Extremely Online

Help! I Hate My Brand

The longer a creator’s career, the more likely they are to evolve — and to feel a growing gap between their online and offline selves.

Originally Published: 
A phone is dropped as if on fire in this illustration.
Margaret Flatley/Getty Images

When Sofia Elizabeth was 17 years old, a manager asked her to promote his client’s music. She’d become known for her concert photography in the Miami music scene, but was newer to social media, and had nowhere near the 3.6 million TikTok followers she has today. So when the manager told her it was important to be sexy in the video, she listened. “I was young and I didn’t know any better,” Elizabeth, now 21, says.

That one suggestive video became the blueprint for the platform she’d eventually grow across TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. But when a violating deep fake was made with one of her photos — and found its way back to her mother — she realized she had reached a breaking point. Certain followers, it seemed, erroneously took her suggestive persona as permission to break boundaries. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be seen like that anymore,’” she says.

In a TikTok video back in January, Elizabeth told her followers that her platform would instead feature her photography, stories about her life, and her thoughts on issues like cosmetic surgery and women supporting women. She’s continued to make videos “reintroducing” her new self as recently as July, to keep followers in the loop. These videos have earned praise from viewers, but also anger.

“So the people who got you where you are, you[’re] just like, ‘Bye don’t want you,’” one commenter wrote.

“Top 3 worst business decisions,” another said.

Elizabeth is one of many creators having an online identity crisis — coming to tire with, or outright reject, the niche that made them popular. Younger creators especially are likely to find fame for an online version of themselves they’re all but certain to outgrow, and by now, many adult creators have had viable careers on the internet for long enough that they’ve similarly evolved. But when they try to pivot or otherwise reinvent themselves online, many face backlash from both followers and brands who feel betrayed.

Former lifestyle influencer Lee Tilghman (@leefromamerica) faced this in 2019. By that time, she’d been sharing wellness content since 2014 and had accumulated more than 370,000 Instagram followers — many of whom were surprised when she suddenly stopped posting. A few months later, she returned to announce that she’d no longer be posting wellness advice or showing up on Instagram in the same way at all. She needed to do it for the sake of her own health, she explained, since her brand had contributed to her eating disorder. She lost 180,000 followers. “People told me I was crazy, that I was going through a psychosis since I also cut my hair off around this time,” she says. “People called me Britney Spears, which was hurtful and meant to be an insult. They thought I was struggling because I was posting goofy comedy clips out of nowhere.”

It might feel safer for creators to stick to a formula that they know works, but maintaining an online brand that no longer feels authentic is almost like harboring a secret identity. It can complicate someone’s relationship with their own self, and is often something followers can eventually sniff out anyway.

Knowing it’s time to rebrand is step one. Step two is a little more difficult, as switching gears can jeopardize not only a creator’s popularity but also their income. And while traditional career advice tells us not to leave a job before we have another lined up, many creators’ decisions to abandon their initial brands come in a moment of crisis, without a plan for what they’ll post next.

“Overnight I woke up freaking out, sweating,” says Grant Khanbalinov, a former family TikTok vlogger who posts under the username @heyelliamfamily. “I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

Overnight I woke up freaking out, sweating ... I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.

Khanbalinov began posting on social media in 2018, but didn’t begin gaining an audience until he started sharing videos of his children on TikTok. From the beginning, he says, people criticized him for sharing so much of his children, but he figured being TikTok famous was what every kid wants. Plus, the videos were landing his family six figures worth of brand deals, money they could put toward their kids’ futures. But as the conversation around posting children on social media shifted, and technology like artificial intelligence evolved, Khanbalinov said he had an epiphany in fall 2022.

“I don’t want them growing up like this,” he thought, and removed all pictures and videos of his children in one fell swoop. But when he reached out to the brands he had deals with to let them know that they’d no longer be appearing in videos, “99% of the brands dropped,” he says. As word of his online switch spread, many of his 3.4 million followers also began to flee: “We dropped by about 400,000 followers in the last year.” His rebrand is still ongoing. For now, he’s still posting under the same username, and feels obligated to not do anything too drastic while he’s finishing up a brand deal, but he says he’ll change the account name and shed the kids’ channel persona for good soon.

“The best creators evolve,” says Besidone Amoruwa, who works in partnerships at Instagram. And while she and other experts say there are ways to ease the transition between brands, the key is accepting that followers and brand deals might change. The severity of the backlash may vary, and any drastic online rebrand will elicit a negative audience reaction. Many followed the creator specifically for their original content, and to have that taken away can prompt feelings of betrayal, or at the very least a loss of interest.

“That’s just something you have to be OK with, because it’s a fact of life,” says Jayde Powell, founder of the creative development team The Em Dash Co. She believes the best strategy is to clearly communicate what’s happening with followers, and also to take a beat to “mourn” the past version of themselves before rushing into the next stage. Creators who move too quickly can risk falling into yet another ill-fitting persona by just following whatever is trendy at the time, instead of looking inward. “That always gets found out because it’s like, all of a sudden you want to cook?” Amoruwa says. “It’s like, ‘Babe, you were the DoorDash queen, what’s going on?’”

That’s exactly what Elizabeth wanted to avoid. “My manager and I actually went through a bunch of trials and tests of like, what type of person can I be on the internet?” she says. “What avenues within myself, within my own passions and interests, can I bring to the table?” She soon identified, however, a personal aversion to niche content, and decided to share her thoughts as they bubbled up naturally, posting updates and photography on Instagram, and using TikTok to comment on trending topics and share relatable stories. Her most recent series teaches viewers how to “unf*ck their life” with tips for getting out of a funk.

The best creators evolve.

Although Elizabeth is more comfortable sharing her new content, she sometimes still doubts herself and wonders if it’d be easier to return to an inauthentic persona. “I could go back to it at any second,” Elizabeth says. “And there’s always that option available, but I don’t want that to be my future.”

When Tilghman attempted to return to Instagram authentically, she realized her problem was social media itself. Now she mostly posts to direct people to her Substack, where she shares thoughts and tips about navigating a life that’s more offline. Her income comes from more traditional jobs, not brand deals, and she’s writing a book for Simon & Schuster about leaving the world of influencing behind — if not the internet entirely.

“I’ll probably be on the internet in some form or whatever for the rest of my life,” Tilghman acknowledges. “But it would be boring for me to stay the same.”

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