Image by Beatrice Sala

“Cae Sal” started with a video. It was 2018, and Molly Baz’s husband had gifted her a pair of Nike sneakers customized with a misspelled abbreviation of the Bon Appetit chef’s favorite food—caesar salad. In the clip, Baz is seen standing in Bon Appetit’s airy downtown New York City test kitchen, showing off a pair of black sneakers that featured blocky text reading “CEA SAL” printed across the shoes’ tongues. 

“Why?” one of Baz’s colleagues deadpanned as she pointed a shoe in his direction.  

“Because,” Baz replied, “‘cae sal’ is one of my favorite dishes in the world.”

For those not among the 2.1 million people who have watched the video, “cae sal” (pronounced see-sal) is one of Baz’s most famous Molly-isms, the cheerful abbreviations the chef sprinkles into her videos and Instagram captions. (Other gastronomical diminutives include “sandos” (sandwiches) “pepp” (pepper) and “cotty-c” (cottage cheese)). Since the video aired, “cea sal” has become a cross-platform inside joke for those who know. And a lot of people know.

Back in December, Baz explained to me over Zoom that “cae sal” was one of the main pillars of Brand Molly that emerged during her time at Bon Appetit. “That and the love of my weenie dog over here,” she said, nodding to the caramel colored dachshund lounging on the bed behind her. Two weeks prior, Baz had released a collection of merchandise dubbed “Molly Merch” through a website she set up in preparation for the new phase of her career. After a tumultuous summer at Bon Appetit where the editor-in-chief resigned amidst a social media scandal and accusations of unfair treatment of staff members of color, Baz decided to leave the magazine to start a paid newsletter called Molly’s Recipe Club

Molly Merch’s “cae sal” T-shirt and hat.

The first of five merch “drops” Baz has planned for the year featured a list of quarantine-friendly loungewear and goods: aprons dyed in saturated primary colors, tie-dye sweatshirts featuring an embroidered logo of her dog Tuna, a white pocket T-shirt and baseball cap featuring “Cae Sal” (note the correct spelling) printed in cobalt. “I’m really looking forward to, slash, kind of nervous about walking down the street and seeing someone rocking a “Cae Sal” tee,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a moment for me.”

Baz started Molly Merch as a way to drum up interest around her upcoming cookbook, Cook This Book, but it has quickly become its own successful revenue stream. With the help of merch company Jane Music Group, and her more than 600,000 Instagram followers, Baz’s first drop was as successful as some of the bigger names Jane Music Group has worked with including Kendrick Lamar and Jaden Smith. “Molly sold comparable units despite her following being smaller,” said Jane Music Group founder Lea Sindija, who didn’t want to give exact numbers on Baz’s sales. “It shows how engaged her fan base is.” The top seller from the first collection was the tie-dye crewneck featuring Tuna, which has become Baz’s defacto logo. “We found out that people are super obsessed with Tuna,” Sindija said. “But we already kind of knew that.” 

Many of the first collection’s design details were pulled directly from the splashy, colorful graphics found in her cookbook, designed by French studio Violaine & Jérémy. Baz’s merch typography (the playfully geometric Dida, a typographic style favored  among other culinary stars) echoes the cobalt blue found on the cookbook’s cover. The designers say they wanted to create something “bold and playful,” but that they were branding Molly’s cookbook, not her. “In our opinion, you never brand a person, you always brand a skill, a savoir-faire,” they said. “Molly doesn’t brand herself as a person—she brands her cooking skill, her cooking style. It’s really important to detach your very self from your brand. This is an intellectual pirouette which we think is essential for the well being of the person.”

Beyond aprons, Baz is using the red, blue, and yellow color palette on her website, in her newsletter, and on custom Instagram backgrounds for announcing big projects. The merch is but one component of a coordinated visual identity that Baz can deploy across the different branches of her expanding business. “I felt like there was a pretty established ‘Molly brand,’ in terms of what it stands for when I left BA, but there wasn’t an established brand as far as what it looks like,” she said… “I’ve been spending a lot of time focusing on establishing a singular visual brand.”

Baz’s best-selling tie-dye crewneck and aprons.

In the early days of social media, the way we presented ourselves online didn’t require a visual distillation of brand attributes. Personal brands were largely intangible, buoyed by two-dimensional avatars lurking in the corner of social apps and websites. For the most talented, the most vocal, or the most shameless, a personal brand was simply a byproduct of making and sharing work. That’s changing as the business around how creators make money evolves. While personal brands used to be a way to garner enough cultural capital to net a paid gig at a magazine or company, creators quickly realized that they didn’t need established companies to mediate their content, so they took to the platforms to monetize themselves through clicks, ad revenue, and brand partnerships. Today, influencers view themselves as entrepreneurs, and their personas a direct-to-consumer good that can take a multitude of forms. It’s the logical last step in the trajectory of humans-as-branding: The personal brand becomes a regular brand, full circle. 

Because social media has enabled the persona to become a viable and lucrative business, influencers now embrace the same tools that corporations and technology startups use to communicate their message to mass audiences. Creating a cohesive visual identity allows a person to divide their brand into physical, sellable components. The consequence of that is infinite ways to sell yourself directly to the people who want to buy your product—i.e. you. 

It’s the logical last step in the trajectory of humans-as-branding: The personal brand becomes a regular brand, full circle.

If there was ever hesitancy to think of one’s personality as a tangible, marketable good, that sentiment has now totally disappeared, as individuals with large online followings sell merch emblazoned with their names, faces, and signature catchphrases. For a certain strata of young influencers, selling a sweatshirt with their name printed on the arm of a hoodie can be just as lucrative as the advertising revenue they receive from getting millions of eyeballs on a YouTube video. Creators like YouTube star David Dobrik have said that the merchandise they sell through online shops comprise the majority of their income. The rise in persona merch is aided by companies like Fanjoy and Killer Merch which provide the infrastructure for creators to design, manufacture, and sell merch with little thought or effort. 

The desire to physically commoditize one’s persona is part of a long history of businesses using goods as a form of brand extension. It’s garden variety entrepreneurship, explains Tom Peters, an author and consultant who popularized the term “personal branding” back in the late 1990s with an article in Fast Company called “The Brand Called You.” “Welcome to social media where everybody is selling their damn name,” he says.

And yet, with her merch, Baz has seemingly broken an unspoken rule of self-promotion for the generation of middle-millennials conditioned to toe the delicate line between necessary self-aggrandizing and applauded humility: Don’t try too hard. A little self-deprecation goes a long way. And god forbid you make money off your name, talent, and enthusiasm lest you be considered a sell out. Baz’s new venture highlights the paradox of modern personal branding: Giving your personal brand an actual brand can feel either savvy or galling. It just depends on who you ask. 

The difference of opinion often breaks along generational lines. “For people in my generation it does seem a lot more natural because we grew parallel to all these different trends,” said Abby St. Claire, a 23-year-old designer and model living in San Francisco, who runs a merch shop where she sells hoodies and T-shirts printed with designs of her own making. St. Claire started selling merch as a way to promote her Meme Friday project, where she posts downer memes on her Instagram Stories. The merch design lightly pokes fun at current streetwear trends that St. Claire describes as “low-fi, high vibe.” “It’s probably what the cool kids in LA or New York are wearing,” she said. 

Abby St. Claire’s meme merch.

St. Claire has fewer than 10,000 followers on Instagram and has sold upwards of 50 pieces of merchandise. It’s not enough to make a living, but that’s not really the point, she says. St. Claire says she’s bought merch from her favorite creators like Twitch star Noel Miller and YouTube comedian Cody Ko as a form of appreciation for the work they make. “They make me laugh all the time, so I’m happy to throw them a couple of bucks to show my support.” It’s also a matter of classic self-marketing: Like its more high-profile cousin streetwear, wearing personalized merch is a way to signal to others how you want to be seen. “It’s the same reason why I think people for a while were reading issues of Monocle on the train,”  said Grace Clarke, a consultant who specializes in brand positioning and growth for Gen Z. “It was such an advertisement for the type of person they were.”

The ability to readily articulate and aestheticize one’s defining personality traits is a skill distinct to generations that have grown up with the feedback loop of social media, where we experience real-time commentary on what resonates, or not, with those observing us. It’s almost like we’re living in a never-ending client meeting, where everyone is a stakeholder. 

This version of the personal brand is not what Peters had in mind when he wrote his piece for Fast Company more than 20 years ago. Peters says that in some ways he wishes he never uttered the phrase “personal branding,” as it’s become so complicit in the cult of personality that he believes has rotted the minds of many Americans. Peters originally imagined the rise of the personal brand within a large organization; defining who you were as an individual employee was a way to shake off the drone-like anonymity of wearing a badge and a blue button down. “The thing that pisses me off about the interpretation of my article is that people have said that ‘Brand You’ is about marketing yourself,” he said. “That is absolutely, antithetically not the case. It is about you being perceived as a person of value… It’s almost anti-marketing.” Taken to its extreme, Peters says, the ability to manufacture a successful personal brand is what enabled someone like Donald Trump to become president. On a more quotidienne level, it’s what ties so many of us to the social platforms that we claim to despise. It’s also what allows us to fulfill the great millennial dream of doing work that we love.

The ability to readily articulate and aestheticize one’s defining traits is a skill distinct to generations that have grown up with the feedback loop of social media.

Merch from Cody Ko, Noel Miller, and David Dobrik.

We build our brands across platforms as a necessary evil of living and working online, casting words, podcasts, videos, and newsletters out into the world. In return, success is often directly correlated to follower count. We assess the value of what we create by the number of people who see, share, and comment, and as a result our livelihoods begin to feel irreversibly linked to how we present ourselves to the world.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, this dynamic produces someone like Chiara Ferragni, the Italian influencer who last fall announced that her personal brand would be going public on the Italian stock market. Selling personal merch through Shopify looks like a neighborhood bake sale in comparison, but Clarke believes it’s a small but sure step towards a world where individuals exist in their own personality-based universe of profitability. “I think it’s the difference between being comfortable with the world we live in right now where humans are themselves but they sell things, versus this metaverse that I feel like we’re barreling toward, which is just like a Ready Player One level of simulation,” she said.

Baz’s new venture highlights the paradox of modern personal branding: Giving your personal brand an actual brand can feel either savvy or galling. It just depends on who you ask. 

In many ways we’re already there. The Martha Stewarts of the world breached the simulation long ago, albeit on an entirely different level. Running an eponymous lifestyle empire that’s sold at Target and can only be described as “omnimedia” is lumbering and bureaucratic when you look at how the next-gen Martha Stewarts are approaching their brands (Stewart’s approach, we can safely assume, is also much more profitable). Baz and her contemporaries, by comparison, are not household names in the same way. They are the product of an internet that has splintered stardom into niches, where a smaller but devoted contingent of people care enough about them to walk around with a stranger’s dog on their sweatshirt. 

Even if the younger generation of chefs, influencers, and creators ultimately aspire to Martha Stewart-level ubiquity, it will inevitably look different in the future. Today, personal brands are more nimble and more immediate. Instead of filtering one’s personality through TV and magazines, we get a personality IV injected directly into our brains. This kind of unmediated relationship between the people creating content and the people consuming it requires creators to increasingly give themselves over to an audience: Selfies become front-facing pre-recorded videos, and videos become live broadcasts. With every brand validation, it gets easier and easier to do. Once you realize your audience not only tolerates you but wants more of you, selling merchandise doesn’t feel so strange after all. Baz says it took some time to break through a wall of discomfort before she felt like she could accept that people are now just as interested in her as they are in her recipes. Selling merch, posting on Instagram, promoting cookbooks—these are unavoidable tasks on a to-do list when you’re your own boss and your own brand. “I don’t think you can grow if you’re ashamed of promoting yourself,” she said. “I try to strike a balance of being real about it and not being…I don’t want to be corporate. I’m just a girl who makes yummy food and sells some cool looking shit.”