We live in an age where the power of narrative is so strong that it has become the defining way to build organizations, products and brands. In recent decades, the tech industry has presented itself as the savior to all of our problems, and now dominates so much of our culture as a consequence. And there is a quasi-religious fervor to this, especially when we look at the lionization of certain individuals, or the fact that paid-for-marketing-types are called “evangelists,” and the in-group mentality that forms afterward.
If the model for this sanctified tech guru was Steve Jobs, then its most recent exponent must be Elon Musk. Musk’s rise coincided with a vacuum left in the wake of Jobs’ demise, and his image - his personal brand - has been tweaked several times in the last two decades. Compare this footage from the turn of the century when he received his first McLaren F1 to a more recent clip from last year. And Musk’s savviest piece of personal branding is to make him an aspirational figure both as an engineer and entrepreneur.
Noted philosopher Andre Agassi once said that “image is everything,” and that was back in the days before social media. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently after watching Apple TV’s WeCrashed. There’s a scene where Anne Hathaway’s character enlists the help of a personal branding expert who asks her, deep down, what sort of person she wants to be. It’s a scene designed to emphasize her inner turmoil at the time, but it got me wondering. Were these consultants invented for the purposes of the story, or do they really do exist?
It turns out that there’s a whole industry of people helping the titans of industry massage their personal brand. But branding, in this context, isn’t the same as styling or something similarly superficial. Its boosters would say it’s a combination of psychotherapy and marketing that, when done properly, is about resolving deep-seated internal conflicts in your psyche. And yes, you might need to pick a pair of shoes that test well with adults ages 29 to 45, but it’s a lot more about crafting a story around you, about you, which you can present to the wider world.
Branding consultant Lucy Freeman says that many of her clients reach their late ‘30s or early ‘40s and feel suddenly unmoored from their own personalities. “They come to this realization that [having reached a point of leadership in a company] they’ve let themselves disappear,” she said. That’s a problem, especially if they’re now expected to take on a more public-facing role and now need to “fight their way out of the company brand.”
Branding expert Am Golhar says that, often, it’s about how people “want to be perceived” that drives them to seek out help. Ed Zitron, owner of PR agency EZPR, agrees, saying that the point of personal branding is to gain “attention with the media,” so a person can “position themselves as good at, or smart, about something.” He added that “third-party validation is huge: You’d rather listen to a reporter that’s ostensibly done research on something than an ad or piece of marketing collateral.”
Emerge founder Emily Austen recruits a behavioral psychologist as part of her process, with a mission to help identify “what [the client’s] POV should, or could, be to have the space to say something others cannot.” She added that being seen as an “entrepreneur has become a status symbol,” a phenomenon supercharged by the ability to broadcast what you’re doing over social media. “It satisfies the [public] fascination with success, and it looks glamorous and exciting,” she said.
I also asked if it would be possible to drag some random from the street, My Fair Lady style, and turn them into a branding superstar. Golhar says that there’s “got to be something there,” citing the example of Gemma Collins, a British reality TV star who leveraged her larger-than-life personality on The Only Way is Essex to become a household name.
All of the people I spoke to described, in one way or another, a process whereby the figure looking to change has to first interrogate themselves. Golhar says that it’s about them going through an “alignment process [to discover] who they are.” Thought Leadership PR founder Helen Croydon added that the questions you ask people include “why they chose this career path” and what are their “talking points.” Before you can brand, or rebrand yourself, you need to understand what it is that you’re selling.
One common anxiety that clients share is the belief that they’re about to become a strutting diva. After all, executives don’t need a brand, which sounds a little too much like caring about what other people think of you, do they? (I mean, we all do care about what other people think about us, but it seems gauche to do anything so drastic as to do anything about that.) Freeman says that the process is more about re-discovering your “non-negotiables and absolute truths.”
Another thing that came up repeatedly was a desire for these figures to demonstrate that they were an expert in the subject matter at hand. “They do care about their image,” said Croydon, “but [they’re] more concerned with portraying professional expertise in their industry.” The hope is, as always, that the greater your esteem, the more you’ll be able to leverage that into future opportunities.
There are shortcuts, if you can afford it, that will help cut some of the time it would normally take to build your new brand. Croydon, for instance, explained that agencies will hire journalists to ghostwrite material on behalf of their clients. She herself employs a number of writers who can produce such content in the service of furthering someone’s brand. Not, she explains, because the individuals can’t do it themselves, but often they’re sufficiently time-poor that they need the help.
Zitron has made his name as a vocal critic of much of what the PR industry does and isn’t a fan of the idea of personal branding at all. “There isn’t an honest [process],” he said, “personal branding is intentionally choosing what you want to share with the world at large.” That, however, “involves hiding specific things, or intentionally obfuscating parts of your life so you look better or are accepted by more people.” “If you are building a narrative for a singular person that is not ‘this is their history and this is where they’ve got to in their lives,’ then you are intentionally misleading people.” Zitron added that while there is “nothing wrong with trying to present your best self,” which, of course, we’re all doing a lot of the time, there’s a problem if “you are doing so with malicious intent.”
But despite Zitron’s warnings, I did want to explore the world of personal branding, hell, it might even help me in my career. Freeman was kind enough to sign me up for a 90-minute session where we would delve into what exactly my personal brand was, and what it could be. She started by asking me questions about what I like, what my values are and what brings me joy. Then we moved on to questions about what I’d like to do more and less of, looking for problems in my day that I’d like to get past.
Then we spent a long time discussing, for instance, how my friends, family and co-workers perceive me – or how I think they do. These were, I’ll admit, hard questions, and there’s a noticeable pause when I’m asked Who do you tell yourself you are? The follow up was harder: Who are you afraid to tell yourself that you are? It was heavy stuff. Now, in any normal story, this is the point where I reveal I’ve got lots of good tips on finding my own personal brand to share with you. But that didn’t happen, mostly because, based on my responses, Freeman told me “you have never, actually thought about [your authentic self] for a second.”
Ah. Maybe it's true, then, that in order to cultivate a personal brand that there has to be some nugget of raw something that can be shaped into something more effective. I wonder, too, if you don't require a fairly hefty dose of self-belief, enough to propel you toward the idea of considering your brand in the first place. Clearly that is something I'll need to work on.