In July 2015, I delivered a marketing workshop at Juniper Networks. Several friends and family asked me to share online so I broke down the content into three blog articles. Today, I focus on the first topic: why personal branding matters.
I love personal branding as a topic because everyone has one. Whether you’re at work collaborating with your colleagues or you are at home with your family, each of us already has a unique reputation. It’s your choice to guide and cultivate this brand, or let it be defined by others.
According to my LinkedIn profile, I have 10 years of marketing experience: building up brands of products or people. The truth is, I’ve had closer to 29 years of personal branding. It started at the age of six. It was the first time I realized I had a brand. And to be totally honest, it sucked. Big time. I didn’t know that for my entire academic life, I would always be the shortest kid in the class. Usually one of the weakest. The last to be picked on a team for recess. Humiliated for my buck teeth. Bullied by bigger kids. My grades would suffer because I’d be distracted by what people were telling me. I’m weak. I’m short. I’m not good enough to be their friends.
When my dad took notice, I’ll never forget the one question he asked me. My hope for you is to reflect on this one question. It was relevant to me at the age of 6. It is relevant today. It will be relevant one year from now, the next decade, and far in the future, when we grow old, and we reflect on the last days our lives.
“What do you want to be known for?”
The answer to this question is the foundation to your personal branding. You start with this answer and then you build a strategy to get there. So yes, let it sink deep within your mind. It’s an answer that requires time, introspection, and vision casting. Your answer may also change depending on your particular season of life, life-changing circumstances, and new, bigger priorities. So while that is going on in your head, let’s talk about personal branding as a concept and see if this question can be explored with some guidance.
Most marketers would say personal branding is the practice of identifying and communicating what makes you unique and relevant. In marketing, we call this differentiation.
And with a marketing strategy in mind, you should be thinking of the people you want to attract, influence, and have an impact on. Your personal brand may be different, depending on who you are trying to reach. In marketing terms, these people you are thinking about are your target audience.
And with this target audience, your personal branding should have a specific goal – if you’re known for that one thing, what’s that impact or desired outcome you hope to gain or see? For most of my co-workers, family, and friends, this outcome is their career advancement and/or business strategy.
If you understand your strengths, skills, passions, and values, you can use this information to separate yourself from your competitors and stand out! And with this information, you can execute a clear, consistent message to the right people that results in the desired outcome.
It comes down to this formula for your target audience:
- Who You Are
- What You Do
- What Makes You Different; or how you create value for others.
That’s the simplest formula, but each element requires explanation. The first two – you’re on your own for that. I don’t know who the majority of you are. I don’t know what you do. Fortunately, you already have that information. What we’ll be focusing on for next few minutes is the third component.
What makes you different?
The most visible aspect of your personal brand is your physical appearance. People, even from a far distance, can observe (and for better or worse, make a judgment based on) your clothing attire and overall body posture.
- Example: lawyers dress up to impress their clients. Engineers? Not so much because they may not interact with customers or have the need or demand to impress their teammates in this manner. But if there was a change in attire, would this help your personal brand? Would it be worth the effort? At my previous company, the entire corporate comms team would brainstorm a theme once a month – such as wearing plaid. What kind of message did this send to our marketing colleagues? We’re a fashion cult? maybe. But we had a lot of fun together. and fun was part of our personal brand’s DNA.
- Gut Check: Are you satisfied with your appearance? Does a change in appearance have the potential to advance your goals?
Back to me in the first grade, my appearance definitely differentiated me from my peers, but not positively. Thankfully, my personal brand could be strengthened by the next two components.
Personality is the 2nd differentiator. People pay attention to your behavior, communication skills, and attitudes towards others.
- Example: Do you make people laugh? Or do you offend them? Do people perceive you as approachable? Or hostile? Do they feel respected when they are with you or do they feel used, inferior, and unimportant? Personalities make all this possible. And that’s a direct reflection of your personal brand.
Lastly, and perhaps one that most of us relate easily to and should take pride in: your competencies. Your special skills and the experience or knowledge you provide that make an impact.
- Example: We were all hired by our employers because of at least one specialized skill we own. Our previous experience, whether it’s academic or a work project, also adds unique value and makes each of us marketable. Because of our accomplishments, we are, or at least, we’re on that path, of becoming subject matter experts.
So what was my response to my dad back when I was in first grade? My answer: I don’t know. All I know is what people told me who I am.
He challenged me a to think from a different angle. I’m not some useless short kid with buck teeth. Rather, I’m a short kid who happens to be funny, passionate, smart, and in desperate need of braces. And yes, braces changed my life! While I couldn’t change my height, I could change virtually everything else about me. I can act on it. Invest in becoming more intellectual. More humorous. Drive that passion to improve. And spend $5K on braces just so I can smile with confidence! YEAH!
My dad continues to ask me every couple of years, “What do you want to be known for?” So with these differentiators in mind, let’s try to tackle the big question. If you’re having difficulty with this, I wrote down a list of questions that may spark an idea or plant the seed.
Questions for the Big Question
- What am I passionate about? (Not necessarily your strengths or what you’re already good at)
- What are my personal values?
- Where do I see myself in 5 years time?
- What’s important to me?
- What motivates me?
- How would I like to see the world?
- What contribution would I like to make?
Please note that the first question is very different from the last one. The first question resonates with Jim Carrey’s commencement speech at Maharishi University, which emphasizes following your passions to succeed. The last question, however, resonates more with Marc Andreessen, who harshly disagreed with Jim Carrey’s message on twitter. The venture capitalist challenged “do what you love” with “love what you do”, especially in light of careers where the market is already saturated and competition is fierce.
If you have the passion to be a lawyer in California, for example, the career path is very difficult (trust me, I know!). However, if you have the skill set to do something extraordinary, with or without passion, Marc Andreessen would advocate you choose that path based on the economic value and contributions to society. Both celebrities’ views are valid depending on your circumstances so for purposes of building your brand, embrace the one that suits you best.
The next personal branding article will focus on positioning – analyzing your current reputation and the opportunities that come with it.