How to Build a Compelling Personal Brand

Know Yourself, Know Your Brand

Part 1 of 3

As someone who teaches branding to graduate students, I am often asked to review resumes and cover letters. It can be shocking.

Bright, inquisitive, hard-working students who excel in my class write paragraphs of generic nonsense. They apply for positions by describing what their company can do for them, not what they can do for their company. They describe themselves as hard workers who get good grades and with other generic nonsense. Many tout proficiency in Excel, PowerPoint, Word, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Word Press on their resumes as if they were applying for administrative assistant positions.

The shocking part for me is that they present outstanding work in class, formulating whip-smart, strategic visions for brands that are sometimes far superior to what the seasoned professionals at those companies churn out. But when it comes to branding and marketing themselves, many are clueless.

It’s not for want of intelligence or talent. What seems to get in their way are the related, twin demons of a lack boldness and the inability to focus.

It’s easy to be bold when you’re working on a brand for hire. Even easier if it’s a school project and you’re not going be held responsible for the repercussions of your work. Your ego isn’t tied up in the process. Since it’s not about you, there should be no personal baggage in the way of staking out even the most grandiose claims for a brand. Branding yourself is an entirely different enterprise, one that requires a painful slog through a psychological minefield.

There are the select few who seem to be born with inner-confidence and perhaps a feeling of entitlement. Think of your childhood and college friends. Aren’t there people that you just knew were slated for great things? My college roommate was clearly going to be a successful Hollywood producer. Everyone knew it then, and sure enough, it came to be. A few years ago, I tracked down an elementary school friend on Facebook with whom I had not been in touch since my family moved away when I was 13-years-old. Of course, he was a successful doctor. I could have told you that in the 6th grade.

It’s not just that they’re smart. They’re confident, focused and driven. What’s likely more important is that they had a vision of what they would become. Maybe there were doubts, but you wouldn’t know it from the outside looking in. They were on a set path and nothing could get in their way.

Most of us aren’t like that. I sure wasn’t. Having suffered from Imposter Syndrome most of my life, I was convinced that I lacked the skills and the intelligence to succeed at anything. In college, there was no way I could be pre-law or pre-med. That was for the smart kids. And how could I ever get the grades?

While my nearly all my graduate school classmates secured good jobs before graduation, it would be over a year until I landed my first job in the advertising business. Just like many of my current students, I adopted a defensive approach. I understand the creative process, I’m strategic – I’m good at everything! And no one will work harder!”

Wrong on every level. I was afraid to take a stand. Had I understood what it took to build a personal brand, I would have focused much more narrowly. Rather than waffling – should I be on the creative side of the ad agency business or in account management? – I would have put a stake in the ground and focused even more finely. “I want to be an account executive in the personal care sector for one of these five ad agencies who value strategic thinking over everything else.”

The current, digital model of marketing is a numbers game. While the power of big data allows us to target narrowly, it’s still a numbers game. The formula is awareness, clicks and conversions, so it stands to reason that starting with a larger bigger data base will give you a better chance of selling something. The hopelessness my students seem to feel when they submit job applications online only serves to fuel the frenzy of this volume driven, shotgun approach.

I’m not sure I would ever take part in one of those online cattle calls, at least not without trying to work it from another angle. Perhaps a personal, handwritten note to the person you’d be reporting to, or a major effort to track down someone who might be able to provide a personal recommendation.

The point is that when you’re selling yourself, or selling anything for that matter, it’s better to be the chooser than one waiting to be chosen. This requires being bold and confident. Even if you have to fake it. The question – and the attitude – shouldn’t be, “What do I have to be or do to work for you?” Rather, it should be this: “Here is the tangible and intangible value I bring. Why should I bring it to you?”

Obviously, this needs to be done respectfully, with quiet, inner confidence, not arrogance. And how should you talk about “what you bring?”

Fear is our greatest enemy here. What if I don’t have a personal vision? What if I put a stake in the ground and I’m wrong? What if my focus is so narrow that I’m alienating some of the people who might be in a position to hire me? Whether I am looking for my very first job or seeking to change jobs or even careers, don’t I just want to move to the next level? If it’s a job with a big company I want, or just any job so I can make a living, isn’t it best just to get my foot in the door? Once they see what I can do they’ll figure out where I truly belong, right?

Wrong again. There are always exceptions – companies who value great talent over anything else and will make the best possible use of that talent. But most just want to fill roles. So, if you take a job in marketing support when what you really want to do is sales, getting to sales will be likely be an ongoing, frustrating struggle that probably won’t end well. You take a job, and that’s who you are.  That’s the job you took and that is how you will be perceived. Ironically, the better you do that job, the harder it will be for you to change roles. Why would the company want to move you when you’re filling your current role so well?

In theory, it’s great to be a team player, but first and foremost, you need to watch out for yourself. That is especially true now, when loyalty is a quaint ideal from a more innocent age. Forget about company rhetoric about respecting their workers – or “associates” or “partners” or whatever euphemism they choose to describe employees. Any company will throw you under the bus if the slightest thing goes wrong. You read about it almost every day. Hundreds or thousands of layoffs when a company has a bad couple of quarters. Layers of positions or entire departments eliminated when companies merge.

The Business Roundtable may be paying lip service to the idea of transcending the narrowly defined goal of maximizing shareholder wealth. But let’s not be naïve. Whether you’ve been on the job or 25 minutes or 25 years, you’re going to go if there’s the slightest whiff of you not being absolutely necessary for the company to function. As an employee, you are only a “key stakeholder” if that’s how management feels at any given moment.

This is not the 1950’s or 1960’s when a person might spend his or her entire career at one company. No company will take care of you, so take care of yourself. Whether it’s your first job or a mid-career change, focus on what you want and get as much of it as you possibly can. Don’t settle or take just “any” job unless you absolutely have to.

Even in this cutthroat environment, subjugating your personal passion to expediency is not a trade-off you should be willing to make. People – those in a position to hire you, potential life partners, friends and acquaintances – are attracted to focus and passion. Think of the brands you use and the important people in your life. Did you settle on them, just because they were available? Or are they fulfilling your specific needs and wants?

This is where branding principles – so easily applied in academia or the workplace for brands that are not you – come into play. In addition, you’ll have to realize that this is an exercise in mental health as much as anything else.

Who Are You? What Is your purpose? How Will You Change the World?

The first, and clearly most difficult, of these branding principles must be to fully understand yourself. It’s no different than marketing anything else. Brands make monumental mistakes when they try to be something they’re not. This often happens when they read trends superficially and try to adapt with no regard for their core essence.

In the 1990’s, Taco Bell came out with a line of “light” products. Disaster. Gone within months. Yes, the trends at the time all pointed to “light’ and “low-fat,” but Taco Bell or any version of it was never going to be health food. Several years ago, Hot Pockets tried to go “gourmet.” Equally inappropriate. Both products are wonderful for those times after you’ve had six beers, it’s 1:00 AM, you’re beyond hungry and you need something to soak up the grease. Ah yes, alcohol and grease. A pairing as perfect as a rib-eye steak and a fine cabernet. The Seth Rogen of food.

Speaking of which, my friend and frequent collaborator, the actor and acting coach Michael Laskin, in his book, The Authentic Actor: The Art and Business of Being Yourself, muses on who is the better actor, Seth Rogen or Daniel Day-Lewis:

With talent in abundance, who you are often trumps what you can do (i.e. “the work”). It’s not right or wrong. It just is. People who personally resonate often win the day. I’ve used this extreme example in my class: how else can you explain an actor like Seth Rogen? I really like Seth Rogen. A lot. But he clearly is a triumph of identity over traditional actor skills. He probably can’t play Hamlet (or if he did…it’d be a VERY different “Hamlet”)! But he’s the absolutely best most indelible Seth Rogen on the planet.

His worldview, his sense of self is immediately evident because he has disabused himself of the notion that he has to play someone other than himself. Seth Rogen’s “work” is 100% personal and identity-based.

How do you resonate? How do you play the most indelible version of yourself?

I would have preferred to be a successful actor. Or rock star. Or major league baseball player. Maybe even a doctor. There’s just one problem. I stink at all those things.

But I am good at marketing. Still, that’s not enough, as marketing is a big field that requires a wide array of people who bring different skills to the table. Do I love numbers? Am I a detail person? Am I good at analytics? Not so much.

What drives me is a deep, emotional understanding of the human experience and how it relates to people’s personal choices of products and services. While I would never dispute the power and potential of big data, I feel strongly that there is no substitute for real-time, live and in-person human interaction. Getting people to talk and listening very carefully to their stories. Studying tone of voice, body language, dynamically probing with follow-up questions to get at the essence of who they are and what motivates them.

It’s not the only way to build a marketing strategy, but there will always be a need for this kind of work, and I excel at it.

So, we’ve gone from a love of marketing to a specific niche. This still isn’t enough to build my personal brand. The need remains to tightly define the human value my brand embraces and my overall brand purpose.

The human value is what I share with my target. Broadly speaking, my target can be defined as marketing and insights executives in enterprise to mid-sized companies who regularly conduct marketing research or hire external marketing agencies or consultants. Again, not enough, as I can’t possibly resonate with all those people. No one can. So the human value I choose to embrace is that of curiosity and exploration. More specifically, a curiosity to understand people, not en masse, but one at a time. You could argue that all insights executives, by their very nature, are curious people. But what about the nature of that curiosity? Perhaps they are most curious about digging into the numbers for macro level insights.

My target is that segment of marketers who understand the value of personal interaction. Those who love the touchy-feeling stuff. People who have a heightened sense of empathy, who are willing to make the deep dive into the complex, often ambiguous minds of consumers and the dynamics of their behavior. Where there is no “right” answer, but a range of possibilities.

Which brings me to what I feel is my unique talent, my brand purpose: To make sense of human emotions, connecting the dots that others can’t see, and ultimately, curating those emotions to craft authentic brand stories.

I am comfortable with this positioning. It’s my authentic self. Just as Michael Laskin describes Seth Rogen, my work is “100% personal and identity based.”

It’s been a life-long process getting to this point, a journey of exploration and discovery, but the sooner you start, the better. If you’re wrong, learn from it and move on. Trust your instincts. They’re probably right. In any event, it is far better to stand for something than to stand for nothing.


Coming Next, Part 2: What is Your Brand Personality?

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