The business of image

It seems that even Chaucer’s lascivious Wife of Bath has recently had an image makeover. She had traditionally been seen as somewhat coarse, vulgar and with an indiscriminate sexual appetite, but Dr Peter Robinson of De Montfort University has deconstructed this great literary character and re-cast her as nature (under the pen of Chaucer) intended her to be "....still outrageous, but with hankerings after respectability."

Our perceptions of this estimable but obviously maligned woman have been distorted by the encrustation of centuries’ worth of social grime. What Robinson has done has been to look at the core of the woman and in the re-making allowed her true personality to shine through. A demonstration of the value of a makeover!

Or is it? What of the modern makeover for the man or woman at the end of the millenium? And just what is a makeover? A recent project reported by the Institute of Management took two business women and in the course of a day re-styled their make-up, hairstyle and outfit. For guinea-pig Heather Muir, the outcome was clear. "Image is so important these days and you can do a great job and have all the qualifications but never get the recognition. I hope people now see the real me." Robinson’s approach to the Wife of Bath?

As Heather Muir observed, Image is the crux of the matter. The value to business of a powerful image is widely recognised, and companies spend vast budgets on re-freshing or re-designing their corporate image. The role of the designer is to draw out from the leaders of an organisation what makes for the corporate "tick"; what they wish to convey to their customers and to the wider public; and then to re-package it with a fresh and stylish look. Get it wrong - and we can all think of newly created images which have crashed - and serious damage can be done to the health of the organisation.

Image, then, is of paramount importance in expressing marketability, values, style. To say nothing of health. If it is so important to companies, surely it must be of at least equal value to employees, and therefore to the individual. To say nothing of thrusting politicians! Being so valuable, it is hard to accept that a single day’s makeover is sufficient to provide more than a surface change. Something more fundamental is needed, to get under the skin of the individual in the manner of the corporate image designer: cue the professional Personal Image Consultant.

Image consultancy is becoming big business as more people recognise how important it is to them and their business to create an impressive personal image. That goes increasingly for men as for women, as investing in an enhanced professional image makes sound business sense. With companies running more and more lean, anything which adds value will become a priority.

Image Consultant Suzi Carberry admits, however, that she takes a slightly different approach to persuading male clients, as opposed to their female counterparts, of the need to take the matter of image seriously. "Women have no difficulty in understanding the importance to them of their image" she says. But with men there is more of a challenge to convince them. She explains that the amount they will each spend on clothes over a working life will certainly amount to far more than the cost of a high-value car. "With an investment of that magnitude, surely it makes sense to invest time to assess the options and then make the right buying decisions to enhance their visual image." The return on their investment could amount to thousands in the long-term increase in earnings, not to mention the value in enhanced confidence and self-esteem. A convincing argument to demonstrate the sound business sense of taking personal image seriously.

Carberry recognises that a catalyst is essential to trigger a decision in someone to undertake the re-assessment of how they look. "For an individual in the business arena, it can be when they reach a career ceiling, and need to re-market themselves in order to move forward." Likewise, "this could be because they have been away, say, on an intensive masters’ course and need to present a different face than the one that stepped aside from the company environment, when they return. Simply going out and buying a flashy new tie just isn’t enough."

The process of reviewing personal image is more thorough than a single-session makeover, in large part because it involves the individual in taking responsibility for change, and in understanding the fundamentals of their own appearance. This is through three criteria; colours which complement the individual’s natural colouring, the proportions and shape of their own body, and their temperament and personality: men are often surprised to find this is as critical for them as for their women counterparts. By contrast, a makeover is merely done to you.

Colour is the starting point, and if you go, say, to a "House of Colour" consultant, up to a day will be spent in assessing your own individual palette of colours and in determining how you should use those colours effectively.

There is a serious temptation for the individual to then go home and immediately dispose of clothes and accessories which do not fit the new personal colour scheme. It is stressed by consultants, however, that this is not desirable or necessary; one of the consultant’s fundamental roles is to demonstrate how to wear more effectively the majority of what you already have. Clearly, some things will be wrong enough to need outright rejection, but by and large, clever use of colour can be used to enhance the majority of the existing wardrobe whilst it is migrating in the right direction.

The next stage is to undergo, usually in one day, a process of learning how to dress your own body-shape at the same time as complementing your personality. Having already carefully sorted your wardrobe through colour, the next sifting of clothes and accessories is through shape, style, texture and pattern

The by now somewhat slimmer wardrobe can then be gradually built up to a careful plan of colour and classic but personal style. Carberry tells clients not to rush into buying anything new until they "get their eye in and avoid potentially costly mistakes". Getting the look of an expensive new suit wrong, or the colour of shirt and tie making the individual’s face look as if it has an unhealthy pallor, could cost the business man dear in subtle ways. And even if your tailor can be relied on to advise on cut and fabrics, there is no substitute for being in control of your own looks. Power dressing with a difference.

There are different approaches to image consultancy. Several large companies provide a structured approach through corporate sessions for employees, or in the private arena to individuals, using well trained and supported consultants. Alternatively, and suprisingly what could be a slightly less expensive approach, there is a growing band of highly professional independent image consultants.

One of the latter, Chris Lane was involved earlier this year in the making of a BBC documentary which looked at issues around self-esteem and appearance. Lane believes that "looking good is good for you, when an individual can see that they look really good, they feel better about themselves." She asserts that "Self-esteem is a vital part of projecting a successful image, be it at work or play, and it plays a significant role in generating good mental health".

It is recognised that radical changes have recently taken place in the business world; the shift in focus is towards service based industries where people are the product. There is a growth in big business sending key people on image development courses, because they are beginning to understand the value to their profitability of employing people who look as good as their professional qualifications. And where big business leads, small businesses need to follow. Their men and women must appear highly professional in a hard commercial world to convince clients of the company’s value and viability.

For the independent self-employed individual, it is of even more importance, for they ARE their business, and image is all. One successful management consultant who is happy to admit that he takes his own image very seriously is Mike Chandler. "My clients need to feel confident that I am the best person for their project. It is not enough to be just technically excellent; visually fitting in with their environment contributes to achieving that confidence. My self-confidence helps to complete the picture of professionalism and competence, and looking good is an integral part of that whole picture." He is so convinced of the value of the contribution of his personal image to his business success that he states "I would recommend any self-employed person to seriously put personal image development into their business plan." And if it is in the business plan, it is serious business!

© Diane Davy 1999

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