The etymology of the verb “branding,” derived from the Old English noun brond, “fire, flame, destruction by fire; firebrand, piece of burning wood, torch,” can be traced back to around 1400, initially meaning “‘to impress or burn a mark upon with a hot iron, cauterize; stigmatize.’ Figuratively, often in a bad sense, ‘fix a character of infamy upon.’” Around the late-15th century, branding shifted to define “a means of marking ownership or quality of property.” In the 21st century, this verb is often used in conjunction with the adjective “personal,” together forming the phrase “personal branding.”
Though the phrase “personal branding” seems to permeate every aspect of the contemporary capitalist job market today, it was around 1997 when the phrase was thought to be first used; appearing in an essay by Tom Peters titled “The Brand Called You”. Peters essentially defines the term as a means of receiving attention, writing: “The same holds true for that other killer app of the Net — email. When everybody has email and anybody can send you email, how do you decide whose messages you’re going to read and respond to first — and whose you’re going to send to the trash unread? The answer: personal branding. The name of the email sender is every bit as important a brand — is a brand — as the name of the Web site you visit. It’s a promise of the value you’ll receive for the time you spend reading the message.” (Peters 1). In its first inception, personal brand was something like a strategy, a means of drawing clients and noteworthy peers in to one’s circle, a strategy linked to, yet still separate from the actual product or services being sold.
This sentiment is echoed in the words of Tyler Basu’s entry on thinkific.com, a website selling online courses in entrepreneurship. Basu writes: “As a freelancer or entrepreneur, you have competitors. As a personal brand, however, you don’t. When you build a personal brand, there is no real competition. Sure, there might be other people and companies selling similar products and services as you, but they are not you. In fact, there is no other person in the world that is exactly like you. As an individual, you are 100% unique.” (Basu 1). The definition, while at first glance a perhaps more up to date echoing of Peters’, encompasses more than the initial definition given in 1997. While Peters writes only of the name of someone sending an email, the “promise of the value” one will receive, the personal branding described by Basu speaks of a further-reaching brand, a brand that encompasses not only the name, but the human behind that name as well.
Jia Tolentino writes in her piece “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death,” of an ad campaign celebrating the “Doer,” an online marketplace’s term describing an ultra-self-reliant freelance worker. The ad campaign addresses the “Doer” directly, proclaiming “‘You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.’” (Tolentino 2). By framing this sort of extreme work ethic within the figure of an individual “Doer,” the ad campaign attributes said work ethic not just to the demands of the job or the job-market, but to the individual’s personal identity. In other words, from the years 1997 to 2018 the phrase personal brand changed definition, growing from describing the surface level, a strategy, to describing the identity of an individual.
An all-encompassing definition would not be complete without including the words of those more skeptical towards that which is being defined. Karen G. Schneider concludes her essay “Personal Branding for Librarians: Distinguishing Yourself from the Professional Herd” with these thoughts on the matter: “Personal branding is half crucial life skills and half Barnum & Bailey hucksterism. It’s valuable but hardly mandatory, and not a good fit for everyone. Regardless, because we are librarians—simultaneously preoccupied, perturbed, and fascinated by our own image—personal branding will endure.” (Schneider 37). While meant for librarians, the rest of the workforce can perhaps relate; while personal branding isn’t necessarily obligatory, by definition it encompasses the personal, one’s identity, an object one will always be curious about.