Branding Debate: Are People Brands?

Derrick DayeMay 26, 20094 min

Back in February we touched on Michael Phelps and celebrity endorsements. The topic brought to light varying opinions on people as brands. Are they? I asked a few colleagues.

Mark Ritson: No
It’s a common error to assume that people, countries and cities are all brands. Yes, they all possess symbolic meaning but as I point out in my post so do road signs. The point is that brands are more than just a cluster of meanings. On the consumer side you have to be able to purchase them and own them, on the organizational side you have to be able to control and alter them if you so choose. Neither applies to people.

Take Michael Phelps. Do you own him when you buy a box of cereal with is name on it? Could we reposition Phelp’s personality and talents if we decided a strategic review was needed – perhaps into an intense soccer player?

Put it another way. We have an extensive academic body of work on celebrity endorsement in the Journal of Consumer Research for example, starting with the superb work of Grant McCracken. We also have an extensive and empirically verified series of papers on Co-Branding published in journals like the Journal of Brand Management. Even a cursory look at these two literatures confirm that the relationship between two brands, and between a celebrity and a brand, are entirely different. If we were to accept the premise of celebrities as brands we would have to unite these two disparate literatures somehow.

There is a final and most important rationale for rejecting people as brands. To do so would be to commit what Marx called “the commodification of self”. When we turn people into brands their humanity is lost. Yes we use people to sell brands, but when we start to use the literature on brands to sell people we forget the essential humanity that sets apart people from things.

This terrible literature that teaches people to market themselves or brand themselves asks people to become products, and in doing so, asks them to forget the things that makes human beings very different from baked beans.

I am all for brands, I spend my life working on them, but it is a fundamental and very common mistake to assume we can apply our knowledge to the sociology and psychology of the human condition. For both theoretical, practical and philosophical reasons it makes no sense.

Brad VanAuken: Yes
Brands are the source of promises to consumers. They promise relevant differentiated benefits. They can make these promises because they are the personifications of products, services, organizations or other entities. Brands have personalities, they possess character and they can stand for something. I have long contended that not only can companies and their products and services be branded, but so also can colleges and universities and museums and other not-for-profit organizations and municipalities and countries and musical groups and yes, even individuals.

While most people do not need to be personified, some arguably do. Indeed, many celebrities are packaged as brands. The trick is to draw out a person’s authentic brand, one that is true to him or her. The same is true with all other brands. And authenticity usually reveals a combination of positive and not so positive attributes. The role of the brand marketer is to accentuate the positive attributes, especially those that will give the brand an advantage in the marketplace.

Some celebrities recover nicely from a crisis situation and some do not, just as some companies do and some don’t. For some celebrities, a brush with the law or the demonstration of particularly lewd behavior is not a crisis at all. It is a PR opportunity. Yes, depending on the intended personality, all publicity can be good publicity.

Regarding using celebrities to endorse products or to be spokespeople for them can often be problematic. Remember Anita Bryant and Sunkist or O.J. Simpson and Hertz. While I think Tiger Woods is a perfect endorsement for Nike (the “authentic athletic performer” [Nike’s brand essence] just doing it [Nike’s tagline]), that relationship could still be problematic depending upon how Tiger Woods conducts himself in public and private.

Branding is the process of managing identity and perception. This can be done for virtually anything. At least that is my belief.

Al Ries: Yes
Sure people are brands. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, etc. These names stand for something specific in the minds of consumers. Furthermore, brand names can be leveraged across a number of generations. Prescott Bush, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush.

Jack Trout: Yes
Some people are brands because they build powerful reputations in their field of endeavor. Steve Jobs is a brand at Apple. Michael Dell at Dell. DeBackey in heart surgery. But most never quite get to that status.

Derrick Daye: Yes
In my opinion there is no denying that people are brands. Brands are owned in the mind. They represent the sum of all experiences a customer or prospect has with your offering. When we think of brands in the context of people, naturally we think of celebrities. Oprah comes to mind as a prime example of how a person can be a brand — extending well beyond her physical self, manifesting in a TV network, publication and creating “The Oprah Effect” which has transformed others to celebrity brand status as well. (Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and others)

Where do you stand?

The Blake Project can help you discover the right celebrity endorsement for your brand based on emotional connection measurement. Further, we work with all of Hollywood’s A list celebrities and can strategize and facilitate your celebrity endorsement.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

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  • Damian Madray

    May 26, 2009 at 3:27 am

    I’d have to agree with Brad VanAuken because my understanding of brand is that it’s a promise and or expectation, not a tangible object as Mark Ritson makes it out to be.

    No, we don’t own Michael Phelps nor do we own Nike, Apple or Microsoft. What we own are the products they sell and why we buy is because of the promise they make. Michael Phelps endorses a cereal because be “believes” in the quality and as such makes that promise to the consumer that it’s of quality.

    Celebrities and other public figures are controlled and can be altered. It happens everyday in Hollywood. If a celebrity screws up, he/she starts a foundation, goes to church and their brand is altered. Singers who switch from Pop to Country music is altering there brand. With regards to control, they are a public commodity so there’s other people behind them like managers advising if not telling them what to do. In that regards, they are both controlled and can be altered. Obviously with humans this is not the same and a little more difficult.

    People can become brands because of what they promise to deliver and this is mostly true with celebrities. Britney Spears is her own brand because she promises (brand promise) and we expect (brand expectation) something specific from that celebrity. While on the flip side, Eminem is his own brand because fans of Britney Spears certainly wouldn’t expect her to deliver what Eminem would.

    It’s an interesting argument that branding takes away the humanity from humans and that may very much be the case. However, that’s the make-up of our society.

  • Ashley Goodall

    May 26, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Surely branding is a technique rather than a thing, so if your technique is any good you should be able to brand anything?

  • Tom Rowlands

    May 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I would argue that Branding is an intangible product of marketing communications, an adjunct to organised society, and in the case of this discussion, specific human attributes (desire or otherwise) collated in symbolic form.

    Only the images, videos, press releases etc actually retain brand information as is (excluding marketing execs), and as such the only way a branded human, say Paris Hilton, could be damaging is if an aspect of their lifestyle was leaked via the same medium.

    If the Message really is the medium, then the only way the human can impose damage is using an equivalent medium. Not to mention that a damaged brand does not necessitate damage upon the person!

    Where is Baudrillard when you need him?

  • Ikem Okuhu

    May 27, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    I am not sure I quite agree with experts like Al Ries and Jack Trout on this topic. People drive brands and therefore cannot be brands themselves. We may have personalities and accomplishments and talents that form strategic fits to qualities we would wish to ascribe to products and organisations and thus, we may wish to change over time depending on marketing strategies. People cannot be changed in this way. Michael Phelps and his co-celebrities cannot be changed. Phelps is a swimmer and cannot be “made” to be a soccer star. Madonna is a singer and can never be turned into a contortionist. Brands, on the other hand wear what we dress them up in.

  • William Arruda

    June 1, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I guess it depends on your definition of ‘brand.’ My definition is that a brand is a unique promise of value. And with that definition, everything is a brand: Volvo, Silicon Valley, and yes, YOU. Your brand is at the intersection of what’s authentic to you, differentiating from your peers and relevant and compelling to people who are making decisions about you.

    Career success in the new world of work requires that you stand out and offer something valuable – otherwise you are a dispensable commodity – easily replaceable by others who share your job title. With hundreds or even thousands of qualified candidates for each open position right now, you had better offer something unique and valuable to prospective employers if you want to be considered.

    I couldn’t agree more that the term ‘personal branding’ is being misused. Many of the people I come across who call themselves personal branding experts have virtually no branding experience. But that should not make us reject the term. There is just as much confusion around the terms ‘branding’ and even ‘marketing.’ Instead of disparaging the term, let’s educate the market about what personal branding really is and how it can be correctly employed.

    William Arruda

  • Suzanne Tulien

    June 1, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    I am definitely in the YES category. We define a brand as a perception, it is based on emotion and defined by your experience with it. Anything that you can perceive becomes a brand in your mind; good, bad or indifferent….you have ‘branded’ it in your mind. A logo or image is only an icon that represents the brand, it is not the brand. When a person embarks on a branding initiative, it entails a ‘deep dive’ into who they really are and how they consistently show up – their brand promise is a commitment to deliver that ‘way of being’ every time.

  • Stephen Abbott

    June 1, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    I agree with sentiments about personal branding being distinct from commercial branding. Most of it is just self-help blabber to sell books. And I also agree that if we think of ourselves in the same way commercial value is applied, we are doomed as a species.

    However, while I certainly don’t think of myself as a brand, people are going to know me based on their perception of every interaction they have with me. Every detail matters, just like it does with a company brand.

    Don’t be afraid to think of the brand in such simple ways.

    The only difference is the outcome. A company needs to persuade me to part with money (or time) to sustain the brand. Brands that are in authentic become undesirable, and undesirable company brands die. People with undesirable personal brands don’t die – though they might be lonely.

    Stephen Abbott

  • Matthew Fenton

    June 6, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    This has been quite the topic of discussion lately, and I’m enjoying the conversation on both sides.

    My take:

    Brands and people have been defined very differently for years. Brands are signifiers within the sphere of commerce, and people are, well, people. The notion of equating people with brands is relatively recent: According to most, we can blame a 1997 Tom Peters article. Thus, the onus is on the personal branding proponents (PBPs, I call ’em) to demonstrate conclusively that people are brands (and, it would follow, that brands are people). Of course, the PBPs have an impossible task.

    It doesn’t help that the PBPs can’t agree among themselves. Ries, Trout & VanAuken say SOME people are brands. Certain comments above suggest that ALL people are brands (“Anything that you can perceive becomes a brand in your mind.”). In other forums, PBPs have suggested that businesspeople are brands but homemakers (for example) are not. So which answer is right? None of the above.

    Most PBPs seem to think that, because there are (sometimes!) similarities in the way that we perceive people and brands, they can be considered to be one and the same. There are a number of issues with this argument:

    1) Brands and people serve very different roles in our lives. Therefore, the perceptual framework we bring to each, by definition, must also differ.

    2) Yes, we sometimes categorize people on first impressions, limited information, etc., just as we do with brands (and sometimes we don’t). No, it absolutely does not follow that “people = brands.” That’s bad logic. That’s like saying that because my sofa is green, and celery is green, then my sofa must be celery, and I’ll just ignore the obvious differences between the two.

    3) To boil down all perceptions to “branding” is erroneous and dangerous. Human perception predates the idea of branding, and to suddenly label anything that is perceived as a “brand” misuses the language and gives brands way too much credit. Am I now to believe that Vonnegut was not an author, but a brand? And that “Player Piano,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and “Timequake” are not books Vonnegut authored, but brands unto themselves? Should I applaud the sky for so successfully “owning” blue within its visual brand identity system? How about your kids? Your mother? What’s their brand?

    Seriously, where does line of thinking end?

    No, people are not brands. People are people, and brands are brands. They occasionally have things in common, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same. Using the word “brand” to simultaneously replace disparate concepts like “celebrity,” “self-image” and “personal presentation” undermines clarity and does more harm than good.

    On that note, Mark makes a great argument: That the “personal branding” concept runs the risk of ignoring the “the essential humanity that sets people apart from things.” Instead of asking whether people ARE brands, Mark hints at a better, deeper question: SHOULD people be brands? Reflect on that. I think the answer is clearly “no,” and so the case for personal branding falls apart pretty quickly.

    Finally, I doubt we’ll be having this conversation in 5 years, as “personal branding” probably will have been supplanted by that time by some other buzzword.

    To Mark, Brad, and all the commenters: Thanks for a thoughtful discussion. I recently presented 5 other arguments against the concept of personal branding at my blog, in a post entitled “You’re Not a Brand.” It can be viewed at:

  • Paul Van Winkle

    June 13, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    People are brands.

    Describing (and crafting) a “brand” is about revealing accessible truths — about identity, personality, style, actions and behaviors. Whether it’s a collection of people working as a company, or a single person, branding helps others make selective choice in a very crowded marketplace That’s the idea.

    In a limited timeframe, with limited resources and limited information, how do I choose wisely with so many choices available to me?

    Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Mr. T, Rod Serling, Elvis, Elvis Costello, Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra, Donald Trump, Wolf Blitzer, Sean Hannity, Barack Obama, JayZ, The Bee Gees, Courtney Love, Sharon Stone, Newt Gingrinch, The Dixie Chicks, Malcolm Gladwell. These people and anyone you can name are all “brands”. Why? Because they have recognizable traits, styles, patterns and features — archetypal and/or otherwise — that we individually and collectively label, respond to and interact with. Choose/don’t choose, like/don’t like.

    A brand is shorthand. It’s a fast means to recognize and categorize patterns, and understand how to label and “file” an entity. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re reacting to people as brands — categorizing and interacting with them with certain expectations, watching and waiting for patterns — in the same basic ways you’re reacting to companies. Brands are conscious, or seek to be so — to more effectively, more truthfully and more simply interact.

    Your clients are reacting to you as a “brand”, too. They’re selecting you and paying for your services (or not) because of the actions you’re repeating and the patterns you manifest — consciously or unconsciously — and which they like or dislilke, trust or are confused by.

    As novelist Philip Dick (“Minority Report”) once said, reality is that which when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Brands — and people as brands — are a major and consensual reality on the planet. You can choose to ignore the effects of such reality. But you can’t choose to ignore the impact of that ignoring. Especially as competition for mindshare, awareness and dollars increases.

    The assertion that human beings make decisions “rationally” and without emotional and psychic undercurrents totally misunderstands our brain and CNS and how we function in the world, especially based on thousands of years of evolution.

    Brands help us make decisions and interact given limited information, time and resources. And the idea that “individuals are a sort of brand” is merely a natural outcropping and extension of corporate branding.

  • Kat

    March 12, 2010 at 4:23 am

    Ummm, Yes

    Aren’t most people brands already? The way we control the information about us that others see. For example, when I create my CV I included or don’t include the information that I want or don’t want others to know about me. On a very simple level that is a branding technique.

    Is a brand a personality? What I wear, how I walk, how I speak all contribute to my identity and how others see me. Some control this more than others.

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