On Personal Brand, Or Why You Never Wear Socks With A Three-Piece Suit

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (October 14, 2014)

Whether you're the founder of an emerging company, an executive at a mature brand, or climbing the corporate ladder, there's one inexorable truth: in today's "me" culture, the brand is you. The Neil St. Clair brand? Not wearing socks for five years (yes, even in the cold Northeast winters). As such, I can attest to the power of lacking hosiery, and its upside in life and business. And it's not for the 15 seconds it saves me in my morning ritual—but rather because this little idiosyncrasy has established my personal brand, one that's helped my companies' bottom lines.

Now removing my tongue from my cheek (or is it removing sock from shoe in this case?), there is a serious lesson here. Think of some truly iconic figures—with little doubt, you can almost instantaneously recall something about them that stood out: Steve Jobs had his turtlenecks, Larry King his suspenders, Mark Zuckerburg his hoodies, Teddy Roosevelt his pince-nez spectacles, Albert Einstein his hair. The list goes on.

Some of these, like Einstein's hair, were mere genetic fact. Others, like T.R. and Jobs, made specific choices to establish their individuality and enhance their brand. And still, for others, their personal quirks rode the coattails of their greater renown becoming symbols unto themselves, e.g. Zuckerberg's hoodie. All of the iconoclastic behavior described here was matched with a fair amount of genius that elevated its status (you sell with the sizzle, but there still has to be some steak on the plate or else you're just a crazy guy with a sizzling plate).

The marketing mantra of the day is that brands are storytellers, so your personal brand must tell a story, too.

At AlleyWire, I ask all new on-air correspondents to work on developing a signature personal brand. In our multimedia setting having a slick accent or deep voice can help establish that, but it's the visual that makes it pop. We have one correspondent, Lucy Norris who hosts Top Listings (see below), who has excelled at this and become one of our most-viewed hosts. A natural blond, the former Ms. England finalist decided to drop to a raven-shade black with bangs. Pair that with blue eyes and you've got a signature look that stands out, can be flatteringly imitated, and that differentiates from a crowd of other young faces.

Now, let's pause for one clarification: the argument here is purely in favor of building a visual personal brand. Why?

a) There's a higher probability that someone will see you than hear you;

b) First impressions are most often made visually and;

c) Visual brands are more controllable and organic

Other kinds of personal brand-building do have their place (e.g. auditory, as in a catchphrase or saying that becomes associated with an individual), but I believe visual to be the most powerful.

Of course, there's a certain bit of key man risk involved with building a brand around a cult of personality. But it's a risk worth taking. Apple wouldn't have been what it is without Steve Jobs, and his personality and vision aside, it was the ability to easily associate a visual cue (i.e. turtlenecks, glasses, 501 jeans and overall simplicity of style) of the manifest Steve Jobs with the larger Apple brand that helped tie things together.

The Sock Stays Off the Foot & Closes the Deal

It's hard to quantify the effect of personal brand in real-dollar terms, but I'll try. My sockless story began due to a simple genetic oddity—smallish feet. If you wear a size 9, you'll notice that often the back heel of your socks stick up above your shoes. Not exactly the best look. So one day I decided to cast off my ill-fitting foot undergarments and go sockless. It was the summer, and while perhaps a bit odd to go sans socks in a suit, I was able to pull it off unnoticed.

As the seasons transitioned, I decided to keep my sockless practice—noting that it also saved me the horror of trying to find socks that kept pace with my increasingly entrepreneurial-minded style. As Fall became Winter, the curiosity around being sockless in sub-freezing temperatures grew, and herein is the value add.

It was February, and I was pitching one of my first startups to an audience of around 200 at an NYC venture conference. Wearing my best three-piece suit I strode to the podium and began my usual spiel. About half-way through I noticed some investors nudging each other and pointing. Zipper being zipped, I could only assume it was my bare ankles that caught their attention.

As their distraction became more obvious, I formulated a plan to turn my perceived fashion faux pas to my entrepreneurial advantage. Stopping my speech, I said, "I notice many of you have observed that I am indeed sockless. While I'd like to admit that I was simply so busy with my startup that I forgot to complete my outfit, I can tell you that this was a conscious choice. Most of you have heard 20 pitches today from various innovative companies. You'll remember some, forget others. And most of the founders will blend into a blur of college-faced dreamers. But what I guarantee that you will not forget is the one a&*hole that showed up in winter without any socks and a three-piece suit."

The crowd laughed and gave me some applause. After the rest of the pitches, we went to a cocktail reception. And while investors politely moved from person-to-person, I was delightfully overwhelmed by a barrage. Questions about why I had gone sockless soon transitioned to questions about my company, which transitioned to meetings, and eventually a few closes.

Over the years I crafted a story around my socklessness and integrated it into my pitch decks to show a little of my personality and to highlight some of the traits I thought this choice reflected in me as a CEO, e.g. I stick to my principles...like not wearing socks, even when the wind is blowing and the 30-degree-cold is biting at my ankles.

So did socks, or lack thereof, secure the dollars? Not by themselves, of course. You need substance behind the story. But they were the one element that gave people a reason to come and talk to me. A little icebreaker. Eventually, it became a cue by which they could remember me—a visual mnemonic, as it were. I haven't worn socks since. And even when I re-entered the corporate world, I kept my socks in their drawer—yes, I still have a sock drawer, ironic I know.

Why do this? Because it made me stand out. It gave me a sense of individuality and control. And it gave people a reason to engage me.

Developing Your Own Personal Brand

So take my lesson, and cross-apply it to your own lives. If you're a founder, these quirks are practically de la mode expectations. In the corporate world, without being too silly, they can help a boss or a client look at you with a fresh perspective—give them a reason to converse about something other than business. So toss a flower in your lapel or some other flourish. If you're going to be bold, go all the way. Do something that pops and has your personality written all over it.

Now my note of caution here is to not overdo it. Coming to work dressed like Carmen Miranda simply makes you look crazy and unprofessional—unless you're selling bananas. Find something that's organic to your personality, and then craft a narrative around it.

Why are you doing the thing you're doing?

Can you tie that story back to some element that reflects positively on you and how you work?

And, even more importantly, can you integrate or associate your quirk of personal brand with the larger brand of your company?

Once you can establish that narrative thread, weave it around all the touchpoints of your brand—from your personal website to your portfolio to your pitch deck. The marketing mantra of the day is that brands are storytellers, so your personal brand must tell a story, too.

Jobs' Issey Miyake black turtlenecks reflected the style and personality of the man and the simplicity of the Apple style—they told a story. If Jobs was up there in a medieval doublet it certainly would have told a story, but would it have conveyed the same message? Surely not.

Short of hiring a stylist or brand consultant, the bottom line is to establish a personal brand you can live with, that's true to yourself, and that drives the conversation forward. Do that, and perhaps you'll find that not wearing socks in winter is a perfectly sane choice.


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair