Brand me!

From Michelle Obama and David Miliband to top athletes and business people, successful 21st-century

The ascent of Michelle Obama represents the triumph of the power of personal branding. America's aspiring first lady embodies the principles of image management in the modern age. Don't confuse people with mixed messages. Present a clean, clear image. Adopt visual catchphrases: the recognisable hair, the sharp but relaxed suits, the fist bump. Her brand has it all: it feels au thentic, unique, memorable. She even describes "Team Obama" (herself and her husband) as "fresh and open and fearless and bold".

These are the sorts of advertising slogans usually applied to a product, not a person. But this is increasingly the way successful individuals think of themselves. It is 11 years since Tom Peters, the American management guru, published a manifesto entitled "The Brand Called You". "In the age of the individual, you have to be your own brand," he proclaimed. "It's time for me - and you - to take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that's true for anyone who's interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work." The article became a book and the book became an entire movement: personal branding. Now, more than a decade on, this new management science is crossing over into the mainstream.

In the US the movement has exploded in the past year, and not just thanks to the obvious rise of phenomena such as Brand Obama, but largely because of the efforts of two men who are tireless ambassadors for personal branding - as well as unapologetic self-promoters: Dan Schawbel, publisher of Personal Branding magazine, and Tim Ferriss, author of the bestseller The Four-Hour Work Week. Last year, both launched extraordinary, wildly successful viral campaigns to promote themselves and their work. Both have written extensively on the importance of establishing a differentiated brand that makes you stand out. For Schawbel it's "personal branding expert for Generation Y". Meanwhile Ferriss gives himself a series of different labels: lifestyle designer, ultra-vagabond, productivity guru, serial entrepreneur.

Both have created a mass following for themselves online. Both have written about the importance of pushing your own sites and blogs to the front of a Google search and about cross-linking with as many blogs as possible. Ferriss believes he has cracked the secret to creating a bestseller by commandeering word-of-mouth on the internet and was recently voted Greatest Self-Promoter of All Time by Wired.com.

These advocates of "Brand Me" argue that in the digital age none of us can avoid the reality that we are brands. If we are mentioned online, we have a brand and a reputation. (The implication being that if you are not mentioned online then you are in very big trouble indeed. In fact, you probably don't exist.) Everyone from a potential employer to a prospective blind date can check out our brand online.

We are used to celebrities, politicians and global leaders branding themselves and we are pretty cynical about it. David Miliband's fledgling brand, for example, has its strengths (plain language, open hand gestures, the signature hair) but its weakness has already been widely noted: an inauthentic, wannabe-working-class voice (the inconsistent, Blair-like dropping of his Ts). You sense that other politicians - especially Labour's women - would benefit from a touch of stronger branding: they have no clear image and stand for no particular message. This is why no one wants to "buy" them at the moment.

But don't we increasingly warm to people who are not branded, who are not trying to second-guess how they come across? The personal branding supremo Louise Mowbray, of Mowbray By Design, one of the UK's only practitioners of the art, admits that it is a little cheesy for British tastes. "No one wants to talk about it over here. People are very quiet about it and don't want to admit that they're working on themselves. But in New York people will happily introduce you to their personal branding con sultant." Mowbray worked in the City and as a headhunter for 17 years before setting up her brand consultancy three years ago. She charges about £400 an hour. Sixty per cent of her clients are in business - "anyone from plastic surgeons to bankers to someone who owns a series of private health clubs". The other 40 per cent are people in the public eye: politicians and their spouses, sporting personalities.

She points out that any time you introduce anyone at a party you are "branding" them anyway. The secret is, she says, to pick out specific projects or ideas that people will know you for. "If you are working in a bank that has 8,000 employees you can't exactly write the strapline "the greatest trader on the floor" under your name. But you can find a subtle way of championing a cause or developing an area of expertise. It's about getting known for what you do best."

The personal branding movement has its heroes, most notably Donald Trump, the king of self-branding, who refers to himself in the third person, and Apple's Steve Jobs. According to the technology writer Leander Kahney, author of The Cult of Mac, Jobs has done what every successfully branded person should aim for: "He has turned personality traits - perfectionism, elitism, control freakishness - into business processes."

Although there is something quite weird about these exhausting attempts to push yourself upon an unsuspecting world, perhaps there is also something liberating about this self-determinism. It is an attitude that does not accept any limitations. If you get a rejection, you just move on. As Dan Schawbel advises the uninitiated: "Become known by establishing a blog and use it to network with others. Take risks, reach out to new people and never quit. There are far too many opportunities and people out there to let roadblocks get in your way. Remember that you are the CEO of You, Inc [this is the mantra of Tom Peters, the so-called father of personal branding] so you need to make things happen and not rely on others."

These people do not take no for an answer. Tim Ferriss echoes this: "Get smart and get real. You, Inc exists whether you want it to or not. Manage your personal brand so you can benefit from the new digital landscape instead of suffer from it."

The implication is that we do not have a choice: in the digital age there will be traces of us online - and we need to manage and marshal those traces so as to present ourselves in our best light.

Carl Honoré, the bestselling author of In Praise of Slow and Under Pressure, agrees that personal branding can work in the short term if you have a product to sell, but he is sceptical about the long term. "There's no question that a strong brand will generate sales and recognisability but it can be a double-edged sword if you apply it to a person," he says. "Once your brand is successful, people will want you to carry on being the same thing - and you might not want to. You create the brand to serve you but then you become the servant of the brand."

Human beings are not products and it's just not possible to boil them down to one core brand message, Honoré argues: "Brands by their nature are simple. It's all about finding a single meaning and sticking to it. There is no room for shades of grey. That is ultimately stultifying because as human beings we're so much more than that; we're full of nuances."

Designing destiny

One of the other downsides to "lifestyle design" is that it relies on knowing exactly what you want from life. Most people don't, and are not exactly raring to take charge of their own destiny. Many of us also have no idea which "markets" we are attempting to appeal to and who our "target audience" or "clients" are. And surely any attempt at controlling what everyone thinks about us and says about us is purely illusory? It means seeing everyone around us as part of "the market", rather than simply as other people.

"The thing I find uncomfortable is that branding is a commercial step," says Carl Honoré. "It changes the way our relationships operate, putting them on a commercial level. It will pull away at our social fabric if our relationships always have a layer of commercialism and self-interest to them."

Louise Mowbray disagrees. "It is the most powerful tool I have ever come across," she says. "When I worked as a headhunter what always fascinated me was how some people were not as qualified as the next person but they just seemed to get all the luck all of the time. When I stumbled on personal branding, I realised how that had happened."

There is a threat implicit in the personal branding message: that you ignore this science at your peril. Without taking action, you are putting your company - yourself - at risk. But what would happen if we all branded ourselves? "If we move to a world where everybody is a noisy, single-message brand, just imagine the grim cacophony," says Honoré. "It's like having everyone walking around wearing a neon sandwich board."

But as branding gurus would argue, other people are already busy designing mental slogans for your invisible sandwich board - and these can be made to work for - or against - you. As Louise Mowbray puts it: "If we don't decide what our image and personal brand should reflect about us, others will." Whether we like it or not, personal branding is here to stay.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire