Naheed Nenshi

Personal Branding: What Can You Learn from the Brand of the Year?


Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2011.

What’s ahead for your brand this year?  As you plan your 2011 marketing efforts, consider some valuable lessons modeled by 2010’s Brand of the Year.

  • Accelerate your sales cycle with a powerful introduction
  • Convey style AND substance online
  • Unleash the power of story

International Media Attention

The 2010 Brand of the Year is a story of surprising success.  Over the course of a just few weeks it climbed from obscurity to national and international prominence, attracting coverage on every Canadian TV network, plus CNN and the BBC.

40% Market Share

In a crowded market with 15 competitors, the Brand of the Year claimed 40% market share.  The Brand of the Year triumphed over established and much better known competitors in a realm where conventional wisdom states “name recognition is everything.”

The Brand of the Year had a much smaller marketing budget than its major rivals.  It captured loyal followers based on the strength of ideas.

The 2010 Brand of the Year is a person, a previously unknown university professor, Naheed Nenshi, now the mayor of Calgary.

An Amazing Accomplishment

Naheed Nenshi’s ascent from nowhere to the mayor’s chair is an amazing accomplishment.  Going into the race his only political experience was as a fourth place aldermanic candidate in 2004.  He is now the first member of a visible minority to hold the top elected position in a city with an old west, conservative reputation.

In the mayoralty election he beat a popular TV news anchor, a corporate executive and six candidates with City Council experience, including Alderman Ric McIver, a fiscal hawk who was endorsed by the city’s largest and most influential newspaper.

From Unknown to Mayor in Six Weeks

Six weeks before the election, Naheed Nenshi was an unknown with a name that wasn’t recognized by spell check or by the vast majority of Calgary voters.

When I first saw the name in a newspaper headline, I wondered if Naheed Nenshi was the 2010 version of Alnoor Kassam.  In the 2007 mayoralty campaign Kassam, a businessman from Kenya, poured $1.5 million of his own money into an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Dave Bronconnier.

Despite enormous odds, Nenshi emerged triumphant, due in large part to his ability to create and portray a professional and credible personal brand.

Three Powerful Lessons

Nenshi’s campaign triumph offers three insightful lessons for every personal and corporate brand: mastering the introduction, balancing style and substance online, and capitalizing on the power of story.

A Masterful Introduction

My formal introduction to Naheed Nenshi as a candidate came after a business meeting on the University of Calgary campus.  It was mayoralty forum day so all of the major candidates had displays set up in the student centre.

Sensing a personal branding market research opportunity, I chatted with volunteers of several candidates.  At the Nenshi table I told a volunteer that I had heard about her candidate, but didn’t really know much about him.  She responded with a natural sounding, brilliantly scripted introduction.

The Brilliant Opening

“Naheed was born in Toronto, but grew up here in Calgary.  His family moved here when he was very young.  He was educated here at the University of Calgary where he was Student Union President.  Then he went to Harvard for a Master’s degree in Public Policy, where he was a Kennedy Fellow.  After he graduated he went to work for McKinsey.  While he was on an assignment at the United Nations, his father suffered a stroke.  To help care for his father, he soon returned to Calgary.  He is now a professor in the city at Mount Royal University.”

Leveraging Respected Brands

It was an outstanding introduction.  In less than a minute the script diffused objections, presented positive attributes and leveraged the reputation of respected brands – Harvard, President John F. Kennedy, the U.N. and McKinsey & Company, a top tier, big money consulting firm with a reputation of hiring only the brightest minds from the best schools.

The script established that Nenshi is not a foreigner or an Alnoor Kassam.  He’s a Calgarian, he’s one of us.  He has a long history of contributing and being involved.  He is very bright.  He has the capability to play in the big leagues.  He is dedicated to his family and willing to put family interests ahead of his own career aspirations.

Creating the Desire to Learn More

The introduction elevated Nenshi into a new category – from unknown with a strange name to credible candidate.  The intro script, repeated countless times on door steps and in chance encounters throughout the campaign, set the stage for further discussion.

Every brand needs a powerful opening.  Do you have an introduction that stirs interest for customers to learn more?

Balancing Style & Substance Online

The second branding lesson from Nenshi’s campaign is the skilful balance of style and substance online.

In the online marketing world every brand needs to cater to a customer’s appetite for details and craving for an entertaining presentation.

Depth of Details

In substance, Nenshi had home field advantage.  As a highly articulate professor, and the lead author of a book on the future of Canadian cities, Nenshi had a large volume of clearly reasoned ideas to present.  During the campaign he frequently pointed out that his website had the most detailed platform covering a wide range of issues.

Nenshi was the leader in substance.

An Approachable Style

But substance is only half the battle.  Good ideas poorly presented never get the attention they deserve.  Nenshi’s ideas took the spotlight because of his presentation skills and his skilful use of online video.

Skillful Use of Online Video

The featured videos on his campaign website ( gave Nenshi major points on style.  The lead video, recorded on the steps of City Hall during the summer, set the tone.


Outlining Nenshi’s main platform, the opening video was positive and approachable.  It positioned Nenshi as solid, reasonable, strong and most importantly, likeable.  He focused on constructive campaign themes while still including enough edginess to make the case for change and differentiate himself from other hopefuls.

The video was a professional production, but it did not come across as overly slick.

Conversational Delivery

Nenshi’s delivery was conversational not authoritative.  His verbal tone provided a sharp contrast to the speaking style of his main rivals, Ric McIver and TV anchor Barb Higgins.

During the campaign, opposing candidates frequently questioned how 20 years of reading TV news qualified Higgins for the mayor’s chair.  Perhaps to reinforce her credibility, she rolled out her polished, authoritative newscaster speaking style.  This verbal cadence with predictable downward inflections, is very effective in the broadcast realm of traditional media, but is a major turn off in the YouTube era.

The Language of We

Nenshi understood this.  He didn’t speak from on high.  His tone was inclusive.  He used the language of we rather than I.  His video was more of an invitation to participate, than a proclamation from someone with all the answers.

How Do You Say Naheed?

Nenshi also used video to overcome the strange name obstacle and to demonstrate he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  The third of the featured videos on the website is a fun exploration of the topic: “How do you say Naheed?”  It stars more than a half dozen citizens representing various ethnic groups, all with exaggerated facial expressions and differing opinions on how to say the candidate’s name.  It is peppered with appearances by Nenshi himself gently correcting mispronunciations and adding moments of levity.


Like the Nenshi introduction and other videos, it is both strategic and brilliantly scripted.  By repeating Naheed Nenshi over and over again, the video builds familiarity with an unusual name.  At the end of the three and a half minutes, the name doesn’t feel quite so peculiar.  The video also includes a variety of faces suggesting widespread support.

A Page From Obama’s Playbook

How do you say Naheed? was likely inspired by the opening video on the website when another candidate with an odd name was seeking political office in 2008.  And for the record, the correct pronunciation of his first name is NAH-hehd.  The second syllable has a short “E” sound and rhymes with red rather than reed.

The Power of Story

The final branding lesson from the Nenshi campaign is the power of story.

According to Nenshi’s website, his campaign organizers were surprised by the number of questions about his family background.  Rather than just post a webpage that stated the facts – Nenshi is single, was born in Toronto and raised in Calgary – the campaign launched a new video that harnessed the power of story.

Naheed Nenshi: A Family Journey stars the candidate’s older sister, Shaheen Nenshi Nathoo, a mother of two young daughters.

The Classic Immigrant’s Story

It is a personalized portrayal of the classic immigrant’s story – a young couple, desiring a better life for their children, takes the courageous step of leaving their home country of Tanzania and moves halfway around the world.  Faced with significant challenges, they work hard to make ends meet and give their children the support they need to succeed.

Personal, Conversational & Heart-Warming

The Family Journey video is personal, conversational and heart-warming.  Filled with pictures from the Nenshi photo album and shots of Naheed interacting with his two young nieces, the video does far more than just present the facts.  It gives the viewer the opportunity to get to know the candidate as a person through the eyes of a proud and appreciative family member.

The video provides some inside information that would never make it onto a fact sheet.  When Naheed was with McKinsey in New York, he tired of having a cramped apartment with only ketchup in the fridge.  He paid off his student loans.  He serves as baby sitter and chauffeur to his nieces.  Naheed’s parents live half time with him and half time with his sister.

Family Values & Dr. Seuss

The video capitalizes on a story’s ability to create rapport, hold attention and engage emotions.  It models family values, an appreciative spirit, respect for parents and community service.  It closes with Nenshi reading Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat to his young niece.  How can you not like a university professor candidate who takes time to read Dr. Seuss?

The Family Journey video was designed to build an emotional connection between voters and the candidate.  After viewing the video, voters ended up liking Nenshi as a person.

An Example Worth Emulating

The Nenshi campaign did a phenomenal job of building and presenting a credible and appealing personal brand.  It is an example worth emulating whether you’re trying to sell widgets or ideas.

Implement these ideas from 2010’s Brand of the Year for your 2011 success.  Happy New Year!