Critics of the media coverage of Thunberg have expressed disgust at what they see as attacks on her character. They object that she is vulnerable, given her age and her Asperger’s. In sporting terms, her opponents seem to be ‘playing the player, not the ball’- fouling, in other words.
Some of the comments made against her do seem inappropriate. Perhaps one of the reasons for this development is that as her message, and the movement around it, gains strength, opponents are left with a problem: if they take aim at her personally, they look cruel. But it’s her personal brand importance that powers the message. Very few people who’ve heard of Thunberg, whether they applaud her campaign or not, could name any new argument that she is making. Her main point is: we all know the problem; why aren’t we doing anything about it? This is not a new intervention in the discussion on climate change. What’s new is her.
If we stop for a moment and examine it as a communications issue, we see that Greta Thunberg is famous because she’s a powerful brand. Her voice, face, manner, age and rare perspective on the world – due to Asperger’s – make her distinctive. Her impeccable sincerity cuts through modern politics and media like a laser. It’s as if she’s come to tell us all the truth, like the prophet in a classical play, or the wise old caretaker in a spooky film.
Those who are sceptical of the movement she’s leading can see that it’s her brand that they need to reckon with. This is what’s led some of them to undermine her credibility or put a different spin on her arresting televisual presence. Personal Brand is often stronger than arguments or facts. This is not to say that Greta Thunberg has no arguments or facts, just that they are not what brought her to public consciousness.
The concept of brand, as applied to human beings, is relatively new. The first time they hear it, a lot of people are repelled by it. They don’t want to reduce themselves or others to a commodity or a commercial proposition. That was certainly my reaction. To me, a concern with Personal Brand was what you’d expect from the type of person who comes about fourth on The Apprentice. But in the end I came round to the idea that brand is vital – sometimes it’s everything.
One way to think about it is that other people don’t really know you that well. You are, by virtue of being human, a fascinating universe all to yourself. But to a work colleague who interacts with you occasionally, or the reader of a free newspaper, you are little more than a few characteristics. Just like a brand. Even a well-known brand like Dell, Samsung, or McDonald’s struggles to be associated with more than one or two basic ideas, such as ‘fun’, ‘reliable’ or ‘good value’. At work, we struggle to be associated with more than just a few basic ideas too. What we need to do is try to make those ideas ones that advance us in the eyes of others, and don’t hold us back. Last week, I had perhaps the perfect example…
An interesting and open-minded woman I was working with said: ‘People know I’m good, but I’m not perceived well. Why haven’t I risen higher?’ So I suggested we talk about brand. I started by asking her to write down three things that could be part of her brand – valuable character traits she could be known for. In my mind, I had a checklist of words that she shouldn’t choose. She actually came back with my top three no-nos. They are:
When told, that these were on the banned list, she came up with a reason why: ‘They’re expected’. And that’s true. These are not qualities that make you stand out, they’re things that help you fit in. They should be taken for granted. (OK, you’ve probably worked with people who lack these qualities, but having them is no ticket to success).
If a brand is going to work for you it needs to be both authentic and distinctive. So modest understatements need to go. That doesn’t mean that the person I was working with needed to put a line through those three words and find something else. She wrote them down because they are an important part of her – that authenticity needs to be preserved.
What I did instead was encourage her to think deeply about her honesty. She’d already given me a couple of examples. What they showed, I suggested, was that she was more than merely honest; she was brave. She was unafraid to say that her seniors were making a poor impression. She was relaxed about calling out what she saw as nonsense.
Once someone gains more awareness of their strengths and values, they get better at demonstrating them in the right way. So in this case, next time this person speaks out, she could begin by saying ‘OK, I’m going to be brave here, and say I think our boss made a poor impression’. That might work better than shrugging and saying: ‘I’ll be honest, he made a poor impression’.
Projecting your brand doesn’t mean marketing yourself, necessarily. There’s no need to shake anyone’s hand and say ‘Hi, I’m Andy, and I’m brave with the truth, committed to my work, and a very able builder of professional networks’. Simply recognising your own value clearly in your own mind will help others to recognise it too when they interact with you.
I’ve no idea if Greta Thunberg is familiar with the concept of personal brand. I suspect not. But she does have a certain kind of self-awareness which lends her huge clarity. She knows what her strengths are and plays to them. Perhaps, ‘plays’ is the wrong word for such a serious person, and a serious business. However, she herself has identified that because of her Asperger’s there is a compelling congruity between who she is, what she wants, and what she says. She has no option but to be authentic and distinctive, which is a headache for anyone trying to stand in her way.