One-Man (and One-Woman) Brands

Posted on June 4, 2012 by Marian Salzman

What can we learn from people who have created a brilliant Brand Me? In today’s highly curated world of social networking, it’s more important than ever to let your personal brand beacon hit new heights. Your brand can incorporate everything from the hobbies you pursue in off-hours (as if that exists with the always-on, 24/7/365 work style that has evolved as the new normal) to the books you are reading in hopes of making you a better leader at the office or a more interesting patron of the arts.

To be a better brand manager of the most important brand out there—you—let’s consider some lessons we can cull from people who do an incredibly great job of self-branding. (None of these people are clients, by the way, just worthy of immense admiration.)

Richard Branson. For those of you aspiring to take your personal brand right up to the C-suite, look no further than one of our favorite CEOs (and personal brands). This entrepreneur’s Austin Powers–like “Yeah, baby! Yeah!” approach to marketing and branding of everything from his airline to his mobile phones makes him a powerhouse. But it’s not just the cooler-than-cool mystique of his business offerings; it’s the stripped-down, unbuttoned, unplugged style he brings to everything he does that is so much fun to watch. Recently, his airline offered ice cubes shaped like his face in the upper-class cabin on select flights. “While Richard would love to be able to sit and enjoy a drink with all of our passengers, his schedule means that it simply isn’t possible,” said Steve Ridgway, Virgin Atlantic’s CEO. “Now he is able to join our guests ‘in spirit.’” And that’s why Sir Richard is a stellar personal brand: He’s always up for hosting the party, and every offering in his empire showcases a piece of himself. Lesson learned: Inject fun into everything, even poking fun at yourself. It proves your confidence.

Bethenny Frankel. From being a real housewife to being a real force in the business world, Frankel sold her Skinnygirl empire for a very fat amount—with estimates of anywhere from $8.1 million to $100 million. She might seem coarse, but her legions of female fans love her straight-shooter style, tight yoga body and no-nonsense approach to everything from motherhood to healthy living. But if you think a reality star becoming a powerful personal brand is a bit of a long shot, think again, at least if you have the brains and the balls to bet the farm. Today, Frankel is the source of best-selling books, workout videos, drinks, and face and body products. Her transparency about the balance of life, work and love is on-trend in our need-to-know era; her corporate brand and personal brand are as potent as any of her Skinnygirl cocktails. Lesson learned: Ambition can be translated into products and services if you truly know how and where you resonate—and the stretchiness of your brand elasticity.

Tony Hsieh. The CEO of Zappos has built a brand empire on being a good guy; his company repeatedly makes “best places to work” lists, and his customer service offer is second to none. In a time in which brand values are under as much scrutiny as campaign contributions, Hsieh has made a brilliant career out of the power of positive thinking. Hsieh sells that happiness, and his book Delivering Happiness is a testament that the power of making customers feel good can lead to great success (before joining Zappos, Hsieh sold LinkExchange, the company he co-founded, to Microsoft for $265 million). It’s proof positive that nice guys don’t always finish last—and sometimes even get very, very rich. His latest trend-savvy move is to partner with Venture for America (a program for future entrepreneurs modeled after Teach for America) to focus on making Las Vegas an entrepreneurial destination. Betcha it’s a hit. Lesson learned: Good guys can win, because doing good and well is the new American dream.

LeBron James. Love him or hate him, King James is a force to be reckoned with. Though his declaration of “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” left many in his hometown of Cleveland seeing red, James’ cockiness and arrogance has only solidified his personal brand (his sponsorship deals are as far-flung as Nike globally and Dunkin’ Donuts in Asia). To enhance the power of that personal brand, James recently hiring ad agency SapientNitro to work on his self-branded website. James’ Brand Me, for all intents and purposes, is a slam dunk. Lesson learned: There is nothing wrong with constantly planning for the next scenario.

Steve Jobs. I can’t think of a better example of a personal brand aligned with the corporate brand he ran than Steve Jobs, whose death was felt by the millions of fans who have dutifully stood in line for every iLaunch and every next-gen Apple product that hit the market. From his trademark black turtlenecks to his resistance to accept anything that was less than perfectly designed or executed, Jobs was the CEO that all other CEOs looked to emulate: He stood for innovation, creativity and fearlessness. Jobs and Apple were one and the same; his legacy as the best personal brand of all time will live on and remind us all of how much better we can be at crafting a personal brand while running an empire in a time of vast change. Lesson learned: The biggest fear you should have is of the status quo.

Ralph Lauren. It’s tough to think about the American fashion industry without thinking of Lauren, whose Gatsby-esque and preppy take on dress and life have made him one of the richest men in the world—a wealth recently estimated by Forbes at $7.5 billion. From his fashion empire to his home furnishings, Lauren’s aspirational yet accessible lifestyle is a success because his own way of life is the inspiration for what he sells to the world. For years, he was the model for many ads for his brand; a café he opened in his Paris store has the chicest Parisians eating that most American of delicacies: the humble hamburger. Is it any surprise that the Laurens merged with the Bushes—both American royalty—upon the marriage of Lauren’s son to philanthropist/presidential descendant Lauren Bush? Lesson learned: Truly good taste is the stuff of greatness.

Erika Napoletano. Have you ever thought you could craft a personal brand from your hair color? Me either. But Napoletano’s wicked and caustic blog, RedheadWriting, has caused a huge stir in the blogosphere and taken her Internet consultancy to the next level. Napoletano was smart enough to leverage her uncommon physical characteristic into a platform and voice for her very popular blog, which, according to her site, “is a bastion for ‘unpopular thoughts and blunt advice—delivered’ and consistently strives to say what others won’t and don’t (but should) about marketing, social media, business integrity and life in general.” The redhead’s no-holds-barred thoughts on modern life make her more of a black sheep—which is right on-trend for her personal brand beliefs and for the adoring followers she affectionately calls “bitches.” Lesson learned: A strong personality is an asset when it gets harnessed.

[photo: creativecommons.org/loop_oh]

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