I recently told a friend that I was writing a piece about designing personal brands. “Sounds pretty gimmicky to me,” he replied. My friend’s response is not unusual; personal branding is often misunderstood and consequentially gets a bum rap. For many, it means a logo on your business card or designing a website. Others, like my friend, think it’s a bunch of marketing hype or a phony persona you slip on and off at will. And in a world of tweets, posts, and Instagram photo ops, it’s easy for personal branding to be miscast as self-promotion – a megaphone for ME, ME, ME. No doubt about it, there is tremendous confusion about personal branding which leads to the cynicism about its value and necessity.
So what is a personal brand?
Like every great business, your personal brand is your promise to your customer – whether that customer is an actual client, an employer, or a co-worker. It’s the 360° expression of who you are, what you stand for, and how you stand apart from others. And, in many ways, it flies in the face of just about everything we are told about designing a successful career.
From our very first job, we’re advised to build our resume or CV, showcase our achievements, and hone our expertise. So, we accumulate a laundry list of the “right” credentials, which often mirror the credentials of others with similar titles and backgrounds. No wonder we fall into the black hole of resumes when applying for our next position. Even our LinkedIn profiles categorize us by experience, education, featured skills, endorsements, interests, and accomplishments. We constantly seek to prove – and improve – our capability, reliability, likeability, and acceptability when we should be designing our “uniqueablity.”
Our resumes and CVs are our history, but they are not our whole story.
A dear friend was recently and abruptly laid off from a 15-year stint at a major corporation. Her immediate, panicked response was: “Who am I if not SVP of this company?” The answer came from another friend: “You are not the job, you are what you brought to the job. And you get to take that with you – along with your pictures and books – when you exit that job.” Your value is yours to keep and to cultivate. And that is the essence of a personal brand.
So how do you design a powerful personal brand? Here’s my secret sauce:
Be Authentic. The word “authentic” goes back to the Latin word authenticus, meaning “author” and the Greek authentikos, meaning “one who acts independently, originally, or first hand.” So, in addition to being honest and transparent, being authentic is about being the author of your own narrative, writing your own story.
Nina Burrows, a psychologist and the author of The Little Book on Authenticity, writes: “Embracing your authenticity is the only way to become ‘you’ and being ‘you’ is the greatest asset you have when it comes to being a leader.” The only way to do your best work is to be true to yourself. Besides, pretending to be someone you’re not and assuming an artificial identity is exhausting.
Being authentic also means living by your values and beliefs in everything you do – even when it is inconvenient or painful. Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you will be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” At the end of the day you might as well be yourself. It may be hard – but it’s a hell of a lot more fun.
Connect the Dots. Think of your life as a pointillist painting that’s composed of millions of dots that reflect who you are, where you come from, which experiences shaped you, and what makes you, you. Many of these dots may seem random, but remember that the most absurd combinations of ideas can lead to game-changing innovations. Skills you never thought of as useful can distinguish you and differentiate your brand.
For example, when my mentee, a recent college graduate, was applying for a first job as a marketing intern, we crafted his narrative using his experience as an NCAA championship pitcher. As a pitcher, he recounted how he needed to read the catcher’s signals ahead of him and interpret the hitter’s body language while having complete awareness of what was happening around and behind him. Then, with lightning-quick reflexes, he had to make an accurate decision. The skills he gleaned from playing baseball made for great business skills. He landed the job and continues to excel in his career.
This even applies to Steve Jobs. After Jobs dropped out of Reed College, he decided to take calligraphy classes, an activity that seemed totally frivolous at the time. But 10 years later, when working on the Macintosh, he designed the first computer with beautiful typography. The rest is history.
Find Your Purpose. As author, motivational speaker, and marketing thought leader, Simon Sinek says: “Start with your why.” Many of us know what we do. We are a marketer, a strategist, a creative director. Some of us know how we do it. We are hard workers. We are team players. We are highly responsible. We get shit done. But how many of us know why we do it? Your “why” is the essence of your brand and the foundation of all your branding efforts. It’s a reflection of who you are and what you believe. So ask yourself: Why do you exist? Why do you get you out of bed in the morning? Why do you make a difference? Why should someone trust or believe you? Your “why” will tell you what should and shouldn’t do to be authentic.
Define Your Promise. This is your one action word that clearly states what your brand stands for. It can also be described as the value you bring as a result of your expertise, insights, philosophy, and reputation. Nike? Inspiration. Volvo? Safety. Google? Search. Coca-Cola? Happiness. What’s the one memorable word that differentiates and drives you? Make it your North Star, your compass, and let it guide everything you do, from your personal appearance to your professional manner.
Have a Point of View. And don’t be afraid to say it aloud and stick to it. We live in a world of likes, hearts, and followers – being middle of the road makes you forgettable. What might offend some will be a call to action for others and can inspire a powerful emotional response that creates believers. And when people believe what you believe, they will go to extraordinary lengths to be part of your brand. Make your point of view your point of difference.
To reference Nina Burrows again: “As a human being you are effectively born as a blank page… One of your greatest gifts is the capacity to take that page and choose what to write on it. You have the ability to choose what kind of person you want to be: your values, your aspirations, and the principles that you want to live your life by.”
Share Your Story. A strong brand is dependent on a compelling story that’s human and personal. Maya Angelou famously said: “I’ve learned people will forget what you say, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Data and timelines – the stuff we stick on resumes – are great for proof, but stories are the emotional components that drive people to connect with you and to take action with and for you.
We are infinitely fascinated by the paradox of humanness. Be fascinating.
Live Your Culture. Here is where it all comes together. Your personal brand is not some cloak you put on in the morning – or a pair of sweats you only wear in front of loved ones. It’s a full-time commitment that requires self-awareness, intention, and accountability. To inspire customers to act and employees to become your best advocates and evangelists, you must practice what you preach as a brand day in and day out. Everything you do and say, every text and email you send, every presentation you make defines the value of your brand. It says you will be the same wherever your customer or your colleagues find you. Be consistent and persistent.
Future Proof Your Brand and Have a Curious Mind. As we seek to further our careers, we tend to narrow our focus in an effort to be expert in our chosen field and highlight that expertise on our resume. We suss out information that confirms our beliefs and worldviews. Rather than having a future vision, we acquire tunnel vision – and that only makes us blind to opportunities. Read a magazine that has nothing to do with what you do; listen to a polar opposite point of view; ask why and why again. Curiosity inspires creative thinking, problem solving, and deeper connections with your audiences. It will set you on new paths rather than down a rabbit hole. Furthermore, it disrupts your own thinking, which is vital to keeping your brand sustainable, relevant, and alive over time. It’s not about changing your brand, but rather giving it the space to grow and evolve.
Never Fear Failure. Corporate professional development plans are designed to reward success and frown upon failure. But failure is not an obstacle to success – it’s a stepping stone. In order to be creative, you need to expose yourself and your ideas to commentary, criticism, and – on occasion –ridicule. Taking chances also builds resilience, flexibility, confidence, understanding, and expertise, all of which are necessary requisites for growth and success – and tremendous assets for your personal brand. Make failure your fuel.
Finally, remember: If you don’t define and take control of your personal brand, others will do it for you. Whether you are conscious of it or not, everyone you meet will experience your brand every day, and they will formulate thoughts and opinions about you. Your personal brand is the best way to differentiate yourself from every other marketer, strategist, researcher, or creative director. The uniqueness and strength of it is vital for growing your business, getting a better job, taking your career to the next level, developing as a leader, inspiring your teams, and, above all, enjoying what you do. It’s a lifelong investment that will serve you well on whatever path you choose. Your personal brand is your authentic story to design. So share your “why”: articulate your passion and promise; and tell your story with confidence, enthusiasm, and an authentic point of view. A great place to start? The summary section of your LinkedIn page.