There has recently been a branding problem. Contacting a "group of people we find interesting", Tatler magazine asked me to take part in a survey. A whole lot of glamorous, sassy, now people - Tara, Lara, Tushy, Pushy - were apparently road-testing some new scents for women, placing them in order of preference and giving them a brief review. Did I want to join them?
It sounded like my sort of gig. There was no money involved, but a spot of perfume-sniffing was hardly onerous, while the prospect of being seen in the company of Tara, Pushy and other glamorous, sassy, now people was strangely appealing. With the help of my friends Peter and Judy, I sniffed, ranked, wrote sparkling one-line reviews - "Ann Widdecombe on the pull", "Bingo hall, 1987" and so on - and waited for the publicity feast.
Maybe the interesting people were not quite interesting enough for the entire feature was dropped. When asked later what on earth had possessed me to contribute my smelling services to a magazine that is too trivial-minded to accept my critical efforts, I could only come up with the author's age-old excuse. "Publicity. I thought my brand image needed a lift."
It has been a small comfort to learn that the urge to self-brand is not exclusive to sluttishly over-available authors. According to a book that has just been published in America, Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School, the first step for a woman looking for a long-term mate is "establish her brand".
The book is already a bestseller, of course. There's a real crisis out there on the dating circuit and people are looking for help. At a time when the marital merry-go-round is speeding at a dangerous rate, ejecting large numbers of men and women back into singledom, the quest for company has become big business. Dating agencies can charge £900 or more for a place on their books. Countless websites have been created to cope with the demand.
Mysteriously, the numbers of acceptable, middle-aged men - passably sane, conforming to basic standards of hygiene, capable of getting it up now and again - are falling as rapidly as that of the skylark or even the grey partridge. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the quest for one of these elusive creatures can lead to a vision of hell far worse than anything recently experienced by Iain Duncan-Smith.
One woman, after a string of disappointments, was excited to have met a man whom she saw for several dates, but when she reached the moment of truth, he declined to stay the night: his excuse was that he had agreed to help a friend who worked on a worming farm and had to get up early to count worms. Another good friend of mine was startled when her dinner date took out his teeth as the first course arrived, and wrapped them in his handkerchief. To put it as kindly as possible, most of the men on the dating circuit seem not to represent all that is good and graceful in the male sex.
Where have all the middle-aged men gone, long time passing? According to Rachel Greenwald, the author of the Harvard Business School husband-catching manual, they are out there but need to be reached by a systematic self-marketing campaign.
Once a woman has established a brand image - I'm sexy! I'm great company! I'm refreshingly approachable! - she should embark upon expanding her market by making her availability as widely known as possible. "Send beautiful note cards to your friends," says Rachel. "Tell them you are looking for someone wonderful to spend your life with."
At that point, the woman-who-would-be-a-wife should start dating like crazy. Forget romance - that will only be relevant once the prey has been trapped and, even then, should be kept under strict control. "Always be closing," is the general message. If a man appears to be just cruising along, having a good time without the slightest hint of commitment, put the squeeze on him and raise the question of commitment. Then, if he goes pale, changes the subject or runs away, it is time to dump him and to get marketing again.
At this point, as in all business plans, a "performance review" is advisable. After a date or relationship has failed to reach marital closure, the woman should ask one of her friends to ring up the male escapee in order to establish precisely what had gone wrong, which aspects of the campaign needed fine-tuning.
To those who think all this might be faintly humiliating, Rachel Greenwald suggests that happiness is rather more important than pride.
Here, surely, is the answer to the mystery of the disappearing male. Many men have discovered to their cost that they are being stalked by mad women in business suits for whom they are not sensitive, sweetly vulnerable guys but a market to be conquered, consumers to be suckered into a grim, binding, long-term contract.
No wonder so many of them have become homosexual, are urgently exploring celibacy or are simply in hiding, leaving the field to the worm-counters and teeth-removers. When it comes to the rough, tough world of dating, the Harvard Business School approach to self-branding can only make matters worse.