The Limits of Personal Branding

From the Curator’s Desk

Greetings, friends:

I was in Eldoret this week, connecting with a wonderful group of creatives at Kikao 64. As Baraza, we’re looking to expand our activities from our base on Riverside Drive, and over the past few months we’ve been creating links and relationships with the media and creative communities in Kisumu, Malindi and now, Eldoret.

First, as an aside, and important to mention. Kikao 64 is a gorgeous co-working space; they have nailed the modern-industrial-millennial-chic aesthetic without overdoing it, which is truly a feat to be celebrated. At Baraza we pride ourselves in having a beautiful physical space, but honestly, if you’re ever in Eldoret, go to Kikao 64 and see how they have made use of simple materials – concrete floors, exposed brick, even mabati – and transformed it into a truly IG-worthy space, that is thoughtful and functional as well. Here are your flowers, Kikao 64! 💐

In the session, I was sharing my experiences in the twelve years (!) I’ve been a journalist, and one question I was asked by several of those who attended is how they can build their personal brand as writers and content creators. Now, I told them I’ve always resisted the language of “personal branding”. Something about that phrase doesn’t sit right with me – there is something quite brutal about reducing a human being to a brand, which by the dictionary’s definition is “a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name.”(!)

That framing obscures so many of the limits of our humanity – as a writer, for example, your work depends on your mind and your ideas. Scaling up your work has its clear limits – you can charge more per piece, but after a certain point you really can’t take on more projects. The reality is you are one person and a day only has 24 hours, despite what the LinkedIn influencers would have you think. You could train more writers to write like you, and have a ghostwriting or content writing farm, but this isn’t feasible unless you are churning out material that has a low mental investment.

Against those real limits, the framing of “personal branding” becomes difficult to sustain. Corporate brands are not people, they don’t have the same limits. Coca-Cola, for example, started out making cola-flavoured carbonated soft drinks, then branched out to create other sweet brands – Fanta, Sprite, our beloved Stoney, etc. Now, the company markets non-alcoholic beverages across the board, from juices, water, coffee and tea. The company can create diverse brands and be in multiple beverage markets at the same time. But as a human writer, you really can’t be in two places at the same time. There is always an opportunity cost to what we do that corporate brands don’t have to grapple with in the same way.

All this is to say, that as media folks and creatives we have to be a little kinder to ourselves, especially if you work as a freelancer or individual creator. You can, and should, purposefully do the work to be known for creating particular kinds of stories, or covering particular issues. But thinking of yourself as a personal brand will put the kind of pressure on yourself that is not grounded in reality, and that companies can solve by simply hiring a team, expanding the factory floor and buying bigger machines.

Viewing oneself as a brand implies a need to conform to a specific image or persona consistently. This could lead writers and creatives to feel limited in their creative expression and hinder their ability to explore different genres, styles, or topics that may not align with their perceived brand. It discourages experimentation and can stifle growth.

The concept of personal branding also often emphasizes self-promotion and self-marketing, which can detract from genuine human connection and engagement with readers and fellow creative people. We may become overly focused on metrics and analytics, losing sight of the joy of the work and the importance of meaningful connections.

Don’t get me wrong: secure the bag by all means. But like I told the folks at Kikao 64, remember, you’re not a brand, you are a human being.

In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re Reading: Why Were Two Female Running Champions Killed in Kenya? Published by the New Yorker, this is the sad story of the intersection of patriarchy, gender-based violence and athletics in Kenya. An excerpt: “Men identify a lady who can run, then do everything for her, expecting that, when the lady becomes a star, he will be the one controlling the money.”
  • What We’re Watching: Succession, which you can watch on Showmax. I’m bingeing all four seasons at a go, but I’m progressing slowly because I find myself reading reviews of each episode as I watch them. That’s my measure of how much I love a show, if I read episode reviews. 
  • What We’re Listening To: Boyz II Men’s entire catalogue. I obviously don’t need to say anything more here.

As always, 

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

Story Sosa | An Experiment in Live Storytelling

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Date: 22nd & 23rd July, 2023
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