It was really not all that long ago that a “brand” was just a useful symbol for purposes of distinguishing the ownership of one cow from that of another. But over the course of the 20th century, mass producers realized they needed not merely to mark their product with a unique label but to imbue that label with a distinctive personality, or identity. And a brand became a kind of metaphor—a sort of simulacrum of an emotion or idea—that defined, however gauzily, an underlying product or service. From mass marketing it was a short hop along Madison Avenue to politics. Politicians and their strategists now talk freely about a candidate’s “brand,” with no notion that they might sound as if they are selling soap, and with no detail too trivial to need attention. (“My brand is hair up, isn’t it?,” Sarah Palin asked John McCain’s media strategist in 2008, according to the book Game Change.)
Over the past few years, as the concept of branding has seeped ever more deeply into the culture, I’ve heard colleagues begin to refer unself-consciously to their own personal brand. It still startles me to hear people, particularly journalists, apply the language of marketing to themselves, but in our disrupted economy, it makes perfect sense. As institutions come to matter less, what has long been true of Hollywood has become true of the corporate world, sports, journalism, and academia. Elites are increasingly set apart by their ability to turn themselves into stars by marketing themselves as brands of one.