The Lessons of "Brand You": Advice for Managing Talent

Here's how the principles of brand management can help you assemble a team of standout performers.

by Kirsten D. Sandberg

In the irrational exuberance of the 1990s, management guru Tom Peters popularized the idea of turning a job search into a brand campaign. According to this "Brand You" theory, if you managed your career as though you were a premium brand with unique attributes and not just another commodity in a corporate cubicle, you'd get better work opportunities and higher pay in a job market where managers were scrambling to hire.

Now the labor market has shifted in employers' favor. But that doesn't mean that the Brand You approach won't work; in fact, it could help both companies in their hiring and employees in the way they build and guide their own careers. At its best, the Brand You approach helps employers identify what a job seeker has to offer and what sets him apart from other job candidates. That can facilitate recruiting efforts, executive searches, and internal promotions.

Some managers, put off by all the self promotion, worry that the Brand You mentality can have a divisive, destabilizing effect on an organization, says Laurence Prusak, executive director of the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management in Cambridge, Mass. Because they can be perceived as being only out for themselves, the Brand You achievers can end up causing trouble for the organization and for themselves, says Prusak: "Eventually, the organization exacts its revenge." Brand Yous can become organizational outcasts who can't move up so end up moving out.

But that's not to say that companies should shy away from hiring or promoting self-branded talents, Prusak continues. For one thing, few employees will ever become boardroom names like Tom Peters, let alone household names like Tiger Woods or Martha Stewart. But more important, a Brand You mindset is useful to the ongoing task of maximizing unit performance because it helps managers align employees with work they're passionate about.

Below, some advice about how the principles of branding apply to people.

Brand Yous are entrepreneurs, not just marketers

Esteé Lauder and Michael Dell attained brand status by "comprehending consumers' emerging needs, developing a product that met these needs, communicating back and forth with customers, and actually delivering," thereby "making a market for novel goods and services," writes Nancy F. Koehn, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of Brand New. "But they didn't wait around for some focus group to say, 'We need this!'" Peters adds. "They personally had an itch they needed to scratch," and in scratching it, they hit upon a highly marketable, ultimately brandable offering. They were exceptional business people, not just haughty hucksters.

Hiring people with this take-the-bull-by-the-horns personality for your team has some obvious benefits, but there are some important caveats, too:

Gauge how much entrepreneurial behavior your organization really needs. Established Brand Yous will talk about what they can do for your company, based on what they've done for others. They're predictable and dependable, but their best innovations may be behind them. Aspiring Brand Yous will talk about what they hope to do for the company, based on how they've interpreted its needs. Although they are riskier hires, they present the possibility of greater unanticipated rewards, such as a solution to an organizational problem that managers haven't seen or the key to a customer's problem that market research hasn't revealed. The company can directly capitalize on, if not patent and brand separately, the employee's product or process innovation.

In your evaluation of candidates, emphasize performance over time. A Brand You's résumé should convey real staying power, not just a string of successes. Moreover, genuine Brand Yous deliver steadfastly on their promises over time; they leave positions carefully, so as not to destroy what they've built (their brand equity).

Cultural fit is critical

A company can admire an entrepreneur's achievements but despise her methods for achieving them. An individual's brand values should align with the overarching corporate umbrella brand, where the employee can operate naturally within the company's recognized and acceptable manner of business. Neal Lenarsky, founder and chairman of Strategic Transitions Inc. (STI), an executive management firm headquartered in Los Angeles, tells the story of the head of programming at a major Hollywood studio. "He bounced from studio to studio, pushing through the same job over and over again, without ever asking himself, 'What's breaking down here? Why don't I belong anywhere?'" His managers failed to ask those questions as well.

As it turned out, his problem had nothing to do with his skill set and everything to do with a lack of awareness: neither he nor his managers really understood the kind of environment and the challenges he needed to thrive. The people hiring him accepted his experience at face value without probing to make sure there was a cultural fit.

In a flood of job applications, a Brand You identity becomes a handy hiring filter - provided that the candidate's brand complements the company's culture. But if someone was born to be wild, identifies with Peter Fonda more than Peter Pan, and can see himself as an easy rider but not as a Mouseketeer, then chances are he belongs at Harley- Davidson, not at Walt Disney. Managers must articulate the set of behaviors that best characterize the desired culture of the corporate brand and discuss these during job interviews and performance reviews.

No brand is an island

"Walt Disney could draw Mickey Mouse, but he still depended deeply on other cartoonists" to create full-length feature animations, says Prusak. The Brand You concept can help managers frame staff development, as in "How can I manage this group of brands the way that a coach leverages various talents on a team to optimize each one and to maximize the overall corporate brand?" Peters points to what Phil Jackson did at the Chicago Bulls: "Michael Jordan was just a record-setter until Jackson started coaching the Bulls." Once Jackson, a former professional basketball player himself, taught Jordan how to play on a team with other brand names such as Scottie Pippen under the Bulls' umbrella brand, Jordan started racking up championship rings and MVP titles.

As the manager, you've got to figure out how each individual brand fits into the overall branded culture. Lead employees beyond the "Here's what Me Inc. can do for you" attitude; try to build cobranding partnerships instead. And reward people for positioning themselves relative to other brands on staff.

Extend the brand with great caution People can gain name recognition, says Lenarsky, by taking "an already existing brand to another level or to a broader audience," as Martha Stewart did. "She went from 'formidable banker' to 'media/magazine publisher' and has been extending her brand ever since." But when markets go south, managers are tempted to extend a brand by going down-market or mass-market, just to pay the bills.

One university dean assigned a famous professor to teach all four sections of an introductory course, each held at different times throughout the week. As a result, the professor's research and his reputation suffered. He lost a substantial grant, his teaching assistants and Ph.D. candidates complained about his office hours, and his students grew dissatisfied. Alternative ways to exploit the brand: Ask the star professor to coach junior staff members so that they can become better teachers. Team-teach so that the star needn't shine every week. Or design an electronic course for which the professor does everything once for the camera, to be broadcast live and recorded for later use.

Managers must work with employees to identify the core attributes of the brand before providing brand-extending opportunities. "Air Jordan" extended well into other basketball-related consumer brands like Nike shoes because Michael Jordan was the ultimate basketball athlete. But Jordan struggled to remake himself as a minor league baseball player and as an owner and manager of the Washington Wizards because his skill set didn't transfer. "Stretch goals" that extend beyond the job description can build expertise, brand awareness, and even customer loyalty without destroying the brand's core value. But if people find themselves enjoying their extension and neglecting what their constituents consider to be the core, then managers should consider launching a whole new brand-that is, a new way for that employee to create value under the corporate umbrella brand.

The bottom line: being a brand differs greatly from managing brands, but individuals and companies can both benefit from the Brand You approach. The key, says Prusak, is to recognize that "some people like working in large firms; some would rather be on their own. But both types are equally embedded in very strong networks of social, political, and economic reciprocities. No one's a standalone. We can't live that way. We'd be psychopaths." Figure out where each brand performs at its best relative to the others, and create a suite of work opportunities - full-time, part-time, and freelance-that allows you to manage each accordingly.

Kirsten D. Sandberg is an executive editor at Harvard Business School Press. She can be reached at