"Everyone has a chance to be a brand worthy of remark." This is what Tom Peters, CEO of FastCompany, wrote in 1997, when he published the article The Brand Called You. This is universally recognised as the date when personal branding came into being, which, according to the original definition, is the process by which a person defines the strengths that distinguish them uniquely, creating their own personal brand, which they then communicate in the way that they consider the most effective.
"Personal branding adopts the techniques used by marketing to promote commercial products and adapts them to promote the identity of individuals," explains Andrea Fontana, communication sociologist. "The aim in both cases is brand positioning or placing in the user's mind the brand or the name of the professional associated with a specific characteristic, a concept that will unequivocally distinguish them from their competitors."
Obviously, with the advent of social networks, personal branding has undergone huge transformations and advances giving rise to many nuances of the same positioning activity. "There are influencers who somehow sell themselves. Other influencers, such as virologists, sell skills instead. Then there are those who apply it in a more conventional manner, such as entrepreneurs who promote with themselves the whole set of values and themes that they want to associate with their brand. And there are activists. In other words, those who abandon a market logic and place themselves at the service of a cause," adds Andrea Fontana.
However, this marketing sector has been disrupted by the pandemic, which has completely subverted the narratives and, therefore, how people should go about promoting their personal brand. In particular, Covid has made subjects that were previously ordinary extremely topical. This has given rise to social personal branding, where "social" does not relate to social media but to society.
In the view of Paolo Iabichino, creative director and founder of the Civic Brands Observatory, along with Ipsos Italy, one of the most obvious cases is the Ferragnez couple. "Up until a few months ago, Chiara Ferragni and her husband Fedez would casually board intercontinental flights and strut along the red carpet at the Oscars and the Venice Film Festival. At the moment, their days – like those of the vast majority of Italians – are spent much more at home," emphasises Paolo Iabichino.
"Commercial partnerships have also changed. Luxury brands have made room for consumer brands. Yet the Ferragnez couple have shown an enviable ability to be consistent and credible. While the argument was put forward that the role of influencers was far too 'frivolous' in the midst of a health emergency, they responded by using their fame for the benefit of two fundraisers: one for the San Raffaele hospital in Milan and the other for those employed in the entertainment industry. An act of social commitment awarded with the Ambrogino d’Oro by the city of Milan."
Another star in the world of personal branding is footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. "Starting his second spell with AC Milan just at the outbreak of the pandemic, he surprisingly volunteered to become the face of the anti-Covid campaign in the Lombardy Region. At first glance, this choice seemed to run very much counter to the stories which we have usually associated with the Swedish superstar in recent years," says Mauro Berruto, former coach of the Italian national volleyball team, now CEO of the Holden School founded by Alessandro Baricco and an inspirational speaker.
"In this case too, the campaign has been very successful," continues Mauro. "On the face of it, it doesn't change his traditional narrative, which is still about machismo and megalomania. But there is an added ingredient, that more ironic and amusing connotation, which actually repositions everything and the reason behind this is to convey a message of social utility. This certainly does not detract from the footballer's public image; if anything, it enhances it. An initiative for the truth that, the most observant will remember, Ibra had already suggested with a famous UNICEF commercial during his time at Paris Saint-Germain," concludes Mauro Berruto.
On the other hand, it's a different story about Roberto Burioni. "In the year when the covers of magazines and prime-time TV programmes have been dominated by doctors, Roberto Burioni has presented himself as a champion of science," explains Paolo Iabichino. "He has decided to play the role of whistle-blower with the aim of challenging and revealing fake news about health matters. With the outbreak of the pandemic, he has established his position as an intermediary between the scientific community, on which our lives now depend, and the general public. In his case, unlike with the Ferragnez couple, personal branding has to do with skills and a social function, in the sense of providing a public service on the back of being an authority in the field."
This change has not only affected influencers. High-profile entrepreneurs have also used the social aspect to boost the success of their brands. Paolo Iabichino gives the example of Brunello Cucinelli, the King of Cashmere, who "has also become the symbol of capitalism with a human face, building on the legacy of Adriano Olivetti. This entrepreneur from Umbria made a generous promise, which he has never shirked away from, not even during the toughest months of the crisis. In fact, he will also be remembered for the decision to hand over the role of CEO to two forty-somethings, Luca Lisandroni and Riccardo Stefanelli."
The other heavyweight in this field is Leonardo Del Vecchio, owner of Luxottica, "who was one of the first and best at understanding the relevance of compulsory remote working. In the year of social distancing, he has focused his attention even more, as he always has, on the staff employed by his group by introducing an impressive welfare plan. He has decided to top up to 100% the salaries of more than 10,000 of his employees under the income indemnity scheme, while also offering a welfare contribution of 500 euros to all employees carrying out normal activities. The whole management team took a 50% pay-cut. A bold gesture at a dramatic time from an enlightened entrepreneur. Not forgetting the 10 million euros he has donated in the fight against coronavirus."
"It should be emphasised, however, that the difference between the Ferragnez couple and entrepreneurs such as Cucinelli and Del Vecchio lies in the internal and external social fallout for their companies. Fedez and Ferragni have changed tack in terms of their personal branding activity, while Cucinelli and Del Vecchio have relaunched their activities based on areas and commitments where they were already seen as major players," explains Paolo Iabichino.
However, we are talking about a special case when it comes to Greta Thunberg, who features among the world's opinion leaders. "Fridays for Future continues all around the globe to focus on the cause of protecting the climate. Greta applies to perfection some basic rules of personal branding: she has a clear personal label, some recognisable visual features, such as her braids and the "School strike for climate" sign, high-level skills and a powerful coherent message," explains Paolo Iabichino, adding, "in this case, there are more similarities with Roberto Burioni than with the Ferragnez couple. In this instance, the social cause is the sole purpose of personal branding. It's not a product."
According to Riccardo Bonacina, founder and honorary president of Vita, the flagship for the non-profit sector and social innovation, the success of these new communication strategies can be explained by the fact that "the cause in question had, to some extent, emerged before the pandemic. There was already the realisation that there was a need to change direction. We only need to think of migration and social inequalities, which are physical, tangible issues that we experience on a daily basis. It had become apparent that the paradigm whereby the more earnings increased, the more there would be something for everyone no longer held up. As a result of Covid, we have been in a tunnel for almost a year, which has accelerated this need for change even more. We're talking about sustainability and equality."
However, there are plenty of risks. "Of course," explains Riccardo Bonacina, "we run the risk that if everything has a social undertone, then nothing will have one anymore. We are witnessing the wanton appropriation of a certain vocabulary and symbols, specific to the social domain, by commercial operators. The use of these has left this narrative devoid of any meaning. What more could the WWF say, compared to the commercials from automotive and clothing giants? This implies that communication is able to find new languages and words that disassociate the genuine social message from what is not authentic."
In the view of Marta Mainieri, a lecturer at the Catholic University and an expert on the sharing economy, "the criticism of personal branding is the urgent nature of the narrative. Everyone's obsession is to turn any kind of action into storytelling. So, even the good intentions behind some initiatives have the opposite effect, once they are being excessively showcased. It is no coincidence then that Fedez doesn't talk about 'fans' or 'followers' but 'users'."
But one thing for certain remains: "this is a powerful signal," emphasises Marta Mainieri, "'which doesn't surprise me because the awareness today of how important social responsibility is for consumers is beginning to break through and have practical applications. Now everyone, especially younger people, is requiring brands to play an active role as facilitators of change. As a result, companies are increasingly assuming the burden of coming up with proposals and appropriate actions."