How Stephen Hawking mastered the physics of personal image
Professor Stephen Hawking epitomised the notion of not peaking too soon with your brand.
Professor Stephen Hawking
Slowly but surely over his long life, the physicist who studied the stars turned himself into one of the brightest in the media galaxy.
A steady, personable, honest, raw and real person, he represented brand authenticity in the truest form.
He modelled mind over matter. Living in the shadow of death made him live the most concentrated, vital life stripped of all pretensions.
His fellow scientist and colleague, Roger Penrose, summed it up well: “As with the Delphic oracle of ancient Greece, physical impairment seemed compensated by almost supernatural gifts, which allowed his mind to roam the universe freely, upon occasion enigmatically revealing some of its secrets hidden from ordinary mortal view.”
Hawking’s brand expertly interplayed with distinct, contrasting opposites.
His narrative was the most compelling of all narratives – inspiring endurance in the face of such overwhelming odds.
More than 50 years ago when he was diagnosed with the debilitating motor neurone disease, ALS, the prognosis was devastating. No one expected him to live more than just two years. Only 1% of people who contract the disease live beyond 10 years.
But at just 21 years of age, he anarchically and passionately fought back and thrived, and not just in the cloistered confines of the scientific elite. His fearlessness allowed him to venture much further afield.
He wrote 15 books. A Brief History of Time, written for the non-scientist, was a best seller worldwide and sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years.
He made 10 appearances on The Simpsons, appeared in The Big Bang Theory and even an episode of Star Trek.
Back at home, his sense of humour was also to the fore, appearing on Little Britain and most recently in the new BBC Radio 4 series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Hexagonal Phase as the voice of the Guide Mark II. The first episode aired only last week.
He didn’t shy away from advertising, either. In BT’s 1994 ad, the scientist who had lost the power to speak without the aid of his voice modulator championed the power of talking and the boundless possibilities that open up when we do.
Pink Floyd later sampled his words from this ad twice – once on the track Keep Talking on the 1994 Division Bell album and later in 2014 for their track Talkin’ Hawkin’ on the endless River album.
For Specsavers in 1999, he’s pictured looking down at the Earth out of a spaceship window, saying he’d always hoped to see this in our lifetime. He’d wondered about the mysteries of the universe since he was a child. He adds: “For me, physics is about seeing further, better, deeper.”
He was one of the few people ever emerged from the fields of cosmology or theoretical physics with the name recognition to rival a celebrity athlete, spawning not one but two biopics in his lifetime – the BBC TV film Hawking and The Theory of Everything.
You know you have a cross-over hit when The Foo Fighters say he was a “fucking legend”, while the actor Macaulay Culkin called him “a genius and my favourite Simpsons character”.
He understood the matrix of what it takes to be a celebrity. His central navigation star was his persona of astrophysicist, then complementing that was TV celebrity, lover, philosopher.
Hawking maintained a perfect symmetry with all of this, never allowing his forays into popular culture to overshadow the scope and impact of his academic work.
Never mind black holes, Hawking had a genius level understanding of every particle and nuance of personal image.
His synthesised voice was one of his greatest brand marks, thanks to Intel, who gave him a voice modulator when he lost his power of speech in 1985.
When technology moved on, allowing his voice to sound far less tinny and much more normal, Hawking rejected the upgrade. He recognised that the robotic voice made him instantly recognisable.
In 2015, Intel published the programme and source code for the modulator online to help the 3 million people suffering from motor neurone disease and quadriplegia. Talk about brand extensions.
You could say Hawking was a fusion of man and machine, science and everyday humanity. And still he managed to epitomise Everyman. Part of his authenticity and the power of his brand was that he was so brilliant yet so blatantly imperfect.
He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and his quotes were inspirational:
“Remember to look up at the stars.”
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
"My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
He could admit when he got things wrong and wasn’t stifled by political correctness. He openly admitted that the biggest mystery to him was women and notoriously enjoyed visits to Stringfellows lap dancing club in Covent Garden, unafraid of what The Establishment might think of him.
If he was constrained by his body, he wasn’t going to tolerate any constraints elsewhere in his life. When forced from crutches to a wheelchair, he became the most dangerous driver in Cambridge and even took to the dancefloor to spin his wheels.
No-one was putting Stephen Hawking in the corner. Far from it. Last year he announced Richard Branson had offered him a seat on Virgin Galactic and he'd said yes immediately.
Space and time were the frontiers he explored with undying curiosity. With his passing, he is now part of time eternal.
Bang On to Richard on email email@example.com and Twitter @6hillgrove