While a personal brand can be a vital tool for any entrepreneur, it’s important that it shows the real individual standing behind the startup
The concept of treating one’s personality as a brand can be a divisive issue, attracting rapt interest from some quarters and pained cringing from others. But there’s little arguing the personal brand has gained a lot of currency in recent times, with many entrepreneurs becoming as much the face of their enterprise as its branding. “You’ve got lots of them out there – such as Dyson, Branson or Zuckerberg – representing companies from relatively small UK-based businesses to global businesses,” says Simon Martin, founder and CEO of Oliver, the marketing agency.
Certainly when choosing who to work with or purchase from, the personalities involved can be as strong an influence as a brand’s reputation. “Often the best product will lose out to a stronger brand; it’s the same for a person,” explains Adrian Lomas, founder and CEO of Blueleaf, the digital agency. Just as a strong brand will give a consumer or client confidence in the business they’re getting involved with, having a strong sense of the person behind it can have a huge impact. “Generating a strong and consistent personal brand attracts people and lets them know what to expect,” he continues.
It’s not hard to see that people generally relate better to a familiar face than a trademark but imbuing a traditional brand with personality is a tall order. “It’s a difficult thing to attach personality to a commercial brand,” says Kieran McBride, co-founder of JOYLAB, the digital retail consultancy. “You can create aspiration for a certain lifestyle, for sure, but real personality?” While some industries definitely try to emulate a genuine persona – the example McBride gives is the perfume and cologne industry – he feels that often this simply comes across as forced.
By contrast, revealing the genuine face behind the brand can have remarkable results. CoolBrands People, a personal branding service aimed at entrepreneurs and c-suite executives, was called in to help the CEO of a French laundry detergent producer establish his personal brand.
“He wanted to do a joint project with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF),” explains Maarten Schäfer, co-founder of CoolBrands People. “But, because he is a CEO of a chemical company, WWF didn’t want to meet him.” However, the CEO was in fact passionate about sustainability, making cleaning up the chemicals industry one of his chief priorities. “We created content about what he stood for as a sustainability guru and all the things he’d done and made sure it was also on the first page of Google,” he continues. “That helped him to get this joint venture up and running.”
And this highlights one reason why a personal brand can trump a corporate equivalent. Traditional brands can sometimes mask the personalities behind them, rather than give potential consumers, clients and collaborators a clear picture of the values and ideals that drive them. “If you’ve just got a brand name of a corporate entity, it’s a faceless thing,” Martin says. “The entrepreneur’s personal brand humanises the business.”
This is one reason that a more personal brand can be a hit with consumers. Corporate branding is often functionally a way of dispersing personal responsibility for the action of that business. “It’s always the company that decides whether to cut down budgets; the individual is never responsible,” says Anouk Pappers, co-founder of CoolBrands People. However, if an individual has put themselves out there, culpability for a company’s actions is more likely to fall on their shoulders. “Suddenly, if it’s your face up there, then you are responsible,” she says.
Given that it’s often intended to reveal the person behind the company, an entrepreneur can’t just achieve an effective personal brand by donning a sharp suit and getting their curls freshly coiffed. As with a traditional brand, it needs to reach deeper than this to the values it is intended to represent. “A strong personal brand [is] not just about clothing or hairstyle,” Lomas says. “It’s about personal behaviour; integrity, reliability, humour, generosity and loyalty.”
The personal brand is subjected to trends in a similar way to commercial brands, and, in recent times, one of the most vital things behind any enterprise is a sense of meaning. Martin makes reference to Simon Sinek’s TED talk Start With Why, by way of illustration. “If you talk about businesses, the order they typically present themselves in is ‘what we do’, ‘how we do it’ and then ‘why we do it’,” he relates. However, in his talk, Sinek explained that truly great brands such as Apple often do the reverse – starting with their purpose rather what they do – and this gives them a huge impact on consumers. “The most powerful thing behind what a brand can be is the entrepreneur’s motive,” Martin explains.
Barring the odd trailblazer such as Apple, it is often this sense of a clear leading purpose that is lacking from commercial brands. “We did this for a Brazilian fashion designer,” says Pappers. “He said, ‘My brand is there, my product is there, but why I’m actually doing this isn’t.” Certainly, it is possible to create a clear leading purpose with a commercial brand alone, but identifying the purpose of the entrepreneur behind a company can give consumers an excellent idea of what it stands for.
However, as already mentioned, not everybody is utterly sold on the concept of a personal brand. In our celebrity-obsessed era, marketing people as brands has often had little to do with genuine personalities and more to do with dressing products in a new garb. There is a real concern that it could simply encourage entrepreneurs to shape their personal brand to meet and sell to consumer expectations, rather than using it as a way of genuinely showing the motivations and individuals behind the brand.
Largely, this is going to depend on the perspective and the ethics of the entrepreneurs involved. “It’s down to the individuals how much they respect their personal brand,” says Lomas. But it is true that once a personal brand becomes an artificial construct it loses part of what gives it its value. “Creating a personal brand is not something that should be forced or unnatural,” he continues. “It must reflect what you stand for, what you believe at your core and your values.”
A disingenuous attempt at using the personal brand will often fall flat if it’s perceived to be false or overly edited. “If it’s left to the communications department or a PR agency, then it’s no longer a personal brand,” explains McBride. “It’s a corporate brand with a face. Like Colonel Sanders of KFC.” It also comes with high degree of risk because if it stands at odds with an individual’s genuine personality, then it won’t take long for the rift between them to become clear. “Personalities in the media will do things that come naturally to them and often bring their halos crashing down,” he says.
So how does one avoid the trap of turning a personal brand into something corporate and jargon-led? “Don’t talk like a robot,” advises McBride. “Don’t be formal. Tone of voice and language are key.” Essentially, a personal brand shouldn’t be a reflection of an enterprise’s agenda; it should be an extension of who that individual is. “Write as you’d speak, talk on subjects that are of value to you, even if they’re not specific to business objectives.”
More fundamentally, anyone attempting to create a personal brand just needs to remember that they are trying to show the genuine individual behind their company. As Lomas concludes: “Simply [be] human and [treat] people the same way.”