Insight from Professor Will Brooker, who, not content with simply understanding a brand, is living and breathing a brand. 

‘After years of being pulled in all directions, I want to move in-house so I can feel like I’m really getting to the heart of and building a brand’ 

This is the most common reason we hear from PR professionals when looking to make the agency to in-house transition, often because they’re tired of only exploring one aspect of a business and not having a clear understanding of the impact their work has on the overall brand objective. So, what does getting to the heart of a brand really mean? We thought we’d try and put an interesting spin on this question and get some insight from Professor Will Brooker, who, not content with simply understanding a brand, is living and breathing a brand. Over the course of a year, Will is in essence, becoming David Bowie by making the same sartorial choices, eating and drinking the same meals, listening to the same music and immersing himself in the life of Bowie.

Hi Will, did you have a strategy in place when starting to build your personal and professional profile / brand?

I think it evolved from the work I produced. My first real recognition in the media was more as a novelty, an academic completing a PhD on Batman, and I don’t think I was nearly as in control or selective about my public performance than as I would be now. My next few books were on different specific case studies (Star Wars fans, the changing history of Alice in Wonderland, critical perspectives on Blade Runner, media audiences) but they all had a common thread and so I began to promote myself in a way that made sense of those projects and that people could easily understand. I would sum it up in a sentence like ‘I am interested in the relationship between popular culture and audiences, producers and historical contexts, how cultural icons change over time, and what they mean to us.’ Or just the last part of the sentence, if I was cutting it even shorter.

This sense of personal brand emerged in a different time though, before Twitter and Facebook for the most part. My PhD was completed in 1999 and the subsequent books were published in 2002, 2003 and 2005. So that’s the way I would have summed up my approach at job interviews, or conferences, or when asked to give a bio, rather than on social media.

I think it’s important to be able to give people a sense of consistency in what you do and what you ‘are’ in that respect: to pull together diverse projects under a banner that people can readily understand, and give them a hook so they can see what all the things you do have in common. You could call it the ‘ahh’ concept. The brief sentence that makes people nod and say ‘ahh’ and get it, and remember it.

So I wasn’t just ‘Dr Batman’ any more (though that name did stick) – I was the guy who does the serious but fun work on popular culture and cultural icons, how they change over time, and how they are interpreted by various audiences. And because I was happy to speak to the media and could do it in a clear and engaging way, the fact that I was a good choice to request for interviews and soundbites also became part of my ‘brand’. I didn’t describe myself as a media scholar but it would be a fair description.

I think the key after that, if you want to retain consistency and a recognisable brand that is readily-understood, you have to make sure people can see how the new projects fit under the existing banner. So, while a book on Bowie may seem different in very many ways to a book on Batman, what they have in common is the changing meanings of a cultural icon over a period of history. Essentially I am still taking a similar approach but to different case studies, and I think that’s easy enough to understand, doesn’t disrupt people’s sense of what I do and ‘am’ in a professional sense, and enables them to still reach out to me for the same things. Now I might be asked specifically to talk about Bowie, but more broadly, my use to the media is still as a commentator on popular culture who can talk in a critical, engaging and interesting way, without going on at length, being too dull or using too much jargon.

How has (or has) your brand persona manifested over the years?

It has manifested in the things I’m asked to do publicly: like for instance a Q&A at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, a Ted talk, television interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, lectures open to a general audience beyond academia. I think those occasions build up into an overall picture. What I was talking about would have changed over time, and aspects of the way I dressed and presented myself have changed over time, but I think the approach has been consistent: try to be engaging, interesting, partly serious and partly funny.

You have cultivated and built different brands / brand personas, from Dr Batman to being one of the creative brains behind MSCSI ( and now method playing David Bowie as research – do you feel that those who know you from merely a brand perspective get to understand or see you from a personal one and how do you keep those facets separate?

I would say the professional and public ‘brand’ of me is a performance that draws on some elements of my private self but not all of them, and exaggerates and projects aspects of myself. Nobody – nobody normal and nice – would stand up and hold forth for an hour without interruption in a private, social situation with friends; and no academics would, on the other hand, be self-indulgent and silly on a BBC interview, the way they might with their loved ones at home. 

If you have a job to do professionally, you do it, whether you’re tired or fed up or disillusioned or not – so in that respect, a public brand is ‘fake’, in that you’re not always showing exactly what you might honestly feel, but I think what you are doing in that situation is projecting aspects of yourself, rather than inventing a false persona. You draw on the parts of yourself that are outgoing and energetic, and push to one side any inner voices that don’t want to be there at all. To be authentic and to seem genuine and convincing, I think any public-facing performance should be an amplification of parts of you that are already there, rather than a creation of a different person.

I think it’s also important to be able to turn off any public front, and have a space in your life where you can feel relaxed enough to let that effort and performance drop.

Talk to us about how MSCSI came about and how you built up the brand – who got behind you and in terms of PR, marketing and social media, how did you get it from an idea to a successful product?

I would say that while MSCSI involves very many people, I have always been one of the key people pushing it forward and with a sense of its direction. My role, apart from writing the script, has included envisioning and implementing the direction of the social media engagement and broader media promotion, the management of the Kickstarters, much of the networking and the business/charity partnerships, commissioning and recruiting a range of diverse artists (from comic book inks, lettering and colour to video, website and music creators) and a lot of the hands-on promotion in terms of social media. So I suppose I do manage and maintain that brand, and do a lot on the ground to keep it going and make it successful, but there are a lot of other very talented individuals involved, who do things I could not. I think sometimes successful art is a form of collaborative management, in terms of picking the right people to work with. It was those people who did much of the concrete work, from what I might call my ‘direction’ – but I mean that in a filmmaking sense of having a creative vision and working with people to make it happen, rather than a strictly business sense of telling people what to do because you’re paying them.

On a specific level, I worked with artists like Suze Shore, Sarah Zaidan and web designer Lindsay Searles early on to get a strong logo and online presence. Riven Alyx Buckley was our first social media team member, who set up the Facebook and Twitter accounts and gave them a lively and engaging voice through the first key months when we were building an audience. Angel Kumar took on the role for a while, during our first Kickstarter of 2014, and during our last Kickstarter in June 2015, I ran the social media myself, working with artist and designer Samantha LeBas to hit potential investors with an ambitious promotional campaign that involved viral marketing, audience interaction, videos, special offers, interviews, teasers and lots of approaches we hadn’t used before. Kickstarter changed during 2014-2015 and the fundraising market became a lot more saturated with campaigns – plus I think an investment fatigue kicked in among our potential backers – so I really had to pull the stops out more.

We already had a strong brand by 2014 – thanks in part to the media attention we had received – with a good sized and loyal fanbase for an independent comic book of this type, but I think that brand was less distinctive in 2015, partly because the mainstream had followed and arguably imitated what we were doing. So it was a different market and a lot more difficult to raise the money. It was another full-time job for me to run that campaign, on top of my existing responsibilities.

I used my media contacts from my journalism and academic work to get us coverage and visibility when MSCSI first launched, earning us coverage in Ms Magazine, The Guardian and Times Higher Education – as well as on my university website and in two academic journals – and other attention followed, such as a special feature in Stylist magazine and an article in Femina. As such, I was presenting MSCSI as an extension of my previous research into comics, specifically Batman – the pitch was that I had moved from criticising mainstream representations of gender in the superhero genre to suggesting an alternative and better way of doing things, by doing it myself. So I deliberately positioned this new project in a way that made sense to people who had covered my previous work; as a sub-brand of the existing ‘guy who writes about popular culture’ idea, but incorporating the easily-understood sideways move that now I was putting my ideas, developed over years of study, into practice. I don’t think it’s so different from having a brand like Mars bars and then announcing that you’re making Mars Milk or Mars Ice Cream. It’s not like launching Mars Salad.

I also drew on all my contacts in comic book fandom and blogging, offering interviews, exclusive art and features. In each case, I think I was offering something in return, so I don’t feel this was cynical promotion. With fellow comics fans and websites, I would always promote and retweet their work, so I feel it was more of a mutually-beneficial relationship, a kind of ‘favour bank’ system of helping each other out at various times.

I also reached out to appropriate charities and institutions – the Way Out organisation, the Feminist Library, the Glasgow Women’s Library and others – offering to donate either funding, books or other services like workshops and talks. I see it as important to MSCSI that we ‘do good’, and have a positive effect beyond improving the representation of women in comics (both comic characters, and women working in comics), but these positive relationships and the news stories they generated surely contributed to and enhanced our brand, too.

So again, I think consistency is key. MSCSI is about ‘changing the face of women in comics’, and that’s a simple message that is true now as it was when we launched. Everything we have done, I think, works within that message, develops and confirms it, rather than distracting from it. With our most recent Kickstarter, a stretch goal was to fund three short stories by other, first-time writers: an Asian woman, a Black woman and a transgender woman, writing about characters within those groups. That was a new dimension to MSCSI, but it doesn’t contradict anything we’ve said we are about: it adds to and evolves it, I think.

We read that when you lecture, you don’t lecture as Bowie – when working on other projects, such as MSCSI, is this still the case and assuming Bowie research is all-encompassing, how do you balance jumping from project to project from a mind-set perspective… is it easy to switch Bowie off and fully immerse yourself into the comic, for instance?

It is not immensely easy and I find it best to have a longer ‘run-up’ to work that significantly shifts your perspective. I find it difficult to work intensely on one thing at one point of the day, then switch to another later the same day: for instance, when I am writing a book I try to have a few months to do it, and to concentrate on it as a priority.

Ideally I would rather only take on one such project, which needs psychological focus and even emotional involvement, at a time. That’s not usually possible but I think trying to stick to one a day is sensible if possible. I tend to take on quite intense projects and they can be exhausting. I think you need preparation beforehand and space to wind down afterwards, to do them at your best. The same applies to teaching, for me.

Do you think in society’s obsession with social media that a brand can be successful without embracing the online world and can you think of an example when this has worked particularly well or really badly?

Coincidentally, David Bowie currently works very well as a brand that doesn’t really use social media. In contrast to, say, Taylor Swift, whose everyday conversations, with all their stumbles and engaging enthusiasm, are often visible in public online, Bowie’s current persona (if it is that – maybe now it’s just him, who he is) is very reclusive. When he suddenly dropped a brand new single and video, followed by an album, on his 66th birthday, after ten years’ absence, with no media warning at all, that was an incredible achievement and newsworthy in itself. So I think not engaging, avoiding publicity, can be a stunning kind of performance in its absence.

Bowie was an early adopter of the internet, used it to its full, interacted a great deal for a superstar, and then withdrew. I think his star brand is more compelling right now than younger musicians who put so much upfront on instagram and twitter. I think less can be more, though it does need you to reach a certain stage of being well-established and respected of course. If Twitter had existed in the early 1970s, Bowie would have been all over it.

I do feel social media has enabled and encouraged a situation where there’s not much filter on communication, and sometimes this harms big brands. It only takes one person behind a social media account to tweet something unwise – a joke that doesn’t come off – and the company is damaged. So on one hand, social media adds a human, engaging, fast-moving and quick-thinking personality to a big brand, but on the other, I think it can undermine respect and a sense of gravity and significance. On twitter, you are only as good as the person currently running your account, and your reputation is in their hands. An advertising campaign with months of thought and creative work behind it is inevitably going to be in a different league.

I sense that not everyone might get what you’re trying to achieve in terms of Bowie – can you talk us through your thinking?

At this stage, it doesn’t really matter to me who gets it, except inasmuch as I wouldn’t want any negative publicity to damage my university or my publisher. This is a personal project for me at this point, and there was no plan for it to ever go public during the research stage. It was always about immersing myself in Bowie’s influences, in biographies and in his music, and trying to connect with some of his experiences where possible, in order to gain a better understanding of his ‘head space’ – where his mind was at, at specific historical points – and in turn to get a new insight into his work.

If some media outlets want to present it as gimmicky dressing up, I can’t stop them – but what they haven’t taken into account is that the outfits, make-up and hair have served as a means to an end for my research. At this point, I am not selling a book, or myself as a brand. The reason I have agreed to the publicity I’ve done so far has been to sell my university to prospective students – because the press office specifically asked me to do that – and also because wearing the make-up and outfits gets me media attention, and that gives me an experience of ‘being Bowie’ that I wouldn’t otherwise have gained.

Having the phone ring endlessly and anonymously, and receiving multiple emails from newspapers and documentary companies, meeting celebrity guests and travelling at 1am to interviews with Australian TV, glimpsing gossip about myself on social media, and having strangers online comment on my life, appearance and work, and my image circulate around the world with captions in various languages, was worth doing because it gives me a further connection with what it might have been like for David Bowie in the mid-70s.

So really I think I win from that encounter. I was tempted to say to TV presenters who asked me why I was dressing up, because you wouldn’t have had me on the show otherwise. But that was the motivation behind it. To gain that further level of experience of publicity and celebrity, after which changing my appearance and going to Berlin is going to feel more like Bowie’s authentic search for anonymity in the late 70s.

What does living and breathing a brand mean to you?

With the Bowie project, I feel I am, to an extent, living and breathing someone else’s brand, filtered through me. So that is a new experience. While I sometimes wonder if I am studying and exploring my own mind as much as I am his, it’s still fascinating, tiring and intense to be so focused on a single concept (in this case, a person) and the media attention has pushed me further into it, as I’m now recognised when I’m out, and I feel more expectation on me not just to keep doing it, but to do more of it, to do a deeper and more extensive job of it.

Living and breathing as ‘brand Brooker’, as a media academic with a certain body of work and certain responsibilities, is also tiring in a public situation, such as a five-day conference where people tend to recognise me and treat me as a public figure they are free to approach and talk to whenever they like. Everyone will experience this when they give a public talk, hold an open Q&A afterwards, and even at the pub or meal afterwards, are putting on a kind of performance because they have been invited to the event for a reason, to give a certain value and a set of skills. If you are asked to do something in public, you deliver it, and I think that includes the person you are, as well as simply what you say. So in a situation where you are known primarily as that brand self, you are like an actor. That’s why it is very important to retain time, space and people with whom you can turn off that self and be a more private person.

As a lecturer, what advice would you give grads who are looking to make that first move into the working world?

My advice would be that you shouldn't treat studying and your subsequent career as two entirely different spheres -- as if you study for three years, then try to break into something new. Instead, you can approach your undergraduate study as if it's part of your career. Be aware that your lecturers and tutors aren't just people who stand in front of class and go home: they have years of professional experience, and impressive professional networks. Guest talks from people in the industry are particularly great opportunities to find out more about the kind of work you want to get into, and make valuable contacts. Why not treat an assignment for a module as if it's the kind of research task you expect to be doing in your dream job, and dedicate the same amount of time and discipline to it? You wouldn't wander in late to a meeting with your boss, so if you make sure you're in class on time, you're getting into good practice. Equally, your lecturer might forgive a casual email that starts 'yo' and ends 'cya', but your employer probably won't. You can use university as a simulation of and a practice for professional life. You'll no doubt get a better degree with this approach -- and more glowing recommendations from your tutors -- but you'll also be training yourself as someone who can negotiate (and climb) the structures of life in employment. And if it sounds too much like hard work to do this for three years, try it in your final year at least.

And finally, what tactics do you use / what advice would you give to people who really want to get to know the brand they work for?

A brand is not a single message, much as the people who construct and maintain it would like it to be simple, unified and direct. A brand is a mosaic of different meanings -- formed across a range of products, in different media, in different contexts, in relationships with a vast range of different people, over a period of time. To get to know a brand you have to immerse yourself in its diverse meanings, past and present, positive and negative. Seek out the bad things people have had to say about it, as well as the good. Understand its history and development, and why and when it changed. A brand is a three-dimensional (at least -- quite possibly more) network of ideas, constantly changing and growing. So gain as much information as you can from as many sources as you can, and then try to filter and interpret it into patterns that make sense -- as if it was a high-tech mobile sculpture you can walk inside. That's how I see a brand. 

To find out more about Professor Will Brooker go here: 

@willbrooker (any offers of updating, gratefully received!)

To find out more about working with Prospect to help fill a brief or to help you find a new role go here: 020 7497 0100


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