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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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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