Mark Ritson Columnist

Mark is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Melbourne Business School and is recognised as one of the world's leading experts on brand strategy. His clients have included McKinsey, PepsiCo, Donna Karan, Johnson & Johnson, Dom Perignon, Baxter, De Beers, Krug, Ericsson and WD40.

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Michelle Bridges, personal branding and selling the human spirit

Published 06 June 2013 08:25, Updated 06 June 2013 08:27

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Michelle Bridges, personal branding and selling the human spirit

Personal branding, exemplified by the likes of fitness guru Michelle Bridges, is a perfect illustration of the consumer culture we all now inhabit. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Michelle Bridges, a coach on the hit TV series ­The Biggest Loser, is looking for help. She recently placed an ad on employment website Seek to recruit a full-time employee who would be paid between $80,000 and $120,000 to manage the “Michelle Bridges brand”.

At first sight, the role and the rationale behind it make perfect sense. With an empire worth in excess of $15 million and a growing profile in Australia thanks to her role in The Biggest Loser and her numerous endorsements, Bridges clearly feels professional help is necessary to manage her profile appropriately.

And she is not alone. The personal branding industry is one of the ­fastest-growing sectors within marketing. In Australia, personal branding gurus like Ben Angel (“a unique mix of self-mastery and marketing”) and agencies like Jump the Q (“image and impressions by design”) offer a potent combination of brand strategy and self-improvement.

But hang on a minute. Can we really blend brand building and the existential challenge of day to day life so seamlessly? Might we want to consider for a moment whether it really makes sense to take the strategies and tactics used to sell chocolate bars and apply them wholesale to the human endeavour? Are people really brands?

It’s a question I directly face on a weekly basis with my MBA students. Usually halfway through my Brand Management elective, one of my students will sidle up to me during the break and ask about applying the principles we are covering in the classroom to their own search for a career and, ultimately, personal satisfaction.

I always tell them the same thing. A century ago, marketers struggled to get people to feel emotion for products because emotions were reserved for animate objects, not goods and services. Imagine that! So they began to invent brand personas – fictional characters that represented the brand, with whom people felt more comfortable establishing an emotional bond. In the US, there was Betty Crocker and Uncle Ben. In Australia, Arnott’s had its beautiful babies and The Vinegar Company of Australia had Little Audrey the skipping girl you can still see today preserved in neon above a building in Abbotsford in Victoria girl.

Love what you buy

The approach worked so well that within half a century, Australian consumers no longer held any reservations using words traditionally associated with human interactions to also describe their feelings for brands. From the 60s onwards consumers could “love” a brand, they could become “loyal” to it and even an “advocate” on its behalf.

But the personification of brands did not stop there. As we entered the postmodern era, commonly associated with any date after 1990, society went one step further. Where once people had been reticent to apply human concepts to consumer goods, they now used concepts drawn from consumption to help them understand humanity. Personal branding is a perfect illustration of the consumer culture we all now inhabit. We take the strategies of brand management and we apply them to our daily existence to help make sense of it and guide us.

As a branding professor I have no issue with the personal branding industry. If it offers a service to a consumer who derives value then all is well and good. Personally, however, I think the strategies of brand management – principles I have studied and applied for almost 20 years within organisations – are a poor fit with the human spirit and the existential journey each of us is on.

In 1867 Karl Marx predicted that if a person’s labour was incorporated into the capitalist system, “the human being is objectified as a commodity”. For Marx this was the ultimate unfulfilled horror of encroaching capitalism: people would see themselves as products that were for sale. For Bridges and untold other Australians, this is exactly what they seek and what the personal branding industry promises.

Personally, I think brands are brands and people are people and I get mightily uncomfortable when we take the lessons from one area and start applying them to the other. That might seem like a pretty obvious conclusion but in the postmodern consumer culture we now inhabit, it is a radical notion indeed.

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