At one stage in the last twenty years, personal image was a big thing for business people. How you looked, walked, talked, behaved, the briefcase you carried (you'll find one of them in a museum!) what you drove – all contributed to the overall impression you created. Colour Me Beautiful and other international absurdities had people slavishly following colour charts, worrying about the 'season' of skin on their wrist (to help choose colour tones) and making sure that the total picture conveyed what they wanted it to. Then, along with the death of 'power dressing' came a pendulum swing. Dress-down Friday gripped many international organisations. The tie was outlawed and even audit firm partners would walk around trying ever so hard to look chilled in their open-necked shirts. The effort at informality became as extreme as the formality that preceded it.
The global financial downturn of 2009 had many organisations and individuals wonder whether looking smarter and better groomed would make a difference to how people behaved and how companies performed. There's been a re-focus on appearance. The only significant change being that it's no longer called personal image but 'personal branding'. However much you hate that concept, fact is that people can indeed be a brand and positioned in a manner little different from Procter and Gamble promoting, advertising and merchandising a can of soup.
There's absolutely no conflict between you taking care of your appearance, dress, grooming, body language, voice and overall impact or impression and being true to yourself. We're all multi-dimensional beings. We display multiple facets – all of which are a part of us but no single one of them is all of us. Yes, we should want to be real. Little is more powerful than authenticity. But 'being you' doesn't have to mean dressing like you selected your clothes from a Salvation Army donor hamper. Or walking around with cracked, broken fingernails or torn cuticles because you're an avid gardener.
Don't get me wrong. I'm truly one of the most unpretentious people I know! J I love nothing better than mooching around at home in an old t-shirt, comfortable, baggy shorts - and (confession) - a pair of Crocs. But in public, we all have expectations of a brand. A brand personality builds either by design or default. If you don't construct and manage it by intention it'll land up attracting perceptions by default - no effort required. This can be downright bad and dangerous for you or your organisation.
We might not like to think so, but it's a rare person who doesn't take an instant 'snapshot' of someone else when they meet them for the first time. Totally automated and subconscious programming will slot the person into a category and we'll tend to respond to them according to that category. Most of us, to some extent judge the book by the cover. If it looks tatty it'll need to be a meisterstück to excuse a dishevelled appearance. Other than in highly creative or outdoors careers (advertising, movie-making, design, wildlife etc.) or at the fringes of business, will we easily accept off-beat, peculiar dress and behaviour without being suspicious or diminishing the calibre of the person in our minds.
I have a pragmatic view on personal branding – particularly the image side of it. It's a marketing exercise. What's your constituency, stakeholder or target audience likely to expect from you? Try to position your appearance somewhere between the two ends of the continuum of those expectations and you'll be placing a safe bet. Don't let your look, clothes or anything else about you get in the way of good communicating. They're only bit players in the process - not stars of the show.
If you wonder why you're not rising quickly enough through the ranks of an organisation, or effectively pitching your small business or services to clients – perhaps you don't sufficiently 'look the part'. You have to be packaged in a way that's aligned with their expectations. If not, they're not going to easily buy you, your ideas or your services.
Originally published in RISKsa magazine, October 2010 issue.