If you use the Internet, you have a brand. Whether you like it or not, people are Googling you and their impression of you is shaped by the content they find: your LinkedIn profile, your Facebook page, your public tweets, that random op-ed you wrote for your college paper. And yet many people are uncomfortable with the idea of cultivating a personal brand.
"When people think of self-branding, they immediately think of people in the entertainment industry who are in the business of shameless self-promotion," says Selena Soo, founder of S2 Groupe, a personal branding consultancy. "Celebrities can come across as arrogant, egotistical, or flamboyant, and people don’t want to be like that."
But Soo insists that managing your public persona won't make an over-the-top Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian out of you. "Your brand is simply how people perceive you," she says. "People don’t know anything about you besides what you tell them in conversation, what others say about you, or the content you produce online. And since you have some control over how you will be perceived, it makes sense to devote some time to being strategic about it."
Soo argues that self-branding is not just about you, but also about the people you are trying to help through your work. "Building your brand and expanding your reach can help you make a difference in the world," says Soo. "Think about Mother Teresa or Gandhi: These are people with very clear brands. They are known for their work and their message. But these were people who were not out to promote themselves but to serve others."
Soo has noticed that women in particular tend to struggle with not wanting to come off as too pushy when crafting their personal brand and getting others to notice it. This is consistent with studies that show that women are not very good negotiating on their own behalf, especially when it comes to asking for raises or promotions. However, when women negotiate on behalf of their company or other people, they tend to be more effective than their male counterparts. Soo says the same dynamic is at work with self-branding: Women who realize their brands can spread a positive message or draw attention to unrepresented causes suddenly get more excited about communicating their brand to the world.
So how do you begin to build your brand? "The idea of a brand can feel very abstract and overwhelming," says Soo. "But there are several simple steps you can take to walk through this process."
The first step is to think carefully about your core message. "Think about what you want to be known for or the problem that you are passionate about solving in the world," Soo says. She says we can learn from the big ideas of powerful corporate brands, like Apple’s "Think Different," which speaks to a passion for innovation or Nike’s "Just Do It," which encourages people to take action. It’s worth spending an afternoon brainstorming about what makes you tick and what you are trying to achieve with your career. While you don’t need to translate this idea into a pithy motto, it’s good to have a shorthand version of what you stand for.
Then, Soo recommends coming up with four to six adjectives about the qualities that you embody. Are you witty, philosophical, or good-humored? Are you good at connecting people or a great communicator? "Often people have the same big idea," says Soo. "But how you execute your big idea really depends on your personality, which is what makes your particular brand original." This process takes a great deal of introspection, but it is a valuable exercise in its own right. Identifying who you are and what drives you in your work can bring meaning to everyday life.
Once you’ve done the work of identifying the substance of your brand, you can spread this message across all your public channels. It informs what goes into your webpage, your resume, or even your Twitter bio. It shapes how people see you. "Your brand comes across when you’re introducing yourself to new people and giving them your elevator pitch," says Soo. "You’re the one who decides how to answer those initial questions about who you are and what you do. The cool thing is that you know that you are always going to be asked those questions, so it is worth preparing for them."
Soo says it is important to remain consistent across all of these channels, because your message will be more powerful if it is constantly being reinforced. This way, when someone Googles you or starts a conversation with you, they are able to get a sense of what you stand for immediately. Soo thinks some people are hesitant about self-branding because they think it is about manufacturing an image. But ultimately, she believes that personal brands are really about knowing who you are and fully expressing it whenever you are given the opportunity.
Self-branding, when done correctly, is all about authenticity. Shameless self-promotion, on the other hand, often involves selling out and losing touch with the real you.