The whys and the hows of personal brands

A chatty new handbook from a renowned adman deconstructs the process of building a personal brand.

Published : Feb 23, 2023 10:40 IST

We live in an age where everyone is an “expert”. Want to know about fitness? There are thousands of short videos online by thousands of experts from across the world. And they all claim to be the last word in fitness. Want to invest in stocks? There is a horde of young men—and some women—proclaiming themselves experts. It is the same for almost anything—from cleaning house to cooking to organising parties, from investing in crypto to carving wood or playing the guitar.

All the World’s A Stage: A personal branding story
By Ambi Parameswaran
Westland Business (2022)
Pages: 184
Price: Rs.499

These young people have become known for their expertise, and many have spun their online popularity into real-world success. By which I mean they get real money for dispensing their advice in other forms—books, expert columns, and even live shows. It is not entirely about TikTok or YouTube, which allowed them to flourish and reach millions. It is about their understanding of the need to build a brand around their name.

Even as many young people are building their personal brands online, there are others who actively seek to stay anonymous and yet influence people online. This has given rise to a number of apps that encourage anonymous and pseudonymous personas. Discord, a popular voice and text app, is hugely popular with the twenty-somethings and younger because it gives them a good mix of being seen and heard but being unknown. These anonymous handles are also hugely popular and are brands in themselves. Whether it is a name or a handle, the “Instafamous” generation clearly understands personal branding at an instinctive level.

Brands are for older people too

While it may be tempting for an older generation to dismiss Gen Z and their ideas of personal branding, that may be short-sighted. After all, this is the truly digitally native generation and they know how to succeed in a space they have been born into. At the same time, their instinctive understanding of how to build a personal brand may not work for a mid-level manager or a more senior person who is looking to build a personal brand.

For them, TikTok or Instagram is not as potent a brand-building tool as it is for younger people. Enter Ambi Parameswaran’s new book, All the World’s a Stage: A Personal Branding Story. The eminent adman who has built an enviable personal brand for himself explains the importance and need for a personal brand, and even offers several handy tips to build one.

Parameswaran talks about the history of branding and then moves on to discuss the need for personal branding. From a quick lesson in etymology (the word brand comes from the Old Norse word “brandt”, meaning “to burn”) to an in-depth discussion on the need for personal branding, Parameswaran covers a lot of ground in this chatty little book.

Back in the early days of the Internet, a viral humour blog announced that Ambi mama was the most common name in a Tamil Brahmin household. It is a name that evokes that ubiquitous uncle, ready to weigh in with his words of wisdom on everything from astrophysics to feminism. Ambi Parameswaran seems to have channelled the spirit of countless Ambi mamas to tell the story of why personal branding matters.

Set in IIM Calcutta, Parameswaran’s alma mater, he uses the device of a series of conversations to explain the need for personal branding. It is not his story, he says, but it also is clearly his story. Ambi the protagonist (different from Ambi the author, he claims in the prologue) is at IIM-C for an alumni meeting. Walking around the campus on the last night of the meeting, he chats with his old friend and classmate Shankar about the concept of personal branding. As the pair meanders through the IIM byways, they argue about the need for personal branding.

Shankar begins by insisting that a brand is merely an excuse to tack on a hefty price tag, but Ambi convinces him that a brand is important to a company or a product. It is even more important to have a great personal brand, says Ambi, which is where Shankar balks. As Ambi tries to explain the concept of personal branding to a non-believer, they run into a couple of their classmates, Rita and Kunal, and later, Joe Kurien.

Everyone is a brand—only they do not know that

Rita, the voice of HR, adds to Ambi’s paean to personal branding. Walking from Tata Hall to Ramanujam Hall, the four friends discuss the need and importance of a personal brand. “Everyone has to realise they are a brand,” says Rita.

“How can a company encourage everyone to build their personal brand? It will lead to mayhem.” True enough, says Ambi, but an organisation where everyone blindly toes the line and parrots the company line may as well be staffed by robots. The four friends spend the next chapter figuring out how a leader can navigate between promoting the company brand and encouraging team members to build their personal brands.

As the friends walk, it becomes increasingly clear that Shankar is the doubter, an old-school organisation builder with little patience for what he considers non-essentials. But as the conversation progresses, through tea and coffee breaks and sitting-on-the-lawn breaks, Shankar begins to change his hitherto rigid views. From grooming to communication, from competence to networking, the friends try to break down the essentials of a personal brand.

Among the brand-building essentials they discuss is the need to craft a presence online and offline, developing a unique voice, building a network (again online and offline) and, importantly, using social media wisely. To those familiar with the concept of personal branding, a lot of this may seem obvious. But, as Parameswaran explains in the book, people still confuse a personal brand with being active on LinkedIn or Twitter. And that is what he attempts to clarify through the course of the book.

The Gandhian brand

The book is dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, “the most enduring personal brand to emerge out of India”. But that is the only public figure Parameswaran dwells on. Had he moved beyond that to how other famous Indian personalities have tried to build personal brands (or cults), this book may have taken a far different shape. But the consummate adman sticks to his brief—to write a handbook of personal branding.

Over the course of the book, Parameswaran describes the process of building a personal brand. He says, “You cannot sustain a brand mantra which is not authentically you.”

It is all great advice, but is it advice relevant to those who need to build a personal brand? Ambi is talking to a group of his peers, people who have already made it as entrepreneurs and leaders. These are people who ought to already have built their personal brands. The twenty-somethings who are beginning to build their brands are those who really need a book like this.

Not really for digital natives

We have already spoken at length about how building personal brands on social media is very much a Gen Z thing, and many of that generation have leveraged their digital presence to create valuable personal brands. Not that Parameswaran is a fan of that; building a social media presence before figuring out your personal brand, he says, is putting the cart before the horse. Except, many young people have done just that, evolving their personal brand based on what their audience wants. There is a lifestyle advice-dispensing young person, Ranveer Allahbadia. He began as a fitness expert and leveraged his popularity there to become a lifestyle guru. Would he have been as popular if he had not started out as a gym bro? We do not know, of course. What is clear is that personal brands, especially for younger people, are constantly evolving.

Despite not specifically targeting the younger generation, Parameswaran is clearly aiming for the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) crowd with short chapters and a chatty style. There is an element of collegial debate as the friends go back and forth about why and how a personal brand can be built. The problem is not so much in the style or content as much as it is in the format. For a generation that gets its wisdom from 30-second video clips, a 160-page book, however readable for the 40-somethings, may be too much.

Indira Vasudevan is a freelance writer based in Chennai.

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