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Lessons in personal branding from Hilda Ogden

October 17, 2016

Jean Alexander, who played the character Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street, died aged 90 on Friday. She held an enduring part of my teenage years, each Monday and Wednesday evenings at 7.30pm. It was the only television programme that I ensured I watched regularly, and her character was the reason why. It was compulsive viewing.

Hilda was a sharp-tongued, put-upon housewife who was one of Coronation Street’s best known characters, from 1964 to 1987. With her curlers, headscarf and piercing voice that could not be ignored, Hilda was for me the programme’s most iconic character.

Jean Alexander ensured we always rooted for the downtrodden cleaning lady, who embodied classic-era Coronation Street’s perfect balance of drama and comedy. She reached into the hearts of viewers. She was everyone’s nosy neighbour.

Jean formed a comedy double act with her on-screen husband, Stan, played by Bernard Youens. As Hilda, Jean became a mainstay of the then twice-weekly serial, invariably bickering with her workshy husband Stan and spreading gossip and scandal. However, together they formed an alliance against a world that was out to do them down.

Her tuneless, high-pitched warblings, and the panoramic ‘muriel’ on her living room wall, the backdrop for her three flying plaster ducks – the loose one in the middle always crazily pointing downwards – on wallpaper of a mountain range, became part of her professional signature – a vista Stan later ruined by letting his bath overflow. As a family we always used to shout out who was first to see the ducks in an episode.

Famed for her dangling cigarette, curlers, turban-style headscarf and wrap-around pinny, she was the cleaner at the Rovers Return pub for years, but as well as finely observed spikes of high and low comedy, the part also drew moments of intense pathos, none more memorable than her heartbroken on-screen farewell to her newly deceased layabout husband Stan.

After actor Bernard Youens died in 1984, his character Stan was written out. Hilda was seen silently unwrapping the small parcel she had brought home from the hospital containing Stan’s few personal effects. She delivered what was a devastating performance. As Hilda silently closed Stan’s spectacle case for the last time, the nation wept with her.

She and Youens developed the couple to the point where an episode’s storyline seemed incomplete without them. Three years after her screen husband’s death, Jean decided it was time to move on 1987. Half the nation tuned in to watch as her neighbours showed affection for her by throwing a surprise party in the Rovers Return to celebrate her leaving to become housekeeper for Doctor Lowther.

Jean Alexander brought a lot of her own personality to her role and was very observant about people. She based her portrayal of Hilda on wartime women munitions workers, whose heads were always covered to protect them from the machinery. They used to wear these scarves, like pudding-cloths, tied up and the curlers would be in – Hilda, Jean Alexander noted, was always ready for a night out – ‘only she never went out. The curlers were always in, just in case…’

Hilda’s definitive personal attributes and characteristics highlighted above created her own personal brand. It was a deliberate strategy, a true reflection of the character that emerged, making her mark, making herself memorable and standing out from the crowd.

Creating a ‘personal brand’ is a positive way to stand out in an increasingly competitive business world. The term ‘personal brand’ first appeared in August 1997 in an article by management guru and author Tom Peters, who wrote, We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

Personal branding is simply the way in which individuals differentiate themselves and stand out from a crowd by identifying and articulating their value, and then leveraging with consistent behaviour. In this way, individuals can enhance their recognition as experts in establish reputation and credibility – ‘it’s what they are famous for’.

Personal branding typically begins with establishing an inventory of core competencies, expertise and demonstrated abilities and consists of three elements:

  • Value Proposition: What do you stand for?
  • Differentiation: What makes you stand out?
  • Marketability: What makes you compelling?

Let’s look at this in a little more detail, how do you build a This is me brand to help you be memorable and help answer the customer’s question Why should I buy from you?

Be first with a purpose A personal brand is in many ways synonymous with your reputation, the way others see you. Are you an expert? What do you represent? What do you stand for? What thoughts come to mind as soon as someone hears your name? People recognise your name, what you’re working on, what you offer and what you’re about. It answers the question how does working with me help them?

Be known for something specific Meeting standards, however lofty those standards may be, won’t help you stand out. So go the extra mile. Be the entrepreneur who makes a few journeys a week to personally check in with customers. Be the founderer who consistently gives opportunities to more junior members of the team. Be known as the employee who responds quicker, acts faster, or always follows up.

Build Your expertise. The world is changing fast, make sure you are constantly learning and identify an area where you will be better than others, don’t be a ‘Jack of all trades’. Concentrate on your expertise. Once you have identified and developed this, make the most of it by seeking out opportunities to demonstrate your skills. Don’t be afraid to tell people about what you’ve created. Not to boast, but to demonstrate if you’ve genuinely innovated, people are will want to know about it.

Focus on the things that make you different. What makes you, you? Concentrate on the positives on both personal as well as professional level. Consider the way you react in everyday situations, whether it’s the way you communicate, your creativity, or the way you think and process information. Become really, really good at what differentiates you, or be so good they can’t ignore you!

Make yourself visible. This does not mean claiming undue credit or being anything less than humble, it means focusing on having a high-impact that will likely have visible results, knocking them for six and sharing the results. Blow your own trumpet, but be consistent – every move you make either reinforces your brand or violates it. Also participate in larger conversations and encourage those around you, it’s less about broadcasting yourself, and more about contributing as a community member.

Work harder than everyone else. Nothing – nothing – is a substitute for hard work. Look around: How many people are working as hard as they can? Very few. The best way to stand out is to out-work everyone else. It’s also the easiest way, because you’ll be the only one trying. I can’t say how many times I’ve been in a meeting where no one wanted to take on a task, even very simple ones. Be the guy that takes on stuff and gets it done. Being known for actually doing stuff and not just being the smartest is key.

Be authentic. Be honest, be open and be yourself – you will attract the sort of people you want to work with and have as clients. Whatever you do should be authentic. Be yourself. Don’t think of your brand as anything other than you being you. Listen more than you talk. Help more than be needy. Share more than you take. Get to know people and continue to learn.

Building a personal brand is first and foremost developing an understanding of your true self, and then sharing that with the world. Take your masks off and don’t be afraid of being vulnerable. If you want to stand out from the crowd, be yourself. The more you try to be like other people, the more you will recede into the background noise.

Don’t be afraid to let your own character show in what you do and in how you present yourself. Sure, you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but you’re not in this to make everyone happy. Never forget people connect with other people. If you don’t appear to be a real person, or if it just looks like you’re faking it, how likely do you think others are to trust you? Even if they do buy into your fake persona for a while, the slightest bit of inconsistency could prove problematic.

Live in your learning zone No matter how well you know your area of expertise, it would be wise to remember that things are changing at a faster rate than ever before, and you have to stay up-to-date with the latest changes and trends.

It takes time to build your personal brand. If you fail to stay relevant, all of your effort will be wasted. If you don’t want to be discredited, then you’ll want to keep learning. If you’re not growing, then you’re stagnating, and that’s the last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur.

Your personal brand matters. Your brand is your reputation. It’s your calling card. It’s what you’re known for and how people experience you. It’s about bringing who you are to what you do and how you do it. Delivering your brand clearly and consistently will create a memorable experience in the minds of those you interact with and can open doors to new opportunities.

Hilda Alice Ogden (nee Crabtree) was Weatherfield’s answer to Carmen Miranda. While Miranda wore fruit in her hair, Hilda favoured curlers and headscarf, as if her hairdo were permanently in preparation for a glamorous invitation that never came. When she warbled in a reedy, affected soprano (usually as she dusted the Rovers Return), those on the receiving end knew Hilda was in the room.

A fictional character maybe, but it captured all the elements of a compelling personal brand, endearing and enduring, full of humour, personality and memorable traits. Hilda left Coronation Street on Christmas Day 1987, she sang Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye, in her trademark trilling voice. It was watched by an audience of 26.65 million people, one of the highest audiences in British television history. I think she had established a memorable personal brand.

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