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This past summer, I was an intern at Sarankco, a creative studio and consultancy located in Manhattan. According to the firm’s website, Sarankco specializes in “developing brands that create awareness; designing experiences that influence behavior; and creating communications that drive engagement.”
As a freelance writer who had previously written for The A.V. Club and HelloGiggles, I was unsure of what to expect. I retained a healthy dose of cynicism regarding the term “branding,” especially as it applies to writers, artists, and other creative professionals.
Branding originally meant to mark an animal with a branding iron, and for a long time, this is how I thought of personal branding too. Wasn’t it enough just to be good at your craft? Did you really have to scar yourself too, with a virtual tattoo?
I had accepted, however, that having some knowledge of marketing could be beneficial to me, which is how I found myself in the (virtual) office of Sarankco for the summer of 2021.
And by the end of my intensive internship, to my surprise, I had become a convert, almost ready to develop a personal “brand” of my own.
On paper, it doesn’t seem like my experience at Sarankco would have given me much insight into creating a personal brand. Sarankco’s clients include Sephora, American Express, and other, more local businesses. The process of developing a brand identity for these companies is very different from developing a brand identity for your run-of-the-mill aspiring journalist. Besides, my work mainly consisted of writing headlines for emails and copy for mailers, not the heavy lifting of developing a brand identity from the ground up.
Still, as I browsed the brand guidelines for American Express, I became fascinated with their detail and commitment to their vision. Every word in a headline had to ooze the company’s signature professional relatability, every sentence in a mailer had to be perfumed with their sweet scent of achievable aspiration, every photo in a brochure had to create an atmosphere of wholesome exhilaration. Maybe that’s too flowery, but the idea is that I was just now realizing that every element of an American Express promoted tweet that I scrolled past had been carefully chosen, focus group–tested, and had gone through a couple of rounds of legal review. Everything was intentional.
When I looked at my own portfolio after that, it felt bloated and scattered, with no consistency. If “branding” was “creating with intention,” that didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.
But what really convinced me was not Sarankco’s clients or the corporate projects I worked on, but the people and culture of Sarankco itself. Sarankco had a brand identity too, with its signature canary yellow color scheme, its status as an LGBT–owned business certified by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, its ethos of authentic expression, and its close-knit, thirty-person staff. These components of Sarankco’s brand rose organically from the many personalities that constitute the company, and it didn’t feel dishonest to organize these attributes into a cohesive narrative about a small-but-mighty creative agency that believes in inclusivity, and hopes to shine as bright as its trademark shade of yellow—it felt natural.
The founder and Chief Creative Director of Sarankco is Steven Rank. His page on the Sarankco website makes clear how he wants to be seen:
As a champion of both small business and blue-chip companies, Steven believes that inside every small business are the ingredients of a powerful brand, and that large companies can thrive with a dose of small-brand passion. . . Steven’s command of design and attention to detail are surpassed only by his humility. . . A long-time Manhattan resident, he lives in a renovated pre-war apartment in West Chelsea. At any given time, you can find Steven traversing the streets of Manhattan with his trusty toy poodles, Madge and Roger, in tow.
Right off the bat, Steven positioned himself as more of a mentor to me than a boss. He asked to be referred to as Steven, as opposed to Mr. Rank. He offered me free museum passes, and shared photos of his poodles in raincoats. I soon learned that this casual generosity and enthusiasm was Steven’s M.O. not only for leading his employees, but also for interacting with clients. His anecdotes about his family and his rescue poodles lent a personability to his company, and gave clients the impression that this was an intimate relationship, that they could trust Steven—and, by extension, Sarankco.
After getting to know more about Steven, I came to view branding not as the necessary evil of inauthentically making yourself appealing to a wide audience, but as another form of storytelling, as a way of developing a narrative for yourself. It’s not so different from creating a persona. And in his case, the persona wasn’t just a mask: it was an extension of who he really seemed to be.
I know that the conversation surrounding personal branding is not a new one. But internet culture and the click economy have added a new dimension to the discourse. I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with having a public image, and it’s too elusive to demand complete authenticity in a persona. The line between the public and the private self, however, has become even more blurred, and the urge to commodify your every interest and quirk is greater than ever. Crafting a public image doesn’t seem so bad—but making even your private self marketable does.
But through my work at Sarankco, I learned that you can be selective about which parts of your personality fit into your brand narrative. It’s a balancing act: making your personal brand too polished and removed from who you are privately comes off as pandering, but trying to reduce your multi-faceted character into a tidy little box also seems fake and can result in an identity crisis. Explaining who you are and what you do in a concise and consistent manner is no easy feat. It is hard to fit your work into a cohesive narrative, to have every aspect of your portfolio be just intentional enough to seem authentic.
Ultimately, I am left with more questions than answers. I no longer think that the default Wix template I use for my portfolio is the most effective way to communicate who I am, but what do I replace it with? How do I balance reflecting my personality with appearing professional? Is including heavily art-directed photos of my cat in the “Work” tab of my portfolio too much? How do I even begin to create a visual identity for myself with little to no design experience?
These questions get more existential, too. How do I explain why I want to go into the dying industry of print journalism? How can I persuade others of my talents when I’m not even sure of them myself? These are questions that I am now convinced are at least worth trying to answer.
Hannah Hightman is a writer and collage artist from Northern California. She’s contributed to The A.V. Club, HelloGiggles, V Magazine, and more. She also runs a personal blog you can visit at https://www.hypezine.org/.