An August 1997 article by management guru Tom Peters in Fast Company, titled “The Brand Called You,” popularized the concept of personal brand.
“Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc.,” Peters wrote. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”
The world has changed a lot in 24 years, but establishing a powerful personal brand is still a favorite career development topic. More than 100 books on the topic are for sale on Amazon. In fact, “personal brand” has become such a hyped-up term that it sometimes provokes eye-rolls.
Karen Kang defines personal branding in her book BrandingPays as “creating your image and guiding your reputation.” I define your personal brand as: What others who don’t know you well think or say about you when you aren’t around.
Eye-rollers take note: Whether you intentionally define your personal brand or not, you’ll still have one. Everything about you–what you say, how you say it, what you focus on, how you react, your areas of expertise, how (and if) you show up–all create a set of judgments in the minds of those you interact with. You can only define your desired brand. Others experience your actual brand.
That has always been the case, but some of the dynamics are changing.
- Scale: The number of people competing for attention in our increasingly connected world keeps growing. In the same way that corporate brands must cut through a cacophony of marketing messages to reach overwhelmed consumers, each of us individually faces a challenge in standing out amid the information overload we all deal with. More people from more places, through more channels, are trying to get the attention of your supervisor, your client, your next job opportunity, your preferred college–whichever marketplace you are interested in. In today’s world, attention is your currency, and a strong personal brand is how you get it.
- Digital: Once upon a time, a personal brand was largely shaped through in-person interactions. Today, Me Inc. usually begins as a digital operation. For example, few in 1997 would have imagined a time when people form impressions of you in a nanosecond by reading your body language on a Zoom call or scanning your social media posts.
- Currency: As we emerge from the pandemic and look to the future, a personal brand is at the heart of a fresh currency of identity. Many folks are taking stock of who they are, who they want to be, and whom they want (or don’t want) to work for and with. More than ever, we use the companies, products, and people we engage with to express our identity. Perceptions–of ourselves, of our leaders and colleagues–are at the heart of this examination, and personal brand is all about perceptions.
With all that in mind, here are four things to be aware of about personal brands in 2021, and how to optimize yours.
First impressions often happen on social media
It’s a cliché but so true: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. As this article points out, a bad first impression is hard to correct–we like our opinions and don’t like to change our minds. And it has become standard, whether we always know it or not, for first impressions to be forged on social media. Every time I’m about to meet or talk to someone new, my first move is to check them out on LinkedIn.
So it’s vital to put your best foot forward in how you present yourself. Which means leading with value, not features. What do I mean? Many professionals think the way to market themselves is through a resume´-like approach–i.e. each job they held and what they accomplished. That has its place but is akin to describing a product in terms of its technical specifications (many of which end up sounding the same as competitive products) rather than opening with an attention-grabbing benefit statement.
What really makes you unique? I took a stab at this in my own LinkedIn profile: “I have three passions: (1) beautifully designed customer experiences; (2) working with innovative organizations to bring more women into the businesses of the future, and (3) advising early-stage companies on their growth strategies.” I’m not suggesting that I’m better than everyone else at these things, just that this combination makes me different.
Digital platforms can help (or hurt) a personal brand
Two-thirds of today’s workforce uses Zoom and email, followed closely by Slack or MS Teams, to keep in touch with colleagues via a range of devices, according to one estimate. While these apps have been a boon to productivity, especially as more people work from home, how these tools are used can help or hinder personal brand.
I know of one CEO who was never seen in the office without his standard-issue blue shirt and khakis, which helped reinforce a feeling that he was staid and a bit aloof. During quarantine, however, he began appearing on Zoom calls in cool T-shirts and a baseball cap. I’m not saying that’s the right move for everyone, but in this case, the switch gave the CEO a more approachable, we’re-all-in-this-together image at a time when employees wanted to see that.
Another crucial point involves consistency. Most people don’t think about whether they’re coming across the same way consistently across email, Zoom, Slack, in social media, and in person. Those who sound and act like the same person, regardless of the medium, appear as more authentic and enhance their personal brand. How many times have you received an abrasive email, just to have it followed up later with a video conference call where the person panders to you? Inconsistency is a brand–but not a good one.
Empathy is indispensable to a personal brand
After the last couple of years, the ability to show compassion and understand the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others truly helps define who you are. Full stop. Think of the difference between your emotional response to Netflix versus Blockbuster, or old Old Spice versus new Old Spice. Just like we have emotional responses to corporate brands we have emotional responses to personal brands.
Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” Being aware of the impressions your brand leaves on others matters even more after times of crisis, as we have experienced with the events of 2020-21. And it matters more in the digital realm, where it’s often hard to make people feel anything, except bored.
Proactively assess your personal brand
Homework assignment: Write down three qualities that you aspire to in order to differentiate your personal brand. (Not qualities that make you better, necessarily, just special.) Then ask five people you know well and five people you know less well to write down three adjectives about you.
Observing the similarities and differences among the lists will reveal where your personal brand is strong and where there are disconnects to work on.
What Tom Peters wrote 24 years ago remains spot-on: “You are in charge of your brand… Start today. Or else.”
Mona Sabet is the chief corporate strategy officer at UserTesting, a human insights company. She has two decades of experience in the tech sector both as a corporate executive and an entrepreneur and is actively involved in a number of nonprofits focused on improving diversity in the workplace.