Jo Matthews


Another day begins. I wrench myself out of bed to a background of Wogan, scrub myself awake with a squeeze of Radox, quickly nail a bowl of Kellogs, brush my teeth with Colgate, check I’ve got my Oyster in my pocket, grab a Starbucks and open my Mac (with a sidelong peer at Facebook for any significant overnight gossip). It’s 9am and already I’ve been brand-bombarded without even spotting it.

A brand is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Marketing as ‘a make of product which can be recognized by a name or by a design’. Traditionally associated with the consumer world of products, brands give us reassuring points of reference, from the Apple apple and the Nike tick to those infamous golden arches. Branding helps us to distinguish the things we want from the things we don’t, the companies we trust from those we don’t. In fact, our world has become so brand-dominated that popular brands have weasled their way into our everyday language – from old stalwarts like ‘biro’ and ‘hoover’ through to those latest upstart verbs ‘to google’ and ‘to twitter’.

But brands go further than logos and products. From Essex to Ethiopia, places too have brands and are beginning to market themselves as if they were commodities. Globalisation has woken whole nations to the urgent need to develop sophisticated brand strategies for themselves to counteract years of stereotyping (which is a sort of passive, negative branding). The famous one-line rebranding of ‘Incredible India’ has brought $11.6 billion to the economy through a resurgence of tourism. Meanwhile Ethiopia and Rwanda are just two of several African countries that are brushing up their brand identities in order to shake off the outdated and damaging associations of disease, war, and genocide. It’s a long process, undoing an entrenched and often very negative historical brand. But it can reap rich rewards if you get it right and if, as in the case of Rwanda, your backers include the CEO of Starbucks, CEO of Google, and a certain Mr Tony Blair

Branded products. Branded places. And the next step? Branded people. Not literally like cattle, but nearly. Not only are we branded in the sense that we are defined by the products we buy and the places we live (a sort of branding by proxy) but in the last decade a whole new concept of ‘personal branding’ has emerged. People and their careers are now marketed as if they themselves were products and places. So how do you package yourself? And what is your USP? How do you want to be seen by other people? What would be your strapline?

It may sound crazy, but a moment’s reflection confirms that some of the most successful brands in the world are actually people. Think about Richard Branson, take a look at Posh and Becks, consider the phenomenon that is ‘Brangelina’. In the Marketing exam for my Masters degree I had to write a three hour answer explaining why Madonna was one of the most successful brands of the 21st century (which involved probing the brand-fuelled sub-text of ‘Like a Virgin’ and deconstructing those extraordinarily pointy bras).

Having just set myself up as a freelancer, I’m aware of the need to establish a brand, but I naively assumed I was branding my work, not myself. It turns out that the two are, and should be, indistinguishable. I’ve attended workshops, read books, consulted experts and learnt what questions to ask – what am I offering, how do I want to be seen, what is compelling about me, is this a good excuse to go wild with the credit card in the name of rebranding? (the answer to the last question being no – make some money first).

It all seems a little self-indulgent, but allegedly it’s one of the most important things you do in life – particularly if you are setting out on your own, or establishing a company. But it doesn’t stop at work. From the clothes you wear to the car you drive, from what you eat for breakfast to the things that make you laugh, it’s all quietly and determinedly carving out the brand that is You.

There’s a side to all this that I find a bit disturbing. With individuals as with countries, there’s a very fine line between branding and pigeon-holing. Control of our own personal brand can easily slither out of our grasp and take up residence instead in the eye of the beholder. I find myself getting irritated when people say things like ‘That’s so unlike you’ or ‘Wow, that’s really unexpected coming from you!’. I may be consistently ‘Me’ most of the time, but I still reserve the right to step out of my comfort zone every so often and dabble in a bit of leopard skin print, listen to some 90s drum and bass, choose a 14oz steak from the menu or watch a science fiction movie (the latter admittedly having only happened once.)

In fact, I think it’s an essential part of a successful personal brand strategy not to allow oneself to be pigeon-holed or restricted by who-we-think-we-are or, more dangerously, who other people tell us we are. Otherwise we will find ourselves branded into a corner where all spontaneity is sacrificed to image and life becomes one big pitch. Just what sort of ‘branding’ is this? It can start to feel like the old-fashioned, cattle sort, as though we are walking around with big signs burned onto our foreheads. ‘Public-school’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘working class’ or ‘vegan’, once applied as labels, become deeply ingrained and trail in their wake shallow judgements about posh accents and jesus-sandals and BNP-voting and lesbianism. Extreme examples, perhaps, but you get the point – personal branding all too easily turns into pigeon-holing, and pigeon-holing all too easily invites prejudice.

Now of course branding is an essential and inevitable part of life; better to be aware of it than deny it and better to be entertained by it than terrorized. But we shouldn’t treat our fragile, complex human psyches in the same way that we treat a can of beer or a laptop. And while brand consistency may be important in the business world – we would be startled and deeply suspicious if Mr Kipling suddenly launched a line in underwear, or Boots started an online gambling forum – as multi-faceted individuals we surely must retain the right to do things that surprise or challenge both other people and ourselves.

That’s settled, then. I am not to be pigeon-holed, and any personal branding will be done by me, for me. So as the midnight chimes of Big Ben ring out reassuringly from Radio 4, I sip my Horlicks and treat my night-time face to a dab of L’Oreal – because, after all, I’m worth it.

Jo Matthews

Previous: Simon Marriott