A look at how to capture personalities when branding individuals

How do you go about branding individuals, without offending their pride? Angus Montgomery looks at what it takes to capture a personality

By the time you read this article, former football wunderkind Michael Owen, who has scored 40 goals for England, including that goal against Argentina in 1998, is likely to have left recently relegated Newcastle United after four injury-struck and unfulfilled years.

Owen’s desire to move was highlighted by his representative Wasserman Media Group’s decision to release a 32-page brochure outlining the striker’s attributes to potentially interested parties. The guide listed a set of ‘brand values’ for Owen, which included such buzzwords as ‘first class’, ‘clean & fresh’, and ‘fit & healthy’ – and, more bizarrely, ‘technical’ and ‘global’. This was met with howls of derision when it fell into the media’s hands, with The Daily Telegraph memorably describing it as ‘a 32-page brochure in turd-polishing’.

Wasserman was unable to speak to Design Week at the time of going to press, but Sam Rush, the group’s chief operation officer, previously told the press that Wasserman ‘regularly utilises comprehensive documentation and audiovisual material to illustrate the benefits of our clients’.

Although it could reasonably be argued that creating a vibrant brand around a 29-year-old striker who hasn’t scored for his country in more than two years and has just been relegated to England’s second tier of football is an almost impossible task, this saga has also highlighted the challenges of applying branding techniques to an individual subject.

Wasserman’s exercise calls to mind Australian designer Christopher Doyle’s subversive Identity Guidelines project, which saw Doyle, who works at Sydney-based consultancy Moon, apply the structures of graphic design guidelines to himself. Doyle’s Identity Guidelines picked up a Yellow Pencil at the D&AD Awards last month in the Writing for Design category.

Doyle says, ‘I’m surrounded by branding for big corporations, and the language often becomes generic. My approach for this project was to take the piss. I didn’t really change the branding approach, I just applied it to myself.’

The result is a document that demonstrates guidelines such as key identity formats for Doyle (Full Colour Vertical, Full Colour Seated_Casual, Full Colour Seated_Formal and Full Colour Vertical_Private, which is accompanied by a picture of Doyle in his pants and the proviso ‘This version of my identity should under no circumstances appear in public’).

Algy Batten, partner at London consultancy Five Foot Six, has worked on a number of projects with individuals, such as developing an identity for rock climber and base jumper Leo Houlding earlier this year, and creating stationery and an identity for sign language interpreter Oliver Pouliot. He says the key, and most obvious, point is to be sensitive to the client’s identity. ‘Treating someone just as a set of brand guidelines could be detrimental to their personality,’ he says.

That given, Batten says he generally approaches the process of branding an individual in the same way that he would any other client – the consultancy also works with major companies such as Yahoo, Sky and Nokia – but that such projects are usually simpler as there is less hierarchy or literature surrounding them.
One of the most rewarding and challenging aspects, he says, is the direct feedback from the person – the brand – themselves. Batten says, ‘With corporate brands the brand manager in charge from the client side can be objective about the work, but when you’re dealing directly with the person you have to be a bit more diplomatic.’

Five Foot Six is currently creating an identity for a leading eye surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London – having secured the contract after the surgeon treated Batten’s own eyes. Batten says the client in this case ‘is at the very top of his game, and very sure about what he wants – and what we have to do sometimes is take these ideas and steer them in the right direction’.

Paul Buckle, of Sussex-based Roc Design, had an even more intimidating client to deal directly with – 190cm 115kg Rugby World Cup-winning former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio. Roc has created an identity for Dallaglio, as well as a separate brand for organisation the Dallaglio Foundation – both projects carried out with strategy consultant Lyn Hall. Sports-mad Buckle, a fan of Dallaglio’s former team Wasps, describes the project as ‘a dream’ and clearly relished the client meetings with the rugby legend. ‘He was very easy to brand as he had such a powerful image,’ says Buckle. ‘We called him “The powerful persuader”.’ This ethos also manifested itself in the slogan ‘Powerful together’, used in the foundation’s identity.

Like Batten, Buckle says he treated the project the same as he would have done for branding an organisation, ‘but you can’t help but be influenced by his personality’. He adds, ‘There are no stakeholders to please – it only has to resonate with him.’

Key points for branding an individual:

  • Treat the branding project as you would when branding a corporation or product, but try not to be too reductive and lose aspects of the personality
  • Be diplomatic when dealing with the client – they may not have the objectivity of a professional brand manager
  • Allow the more powerful aspects of the personality to shine through

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