Many men and women have successfully built strong and durable personal brands that have catapulted them to success: but few have done so with more gritty determination and ‘fighting’ (forgive the pun) so many internal and external demons as the popular Belgium-born action movie star Jean-Claude Van Varenberg, better known by his artistic name of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Many others will deserve their honor spot in the Personal Branding Hall of Fame as much as he does, but no one will ever deserve it more.
With an on-screen career lasting well over three decades and still going strong, the affectionately nicknamed ‘muscles from Brussels’ came from nowhere to be ranked along the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone – with whom he recently shared the limelight in the grosser ‘The Expendables II’ – as a martial arts icon and action hero of worldwide fame. This incredible achievement – remarkable indeed in its own right – can only be judged in its full breadth and depth when one learns that Van Damme suffers from rapid-cycling Bipolar Disorder Class II, a serious mental health condition that has plagued his personal life and manifested in relationship trouble, suicidal attempts, alcohol and drug abuse and many other issues that would have derailed the careers and effectively prevented the success of most of us. Not Jean Claude’s, who now proudly acts in many of his signature ‘straight-to-DVD’ action flicks with his son Kristopher.
Success did not come easy for Van Damme, who moved first to Hong Kong and then to Los Angeles in search of a movie career after he had perfected his martial arts technique through grueling sessions in his native Belgium and established himself as a reputable martial artist and bodybuilder in Europe. He had to learn English almost from scratch and take on menial jobs in LA before his big break came thanks partially to fellow action movie star and tough guy Chuck Norris. Once he reached stardom with big hit (yet low budget) Bloodsport, there was never any looking back: a string of successes followed with Cyborg, Double Impact, Universal Soldier and Timecop. Van Damme knew that he had struck gold and cleverly forged a public persona – despite the highs and lows brought on by his psychiatric condition – and rock-solid personal brand that is both highly idiosyncratic (with his peculiar sense of humor) and fundamentally sound. He willingly revealed his secret in a recent interview for the Spanish press, “Action speaks for itself. It’s a sort of universal language.”
Our hero is not only a brilliant marketeer and personal brander but a savvy ‘me 2.0’ persona as well. His web serves to touch base with his loyal fan base across the world and he is followed by more than 1.5 million people on Facebook. His commitment to his job is as total now as when he first got started in America and had to sleep in a car and steal food. “I want to die shooting movies,” he tells us, even if apparently he does not seem to be performing his epic 360-degree spin-flying kick any more. Soon a 1.5-tonne bronze bust of Van Damme will be unveiled in the Belgian city of Anderlecht as a ‘homage to one of Belgium’s instantly-recognizable ambassadors’. A fitting tribute for the well-loved star that proves that you can be a prophet in your own land after all… especially if you make it big time abroad first.
Lessons for personal branders
– Do what you like best and improve your skills until you can no longer be ignored. Van Damme’s kind of steely determination will eventually pay off and see you through
– Work hard to attract the attention of those who can make a difference in your career
– You can make it even if you are physically or mentally challenged. Be inspired by the example of Van Damme and many others who have reached the top despite (dare we say partially thanks to?) their conditions
– Consider leaving your home turf to acquire the necessary skills and life experience to launch or re-launch your career if/when needed
– Use a language that your clients and followers can resonate and identify with. Then remain consistent and true to yourself as your life and your career evolve
I invite you to join me next week when we’ll be discussing the biography and achievements of someone who came from one of the most remote countries in the former Soviet Union and against all the odds changed the European (an indeed the world’s) pop music scene forever.
Oscar Del Santo is a lecturer, consultant, key speaker, blogger and populariser of online reputation and inbound marketing in Spain. He has been extensively featured in the Spanish and Latin American media and is included in the ‘Top Social Media Influencers’ and ‘Best Marketing Tweeters in Spanish’ lists @OscarDS. He is the author of ‘Reputacion Online para Tod@s’ and the co-author of ‘Marketing de Atraccion 2.0’.