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Personal Branding

Mistaking People For Brands


Mistaking People For Brands

Building brands a hundred years ago was hard work. Back then, consumers were uncomfortable with the idea of identifying with products and companies.

As a result, early pioneers of consumer branding often created a fictional identity to personify the brand to make it easier for consumers to relate to them.

In 1921, for example, US food giant General Mills invented Betty Crocker as the personification of many of its brands. It created a kitchen, a portrait, even a signature for its all-American homemaker. It was a strategy many brands adopted. Consumers were encouraged to form relationships with fictional characters from Aunt Gemima, the African-American face of pancake mix, to the Marlboro Man. In so doing, they also formed relationships with the brands that sponsored them.

As consumer culture evolved, the vocabulary of branding became increasingly anthropomorphic. Consumers ‘adopted’ brands, built brand ‘relationships’ and eventually became brand ‘loyal’. Words once reserved for personal relationships were increasingly applied to material goods. Consumers grew adept at identifying directly with brands.

Recently, we have entered a third stage in this process. Not only are consumers comfortable relating to brands, they have now begun to use the language of branding to help them relate to themselves and to others.

Where once consumers needed fictional people to help them form relationships with a brand, now brands help us define how we relate to ourselves and others.

A sociologist published the results of a study analyzing Australian birth registries. In the past decade there has been a big increase in newborns christened with brand names. We can expect a generation named Chanel, Lexus, Bentley and Armani.

In America a whole industry has sprung up around ‘personal branding’, in which consultants apply the theories of brand management to career planning and life goals. In Managing Brand Me: How to Build Your Personal Brand, authors Thomas Gad and Anette Rosencreutz observe that in this ‘increasingly transparent world it is becoming harder to grasp who you really are. Time to brand yourself as you would an exciting new product’.

In London, snooker player Jimmy White announced he was changing his name to Jimmy Brown as part of a sponsorship agreement with HP Sauce. And while Kerry McFadden was announcing to the press that she had received laser surgery to remove the tattoo of her former husband’s name from her derriere, the ex-husband in question was announcing to the press that he was rebranding himself from Bryan to Brian to reflect his new outlook on life.

In Hollywood, the decision to scrap the production of Nicole Kidman’s movie Eucalyptus was blamed on co-star Russell Crowe and his row with the film’s director. In a furious email exchange between the two, Crowe attempted to assert his superiority with the words: ‘I am a Ferrari, you’re just a VW’.

It is what sociologists call the ‘postmodern turn’ in society and what Marx predicted as the ‘commodification of self’. People have become so absorbed into consumer culture it now obscures all other aspects of their lives. They see themselves as brands, and see others in the same way.

Yet people are not brands. Brands are things we buy and use and discard.

When we apply the concepts of branding to individuals or to ourselves we lose something very important. We are supposed to love our families, not our cars; be loyal to our partners, not a supermarket. The sad lost souls that are today’s celebrities are an important illustration of what happens to people who completely forget that they are different from the products they consume.


– Jimmy White reportedly received £100,000 from HP Sauce for changing his name by deed poll to Jimmy Brown. HP also sponsored the brown ball in the recent Masters snooker tournament at Wembley.

– White said he wanted to attract new sponsors to the sport following restrictions on tobacco deals.

– During the tournament, White ditched the customary black tuxedo for an all-brown outfit.

– He began his Masters challenge confidently, stating: ‘I am definitely having James Brown on the Masters trophy. I’ll be the “godfather of snooker”.’ Such dreams were ended when he lost 6-1 in the semi-final to eventual winner Ronnie O’Sullivan.

– The change of name has confused broadcasters. The BBC referred to him by his name of birth, while Sky has opted for Jimmy ‘White’ Brown in coverage of the Premier League of Snooker.

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1 Comment

Raj Krishnaswamy on June 20th, 2008 said

This is a superb article. I notice only one point where my thoughts slightly differ from yours and that is you say that brands are things that you buy, use and discard. While that is true for the majority of items that we may consume, there are certain brands that we buy, use ( or dont ) and simply want to hold on to both for ourselves and possibly for posterity. For example, an antique Rolex watch costing thousands of dollars may be held on forever. And on a lower cash outlay level, one may hold on to Coca-Cola bottles from the early yesteryears for a very long time. Either way, overall, I agree with the author and would like to commend this article and give it high ratings. Thank you!

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