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

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war