November 2, 2023 | OPINION | By Lorelei Smillie
In recent years, social media strategies of large companies have changed drastically. Instead of maintaining a professional distance between the brand and its audience, companies are creating content with more humor and relatability. They’re appealing to an online generation that values perceived transparency and grounded-ness. Brand posts on social media tend to do well when there’s some aspect of breaking the fourth wall – an interaction with customers in an informal way, or a video of an employee making a joke or competing with another brand.
One great example of this is the Wendy’s X (formerly Twitter) account: a fast-food company that’s turned to creating conflict with their competition online in order to gain solidarity with customers and make people laugh. When people mention Burger King or McDonalds online, Wendy’s is sure to respond with some kind of quick-witted response that roasts their competition.
This kind of self-aware social media presence has been the beginning of a massive shift in social strategy for both large and upcoming brands. It’s not enough anymore to advertise the benefits of your product. Now, the brands must personify themselves and engage with younger generations in a down-to-earth and comedic way. This is why communications positions at companies have exploded in recent years: they’re looking for young people to conduct a new kind of advertising that’s desperately needed in the quest for success.
The idea of brands personifying themselves is occurring simultaneously as people are creating brands out of their own identities. The phenomenon has shaped the world of business in numerous ways over the years. In the art and design sectors, the mark of success is when your name becomes a brand– transcending individuality and becoming synonymous with your work. People buy “a Basquiat” or “a Rothko” to truly possess a piece of the artist’s identity.
Attempted emulation can be traced back to the beginning of human history. We’ve always had celebrities and pop stars, people in the public eye who we try our hardest to be like and who face the most backlash when they don’t live up to the values of their created persona. The rise of the personal brand in the 21st century has been a unique phenomenon enabled by social media. Everyone wants to be someone, which has always been true, but it’s so much easier now.
People can take the step from any profession to become widely known in the pop culture world. Molly Baz, an ex-Bon Appetit test kitchen cook, has taken the internet by storm and made the transition to a fully-fledged micro celebrity. Her social media is inundated with fans and she’s made recent appearances in large publications like Elle and NYMag. Her cooking style has become well known to her Instagram audience, who are obsessed with her love of salt, abbreviated nicknames for ingredients like Cae-Sal and Morty-D, and small weiner dog named Tuna. She has created an image for herself that’s being sold to her close to one million Instagram followers when people hit that follow button.
Like Molly Baz, people from all professions have used TikTok and Instagram videos to transcend their professional or domestic identity with the goal of becoming a brand, whether conscious or not. That’s the process we engage with when we post photos or videos of ourselves, externalizing our identities in a warped mirror that alienates us from our own identities.
To market yourself is to create a palatable and appealing version of your personality, your history, and your passions. It is impossible to convey the true human self on these platforms, especially as our attention spans decrease and we only want what we can consume quickly and thoughtlessly. We’ve become obsessed with attention, making our own identities into a commodity as we curate a collection of images and content that is supposed to represent us.
The usage of social media to promote yourself or your work has many obvious benefits. It’s a form of information distribution that’s easy and effective, and in many ways, there have been positive impacts on our generation through movements inspiring social and political change. However, the representation of personhood through a corporation, or the inverse, cannot exist without a loss of humanity.
We have lost touch with our sense of selves through this process of self-replication online. As brands become people, and people become brands, we are redefining the human identity to be solely one of a consumer.