Benjamin Franklin understood the importance of his personal brand image and leveraged that knowledge to his advantage. In Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, Walter Isaacson wrote:
“From his first moments in Philadelphia, Franklin cared about such appearances. American individualists sometimes boast of not worrying about what others think of them. Franklin, more typically, nurtured his reputation, as a matter of both pride and utility, and he became the country’s first unabashed public relations expert. ‘I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal,’ he later wrote, ‘but to avoid all appearances of the contrary” (his emphasis).”
As a printer, Franklin was a tradesman and small business owner. Because he competed against other local printers in Philadelphia, he skillfully differentiated himself from his competition. He personally believed in the virtues of hard work, frugality and industriousness, so Ben demonstrated these behaviors publicly to promote both the virtues and build his personal and professional brand. Isaacson points out that “even after he became successful, he made a show of personally carting the rolls of paper he bought in a wheelbarrow down the street to his shop, rather than having a hired hand do it.”
Franklin’s personal brand image management didn’t end with his printing career. By the time he arrived in Paris in December of 1776, he was an international celebrity. At the age of seventy, he was known as an accomplished writer, scientist, philosopher, statesman and symbol of liberty. But, Franklin had something to sell in France: America. He was in Paris to secure the aid of France in the American Revolution. He was so famous in Europe that people lined the streets to personally experience his entry into Paris.
To accentuate the perceived ideals of the great American frontier, Franklin dressed plainly and resisted wearing a powdered wig, as was the fashion of the day. Instead he adorned a soft marten fur cap, which he had purchased in Canada. The irony, of course, was that he wasn’t a frontiersman. He was playing the part of the noble frontier philosopher. Ben was actually an urbanite. He was born in Boston and moved to Philadelphia as a young man. He was a city-dweller, a writer and a publisher. He would have looked just as odd wearing that fur cap on the streets of Philadelphia as he did on the streets of Paris, but he understood the power of looking the part.
Yes, stereotyping can lead us to make false assumptions about people. It is one of the seven deadly sins of decision-making and we must be aware of it as a cognitive blind spot. Stereotyping is also the main reason to properly manage your personal brand image. Fair or not, we are constantly being judged by our appearances and behavior. Human beings want people to look and act the part they play in society because appearances provide us a mental shortcut to behavioral expectation. They also help us estimate competence (How should a qualified doctor, lawyer, plumber, statesman, or revolutionary printer look?).
Remember, before you utter a word to a new acquaintance, he or she has already made an initial impression of you. So, make it a good one. Ben Franklin did and his image wound up on our $100 bill.
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