Dad likes to tell me stories about growing up on a farm.
I did not grow up on a farm. I grew up firmly in the suburbs, where the roads are paved, driving ages are enforced, and wearing cowboy boots to class is considered a fashion faux-pas. The farm stories to me feel like the distant memories of some other life in some other century… which, I suppose, they are.
Meanwhile, I am a bonafide coffee-cup-carrying, smart-phone-addicted millennial. I’m not concerned about whether or not the cows come home from feeding, I’m too busy wondering if I really need an active Snapchat, ten thousand Instagram followers, and a successful vlog channel if I’m ever going to get a decent writing job. And in typical millennial daughter fashion, I sometimes think that my dad’s “lessons from the farm” stories completely miss the point.
You see, to me, branding is the process by which I use social media and image-saturated content to create a marketable, commodifiable version of myself. An essential part of entering the workforce, so I’ve been told.
To my dad, branding is just the process of taking a hot iron poker in the shape of your family’s agreed upon design and scalding it into the rear of the cow. This way, when the cows wander, as they tend to do, other farmers would know who to return it to.
I’m always struck by the violence of Dad’s version of branding: the scarring permanence of it, the symbol, completely meaningless to the cow, only valuable in the agreements between farmers. I could never really figure out what was so wrong with using dog tags. Maybe buying dozens of cow-sized dog collars is less efficient.
The most successful brands, as everyone knows, are efficient- a perfect package of familiar sounds, sights, and stories that are used to represent something very simple. We all know them. So much so, that I wonder if I’m providing free advertising by reminding you of the swoop that tells you to “just do” something, or the mermaid that wants to sell you coffee.
But these aren’t the kind of brands that are dealt with on the farm. Those brands, these hot iron pokers, are much smaller, and much more tangible. They don’t get much thought or design input, but they carry a lot of personal pride. It’s one thing to distill a shoe or a car into a single, recognizable image, it’s another thing to represent a family and a home. Uncle Mulder branded his cows with a simple “3M,” and once done, it could never be undone. No pressure. Luckily, on the farm, if you do a good enough job keeping the cows nearby, no one will ever even notice your brand.
So many of my peers these days are trying to create their own personal brands, little hot iron pokers small enough to be efficient, and yet distilled enough to be recognizable. We try to use all the tools at our disposal: our fashion, our media, our comportment. Your image can do so much to shape you in the minds of others, and on the internet today, it can be just as hard to undo what has been done.
Right… no pressure.
I frankly don’t know how to brand myself. By my view, I am a shifting, fluid mind paired with a series of static, unchanging images. I’m still childishly trying to wrestle with the fact that the image carries more than its fair share of the value in the way I’m represented in the world. But now, I’m also expected to cultivate those images carefully, to attach them to my personal pride and my individual story, and display them to the world. The downside of branding is obviously cynicism and dissatisfaction with the image. The upside is that all your cows come home.
By the way, I’m perfectly aware that in this messy metaphor I’ve boxed myself into, I’m the cow staring at my own ass. I’m wondering what symbol to burn into the flesh. It’s not exactly a flattering position to be in. But like I said above, the branded image itself is meaningless to the cow. It only means something to the farmer. Could I accept a brand that is meaningless to me, though it means better business sense down the road? Can I accept that the image will always be an imperfect representation?
Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in my industry, where I’m asked to submit a resume and cover letter, several social media profiles, and sometimes even a headshot, just to interview for a position, I need to know that the package contains the right information. If it reveals too much of the confusion, messiness, and mania that I truly feel, well… let’s just say, that’s very off-brand.
I’m still wary of the brand, of the violence of the hot iron poker, of the willful scarring I must undergo in order to belong to something.
But, as my dad points out, it’s just farm work.