First impressions

Make them true to your brand

Your grandmother always told you that first impressions count. She was a wise old bird.first-impressions

She knew that proper shoes, well polished, were the first priority for men. Modest yet modish dress and subtle make-up for women. A firm handshake and good eye contact for both. (I have had the pleasure to meet the Head of the Commonwealth and she has as firm a grip as any man, although one is not permitted to return the pressure).

When it comes to your personal brand, you need to give first impressions some proper consideration. In this way you can be ready to make a consistently positive impact each and every time. Regrettably I am not in a position to advise you on what to wear, as I normally have to creep out of the house, uninspected, of a morning. But I will share with you some interesting new research on business wear.

It comes from California State University, and is a study called The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing.  Perhaps surprisingly from a state that espouses informality, this study suggests that wearing smart clothes changes the way we think.

Now that is interesting in itself because it reverses the old emphasis on looking good. Granny’s advice was all about impact on others. This has since been codified by academics as the Primacy Effect. For more on this read Michael Shea’s volume of the same name, immodestly subtitled The Ultimate Guide To Effective Personal Communications.

The new study, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, reveals that dressing well makes you feel happier in yourself and more powerful in a group. This is apparently a good thing because when you feel powerful you are more capable of abstract thinking. Abstraction is a mark of civilized development, and allows sociologists and philosophers to break the bounds of conceptual thinking. Mind you, when I flunked First Year Philosophy I didn’t decide to dress better. I just used bigger words in the re-sit paper – and passed cum laude!The study gave me an insight I found interesting. Well-dressed people feel emotionally removed from others. Professor Abraham Rutchik reveals: ‘We feel less compassion, and perceive the emotions of others less.’ Well, I suppose here in Africa we have a history of sharply-suited oligarchs evincing that behaviour.

Of course, dressing for success means different things at different times. Only the scaliest old reptile buttons himself into a big double-breasted suit for every occasion. Many years ago I watched the movie version of Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, and I still recall a sharp-penned critic saying that Robert Mitchum did not so much act as … point his suit at people.  And one of the hardest things to do is to know how casual to make things. Previously in this column I have shared the broad acceptance that dressing down for work does not work.

The key to success is to think about some words that you can use (to yourself) to define your brand personality. As with commercial brands, the simpler and more interesting these words are, the better. Edgy wins hands down over innovative. Robust is easier to understand than confident. Witty is more focused than sociable.

The matter of first impressions requires more thought when you are a senior person representing an organisational or corporate brand. You have to sit down and cross-reference those descriptive words. The Administrator of a big hospital with excellent community engagement might need to look softer and more caring than the CEO of a modern airline, who should perhaps exude a mix of technical competence and stylish hospitality. Sir Richard Branson manages the latter very well.

But these are only nuances. If you are a big, forceful lady you may not feel comfortable portraying yourself as fluffy, so don’t force it. You have to live easily within your brand identity or you won’t be able to maintain it.

There is no question that modern African society is investing more in looking sharp. We’re enjoying it too. And giving new inspiration to tailors, dressmakers and fashion designers. Ten years ago our cities were full of small tailoring operations producing clothes that were commissioned in hope but worn with regret. From the Kaunda Suit to the Bodyguard Jacket, our clothing was as horrible as our 1970’s architecture. But now, well into the second decade of a new century, we have almost endless opportunities to style up. From Mitumba to Hugo Boss, Manolo Blahnik to Bata. What will your brand wear tomorrow?


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