This article was originally published in Young Upstarts.
Branding is no longer just for brands. Anyone looking to carve out a promising career, and “future-proof” themselves professionally, will need to focus on treating their personal reputation as a distinct brand name. Making a name for yourself (or standing out) has never been so critical.
Until recently, the notion of personal branding was reserved almost exclusively for Hollywood stars and Washington politicians. Today those same tools for expression and communication have been so flattened that expectations and realities surrounding self-promotion have changed. Crafting an identity is vital, and is exactly where branding (when done right) excels.
Too Big to Ignore
Microsoft’s recent $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn shows that the confluence of self-publishing, social networking and professional development is too big a trend to be ignored. According to leading career site Glassdoor, the average corporate job posting receives 250 resumes. The explosion of interest in “personal branding” is a natural response from a job-seeking public desperately trying to differentiate. Nearly all existing advice on personal branding, however, boils down to posting regularly on social networks, blogging, establishing “thought leadership” and other such purely tactical prescriptions. Self promotion without a broader plan will result in efforts that are scattershot and ineffective. Carrying over proven processes and best-practices from the world of branding will empower you to take charge of your personal brand.
Where to Start
All powerful branding initiatives start with discovery. The discovery phase precedes any branding effort and involves pinpointing your strengths, beliefs and values, etc. Introspect carefully and interview friends, family and colleagues to assist you in concretely formulating your identity. With a clear concept of self in hand, now create a cohesive narrative that ties these elements together. When someone asks “So what do you do?” how do you answer in a compelling, concise, authentic way? Finally develop a system for expressing your identity via a distinct look and feel. What impression do you hope to make? What is your personal style? Steve Jobs’s hallmark anti-style was not only instantly recognizable, but echoed his personal, stated beliefs about the power of functional elegance and simplicity. Mark Zuckerberg’s cheap, jeans+t-shirt mimicry of that style falls flat because he does not clearly demonstrate values in harmony with his wardrobe’s statement. This inauthenticity even inspired an elaborate April Fool’s Day hoax poking fun at the Zuck’s fastidious fashion.
Branding for Change
Modern celebrity culture provides a crash course in both the promise of cultivating a powerful personal brand and the perils of not painstakingly protecting one’s image. A well crafted, well maintained public image enabled Angelina Jolie to seamlessly parlay her acting success into work as an acclaimed director and celebrated humanitarian. Going from Esquire’s “2004 Sexiest Woman Alive” to Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2008” to special envoy to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees in 2010 signals an incredible degree of brand flexibility on Jolie’s part. Demonstrating similar savvy is Emma Watson, who bucked the trend of child-star burnout by quickly establishing a name for herself beyond the mega-hit Harry Potter franchise, giving her the latitude to deftly step into the new role of UN Global Ambassador for women’s rights.
Focusing on building and strengthening identity beyond singular achievements, and aligning your future plans with those stated goals, is crucial to steering and growing your personal brand. A striking counterexample has been the squandered goodwill of comedy superstars like Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy, whose pre-2000’s heyday has been overshadowed by a series of ribald and tasteless rehashing of the same tired concepts, without any of the daring or originality of their earlier, acclaimed work.
Hollywood culture and image maintenance might seem disconnected from the needs of the average professional, but there are a few key parallels. Roles in the acting world have always been incredibly fleeting, and the competition fierce. Actors invest in building their personal brand identities instead of riding the wave of any single successful project, which can allow them to move more easily between jobs.
Today’s emerging professionals face a similar challenge. A recent Pew Report estimates that the average worker beginning their career now will switch positions roughly once every four years. Since the length of the average career will only increase, a professional in today's emerging workforce could have roughly 15 jobs over his or her lifetime. Defining professional identity by current position is not a viable long-term strategy, given that that position is likely to change in the (relative) near-term. Strong personal brands need to exist beyond and outside the imprimatur of any single employer. Choosing to work for brands that align with your own stated mission is a must, but they need to fit your brand not vice versa.
Branding is no longer solely the purview of movie stars and sneakers, cars and toothpaste. The work of personal branding is a new professional necessity—and a skill set that requires seriousness, attention and mastery if you hope to have the opportunities to do your best work.