How Michelle Obama Built Her Personal Brand (And What You Can Learn From Her)

By Sam Cawthorn.

The President of the United States arguably holds the most influential office in the world. However, the position of First Lady is also extremely important. In fact, many of those who take up this mantle do great work of their own. They use their position to engage in philanthropy. Plus, the First Lady is well-placed to raise awareness about various social issues.

Of course, a First Lady with a bad reputation is less effective. As such, personal branding is as important for those in this position as it is to a speaker or businessperson.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama recognised this. She worked hard to build and maintain her personal brand while her husband was in office. And now that Barack Obama is no longer President, you could argue that Michelle has the more powerful brand of the two.

That brings us to the key question – what can you learn about personal branding from Michelle Obama?

Before answering that, let’s learn a little more about her.


Who is Michelle Obama?


Simply identifying Michelle Obama as the former First Lady does her a massive disservice. Obama is an accomplished individual who was an influencer long before her husband held America’s highest office.

Born in 1964, Michelle enjoyed a distinguished academic career. She graduated from the acclaimed Princeton University with cum laude honours in 1985. She also studied law at Harvard, from which she graduated in 1988 with a law degree.

Michelle began working with a Chicago-based law firm after leaving college. It was there that she met Barack Obama, whom she married in 1992. Michelle actually served as Barack’s advisor during his time interning for the firm.

It was during this time that Michelle shifted her focus from corporate law to public service. She served in several roles for the city of Chicago, including serving as an advisor to former mayor Richard Daley. Michelle also became involved with Public Allies. This is a non-profit that focuses on teaching leadership skills to young people.

However, it was when she stood by Barack’s side as he was on the campaign trail to become a US senator that Michelle first came to America’s attention.

A few years later, she held the position of First Lady. In this role, Michelle became known as an influencer and a fashion icon. She also shifted her focus to social issues, such as the support of military families and the role of women in the workplace.

It’s in the years following her husband’s presidency that Michelle revealed herself as a master of personal branding. Here are five things she does that every influencer should consider doing.


Technique #1 – She Wrote a Book


Prior to the Rivonia Trial, Mandela rarely had the chance to speak in front of a national audience. It was particularly rare for him to have the opportunity to make his arguments in front of his own oppressors.

The Rivonia Trial was his opportunity.

As a lawyer, he could have launched a defence against the charges. But Mandela chose instead to speak. He perhaps felt that his conviction was an inevitability, regardless of what defence he created.

Thus, he aimed to inspire an entire nation to continue the work that he started.

The lesson here is that every speaker should seize any opportunity presented to them. At times, your career can feel like a grind, especially during the early days. You’re constantly on the hunt for opportunities to stand up in front of people and show your story.

When that opportunity finally comes, seize it with both hands. Use it to showcase who you are and what you have to offer to an audience.


Technique #2 – She’s Authentic


If you don’t believe in yourself and your story, you can’t get others to believe in you either. To be an influencer, you need to bleed authenticity.

Your audience can see when you’re faking it. The second they sense a whiff of dishonesty is the moment that they disengage from your brand. You’re not getting those people back because they don’t trust you anymore.

Michelle Obama is such a powerful personal brander because she’s authentic.

As she puts it: “I believe my story, I bring my truth, openness. I hear you and hug you, that’s real. It shines through and it’s not something you can hide.”

She doesn’t hide anything about herself. She’s open and transparent with her story, which means she shares the good and the bad. Because of that, people trust her and are more likely to engage with her.

She adds: “Authenticity means Michelle Obama is the same Michelle Obama you see here and with my girlfriends, walking the dog, being First Lady, it is the same person, and it’s a lot easier because I don’t have to pretend.”

So don’t be something that you think you should be. Instead, be authentically you. Build your personal brand on the values and qualities that make you who you are.


Technique #3 – She’s an Excellent Marketer


Michelle Obama does so many things to widen her appeal. At various points, she’s used Snapchat to speak to a younger audience. She’s written books, including her biography and a book about gardening. She even appeared on Carpool Karaoke with James Corden.

People actually got to see a former First Lady sing along to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Missy Elliot.

All of this shows that Michelle’s capable of having fun and is just a regular person. And as cynical as it may sound, this is all effective marketing for her brand.

Michelle Obama is the sort of person that you want to spend time with. She recognises this as an important aspect of her brand and plays up to it in the public eye. In doing so, she’s marketing the idea of Michelle as a normal person. People connect with that persona, which allows her to engage them in other ways.


Technique #4 – She Uses Her Interests to Draw Attention to Issues


Michelle Obama’s self-marketing has a purpose that goes beyond building her personal brand. She also uses it to draw attention to important issues.

Take the book she wrote about gardening as an example. On the surface, the book seems like a way to expand her audience and appeal to gardeners.

However, reading the book shows that it has a deeper message. Michelle has long been a campaigner for raising awareness about the importance of good nutrition. In her gardening book, she discusses planting vegetables and talks at length about why they’re important in a healthy diet.

She uses her interest in gardening to draw attention to a deeper social issue.

The key here is that Michelle has built depth into her personal brand. A book that, on the surface, only appeals to gardeners actually reveals a deeper purpose. She’s able to influence those who buy the book to think about deeper social issues. And in doing so, she positions herself as an authority on those issues.

So think about the other messages buried within your message. Use them to add depth to your personal brand, thus providing people with more reasons to engage with you.


Technique #5 – She’s Passionate About Her Purpose


Michelle has long been an advocate for the advancement of women. She has a great passion for this cause. She also believes that this cause has come under direct attack in recent years.

In one of her final speeches as First Lady, Michelle confronted these attacks directly:

“I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally, and I’m sure that many of you do too, particularly the women.

“The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts.”

Here, Michelle does nothing to hide her anger, contempt, and pain. Instead, she displays a searing passion for one of the causes that are closest to her heart.

It’s this passion that encourages so many to connect with her on an emotional level. She’s showing people how attacks on women hurt even those in positions of high standing. In that sense, she relates her message to everyday people. And she inspires and influences with her passion.


The Final Word


It’s unfair to say that Michelle Obama parlayed her position as First Lady into a powerful brand. The truth is that those eight years are only a small part of her story.

She connects with people because she fights for causes that she truly believes in. Michelle is authentic and passionate. She also understands how to get her message out to as wide an audience as possible. Plus, she has the ability to add depth to her story by linking her interests to her passion.