August 30, 2009

Not So Sweet Scent Of (Someone Else's) Success

I was reminded of Hillary Clinton's recent rebuke of a student who had apparently asked what her husband thought, when I read of Ali Hewson's visit to a courtroom earlier this month (Bono's Wife Loses Bid To Stop Stella McCartney Scent).

Throughout the article, Ali is referred to as the wife of her more-famous husband, which must be deeply annoying for someone who's forged a significant reputation for herself as a social entrepreneur and activist through her own Nude Brands cosmetics company. Hillary seemed sensitive to the same long shadow cast by the former president when she angrily told the student that "I'm not here to channel my husband."

I can understand Hillary's irritation at any perception that she is not clearly her own woman but, at the same time, the world tends to make sense of what people do using its own frames of reference. When you stand in the shadow of a formidable personality, it's not so surprising that people take their bearings from them.

Ask most of the world who Ali Hewson is and they are likely to look blankly at you; mention Bono and they now have a reference point. Hillary Clinton is certainly better known than Ali but people still connect her closely to her husband (particularly when he's staging dramatic rescues in North Korea).

I've seen the same angry rebuke from musicians who leave an iconic band to perform on their own and are then asked to play the popular hits from that previous life. Still, you can understand where the audience are coming from. Many of those same performers simply wouldn't attract the same numbers to their concerts if they didn't have their previous fame to call upon.

It's clear that if you really want to step out from under a long shadow, it's up to you to seize the limelight and throw a shadow or two of your own. We've seen Princess Diana do it in her own way, Robbie Williams and Sting in another. The outpouring of grief and tributes that greeted the death of Ted Kennedy this week suggests that he did so too.

There's no point in our growing annoyed at the world if it doesn't get how we'd like to be seen. Many of us do stand on the shoulders of giants and it's difficult to see either Hillary or Ali enjoying the opportunities to figure on the world stage if their more famous partner hadn't been there first.

As brand-owners too we need to recognise that the world often doesn't make the difference between us and our better-known competitors or neighbours and that we're better off forging a distinctive reputation of our own rather than complaining about how customers 'simply don't get it'.

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