I have good news and bad news.
The good news:
Everyone already has a personal brand. (Yes, you too.)
Before you breathe a sigh of relief, don't forget the bad news:
If you don’t take ownership of your personal brand, someone else will.
Personal branding is the new black – it’s one of those gimmicky buzzwords that’s been around for almost 20 years and gets thrown around a lot, but no one really seems to understand it fully, or why it’s important.
Your personal brand is the overall impression people have of you: it’s a combination of your ‘image’ (both physical and social) and people’s perception of your capabilities. It is the package that sums up and communicates the essence of who you are.
Brands are powerful things: that’s why there’s so much heated debate about PC vs. Mac and Coke vs. Pepsi. What polarises people about products that are essentially the same isn’t so much the product itself as what the brand stands for, and how people relate to it.
Your personal brand is like your very own secret sauce: it’s how you differentiate yourself from others, and make yourself memorable. When people mention your name, it evokes an image in their minds – your job, your voice, your style. Oprah, Obama, Elvis and Beyoncé have all created multi-million dollar global brands that are synonymous with their names.
Think of your brand as your reputation – it’s what people know you for. If Oprah suddenly started doing sports commentary, would that seem a little strange? Of course, because it’s completely off-brand. If you do a good job of creating and communicating your personal brand, people will learn to associate you with your particular specialty, making you the go-to person in your niche.
So don’t live with your ‘default’ brand; take control of what people remember about you. Create, cultivate and showcase your brand so you can stand out from the crowd.
Take some time to reflect on who you are at your very core, including all the quirks that make you unique. Go beyond what you do – don’t limit yourself to your personality, job description or the industry you work in.
Think about what distinguishes you from others, and the image you want to pop into someone’s mind when your name comes up. This is where you need to be quite realistic – even brutal. If you want to be known for your wit but you’re always the last one to get the joke, you probably need to reconsider your niche.
This is where you need to do some market research, and keep your eyes and ears peeled. Observe how people introduce you to a stranger. See what your friends and colleagues seek you out for. Ask a few trusted friends, family members, colleagues or your manager (past or present) how they would describe you to someone who didn’t know you in 5 words.
Ask them to focus on qualities or attributes that set you apart from others. These could be positive or negative, and describe your traits, passions or habits. Tell them not to think about it for too long, but choose the words that first come to mind. If you fear that people will sugarcoat their answers, you might want to consider sending an anonymous survey using surveymonkey or surveygizmo so people feel comfortable giving you their honest opinion. This might sound crazy, but it’s an exercise worth doing, since it will give you valuable feedback.
If your ideal brand is to be a trusted life coach for business leaders such as CEOs, but people’s perception of you is “sarcastic, sassy, fun-loving diva” perhaps you need to reconsider the behaviours that make people think of you as the latter; or reevaluate your ideal brand altogether. You might be able to inject some of your trademark humour into your interaction with CEOs, but it seems unlikely that they would recommend you to others if "sassy" were their first impression of you. You don’t have to be perfect, but do make sure that your brand reflects the skills that you are already somewhat good at so you can excel at them by investing your time and energy.
No one likes a copycat. If you try to copy someone else’s brand, no matter how good you are, you will always appear to be second best. So be true to yourself, and don’t be afraid to inject your brand with your unique personality. It’s important to have a mentor whose brand you admire; but remember that you don’t want to become a cookie-cutter version of them! Instead, you should aim to always put your own signature spin on things. Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg and Yves Saint Laurent all drew inspiration from their mentors (Maya Angelou, Steve Jobs and Christian Dior if you’re curious!) but made sure that they built personal brands that were distinctive and uniquely ‘them’.
Being authentic starts with knowing (and embracing) who you are – your strengths, weaknesses, passions, beliefs and values alike. Once you know, love and own who you are, you will find it empowering to live, breathe and share your personal brand with the world, rather than being a pale imitation of someone else.
You don’t have to worry too much about the exact wording, but try to fit in who you are, what sets you apart and why people should care. Consider the response you want to evoke in people when they think of you. For instance, IKEA’s brand vision has nothing to do with furniture or flat-packs; it is “to create a better everyday life” for people. Your goal here is to create a punchy, memorable statement that represents who you are, what you can do, and your unique spin on it. This exercise will help you to fine-tune your focus so you aren’t seen as a jack-of-all-trades (and therefore, master of none). Here are some examples to get you started:
I want to be known for my ability to ___________ in ___________ for ___________.
I specialise in ___________ so that I can ___________ for ___________.
I use my ___________ and ___________ for ___________.
Once you’ve created your statement, take it for a test drive by talking to people about it. If they don’t seem genuinely curious or interested, you need to go back to the drawing board, because you’re probably not demonstrating your unique spin on your specialty.
Perhaps most importantly, you must be invested in your own brand – if you don’t buy into it, why should anyone else? Embrace your brand and love it.
If you don’t really believe in it, go back to #2 – it’s very likely that you haven’t picked something that you’re passionate about. Passion is both contagious and memorable, so you need to be able to demonstrate your genuine excitement about your personal brand. When you do this, it will make you unforgettable, and people won’t be able to help but think of you when your particular niche comes up in conversation.
Once you have your brand statement down, keep it somewhere you can refer to it. I like to put mine in a weekly calendar reminder that pops up to remind me to ensure that my behaviour – in person and online – is consistent with my brand. Think about how you can invest in your brand, and do whatever you can to learn as much as you can about your niche. Make sure that the way you dress, communicate and act are in harmony with your brand. While you don’t have to be rigid about this (as your brand can and should evolve with time) it’s good to have reminders, especially in the beginning.
I find Warren Buffet’s ‘circle of competence’ theory to be particularly useful when thinking about personal branding. He advocates only evaluating (and investing) in companies that are within this circle. He says,
Similarly, once you have created a personal brand, you need to define its circumference and operate within it, fine-tuning it as you go along and expanding it only when you’re ready. For instance, if the foundation of your personal brand is to help women become the best version of themselves through fashion, then you wouldn’t want to write a guest post for a men’s UFC blog, because it wouldn’t be consistent with your brand, and you probably aren’t an expert on the subject. Know what you’re good at, and kick ass at it. Over time, people will learn to respect and admire you for your niche, and equate you with it.
This might seem like it contradicts #6, but we continue to evolve over the course of our lives (just as brands do). And so it helps to do this entire exercise at least once a year to see if your brand still makes sense for who you are today. Your brand should grow with you so that it reflects your personal and professional progress.