Personal Branding Role Models Across Cultures

For our April post Dr. Amit and I chose to discuss personal branding role models in India and Japan and how these role models, or lack of them, are influencing the personal branding movement in both countries.

View from Japan: How Earthquakes are Influencing Personal Branding in Japan

In past decades young Japanese have focused their career efforts on a ‘job for life’ at a big company. After all, life-time employment has been a virtual mainstay in Japanese business culture for years. However, given the current economic factors in Japan recent university graduates have had to change their mind-set to realize that jobs with the traditional lifetime employment “guarantee” are disappearing. Interestingly though, something beyond this economic reality is having an even more profound impact on this mind-set change — specifically the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in March of 2011.

In the wake of the disaster last March, more and more Japanese are questioning their traditional cultural values of not taking risk, maintaining harmony, and not standing-out. The aftermath of a major natural disaster is forcing people to come face-to-face with uncertainty and really consider long and hard what they should do with their lives.

  • Should I wait around for my ‘expected’ promotion when I reach 40?
  • Is this the job I really want for the rest of my life?
  • Can I take the risk to change my career?

Such questions, never mentioned in the past, are now being voiced and compelling Japanese to take their uncertain future into their own hands. A great example of the rise of a strong personal brand in Japan is Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Rakuten.  Mikitani started his “lifetime” employment as an investment banker for one of the largest financial institutions in Japan. Like any talented employee he worked hard and was gradually going through the motions to make incremental advancements in his career. All of this changed, however, after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995. Being a native of Kobe and seeing the destruction and death in his hometown resulted in a profound change.  Mr. Mikitani said,

“That was the moment that changed the way I viewed my life. Up to that point I was thinking about becoming a senior manager, but I realized that life is short, and that anything can happen.”

The founding of Rakuten in 1997, now one of largest e-commerce companies outside of Amazon, was largely due to a major natural disaster that forced Mikitani to face uncertainty and use the power of his own personal brand to stand-out, take a risk, and pursue a dream.

Recently, a growing number of young Japanese entrepreneurs are heading to Silicon Valley. Part of this motivation is due to economic stagnation in Japan, but another motivator is the desire to take control of their lives after the unpredictable nature of the massive earthquake and tsunami.

While these natural disasters have sparked a change in how some Japanese entrepreneurs think about their lives, Japan still lacks the role models and mentors needed to encourage the average person to actually move out of their comfort zone to stand up and stand-out. Entrepreneurs are naturally attracted to risk and change. The average Japanese, however, does not dream of being their own boss. Japanese need to understand that standing out is not something reserved just for a business owner. In today’s economy, all careerists must stand out and differentiate themselves from all others with similar backgrounds competing for the same opportunities.

The earthquake may have opened up people’s minds to change, but now Japan needs more people to put this mind-set change into action. This is why personal branding is needed now more than ever in Japan. As more Japanese uncover their personal brands and use their unique promise of value to be more successful, a different kind of earthquake will shake the foundation of Japanese culture. One that will not destroy but rather build a new generation that values and rewards standing out to be your brand.


View from India: How the IT Industry is influencing Personal Branding in India

A Few days back I was wondering why most of my clients are entrepreneurs and why people into jobs are not so keen on building personal brands? I decided  to do some informal research and called many of my friends and acquaintances (in middle and top management) to find out their opinions.

The major points were as follows:

  • Work pressures are too high and long working + commuting hours meant there is very little time left even for the family.
  • It is better to maintain a low profile as social media activities and personal branding makes bosses and organizations insecure. 
  • I am in wait and watch mode. I am not an innovator and once it catches up I will do it.

The most interesting observations were that many people from the IT industry had become active on social media and were considering formal personal branding. The IT industry is welfare oriented and generally there was a culture of pampering employees rather than harassing them (due to demand supply equations also). The IT industry is a role model in India for office facilities, employee welfare orientation, employee stock option plans and so on. So the role models for personal branding (innovators and pioneers too) actually were emerging only from the IT industry. I spoke to Ashish Bhagwat who has been informally doing personal branding and has an active blog “The Eclectic Zone” for more than five years.

Ashish on Personal Branding

I was with Wipro for nearly 10 years, a well-established brand that becomes the way people introduce you in public places. If you continue that long enough, you fall in the trap and start doing the same for yourself. 

However, very early in my stint at Wipro, I came across this book from Tom Peters – “Brand You”, and it shaped a lot of thinking for me on importance of having your own identity. You are known by your interaction and engagement, and that becomes the brand – provided you’re also good at what you do. The problem with not making a conscious attempt at building your identity is that only the people who work with you will know what you are. And, physical interaction has its own constraints in terms of reach. Technology has enabled the expansion of engagement from that perspective, especially through Social Media and Web connectivity now. 

I started my blog while I was at Wipro. To my own surprise, it became very popular in the community and was one of the prominent blogs in the industry. When I started engaging with people beyond existing circle of influence, it opened up more opportunity for me to make a wider impact and influence. One may think that it’s an extra effort to go out there and engage with people beyond your reach. But once it becomes a habit, one is doing it all the time without having to consciously putting the effort. 

Personal Branding is mostly about the attitude around one’s identity and not about specific activities one does.

Exposure, Passion and Open-mindedness

Another thing which came to light was that Indians are often slow at adopting new things initially but once it clears the initial phase; there is a herd mentality to follow the leaders. Indians are highly influenced by their sports and film stars and since they are active on Twitter, Blogs and other social media, some people had started personal branding by copying them but often lose enthusiasm later. (Personal branding without genuine passion does not last long)

IT industry professionals were more consistent also because they did not have phobias about creating blogs, and social and online media are familiar territory. IT industry professionals are travelling and interacting with westerners more frequently and ar therefore exposed to the power of passion, social media and personal branding.

First Mover Advantage

Also, the mushrooming of mass media (magazines, TV channels, newspapers, FM radio and so on) and the increasing popularity of social media has made personal branding easier and this feeling is slowly sinking in among Indians. But personal branding takes time and effort and the early adopters will emerge as winners and the latecomer will find it difficult to create identity in crowded spaces and clutter.


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About the author

Peter Sterlacci Peter Sterlacci is known as “Japan’s personal branding pioneer.” In a country where fitting-in is the norm, Peter’s mission is to pioneer a ‘cultural shift’ by helping Japanese to stand out in a global environment. An avid cyclist, he combines cycling imagery with personal branding strategy to empower his clients to shift gears and sprint to career success. Follow Peter on Google+