It’s been happening ever since I started teaching an MBA course in brand management. After about the fourth or fifth class a student will sidle over after the class ends and ask me how the lessons they are learning about companies and products can be applied to their job search and their own mission to build a ‘personal brand’.
The student asking this question varies, but my answer has remained resolutely the same. I explain that the principles we use to position products should not be applied to the human spirit. That people are not tins of beans. That personal branding is an idiot discipline filled with charlatans and motivational speakers who know little about brand and even less about humanity.
I don’t usually go any further than that. But my answer is also shaped by my PhD advisor, the great Professor Richard Elliott, who force-fed me kilos of Karl Marx every week at any early stage in my postgraduate studies. It is spooky just how much of capitalism and consumer culture Marx predicted from the back end of the 19th century. It’s even spookier that Marx also foresaw that the final turn of the capitalist screw would arrive when man turned himself into a commodity. A century before the Kardashians were taking a giant, celebrity-sized shit all over popular culture Marx was suggesting that people would ultimately lose themselves by becoming commodities for sale.
But one of the joys of teaching MBA students, rather than delightful but utterly malleable undergraduates, is that MBAs have a terrific habit of telling you that you’re wrong. Usually this can be quashed with a bit of professorial thunder and lightning. But, quite frequently, a good MBA can force their professor (and I say this through clenched teeth) to change their mind.
And so it was with a student who I will call ‘Emma’. She asked me the usual question about personal branding. I gave her the usual answer. But as I reached for my briefcase she remained rooted to the spot. “But that’s not actually true,” she said. “You are an example of becoming a brand.” I looked at her wearily. Then at my briefcase and beyond it the exit door. With an almost imperceptible sigh I asked: “Why do you say that?”
What followed was a long and rather enjoyable discussion. In the end Emma agreed with me that it was over-simplistic and reductive to apply brand strategy to people in a wholesale fashion. But I was forced to accept, after much annoying interrogation from my erstwhile MBA, that some of the principles did apply and that there had indeed been a moment in my own professional life when I had consciously applied some of them to my career path.
Despite Emma’s conviction that I had fashioned myself into a brand, I do not think I ever consciously went through an explicit process. I certainly never called it personal branding or applied the same strategic planning approach that I or any other marketer might bring to a product or service. But there was a very specific, bitter experience in my own career when I decided I had to do things differently.
The power of celebrity
It was March 2002. I was a junior professor at London Business School and had been asked by the dean to be one of the speakers at a special alumni day the school was hosting at its Regent’s Park campus. I was to be the warm up act for LBS mega-professor Gary Hamel. Hamel is a legendary strategy thinker and easily one of the biggest management gurus on the planet. I was honoured to be asked to talk in front of 400 alumni and even more delighted to be the warm up man for the great Professor Hamel.
I spent the next couple of weeks putting together a new talk on brands and brand strategy. It must have taken me several late nights of proper work and eventually I had what I thought at the time was a pretty good presentation. I sat back and looked forward to hanging with Hamel and generally being at the top table for a few precious hours.
I got there early on the big day in the hope of meeting Professor Hamel but he was nowhere to be seen. The alumni trundled in and at 2pm I was introduced. I stood up on the stage and gave my presentation. It was well received. Pleasant applause. I walked back to my seat at the side of the stage and awaited the entrance of the Big Man.
No one appeared. Instead a giant screen slowly descended from the ceiling to my left. When it nearly touched the floor and filled the whole stage, aside from the small pocket where I sat quizzically looking out at the audience, it came to a smooth stop. A projector clicked into life and Gary Hamel appeared live on the screen and gave a casual “hello” to the assembled audience.
It was 15 years ago so you will forgive me if I now get some of the details wrong. In my memory of his talk Professor Hamel was seated at his breakfast bar at home with the ocean clearly visible in the background. I seem to remember he was casual to the point of being carefree and he may even have been eating breakfast as he spoke. I do remember his opening words: “People ask me all the time about strategy.”
I also remember my reaction to the talk as the 30 minutes of very casual, meandering banter ensued. I distinctly recall looking at the giant projection next to me on stage and thinking “this is a total load of crap” while grinning supportively in case anyone in the audience was looking at me.
They weren’t. All eyes were fixed on Hamel and the audience devoured his every word. As I looked out across the audience their faces were frozen in the sort of dazzled stare usually reserved for the final set of the singles final at Wimbledon or a front-row finale at a Lady Gaga concert. I expected the audience to be pissed off that Hamel was not there in person. Instead they were in the palm of his hand. He literally had them at “hello”.
Unlike working on actual brands, I did not change my personality or approach to satisfy some craven desire to fill a niche in the market.
I sat there in the shadows as Hamel – who was approximately 800% larger than me on the screen – spoke to the enthralled audience. While he talked I thought about the long nights I had put in to create my now totally forgotten speech on branding. I looked again at the screen and the languid discussion going on without slides or any apparent script and I seethed. Hamel appeared to have woken up, slipped into his bath robe, wandered over to his breakfast bar, started buttering his toast, turned on his personal camera and started talking.
It wasn’t just that I had worked much harder than him on my talk. It was that his talk had eclipsed mine so much that, had I stood at the exit as the alumni walked out, no-one would have had the faintest clue who I was. When the event was over and the room had emptied I sloped off to do what I always do when confronted with imminent and immediate doom. I had a pint.
Sat at the bar in the Windsor Castle with a Guinness and an expression of utter defeat written across my face, I fingered my glass and tried to pinpoint the source of my pain. Why did I feel so bad? Hamel’s content was almost non-existent. His delivery was devoid of jokes or impact. And yet he had made me look like an irrelevance. And then the realisation struck me, as clear as if it had been stencilled onto the bottom of my Guinness glass. Hamel was playing an entirely different game from me. I had gone out there to give a good talk on branding. Hamel had been there to be Gary Hamel.
“Fuck,” I said out loud. And I did what I always do when I am struck by a gigantic insight of great preponderance – I ordered another pint.
I started to get to the reason for my anger. I was always going to have to work this hard to deliver a good talk, because that was what was expected. And Hamel would always have it this easy because all he had to do was turn up.
It became clear that not only was Hamel teaching me something important, he was teaching me something that I was already meant to understand. I was supposed to be an expert on branding, and yet I was approaching everything like a generic, commodity professor hired to deliver a talk. Hamel was a brand being asked simply to be himself. Not only did the audience not expect anything new from him that day, they wanted him just to deliver his usual messages because, like a rock star with a big back catalogue, they wanted to witness in person the stuff that they knew him for.
“Fuck,” I said out loud for the second time. It was clear that I needed to change my approach completely, and have another pint. It was time to stop being like all the other generic professors and start doing things differently. Perhaps one day an alumni group would turn up to see me being me.
The fallacy of personal branding
Let’s be clear at this point. I never did get to be anywhere near as famous as Gary Hamel. I am now about the age he was back then when we talked ‘together’ on that big stage in London and I have nothing like his reputation, impact or legacy. But I am somewhat known for certain things by some people. You, for example. You’ve made it through nearly 1,900 words of this shit and that would never have happened if you did not know who I was before you started reading this.
I certainly can’t tell you that I sat down and did a formal positioning for myself that night in the pub. And I want to make it abundantly clear that, unlike working on actual brands, I did not change my personality or approach to satisfy some craven desire to fill a niche in the market. This must be the biggest difference between product branding and personal branding. Frequently we will change a product or company to deliver its chosen positioning better. But if you or I started to change our personality or way of doing things to fulfill some personal branding agenda we would be inauthentic wankers.
And I suppose that is the all-important caveat that has enabled me to soften my stance on personal branding. It’s important to be different from others and to make sure your target knows who you are. Just don’t change your identity to achieve it. Revel in your differences and unusualness and don’t be afraid to stand out, but make sure you do it from a place of genuineness.
“To thine own self be true” was how Shakespeare put it in Hamlet. I guess that’s the best advice on personal branding I can proffer. That and avoiding any presentations next to Gary Hamel. Shakespeare never mentioned that one.
Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next class on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing from September 2017. To find out how it could make you a more confident, more effective and more inspired marketer, and to book your place, click here.