when they think about us.
Look around. People who are good at managing impressions get what they want. The more effective your story is, the more it will stand out from others. This makes it easier for employers, graduate programs, customers or research funders to appreciate the contributions you can bring to their table.
Think about what makes you unique — why someone might want you as part of their organization and which words and images you want tied to your name. Cut the resume clutter, highlight your strengths and, while you’re at it, maybe stop tweeting pictures of your cat interspersed with misinformed political commentary.
Consider a Facebook cleanup. Unless, of course, part of your brand is “drunkest girl at the party.”
Who knows? It could work for you.
Still feel like you’re trapped between the pages of a bad self-help book?
Think of it the way Engineering and Wharton junior and president of the undergraduate marketing club Jason Rudin does. Personal branding, he explained, is simply a tool that “forces you to think critically about yourself” and “creates mutual understanding between people.”
So learning to build relationships and understand ourselves — that sounds an awful lot like the reason most of us came to Penn in the first place.
Lauren Agresti is a College senior from Fulton, Md. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @lagresti. “Piece of Mind” appears every Thursday.