There's a First World War anecdote about an indignant general being jostled by irreverent squaddies in the mud of Flanders. "Do you know who I am?" demanded the officer. One squaddie replied, "Bloody hell, we might not know what we're doing here, but this bugger doesn't even know who he is." Humour may have been a sane response in 1914, but the question of self-identity has become even more significant since then.
The current Reebok advertisements declare "I am who I am". Yet it is rarely as simple as that. As Cary Grant said: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant . . . Even I want to be Cary Grant." People - not just film stars - are brands. Branding is part of the voodoo economics of modern life. The essentials are simple. A brand is a combination of associations and expectations. These may once have been abstractions, but today brands have cash value. The most famous example is Coca-Cola. You can do a calculation: work out the market capitalisation of the Coca-Cola Company and then subtract the value of its tangible assets. The mind-boggling figure left is attributable not to a carbonated drink with vegetable extracts, but to the world of meaning created by more than a cen-tury of advertising.
Nowadays, corporate buildings are branded, too, either with the name of a signature architect whose celebrity eases the planning process, or as powerful symbols of corporate authority. It has even happened to authors. HarperCollins has a "Brands" division alongside its mundane divisions of children's books, cookery and gardening. These brands are its most famous authors, including Jack Higgins, Jeffrey Archer and Agatha Christie. Look at any book stall: on the covers, the names Higgins, Archer and Christie are far more prominent than the titles of their books.
We live in a culture of feelings and associations, where ideas are more important than things. Business orthodoxy, the one promulgated by sinister consultancies such as McKinsey, aridly maintains that anything that can be measured can be managed. Yet the most important moments in business are emotional, not numerical. The Journal of Advertising Research recently found that emotions are twice as important as facts. Deals are delicate frameworks of vulnerability and power. People, not numbers, are the essential element. The most important aspects of business are persuasion and seduction - and these cannot be measured. They can be created only by the well-designed person with heaps of brand value. But how do you create brand value? Well, you have to design an impressive persona.
It may sound superficial, but, as the public relations guru Tim Bell says, "perceptions are real". Bell is only following Machiavelli, who knew that: "The great majority of mankind is satisfied with appearances, as though they were reali-ties . . ." We can begin by speculating what exactly comprises a functioning human being. A chemist would say we are 96.2 per cent organic elements: including DNA, RNA proteins, lipids, sugars and complex hydrocarbons, along with water and carbon dioxide, a spot of calcium and sulphur and trace elements of chromium, molybdenum, vanadium, tin and zinc. On the other hand, William James, the pioneer psychologist and brother of the novelist Henry, said the self was: "The sum total of all that [an individual] can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses and yacht and bank account." Kurt Vonnegut had a more telling idea. He said that "you are what you pretend to be". In this theatre of pretence, appearances are paramount. Which observation brings us to Oscar Wilde's irreverent dictum that only shallow people do not judge by appearances.
Confidence is essential to the successfully designed self. The worms of self-doubt are, however, always busy. They burrowed away even at Beatrice Webb, founder of the London School of Economics, who was crippled by a lack of confidence. But she developed a technique for dealing with it, as she explained to Bertrand Russell: "If I ever felt inclined to be timid as I was going into a room full of people, I would say to myself, 'You're the cleverest member of one of the cleverest families in the cleverest class of the cleverest nation in the world. Why should you be frightened?'" Webb survived.
Self-identity and self-design have been the subjects of two exceptionally intelligent and insightful studies. The first was Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Goffman writes that: "When an individual enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information about him or to bring into play information already possessed." This is a fine definition of branding.
The second self-identity masterpiece is Wendy Doniger's The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was. As Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, Doniger writes with authority on the large structures containing and defining human life. She tells one earthy anecdote that richly explains the uncertainties involved with the adventure in the design of great reputations. A groupie with prodigious experience of her craft used to report after a night of work: "He was great, but no Mick Jagger." And then slept with the lead singer of the Rolling Stones and dolefully reported: "He was great, but no Mick Jagger."
As creating your own identity depends on public relations, it is worth recording that the modern PR business was founded by Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays's Propaganda of 1928 is a communications classic. The connections he draws between psychoanalysis, communications, public relations and self-identity are disturbing and compelling.
In As You Like It Shakespeare memorably explained that all the world's a stage. In the 21st century, the danger of self-design extends beyond our local theatre to global politics. We have had actors in politics before. Now there is the scary phenomenon of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a specialist not so much in self-branding as in self-imitation. He has killed more than 500 people on film. And, if he achieves his political ambitions, he will be able to kill very many more. In real time. The truth about personalities may not be objective, but the results are.
Stephen Bayley's book on self-design will be published in 2007