Make the wrong choice, and you could be looking at a lower salary, reduced chances for promotions and fewer dates. Fair or unfair, people do make snap decisions based on how you present yourself — on what they perceive your "personal brand" to be.
Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock found this out when he was making his latest movie, "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." The film is about Spurlock's efforts to get major corporations to invest money in making the movie — what he calls the ultimate "Doc-buster" — in exchange for product placement.
Spurlock — who sports a mustache that's part '70s porn, part motorcycle guy from the Village People, part Fu Manchu — learned about his "brand personality" as he attempted to find companies willing to go along with the project.
"As we talked to brands about sponsoring this movie, I started calling companies who were basically shooting me down," Spurlock said in a telephone interview. "There were plenty of people who said, 'You don't represent our brand' — Guess Jeans, Abercrombie & Fitch … I would get lines like 'Have you looked in the mirror?" So there were people who made it very clear that I am not the visual representation for their brand — although they would never say, 'We only want hot, sexy people representing our brand.' They would say something a little more cagey."
While some may have shot him down because they were hesitant to go the way of McDonald's in his "SuperSize Me" skewering of the fast-food industry, the funky mustache could well have been part of what put Spurlock's personal brand at odds with some of the businesses.
Image coach William Arruda, author of the book "Career Distinction: Stand Out by Building Your Brand," says, "Hair and makeup is very important to personal branding because people make [hard to change] decisions about us the second they see us."
The thought is echoed by Jo Navarro, a former FBI agent who is an authority on nonverbal communications. "There are a lot of clues we get nonverbally as to what someone's socioeconomic status is — even in a haircut," Navarro says.
For men, facial hair can have a variety of "meanings." Scruffy growth says, "I'm just too darned pretty and I have to make myself look tougher," according to jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, author of the book "Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior — Anytime, Anyplace." A mustache? "I'm either in law enforcement or I'm trying to emulate Burt Reynolds in the new millennium." A full beard on a young man? "I just left my parent's house and want to be perceived as a working adult."
And Spurlock's Fu Manchu 'stache? "It was once the symbol of a villain," says Patsy Cisneros, executive image strategist with Glendale-based Corporate Icon, an executive development firm. Perhaps not a good way to win corporate confidence on first meeting.
The expected hair, makeup, clothing and style has a lot to do with what industry you're in — or the kind of date you're trying to attract, the experts say.
In a conservative corporate culture, men with facial hair aren't considered to have high potential for advancement, Cisneros says. For women, "The biggest mistake … is wearing no makeup or too much makeup," she says.
A man whose hair is long and unkempt is seen as a "bohemian bad-boy," Dimitrius says. One with silver hair a la Michael Douglas in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," projects "experience, credibility and 'I'm ready to hit the slopes of Aspen,'" she says.
Cisneros notes, though, that "silver foxes" who have been out of work for a while "are having darker hair woven in for a salt-and-pepper look for interviews and the first year of [new] employment."
Among the other messages observers may pick up from your looks are these:
• No makeup: "I'm allergic to makeup; I just came off a weekend bender, or I just don't really care what anyone else thinks."
• A lot of makeup: "Which way to the bordello or the MAC counter?"
• Hair color: People fall for the stereotypes — blond, fun; red, sexy; brunette, smart. Wildly colored hair shouts, "Hey, this just keeps me in the proper demographics for mega record sales!"
• Curly hair: "I'm cute, bubbly and approachable."
• Ethnic braids: "I'm expressing who I am."
• Short hair on a woman: This can say "I'm a tomboy," or on Halle Berry, "I'm very confident."
• Long flowing tresses: "I'm young and sexy." Note: a date will probably be enchanted; a conservative corporation won't be.
Knowing how others see us is important, and it can be useful when you're trying to make an impression, but so is authenticity. "Branding is about authenticity and being who you are," Arruda says. "Image is about how you translate that to your outward appearance."
Spurlock figured out how to meld the two. "When people see me with this mustache it's easier to recognize who I am," he says. "Like if I shave this off — I vanish. It's fantastic. Like I'm invisible."
So, as part of the movie, he visited Pittsburgh research and consulting firm Olson Zaltman Associates to find out more about his personal brand. "We broke down what my brand personality was," Spurlock says. "What does the world see me as and how do I see myself?"
The answer: "I'm a 'mindful,' 'playful' person," Spurlock says.
And, happy ending: By matching these authentic attributes, ultimately JetBlue, Mini Cooper and other corporations partnered on his film. Which just goes to show that changing yourself may be less important than finding the right fit.