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Looking for love? In the digital age, personal branding is everything

RELATIONSHIPS

What's your brand?

Personal branding has been around since Adam met Eve,
but in recent years, looking for love has become an
increasingly digital pursuit

Two years ago, Julie Bogdanowicz was in her late 30s, with a rewarding career as an architect, an active social life and a passion for urban cycling. But her love life felt as promising as the first five minutes of an Adam Sandler comedy. She had been on various dating apps, but half-heartedly and without much luck.

Feeling a sense of urgency around her desire to find a partner and start a family, Bogdanowicz made a decision to prioritize, scaling back on professional responsibility and time with friends to focus on her search for love as it if were a job. She overhauled her generic Tinder profile, fine-tuning it with specific interests and uploading pictures of herself in urban settings, to reflect her passion for buildings and cities. She even made reference to her perpetual helmet hair in her bio section – shorthand for the role that biking plays in her life.

"I wasn't consciously thinking about it in terms of personal branding," she recalled of her profile revamp, speaking last month at a marketing event in downtown Toronto. But that's what it was. Based on her targeted and (spoiler alert) successful search for love online, Bogdanowicz was invited to appear as a panelist at the event titled "Kim Kardashian is My Copilot," where the program promised "a deep dive into the inescapable role personal branding plays in both our professional and personal lives."

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It's a cold, hard truth around dating in the digital age: Branding is everything. And if that strikes you as a little unromantic, you're not alone. But you're also kind of kidding yourself. That perfectly worn-in Sonic Youth T-shirt you wore on your first date with your future husband, the one you thought made you look like the quintessential "cool girl"? Personal branding. The way he pronounced the name of the fancy wine he ordered in a flawless French accent? Ditto.

Personal branding – as a concept, if not an annoying buzz term – has been around since Adam met Eve. (What, you think she ate the apple because she was hungry?) What's changed in recent years is the extent to which looking for love has become a digital pursuit.

In many ways, that has made romance easier. From the comfort of pretty much anywhere with WiFi, a person seeking companionship can scroll and click and swipe their way through hundreds, even thousands, of potential partners. On the flip side, the competition can be fierce, which is why a growing community of consultants, coaches and even ghostwriters are helping would-be daters to hone their personal brands.

"When the supply is so huge, it's important to distinguish yourself," says Katryna Klepacki, Toronto spokeswoman for the social and dating app Bumble, who was also on stage at the Pilot panel. Everyone "loves to travel," she says: To stick out, list some specific places you have recently visited. Rather than saying you're a foodie, mention favourite restaurants. Don't say you "love music" – share the last concert you went to. The goal isn't necessarily finding someone who shares your taste in travel destinations, food or tunes, but "giving the other person something they can ask you about," Klepacki explains. "And it makes you seem authentic. Authenticity is so important."

But is there such a thing as too real? What if your current passions include watching television in your track pants, while eating chips out of the bag? "Authentic doesn't always go hand in hand with the notion of branding, which is essentially applying a gloss," says Anne Marshall, founder of Junia Matchmaking Services in Guelph, Ont.

Creating and updating her clients' dating profiles is a huge part of Marshall's business. "I guess it's trying to make reality sound as palatable as possible," she says of massaging the lifestyle of a chip-loving couch potato, into a "culture vulture" whose favourite show is Sherlock. "One term that I sometimes use is 'great indoorsman,'" Marshall says.

After all, humour is the No. 1 thing that online daters respond to, although that, too, is a matter of brand calibration. Self-deprecating humour, for example, is often a turn off – "unless the person is extremely good looking and successful," says Marshall, in which case a little light self-slander can help them seem more approachable.

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From left: Julie Bogdanowicz, architect and urban designer at the City of Toronto; Jay Rautins, client solutions manager at LinkedIn; Katryna Klepacki, marketing representative at Bumble; Sofi Papamarko, founder of Friend of a Friend Matchmaking Inc.; and Sarah Lazarovic, event moderator and creative director at Pilot PMR.

Personal-branding strategist Cher Jones mostly works with people looking to leverage their personal brand in a professional context. Lately, though, clients have been asking her about their dating profiles as well. "We are seeing more and more intersectionality between personal and professional lives," says Jones, noting the recent launch of Bizz, networking mode on Bumble that lets users swipe left or right on potential professional contacts.

She calls it "a 360 view of our personal brand": when profiles on multiple platforms (Twitter, Tinder, Instagram, LinkedIn, OkCupid, Match.com, etc., etc., etc.) allow users to present viewers with slightly different vantage points. Still, while it's perfectly logical to be more playful on Snapchat than a networking platform, it's important that the overall picture be cohesive.

That means making sure Tinder photos wouldn't be off-putting to a potential client or employer, but also that your LinkedIn page doesn't make you look like a personality-free robot. ("People are so worried about doing something that will 'break' the internet, when really they should be worried about boring it," Jones says.)

Toronto copywriter Kennedy Ryan recently quit Tinder after she got tired of continually getting matched with different versions of the same person, who she calls "the Frank and Oak guy": bearded, modern-metro types who favoured the same hip cocktail bars and distressed denim. She thinks one downside of personal branding is that everything has become "so curated."

Having seen advertising buys move from broad to microtargeted, Ryan says "I guess it makes sense that the same thing is happening with dating." She believes her ability to distill a lot of information into a few concise and catchy phrases gave her an edge in online dating, but she wonders whether this sort of slick, surface communication is conducive to forming a meaningful connection.

"Real people are messy," Ryan says. "You have to wonder if something is being lost." Critics posit that dating-app culture has turned people into commodities, that true intimacy is dying as our attention spans shorten and that our standards are growing increasingly unrealistic.

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Still, if "What's your brand?" has replaced "What's your sign?" as the world's most nauseating pick-up line, there are times when effective self-marketing works exactly as it's supposed to.

Torontonian Gloria Arsenal found herself frustrated that the guys she attracted on Tinder were missing the importance she placed on social activism. "I guess they weren't reading my profile," she says. That changed after she switched her lead picture to one of her wearing a pink pussy hat at the Women's March last January. "The quantity of individuals has dropped," she says, "but the quality has improved."

And then there's Julie Bogdanowicz, who recently returned home from her honeymoon – a cycling and architectural exploration of Pittsburgh. Maybe that doesn't meet everyone's definition of the ultimate romantic getaway, but for Bogdanowicz and her urban-cycling husband, it's exactly on brand.

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