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You, Incorporated: Defining Your Personal Brand

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With career mobility at an all-time high, the typical professional will work in as many as 15 to 20 different positions before retirement—and do all the job searching, interviewing and selling themselves that goes with that! 

Landing the right opportunities to propel your career toward fulfillment requires a free agent mentality and the ability to sell yourself to many different employers. To succeed, you must be able to articulate your value—the reputation you're known for and what people know you'll deliver—and relentlessly promote this as your personal brand.

How would you articulate your personal brand today? If you were to ask your manager, colleagues or mentors to describe it, what would they say?

Whether you need to take a first stab at your brand or even redefine it, this tutorial will help you consciously and strategically develop a personal brand that harnesses your positive attributes and passions, effectively articulating your value and differentiating you. 

Branding Basics 

Think about some of your favorite brands. Why do they stand out for you? Chances are, you feel some connection or relate to them in some way. You probably also know off the top of your head what each brand represents to you and what makes it special.

Ethan Allen is a favorite for me and stands for high quality, durable furniture. I'm also emotionally connected because the first major furniture purchase my husband and I ever made together was our Ethan Allen dining room set.

All brands stand for something, and the good ones are adept at moving beyond association to equivalency. Zappos isn't just a shoe retailer on the web; they are "internet shoes," according to brand strategist Laura Ries. Google stands for "search." Beyond tech, think about how Kleenex overtook the category and became synonymous with tissues. 

What's a Personal Brand? 

A personal brand is really no different from the company brands we know well, except it's built around and intended to promote a person. Ries points to Marissa Mayer, whose brand is defined by being “the woman that made Google successful.”

If you're like me, your personal brand isn't quite that lofty, and that's ok. What matters is that it is a reflection of what's uniquely you—what specifically differentiates you from others in your field. 

Your personal brand should represent what people have come to expect when they work with you and the value proposition you bring to the table. 

Why You Need to Keep Reading

You may be thinking this sounds like a lot of marketing fluff. With everything on your plate today, you can't afford to waste time—and that's precisely why you can't afford to ignore your personal brand. 

Think of it as an insurance policy that protects you against the ups and downs of today's job market. Should you need to make a move, you'll land on your feet quickly.

Even if you haven't experienced a layoff or watched someone close to you go through one, you know without question that none of us can bank on retiring after 30 years with the same company. Professionals who don't think ahead about their own marketability, and position themselves for mobility, are at risk.

Now for more on that insurance policy.

Your Brand Today

Think about how many businesses in the same category seem virtually interchangeable. Is there a real difference between the Walgreens and the Rite-Aid experience? How about Chase Bank compared to SunTrust or Bank of America

Even if their executives can articulate what differentiates their brands, which is doubtful, there's no question that they're falling down in their communications.

As CEO of You, Incorporated, how would you articulate your brand? 

Even if you haven't made a conscious effort to create a personal brand, rest assured that you have one: it's your reputation and what differentiates you. In what areas or on what topics are you the go-to person? What is it about what you deliver that makes you different? 

Deciphering Your Brand Identity 

If you're not quite sure how your brand is perceived, some self-assessment should offer clarity. Consider questions like these, courtesy of PwC, to identify your stand-out qualities:

  1. What was the most successful project I ever tackled, and what made me successful?
  2. What was the most important team role I ever fulfilled and why?
  3. When faced with an overwhelming obstacle, what’s my “go to” skill to overcome it?
  4. What are the strengths that others acknowledge in me?

I'd also add "how do people benefit from working with me?" and "what descriptors should be used in talking about my work?"

Beyond introspection, there's another sure-fire way to figure out how your brand is perceived: ask people. Get your manager's take and input from your mentors and colleagues. Anyone who really knows what you're about will be able to describe what they've come to expect from you based on real experiences.

What do they see as your core strengths? How would they describe your reputation? If they were introducing you, what would they say? 

You now have a clear sense of how others define your brand attributes. 

Making Sense of the Data

You now have a number of data points, including attributes ascribed to you and your view of your own value. The brand waters have gotten muddier, but I promise the confusion is a necessary but momentary phase on the way to a clear brand identity. 

You need every bit of information you gathered to take control of your own reputation and begin consciously shaping it.  

Corporate Brand Mantras

When I'm coaching I like to start with defining a "brand mantra," borrowing from Dartmouth professor Kevin Keller's work on corporate brands. He defines it as a very short value statement that describes what the company or product has to offer that's of value to customers and unique from what competitors are offering. 

Disney, for example, is fun family entertainment. Who would question that they've defined the category?

Your Personal Brand Mantra

The notion of brand mantra applies just as effectively to personal brands. Defining it isn't easy, but the answer is in the data you've collected:

  • What adjectives or themes recur? 
  • Which of those align with your uniqueness or what Keller calls "points of difference." 

Those attributes that lie at that intersection of frequency (what a bunch of people perceive about you) and differentiation (ones that are unique compared to people you work or interact with) are the brand attributes to highlight in your new mantra.  

You can next use those attributes as the foundation of a short personal value statement that describes what you have to offer and gets to the crux of who you are. That's your mantra, and it will serve as the heart of your brand definition and the foundation of all of your branding efforts.

Examples of personal brand mantras are “dependable, strategic planner” or “a creative professional connector.” Another one could be something like, “motivating others to do their best.”

The Authenticity Test

We've all encountered companies that defined a brand and promoted specific brand attributes, only to then operate in ways that contradicted every single one of their brand promises. An airline or two come to mind here.

Whatever brand mantra you settle on, give it the authenticity test. Give yourself time to chew on it, think about it, even test it out in limited ways with safe audiences to make sure it feels right.

Your brand mantra needs to truly, authentically reflect you. It must allow for transparency, and push you to be yourself. 

If living up to your mantra would require you to act like or try to become something you naturally are not, it may be a great brand mantra... but it's not your brand mantra.

One Promise You Can't Afford to Break

Before you plunge head-first into communicating your new brand mantra, there's another step in the discovery process that will make or break your success. You need to translate your mantra into the brand promises it represents to your target audience.

Each personal brand mantra embodies expectations, or core promises, that you've led people to believe you will meet. Your brand, in turn, will be defined by their experiences with you and how closely you meet these expectations with what you delivered. 

Gallup suggests that making sure people's real-life experiences with you actually line up with your brand promise is critical—and more important than any promotion, words or images. 

Imagine you're that "creative, professional connector" we mentioned earlier. Your brand implies creative contributions and a big network that you know how to tap into effectively. You'll need to prove this in your regular team meetings and online activity; you also might start blogging about networking to cement your expertise.

Every touch point you have with a target audience is an opportunity to deliver on your brand promise and increase awareness of your (very positive, very memorable) brand identity.

Targeting Your Message: To Infinity...and Beyond! 

Yes, "infinity and beyond" is too broad a definition of what you should shoot for in targeting your brand communications (even for a Toy Story fan). But the phrase highlights a key point: it's critical to define a target audience that's larger and much more diverse than your current boss. 

Your personal brand can help open new doors and connect you with new people that can help your career, if you take the time to clearly define the profiles of these audiences.

Think about:

  • Who will see value in what you bring to the table?
  • Whose attention do you want to attract? Maybe there are industry influencers who don't know you yet and you'd like to get on their radar.
  • What doors do you want to open to you? This could be a new employer, the executive leading an interesting new department—whatever opportunity piques your interest.

Each of the answers you come up with points to a target audience for your brand communications. You might end up with a list that includes prospective employers, senior execs at your current firm, colleagues, partners—any connection with the potential to impact your career. 

Communicating Brand Value with Storytelling

Your audiences may be diverse, but you can bank on one commonality: they all like a good story. Storytelling offers an effective, minimally painful way to highlight your unique value. Not surprisingly, companies have been doing this for years with stories that position their product or company as the hero

Stories let you highlight who you are, what you're interested in and what you excel at, and connect all of that with what your target audience needs in an interesting, memorable way. They even help you make an emotional connection with your audience that builds relationships and loyalty.

One Great Story

Creative entrepreneur Kathleen Shannon advises that you "get real" when telling your story and shares the story of a meeting she and her partner had shortly after launching their new firm:

It was 2-hours long with a used car sales man. Tara and I literally got in 3 words the whole time while this used car salesman with a lazy eye and sweaty lip went on for hours about how much integrity his business has (not). By the end of it I literally thought I might throw up on the desk we were meeting at. Tara and I both left shaken up and ready to throw in the towel and find a day job. (Instead we vowed to never work with used car salesman and wrote our Braid ECourse on Dream Customer Catching.) 

This story works because it's memorable and entertaining, encourages audience empathy, and ultimately communicates strength, persistence and creativity (while also promoting their course offering). 

Writing the Story of You, Inc.

How can you take your brand mantra and bring its key attributes to life in a story? 

Many career coaches use the CAR (Challenge/Actions/Results) approach. It focuses on telling the story of a challenge (C) you faced, the actions (A) you took in facing it, and the positive results (R) that you reaped.  

Another option is to look to age-old themes as a guide. Like times when:

  • You were the underdog but struggled and overcame
  • One moment or discovery changed everything for you and your career
  • You almost quit when your journey got too long or tough, but you didn't (and here's why). 

Past victories can also make great stories, depending on what went into getting there. You get the picture. 

Consistency is Key in a Web 2.0 World 

It used to be that we made a first impression when meeting someone face-to-face. With social media and web-based communication channels, that impression is now often made well before we ever shake hands. 

If someone unfamiliar reaches out to me, the first thing I do is Google them and look them up on LinkedIn. First impression? Check.

No matter where someone encounters you or seeks you out—an online profile, bio, comments you've posted on a discussion board or in a group forum, resume—they should get the same impression. Everything should communicate the same message about who you are. This goes for your in-person presence, too, like your appearance. 

Author Dan Schwabel outlines a variety of communication tools that you can use in building your brand, like:

  • Social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram profiles). Figure out which channels your target audience is on and focus efforts there. Give your existing accounts a close review to make sure they're consistent with your newly solidified brand identity, and make any changes (or deletions!) immediately.
  • A portfolio showcasing your work. A number of sites, like Behance, allow you to create a virtual portfolio for free.
  • Your own website or blog. I'd suggest starting with a blog and only expanding into a full site if you have a compelling reason to go there, given the time investment required to keep it fresh.
  • Your resume, cover letters and reference documents still play a role in career management. Just make sure they're consistent in messaging across formats. 
  • Blogs and websites in your field; you can look for opportunities to create content for them and establish yourself as an expert.

Defining and building a personal brand isn't easy or quick. It takes time for brands to develop and evolve. It's a process that requires commitment. You need to proactively, consistently communicate in real life and online. Also, continuously evaluate your own actions and behaviors for alignment with your brand promises. Nothing about building a personal brand is easy—but the peace of mind it delivers and the doors it can open more than justify the effort. 

What value does You, Inc., deliver? It's time to define it, own it and be true to it. 

Resources

Graphic Credit: Diamond icon designed by Anuar Zhumaev from the Noun Project.

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