Mandela – one of the greatest personal brands of modern times

Nelson Mandela is one of the most successful personal brands of all time. To explain what I mean, and why I say is, and not was, we are going to dive into a little linguistic philosophy.

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Image: Keith Bernstein/Melbourne Museum 

Nelson Mandela is one of the most successful personal brands of all time. To explain what I mean, and why I say is, and not was, we are going to dive into a little linguistic philosophy. Bear with me.

Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist and semiotician. He proposed the idea (this is a very simplified version) that to communicate we use signs which are made up of a signifier (a word) and the signified (the word’s meaning).

Now a signifier can’t exist without the signified, and vice versa. This is why it is so difficult to explain something when you can’t quite think of the word you need – when that word is right on the tip of your tongue. This also seems to explain why English speakers steal so many words from other languages.

We come across a word – chutzpah, for example – and it signifies to us a concept – extreme self-confidence or audacity (usually used approvingly) – a concept we suddenly grasp and appreciate but could not previously communicate. So we seize upon the concept and the word because now we know it, we cannot live without it.

If you’ve never worried about the way we use words in order to understand concepts I recommend you read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. You should be able to get your hands on a copy. It’s enjoying a real comeback for some reason.

The totalitarian government of Orwell’s dystopian novel ban certain words from use. The reason? So that everyday people can no longer communicate, or even think of undesirable concepts. No one can organise a revolution if they cannot talk about freedom and revolt. The theory goes that no one will even have the ability to think about freedom or revolt once these words become taboo. If you cannot learn the word, then you cannot grasp the concept.

Back to signifiers and the signified. French linguist and philosopher Roland Barthes took Saussure’s model a little further when looking at what a signifier denotes and connotes. Barthes placed great importance on the difference, and what this meant for our understanding of signs and of the world.

Take a dolphin as an example. What does the word dolphin denote? One of a group of aquatic mammals within the order Cetacea. But what does the word (or even more powerfully, the image) connote? Playfulness, freedom, the ocean.

Now, back to Nelson Mandela. Mandela was just a man, who lived and breathed like you and I, but as a signifier, a myth, a brand, Mandela came to symbolise so much more.

Mandela was not peace, justice, reconciliation, wise leadership, a movement, a moment in history. He was a man. But mention Mandela’s name, show his image, and instantly people think of the struggle against apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They think of human rights, of strength of character, of one man defying the odds.

That is one powerful brand! But Nelson Mandela was not peace, justice, or strength of character. I’m not saying he didn’t have those qualities, but they are the signified, he is the signifier.

When the image of Mandela is used in this way he is a sign. He is a true brand. This is very separate from the person born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo, who lived and walked and breathed, who fought, who was imprisoned for 27 years, mind you, and who came to lead his country. The man did these things, but over and above this man was the myth of the man – all those things that the name Mandela came to represent – the qualities the Mandela brand signified to his country and to the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has left this world, but the personal brand of Mandela – the images his name will conjure in your mind, the emotions his portrait will evoke – live on in a very real way.

Originally published at

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