Person Brands: The Importance of Being Ernest or, Scott

When one is thinking about brands, it is our favourite products or services that come to mind. Sometimes, a few companies. Rarely does one think of a person.

And when one thinks of people, and I mean the well-known ones, we don’t necessarily think “brands”. It would be rather odd, if we did. But is it really that odd, when you consider that most roads, airports, stadia, schools, colleges or concert halls in most cities are named after famous people? Ah, yes, you didn’t think of them that way and you certainly weren’t thinking of them as brands.

So, can people be brands and what is a person brand?

In India, and indeed in many countries around the world, many businesses and corporations have the family name as the corporate identity. We don’t really give it much thought, but family-owned businesses are more ubiquitous than we think. So, from Tata and Birla to Mahindra and Bajaj and many more, the list of India Inc. is sprinkled with these family names and scions. Yet, they all run in much the same way that other corporations do. The person or persona of the promoter is kept at arm’s distance from the business transactions of the company. I don’t know if there is any way to prove this, but my hunch is that as years go by, the company owner or promoter’s own image gets more and more distanced from the company’s image. The latter is determined by a corporate philosophy, brand values and of course, the company’s performance. And this would be true of most family-owned companies around the world.

Person brands, like regular brands, ought to be built around core values

In my own industry of advertising and brand communications, the business is replete with agencies named eponymously after their founders. The most famous of them has got to be the agency where I spent half my career, Ogilvy. Initially named Ogilvy & Mather, the agency has now dropped Mather and calls itself just Ogilvy. For a few years they used David Ogilvy’s signature as the Company’s logo, but have recently tweaked their old logo as their new corporate identity.  

But what about the converse? Building a company or brand around a famous person’s name and iconography? Of course, we have the biggest, glittering example staring at us in the Trump Organisation which licenses the Trump brand to every gleaming tower, hotel, golf resort that it builds.  He even boasts of his own university. What of Trump, do any of these gleaming structures represent? Not much, you would have to say, except the name, his towering ambition and noveau-riche glitter written all over it.

No, that’s not the kind of person brand that I am talking about. Recently, I discovered in this 1998 New Yorker article by Joan Didion about Ernest Hemingway, that there have been attempts in America to build person brands around two legendary writers. After Hemingway’s death (which in the most Hemingway-like manner, resembled how he lived), his three sons, Jack, Patrick and Gregory, decided to build a company in his name and the Ernest Hemingway brand. The licensing of the brand is managed by Fashion Licensing of America Inc. I was so surprised at reading this that I immediately decided to look it up on the internet. And there it was, ernesthemingwaycollection.com. The company, I am told is Ernest Hemingway Limited. When I searched for media reports about the company’s performance on the internet, I came across just this one, about Papa’s Pilar Rum – one of their offerings – expanding their market in Europe.

The Hemingway and Fitzgerald brands are being built around the writers’ lifestyles

The same article mentions the F Scott Fitzgerald brand being built by his grandchildren. This isn’t as easy to find, unless you search for it as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald estate. You come upon an elegant, Art Deco website that simply oozes “jazz age” on every page, as Scott Fitzgerald himself is said to have coined the term to describe the “Roaring Twenties”. It is reminiscent of that era and the story of Scott and Zelda is beautifully told through an annotated timeline, giving you a glimpse of their much-storied life. While the site tells you about the couple and their literary works, it works as a subtle pitch for the Fitzgerald brand, which the very same Fashion Licensing of America Inc. helps license to interested parties.

I have to say that I am still reeling a little from reading through these sites and thinking about what it is that they are trying to achieve. The commercial aspect can never be far away, when one looks at efforts to capitalize on a well-known name and extract as much value as possible from it. I am not saying it is crass commercialism, but it veers dangerously close. After spending some time trying to pin what it is about these branding efforts that make me uncomfortable, I think I might have found the answers. First, I hold these writers in very high esteem for them to be “exploited” in this manner, if I can put it that way. Second, there is very little of Hemingway or Fitzgerald in the products/ideas which are being sold or licensed; by this I mean that there is no higher value or benefit that should accrue to the buyer/licensee from this transaction.

Ernest Hemingway and his many outdoor pursuits; All images JFK Presidential Library, Boston, on Wikimedia Commons

As a practitioner of advertising and brand communications, my views on the websites and the branding efforts are that they barely scratch the surface of these larger-than-life figures and their works. The Ernest Hemingway Collection site, in particular, is engaged with selling a range of items under the Hemingway brand. Everything from coffee and culinary sauces to eye-wear, hotels and resorts, home furnishings and a range of Montegrappa pens is on offer. Most of the time, the text doesn’t even attempt connections with Hemingway, his life, or his works. In the culinary section in particular, the branding of some of the sauces are rather unimaginative and bland. The Fitzgerald site is more subtle in comparison and has less to “sell”, but it too licenses the Fitzgerald brand and they have a “Look Book” which features examples of how the Fitzgerald brand can be licensed. You have to see it to understand why I say that these ventures border on crass commercialism. By the time you get to the brand licensing examples, nearly half the book is over. Then, each example opens with a Fitzgerald quote and tries desperately to find a connection with a product to sell. Incidentally, if Ernest Hemingway Collection is selling Montegrappa writing instruments, Fitzgerald is selling Mont Blanc pens. I have to say I found the Fitzgerald site a trifle less alienating as a woman, and that is perhaps because of the Zelda effect.

To get to the heart of a brand, it is essential to distill the brand down to its core. And while the Hemingway site talks of the Hemingway brand as one that “embodies the spirit of romance and adventure espoused by one of the great personalities of the 20th century” it doesn’t help differentiate it from other great personalities. These attempts are no better than the Che Guevara or Franz Kafka T-shirts that you see being peddled in bustling touristy town squares in most cities around the world.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald epitomised the Roaring Twenties; All images except Fitzgerald House: Minnesota Historical Society on Wikimedia Commons. Fitzgerald House image: McGliever CC by SA 3.0 on Wikimedia Commons

The fact that these are expensive, or rare, doesn’t make them that different in their basic appeal either. At best, you could say that they come off sounding like any top fashion label. Note that even the name Ernest Hemingway Collection hints at that. Giorgio Armani too has hotels, furnishings, eye-wear, and other accoutrements besides apparel to create his “world of Armani”. I am sure there are many other fashion designers doing the same. How is Hemingway or Fitzgerald going to be different; in fact, should they even be sharing the same space or competing with the fashion industry?

In my view, you run the danger of eroding and diluting whatever brand value might exist in Hemingway and Fitzgerald and going farther and farther away from the very people whose spirit these products are supposed to embody. In this I agree with the author of this Washington Post article from 1997. I also think that there is a danger in indiscriminately extending the brand to every conceivable product category that is perceived to reflect their lifestyle, in however remote a manner.

At the end of the day, they will always be best known for what they wrote. Their words capture the spirit of the times much better than a cup of coffee can ever hope to. Their insights of the world they lived through and endured are keener and sharper than any pair of glasses can ever promise. If these brands are ever to capture even an iota of their spirit, they will have to go back to plumbing the depths of what these men stood for and what they wrote about. They must get to the core of what made these men tick. They will then have to recreate the spirit of those times in the way these writers would have.

Compare the simple interiors of the Hemingway home on the left with the opulently furnished Hemingway Suite in a Turkey hotel on the right; Hemingway home image Pietro Valocchi CC by SA 3.0 and Hemingway Suite image Canerol86 CC by SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons

Which brings us back to the question: can persons be brands. I believe they can, and many indeed are. It is their core values, their strength of character and the high standards they set in their fields that make them so. I also think that it is possible to build a person brand, even when the person has transitioned from one field to another, as Bill Gates has done exceedingly well with his wife Melinda. Together, they have built The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as their brand.   

The best way to end this piece is to borrow Hemingway’s words to make a slightly different point. Just as he felt it necessary to keep filling his reservoir with reading while writing, it is important for brands to keep filling and refreshing the well that they draw from.

He also famously remarked to a friend in 1950, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” So, it should be with brands as well: once you have tasted their real essence, they ought to stay with you. What good then, is a caricature?

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