Angelina Jolie has been in the headlines as the writer and director of In the Land of Blood and Honey, a serious look at the Bosnian war. But the poised humanitarian we see today started her career in a very different place – and her transformation has lessons for every businessperson about the potential to evolve and reinvent your personal brand.
The daughter of famed actor Jon Voight, Angelina grew up in Hollywood film circles. In her early twenties, she gained notice for her roles in independent films and quickly snapped up awards, including an Oscar for her performance as a mental patient in Girl, Interrupted. But even as her career skyrocketed, Jolie’s personal life often seemed more akin to the troubled characters she portrayed. She admitted to having used hard drugs, and at her wedding to British actor Jonny Lee Miller, her wedding dress featured his name painted on it – in her own blood.
The next year, after divorcing Miller, she married Billy Bob Thornton, a grizzled actor two decades her senior – who already had four previous wives. The nadir of Jolie’s personal brand may have come in 2005, when she got together with Brad Pitt, the famously sexy actor – and newly separated ex of Friends icon Jennifer Aniston. Though Jolie and Pitt vehemently deny an affair, the media took up the narrative of a wronged Aniston, victimized by the man-poaching and slightly vampiric Jolie. Her reputation was in trouble.
But in recent years, Jolie has orchestrated a remarkable branding comeback, thanks to three key behavior changes that any executive would be wise to follow.
Editing her disclosures to the media. A beautiful former model, Jolie certainly got a lot of attention sharing details of her sex life publicly, and it may even have been helpful to her as she gained notoriety. But once she became sufficiently famous, an overly kinky reputation wasn’t going to help her career. You always want to be conscious of how your quotes will play in the media – and know that reporters can’t resist a juicy soundbite, so strategize accordingly.
Balancing out perceived flaws. In a successful rebrand, you want to honestly evaluate how you’re perceived – warts and all – and take steps to mitigate against negative brand associations. In Jolie’s case – because her negative brand attributes centered around too much predatory sexuality – motherhood and her clear devotion to her children showed a different, gentler side of her and balanced out her reputation.
Embracing charity work. Charity is a branding panacea that is almost universally effective, provided it appears to spring from genuine motivations (not a PR strategy). Jolie had a meaningful narrative to explain her charitable awakening. Filming one of the Lara Croft adventure movies in Cambodia, she was struck by its beauty and poverty, and it prompted her to become involved in refugee issues. Her adoption of son Maddox from Cambodia in 2002 (followed by a daughter from Ethiopia and a son from Vietnam) only solidified her commitment to the cause. Today, she serves as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and her new film showcases her concern with humanitarian issues.
By changing her behavior with the press, showcasing a gentler side of herself, and throwing herself into charitable concerns, Jolie has dramatically reinvented her brand – going from a troubled wild child to a mature and thoughtful woman.
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.