Branding Yourself as a One-Trick Pony

Gone are the days of companies branding themselves as specialty retailers. Dunkin' Donuts now offers pizza, Radio Shack seems to sell pretty much everything but radios, and Linens 'n Things is closing its doors. To survive, they must overcome the very brand that's made them famous.

Gone are the days of companies branding themselves as specialty retailers. Dunkin’ Donuts now offers pizza, Radio Shack seems to sell pretty much everything but radios, and Linens ‘n Things is closing its doors. To survive, they must overcome the very brand that’s made them famous, redefining themselves and their brands to attract a broader customer base.  

According to my impromptu focus group of one Dunkin’ Donuts employee while I was making a late night coffee run, it sounds like the expanded assortment of menu items is actually working. But convincing consumers that the same place they’ve looked to for donuts is now selling legitimately good pizza is a difficult proposition. It’s pretty much the same reason why you’ll never see McDonald’s successfully launch McMeatloaf. 

As I waited for my medium coffee with cream and sugar and one sour cream glazed donut, I started thinking about the branding challenges these businesses are facing, and comparing them to some of the challenges we face on the job and with our careers when we brand ourselves as a one-trick pony—the very thing you work hard to be known for ultimately pigeonholes you to a particular job or career path instead of opening more doors down the road. 

It’s really quite puzzling to me. Early in your career, you want to be known as the “Radio Shack”…a specialist in a particular area. Maybe you’re the “numbers” person or you’re really good in sales. But, at some point, there’s a good chance those around you will start to see you as  merely that, and you’re going to have to work hard to overcome your brand. 

Additionally, most hiring managers aren’t able to take a step back to look for strong athletes who have a proven track record of success if they don’t neatly fit in the pre-defined skills bucket for the position they’re hoping to fill. For many it’s not enough to point out “transferable skills” in a cover letter; they want the real thing. 

So, your challenge as an employee is to manage your brand in a way that allows you to initially position yourself as an expert in one thing while also exploring opportunities for brand extension. That way, if you decide to move from being the donuts specialist to a pizza peddler, you’ve already built in some optionality. 

Shawn Graham is Director of MBA Career Services at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job.

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