Brand You: Ten Years Later, Needed More Than Ever

[Julie Anixter was a key part of the Tom Peters team behind the Reinventing Work books. His R&D gal, Tom called her "Official Muse," as she had the passion and stamina to go toe-to-toe with him on these ideas and then take them out into the world and crusade for them. She can currently be found as CMO of the design firm Brandimage - Desgrippes & Laga and blogging at www.thinkremarkable.com.—CM]

If year-end is good for reflection, this year-end has got to be one of the most poignant in a long time, as we watch and wonder and slide between the chaos (Wall Street, Detroit, our 401Ks) and the promise (an Obama & crew heading towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and clean green technologies poking through the haze of unconsciousness thanks to Thomas Friedman and others.)

Each time my own heart breaks a little for every laid-off worker, every ravaged "everyman and everywoman" whose non-Wall Street career adds up to a whole lotta loss despite loyalty and hard work, the next thing I know my neural networks careen toward the idea that Tom dropped like a big stone in our cultural pond, in August 1997, with the now-famous Tide "kapow-take-that!" Fast Company cover story "The Brand Called You." A year or so later, I was challenged to the hilt myself, collaborating on three books and educational programs with Tom, and his inner circle of creatives, three great little lists of 50 calls to action: The Project50, The Professional Service Firm50, and The BrandYou50.

Tom called these three topics "The Work Matters" movement, and we, like elves before Christmas, had an incredible sense of urgency about getting these ideas out to the world because dot-com mania and outsourcing were making it clear that white collar jobs were going to decline and anxiety was beginning to twist in the air. In retrospect, perhaps we—the collective we—weren't ... anxious enough.

Perhaps the idea that you too could be your own box of Tide, ready to be grabbed off the shelf (which would in fact make you one of the best loved, most valuable franchises on the planet), of branding yourself—like most big ideas—was a bit hard to swallow at first. Perhaps just a little too ahead of its time. Tom claims he always wants to be five minutes ahead—but this idea of "being a brand" and all the self-focus (aka self-care) was extremely ahead and is still not well embraced ... particularly in many leadership suites where individual brands were viewed as big recruiting targets and a pain in the ass.

Just think, if the brand-centric idea of doing work so well, so remarkably, so worth noticing, had become inherited wisdom, if it had become a survival strategy that any self-respecting job holder-careerist, blue, white, or green collar had to hold on to ... this season's sheer human greed and destruction would be a little easier to swallow. Because we'd all just pick up our tools, our resumes, our reputations built on our WORK, and move to the next team, job, town, or wherever, that we were "in demand." Come to think of it, it's not a bad idea now, today, circa 2009, to try on that remarkable thinking for size.

Maybe the most profound learning I had through that whole wonderful project was that we are all, already, walking brands. We just have to polish them so that we can see them shine. So read the book, take it to heart, or just check out Tom's challenge from the article:

The real action is at the other end: the main chance is becoming a free agent in an economy of free agents, looking to have the best season you can imagine in your field, looking to do your best work and chalk up a remarkable track record, and looking to establish your own micro equivalent of the Nike swoosh. Because if you do, you'll not only reach out toward every opportunity within arm's (or laptop's) length, you'll not only make a noteworthy contribution to your team's success—you'll also put yourself in a great bargaining position for next season's free-agency market." (Tom Peters, "The Brand Called You," Fast Company, August 1997)