Branding used to be for products, then celebrities. Now it is something ordinary people do to themselves. Peter York traces the roots of a phenomenon that goes back to Dale Carnegie via Margaret Thatcher ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

Dan Schawbel is instantly “on”. He’s so on, he’s practically in vertical take-off. Over the telephone from Boston, the 25-year-old “leading personal-branding expert for Gen Y” gets straight down to telling me how to “manage my online presence”, and how that will help me win in today’s tough job market. It is, he says, all about getting your definitive statement—your unique claim—to the top of your personal Google search result, then taking it from there, out onto New Media platforms, full-motion video and social networking sites, Twitter, Linked-in, Google Alert. “Everyone’s online,” Dan says. “Everyone’s visible.”

Dan is highly visible; photos and video clips road-block his site. His look is almost retro-geek, not so much Silicon Valley Guy as 1970s Corporate. Sensible trousers and shoes, sensible haircut. Could be thirty-something. Visibility, he says, is the key to success. “You’ve got to manage your brand,” he demands. “You have to claim your domain name. Then you have to have your personal brand statement, connecting your name with your positioning again and again, to drive people to you. You want to own your topic everywhere, cross-linking between all your social sites. And you have to keep on pushing out content relating to your topic. It’s a marketing machine.”

Dan has written a book, “Me 2.0”, chock-full of this sort of content-free breathless injunction. It starts of course with his own story: an introverted straight-A student who didn’t network very well in the real world, he used the new, online toolkit to “get profile” in the old media world and as a result is interviewed everywhere: ABC television and Fast Company and a raft of marketing trade-mags—he plays it all back proudly, almost artlessly. I ask him how he thinks all this might work in other, un-American places. Europe, for ins­tance, where cultural attitudes are different. There’s a long silence. He hasn’t been to Europe.

Self or personal branding—the rush to re-apply the marketing process from products to people, to give them a beachhead in a million minds—is the great converging point of the modern world. It pulls together Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame and Tom Wolfe’s 1970s notion of a narcissistic “Me Generation”. It links the marketing sensibility of post-war America, with its faith in brands as the engine of growth and wealth-creation, to the late-1990s explosion of reality television, the zenith of bourgeois individualism. And it’s all bound together by the internet’s ability to offer everyone the chance to self-brand.

Ask professional personal branding consultants and they’ll tell you that most of their clients are ordinary people. Yes, they work with the thoughtful classes—the politicians and literary novelists, the commentariat of in-the-public-eye columnists and TV talking heads, all now with their own websites and PRs—but increasingly their wages are paid by behind-the-scenes middle-managers and would-be entrepreneurs, businessmen and women who may never stand in front of a real TV camera. They’re not presenters, yet they’ll hand over serious money to be shown how to “present” better: how to style their clothes, how to style their websites, even, in some cases, how to style their minds. It’s partly the global recession, which makes having a clearly defined public persona more vital in getting, or keeping, a job. Or it may be that the ideas and language of marketing are now so inescapable that people don’t think of themselves as just people any more. They’re concepts.

This process has been happening for a long time. Way back in the late 1970s, it was dead easy to get a rise out of sensitive, evolved people. I only had to use my Boy Executive working language—marketing-speak—about sacred situations. I’d describe a literary novel as a “product”, or a serious artist as an “upscale brand” and they’d be practically foaming. Such language was the thin end of a nasty wedge for them. So I used it all the more. “What X [insert any late-1970s big serious novelist] needs is comprehensive re-packaging,” I’d say, knowing X was highly packaged already. For, say, a serious television documentary-maker or a politically engaged playwright, marketing-speak was about as Double-plus Ungood as it got. It was triumphantly philistine, deeply dishonest and inherently American—and shriekingly non-U, too. Worse still, these sensitive types were starting to realise that mine would be the dominant language of the coming decades.

First “markets”—target and niche, up and down—crept into everyday conversation. I knew something had changed in Britain when I met a Church of England clergyman at a 1980s dinner party and he described his Belgravia flock as “rather upmarket”. Then “segmentation” and “demographics” emigrated out of -ology country and into the suburbs, soon followed by those exciting intangibles, “image” and “spin”. Blame the Saatchi brothers: their astonishingly ambitious corporate and personal branding of Saatchi & Saatchi (FTSE-100 titan, world sector-leader, political power, contemporary art, etc) helped make advertising and marketing the great counter-jumper sector of the period—and that catalysed the spread of my terrible, documentary-maker-baiting language.

By the mid-1990s, New Labour was on its way to power, its female MPs groomed for victory—all jewel-bright jackets and highlighted hair—by Barbara Follett, wife of Ken, the bestselling author. The party called it Folletting, and it would spread into British corporate life. My strategic research company had a client, a FTSE-100 chief executive, who was fretful about a senior manager he was planning to fast-track onto the board. The poor man didn’t look the part. Terrible cardboardy high-street suits that gaped at the collar, blocky, square-toed prole shoes, polyester-rich ties. I got in touch with Barbara, who said she’d consider taking my geek over, to make him look like the corporate ambassador his boss wanted. It was a moment of epiphany for me: reapplying what I knew about both product brands and corporate ones to a real human being, Mr Test Case. How modern could you get?

Thrilling stuff; and it was just the beginning. To look at in-house business newspapers of the mid-1990s onwards is to see the irresistible rise of CEOs with hairstyles and hectic dental veneering. Today, you are never more than a click away from a personal-branding expert, usually a woman with a streaked bob, newsreader earrings and a couple of exclamatory books behind her. She’ll tell you that you have to be true to yourself—discover your real assets and talents, accentuate the positive, the authentic. Then she’ll try to change practically everything about you. Clothes, CV, posture, voice. There’s even one personal brand consultant, popular with certain behind-the-scenes captains of the creative industries, who does the Well-Stocked Mind. Which openings to attend, what films to see, books to read, art to collect, music to listen to—her clients are given a new cultural hinterland.

It’s all shudderingly un-English, but it makes perfect sense. For years, sponsorship consultants have brokered flattering associations for their clients’ businesses—ones that made them look miles more civilised, cool or concerned. So why not do the same for individuals?

Mary Spillane, sleek and ageless, tells me that she likes to meet her clients well away from their comfort zones of home or office. She chooses instead to talk to them in art galleries, or in studios, where they’ll be recorded on video and audio. Her services are intensely personal, focused on their most vulnerable parts, the deepest roots of their self-esteem. She will have to deliver verdicts, say embarrassing things. Nobody will emerge unchanged.

blackberryBut the changes shouldn’t be obvious. Mary is an image consultant, providing personal branding for CEOs, politicians and big people. And unlike Dan Schawbel, hers is an art that conceals art. When we talk—first over drinks, then on the phone—Spillane explains that she “brings people along”; she helps them understand their “unique, authentic brand values” (personal branders are mad-keen on authenticity). She helps them to say focused, consistent things about themselves and their work. She helps them to look the part: undistracting, groomed and polished, without difficult, generational, carbon-dating mistakes—like a double-breasted suit or a Big Lunch tie. Hers is a subtle, gradualist, labour-intensive approach, preparing people for the top, and helping top people “come across better”. Spillane is American, but she’s been in Britain for years, and she knows about us: she’s learnt how to tone down all those clanging American enthusiasms and imperatives. 

And she knows that in Britain, “it’s almost always worth doing something about the teeth”.

The history of personal branding, its relentlessly optimistic authors and “coaches”, its themes of self-actualisation through personal ten-point plans, begins far back, in America. By the mid-19th century, the vital pioneer quality of American self-reliance had morphed into a preoccupation with “self-help”. (The phrase, which first crops up as the title of an 1859 book by a Scottish journalist, Samuel Smiles, was taken up in America by the splendidly named Orison Swett Marden, founder of Success Magazine.) America was also the nursery for modern theories of advertising and public relations. Claude C. Hopkins’s marketing manual “Scientific Advertising” (1923) insisted on measuring and analysing the impact of adverts, and made hucksterism sound like a dignified, systematic and modern process that could also be a career for gents. At much the same time, Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays—the author of books with forthright titles like “Propaganda” (1928)—was harnessing emerging theories about crowd psychology and his uncle’s sexy ideas about the unconscious in the service of big persuasive campaigns for corporate America and big government.

Dale Carnegie’s huge, Depression-era bestseller, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936), was the prototype for practically everything that followed: here are all the homely homilies, the historical anecdotes, the chapter recapping and simple summaries we know from today’s self-help shelves. Carnegie identifies people-handling skills as more important, more valuable, than any actual professional ability. There were hundreds of good architects, he said, but the really successful architects would be the ones who understood their clients. Read it today, and the book has mostly worn well—its title could just as easily be “How to Network and PR Yourself”.

America had it all, a 19th-century self-help culture, an early 20th-century advertising and PR business that was taken seriously by its clients and, later, a huge population of self-employed people of all kinds, hopeful CEOs of Me Inc. In “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” (1976), Tom Wolfe described how a new, hybrid mass culture of quite fanatical self-involvement was boiling up. A combination of hippie freedoms and the old American religious transcendence was placing the emphasis on the individual, set free from the constraints of family and community to focus on the sacred task of making their lives—their emotions, their self-esteem and their bodies—as perfect as possible. Out of this came the rhetoric of “doing something for myself”, which for many American women meant instigating a divorce, then following up with a face-lift and some ultra-bright dental work.

And from the mid-1980s, the idea of “branding”—the creation of a new type of virtual-asset class that added value to everything—became a business obsession. In 1988 the British business Rank Hovis McDougall gave its popular brands—Hovis, Mr Kipling, Mother’s Pride and so forth—a defined financial value, which it put on its balance sheet. Specialist companies such as Interbrand took to listing the percentage of a company’s value—Coca-Cola, Nike, Mercedes—that was attributable to the brand. This was insanely exciting for all of us in the marketing army: the idea that our bit could be worth more than all those factories and stock and cash in the bank. 

Simultaneously, the building of the Thatcher brand—the systematic positioning of the Grantham story as meritocracy in action, the re-stylings of hair and wardrobe, the re-pitching of the voice—used new, rather American processes that attracted attention from marketing types who recognised what was being done to her. Here was a prime minister being rebranded practically in public, and yet the New People of a changing Britain seemed to be up for it: crucially, they seemed to identify the branding urge as aspirational rather than just deceptive. From then on, references to individuals as brands start to spike absolutely everywhere. It swiftly became acceptable—normal, even—to talk about “personal brands”.

Tom Peters, dean of airport self-help business authors, hero of a thousand conference keynote speeches and motivational courses, is being self-effacing. “I wasn’t all that prescient,” he says, down the line from Vermont. “I was just reflecting what I’d been living amidst in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s—Apple, John Sculley. I could see it was a different world coming.”

It was Tom Peters who first explicitly spelt out the idea of self-branding, in a 1997 essay for Fast Company titled “The Brand Called You”. “Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding,” he said. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”

And in what was in truth an extraordinarily prescient moment, Peters also made the link between self-branding for individuals and the web: new technology was democratising, levelling, because “anyone can have a website”. He pulled it all together: the aspirations, the insecurities and the online opportunities. He’d seen that all kinds of people were going to have to present themselves and their businesses online, in the media and on conference platforms.

Amusingly, he first articulated this idea in a speech to executives of the British Treasury, in 1993. “I wasn’t being that blunt or contrarian,” he says, “I was just trying to say that job security was over, and in an insecure world you have to stand for something, you can’t just be Badge 120 in Purchasing. It was about learning how to think like a contractor: with job security going, the driving force of a career must come from the individual.” I’d love to know what the Treasury mandarins back then—lifetime institutional career-development, reassuring pensions, etc—made of that.

Today, Peters is broadly sanguine about the growth in the personal-branding business. He knows, for instance, how the Tom Peters brand works. “I do very well on a stage—I’m not unaware of that. And I started blogging out of curiosity, but discovered it was a marketing tool of astonishing power.” He thinks recession will cut both ways for personal branders, with, in the short term, potential clients wanting to be more careful and less conspicuous. “When jobs are scarce,” he says, “people think it’s clever to do what they’re told.”

Perhaps the biggest driver—another business term gone native—behind the growth in self-branding was middle-class insecurity. The businesses that survived the global recession of the early 1990s had done so only to be re-engineered and cost-cut to within an inch of their lives. Former middle-management jobs were now outsourced, former staff were now on contracts. Freelancing and self-employment were now often a necessity, rather than  a lifestyle choice. Formerly secure managers, now out on their own, had to be more inventive and much more competitive, pitching for every job. Having a personal brand out there, working while you slept, seemed a good idea.

And when the money came back, from about 1994 on, there were two new emerging themes in marketing: public relations and celebrity.

There had been celebrities—inventive actresses, sensational novelists—and their press agents since the 19th-century beginnings of mass media, of course, but 1990s celebrities were different. There were more of them, for a start, and they came from different backgrounds, or no background at all: celebrity chefs and decorators, “presenters” and glamour models. Media needed them, advertising needed them. PR needed them—and they needed PR. 

The enormous growth of PR—a business with few barriers to entry—made it a first-choice career for all kinds of people, from seasoned marketeers to confident, well-networked Sloane girls. Soon practically everyone you met seemed to be working in PR. And once they had PR-ed everything—from hospital trusts to pressure groups, museums to art galleries, government departments to, soon enough, entire countries—the idea of a little light self-promotion seemed increasingly obvious.

marketingAt the top of the pile, chief executives and marketing directors were churning ever more rapidly, moving on every few years in the chase for bigger, better-paid jobs. One tactic in this upward spiralism was for unknown managers to remake themselves as business celebrities—people who needed PR. More and more money, mainly corporate but some individual, went into building personal reputations in a way previous generations of senior managers would have considered risky and over-aggressive (“hardly a team player”). But by then the big corporate role-model was Richard Branson—a walking, talking brand: beard, jersey, ballooning, etc.

A whole cottage industry of self-branding experts arose to help. Like any new, slightly dodgy discipline, they came from all over the place. Old lags from mainstream advertising and marketing, flacks from speech-writing and corporate PR, people from human resources and “change management” who liked to work on the internal and the psychological, contingents of designers and stylists who buffed up the outward and the visible.

Self-branding is now a recognised discipline, with its own sites and dialogues, its doyens and breakaway B-boys, its colleges and deans. Britain even has a Federation of Image Consultants, offering a City & Guilds master’s degree in image consultancy. The federation hands out life fellowships to “individuals who have consistently demonstrated an outstanding contribution to the Image Industry”.

While recruiting for my company in the early 1990s, I met lots of business-school boys and girls. The first few struck me as completely amazing—their confidence, their projection. The things they said on their CVs about being “natural leaders”, how they were high achievers and team players, their range of smart internships worn like a row of medals, their international experience, impressive travel histories and achievements in smart hyperactive sports. And that was only the girls. It was terribly imp­ressive and exciting, if a bit exhausting.

But by the fifth interview I could see that they were all doing a branding job, building up a character from ready-mades, the kind they gave them at Robot School. I started to tune in to the vocabulary, and the body language (“never sprawl back in your chair—it looks disengaged—sit well forward and always make eye contact”) and longed for a candidate to tell me they collected 17th-century Iznik pottery, or better still, watched a lot of television.

The same thing has happened to our elected representatives: audiences instantly recognise politicians who’ve been “done”—trained to high heaven—because their bouncy responses to questioning—never saying “yes” or “no”—are so different from how any other human would answer in the same situation, and yet so eerily alike.

In the BBC’s Reith lectures this year, Professor Michael Sandel talked about new technologies like stem cells and growth hormones and what they mean for our ability to change the way we look. He pointed out that although the modern rhetoric of self-expression and authenticity should mean that plastic surgery would produce new, bold kinds of beauty, in fact everyone seems to want the same face, one that assimilates them to the classical norm—Brangelina, basically. Just like those dynamic and motivated individualistic Dan Schawbel web-wonders, so out there and in your face, and yet so all the same.

Everyone’s branding now; so how to stand out? Personal branders will have to change tack. The really good work, the undetectable best stuff, could be all about re-branding last year’s models—“Apprentice” wannabees, bright-eyed MBA hopefuls—in a new authentic way: difficult, divergent, sublimely lazy, and snaggle-toothed. 

Picture Credit: Photographs, Brijesh Patel, Image Manipulation, Russ Street

(Peter York is a broadcaster and the author of "Style Wars". His marketing and management consultancy, SRU, has no website.)