GenZ and Millennials spend a fair amount of energy cultivating a personal brand. It is sculpted out of consumer choices, Instagram photos, Facebook profiles, clubs, causes, stickers, Spotify Wrapped reports and more. Some of these elements seem cosmetic—what they post on social media or paste on the back of their laptops. Others clearly represent their personality, passions and commitments. Cumulatively, however, they are more than a digital avatar or aspirational identity. They suggest vocation.
Through their personal brand, individuals consider the implications of their choices. The process is not driven primarily by what makes them seem cool or popular; instead, it reflects their values and becomes the source of their power. Purchases have become less about status, for instance, and more about messaging. That’s why Nike sales spiked after it ran the ad with Colin Kaepernick and the motto, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
As people craft their personal brand, they want to support businesses that believe what they believe. It is true for where they spend their money and even truer for where they spend their time. The season is ripe for companies like Ben & Jerry’s or Benetton, especially if the commitments to living wages, environmental protection, or radical inclusivity are real. Companies experience lower turnover when employees have confidence that they are doing good. Social impact is the new corner office. (My son coined that felicitous phrase.)
In personal branding, individuals also express their faith in non-institutional change. Their choices communicate their values and also promote them. Many of these young people, in fact, have become social media influencers, with more FB and Twitter followers than major corporations—demonstrating the power of personal branding. They are trusted bearers of information about what works, what doesn’t, and what it means.
We can be cynical about how many of the subsequent Nike shoe buyers would really be willing to give up lucrative careers to make a political statement, but they want to know what they stand for and make it known. It goes in their dating profiles, and they will challenge their friends at social gatherings on core issues, even though the general ethos is one of mutual acceptance. This exercise is not simply about vetting potential soulmates or making sure your friends understand your commitment to your values.
Done with sincerity and purpose, “branders” are attempting to make the story they tell about themselves match the story that they live. Perhaps we could snatch a term back from Google (who used it to promote VR) and talk about “storyliving.” These folks are holding themselves accountable to the vision of their projected self, with critical self-reflection and continuous striving to make it matter.
Sounds like vocation to me.
Rachel S. Mikva is the Rabbi Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and Senior Faculty Fellow for the InterReligious Institute. She works at the intersections of exegesis, culture and ethics. Author of “The Change a Difference Makes: Formation of Self in the Encounter with Diversity,” in Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, ed. David Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2018), she would have no clue about the world today were it not for her children and her students.