Why assign your own name to a brand? What drives the founders of eponymous brands? What lies behind the success of the successful?
These are questions addressed by Branded Gentry, an engaging new book by Charles Vallance and David Hopper. The book comprises a series of interviews with people who ‘made their name by making their name into a brand’. The likes of Johnnie Boden, the founder of the casual clothing company, James Dyson of the innovative household appliance brand, Jonathan Warburton of the baking dynasty, and our own John Hegarty.
I found it a refreshing read. Conventional business books encourage us to think of commercial success in terms akin to scientific case studies. We isolate key learnings, critical success factors, best demonstrated practice. We are introduced to models, mantras and metaphors. We are given a picture of achievement which is ordered, constructed, replicable.
Branded Gentry invites us to consider the psychology of the founders of successful brands. Their relationship with their parents, the view from their childhood bedroom, the emotional milestones that mark out their career. Each chapter is a character study, an elegant pen portrait of often charismatic, compelling individuals. Consequently it paints a picture of success that is disordered, spontaneous, instinctive. And of business that is personal, passionate, human.
The decision to give one’s own name to a brand is significant. If brands are fundamentally about trust, then a brand that carries a founder’s name has a particular sense of integrity. The tag-line of Warburton’s bread is: ‘We care because our name’s on it.’ And as Boden puts it, ‘If you don’t believe in your name, how can you expect other people to give you money?’
Inevitably perhaps, there is a consistent theme of ‘failing forwards’. Tripping up on the way to success, maybe being humbled by mistakes, but also seeing in them learning and experience. The eponymous brand owners come across as enthusiasts. They’re often breezily confident and positive about life. Many of them seem more emotional than you might expect, more active listeners.
But there’s also a dark undertow. A wariness of good fortune, a suspicion that bad times may be round the corner, a fear of debt (which many of them have experienced). The Branded Gentry are restless souls. Listen to James Dyson: ‘I’m not satisfied; I’m still not satisfied. The moment you’ve done something, then you’re onto the next thing, which is full of new problems you’ve got to solve …It’s a life of failure and dissatisfaction whatever your private wealth’. Or as the potter, Emma Bridgewater, puts it: ‘The trouble with being an entrepreneur is that you never think you’ve finished. You’re always thinking of things you haven’t done… I’ve got a lot of parallel lives unlived, but you suddenly realise it’s probably not going to happen. It’s the inherent sadness of ageing.’
I guess I had imagined that success came easily to the successful; that they had had a leg-up from life, a helping hand to get them started. In fact I was rather struck by the fact that, whilst some of these entrepreneurs were born into material wealth, most of them had rather tough childhoods.The broken home, the unsympathetic father, the parents that passed away before their time. Illness and ill fortune seem never too far away. (Dyson points out that over 80% of British Prime Ministers lost a parent before the age of 10, compared to only 1.5% of the general population.)
I grew up committed to a clear separation between work and life beyond it. Of course in the modern age it’s increasingly difficult to sustain the divide. For these Branded Gentry life is work and the eponymous business is fundamentally an expression of self. According to Dyson, ‘I had developed a latent desire to make things around me better and that desire was the very part of whom I was.’ The authors conclude that their subjects ‘didn’t go out into the world to fit in with it. One way or another, they set out to make the world fit them.’
Branded Gentry is very well written. There is a commendable amount of descriptive detail and direct speech. One often feels one is in the room with the interviewee, observing his or her furniture, inflections, physiognomy. I welcome the book’s commitment that business is about people, not just processes; passions, not just practices. For Vallance and Hopper the personal is professional.
First published: BBH LABS 28/03/2013