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.