A Personal Branding primer

I’ve mentioned the topic of Personal Branding a few times before, but a recent post (along with a free download) on Chris Brogan’s blog got me inspired to write a primer describing my views of this concept.  I’ve been hearing the term more and more, maybe you have too, so I’ve been not only giving it some thought, but reading with interest the posts I can find on the topic.

In this post I’d like to share my thoughts on the two dichotomies of personal branding, offer an overview of what a personal brand is and how to create one, and offer some simple tips on getting started supporting your personal brand.

This is an evolving concept that I don’t think is fully fleshed out in anybody’s minds.  Therefore while I do believe this will be an informative, even helpful article for most of you, please remember that the topic of personal branding is a relatively new one so if it is a topic of importance for you, please do not rely solely on this article to form a course of action.

You may also notice that I have this post filed under the Leadership category.  Not so much a something you do to lead, but rather something that leaders should consider doing.  Likewise, even if you are not an strategic leader in your company, personal branding may still have relevance in your personal leadership development strategy.

As I have written this article, it has become apparent that there are more elements to even a primer on personal branding than can realistically be covered in one article.  Therefore, I think this will turn into a four part series.  Stay tuned for upcoming additions to this topic.  Also be warned this is a fairly lengthy article. 

Two dichotomies of Personal Branding

From what I’m reading my sense of the concept of Personal Branding shakes out along two major fault lines:

  1. First, I see two types of personal branding associated with two pools of individuals.  The first pool is of content creators, thought leaders, business visionaries, bloggers, etc.  These are people whose livelihood and reputation are largely tied to their “content” and online presence.  The second pool is those of us more functionally or operationally oriented. 
  2. The second dichotomy I see with personal branding is in the execution.  Creating and maintaining a personal brand for thought leaders is different than operational leaders.  While many of us may be thought leaders here and there in our own right, our career is probably more tied to “results” than “ideas”.  Therefore creating a brand is more closely tied with adding operational and strategic value than imagining and authoring ideas.  Yes, I know it’s not that simple, but for the purposes of differentiating between two approaches to personal branding it’s a distinction that will add value to our discussion here.

Creating a Personal Brand

As mentioned above, I believe the process of creating a personal brand is different depening on which pool you swim in: content creator or strategic leader / person of excellence.  If you are a content creator then personal branding is intimately tied to your online presence and perceived (and actual) contribution to the online community.  If you are the other side of the fence, then personal branding is more of a marketing exercise, although managing your online presence can be an important part of that exercise.

Content Creators / Thought Leaders

I’m not going to go too in-depth on personal branding for content creators in this post, since Chris Brogan basically has the topic nailed already.  If you’ve never heard of Chris Brogan, check out his website, and his About page.  Basically, he’s an aknowledged expert on using social media and technology to build meaningful relationships for business, organizations and individuals.

Chris recently made available for free download, an eBook on Personal Branding for the Business Professional.  (For those of you unfamiliar with the term “eBook”, it’s just the Internet’s buzzword for a short, topic-focused document in pdf format that is made available for download, usually for free, on blogs and websites). 

Now Chris has been doing this for years so I’d be a fool to argue with him; and anybody who knows me can figure out what’s coming next.  I’m going to be a fool and maybe not argue, but quietly suggest that the eBook should have been called Personal Branding for Professional Content Creators and Business Visionaries.  The suggestions in the book, and there are a lot of them, mostly focus in on establishing credibility and presence as part of an online community.

Don’t get me wrong – there is usefulness in there for all of us and if you are interested in the topic I would recommend you download it and take a look.  However, the focus of online presence starts early and is pervasive throughout the document.  Topics covered in this eBook include:

  • Why build a personal brand?
  • The technology of brands
  • Online listening
  • Passports, Outposts and Content
  • Conversation, Community and Face to Face
  • Elements of a Personal Brand
  • Passion

So, whether you are a content creator, business visionary, or simply fascinated by the topic and want to self-educate, I highly recommend you download this eBook and take a read.  I think other leaders that could benefit from this book would include non-profit executive directors looking to build a conversation with their constituencies, politicians looking to do the same, and perhaps educational and cultural institutions, among others.

Leaders / Persons of Excellence

As I mentioned, for those of us that fall in this category, I think personal branding is more of a marketing exercise.  Don’t get me wrong, technology and online communities can and should play an important part in that exercise, but they aren’t the sole focus nor the driving reason for undertaking personal branding.

An in-depth discussion of the entire process is out of the scope of this post (which is already longer than I intended).  So, for the purposes of this primer, let’s start with two essential steps of the personal branding process:

  1. Figuring out exactly what your “personal brand” is.
  2. Creating, communicating and supporting your personal brand.

For those of you having a hard time wrapping your head around the concept of “personal brand”, try thinking of it as the value you can offer employers (or groups, associations, friends, etc.).  Then think of of step 2 above as showing or proving to that prospective employer (or group, association friend, etc.) the value you say you offer really exists.

Defining your Personal Brand

Your personal brand is what makes you unique, what is the core value you offer, why should I pay you six figures to do this job versus the next applicant?  This is an evolving concept, but in very broad strokes, I see two flavors of personal brand: what you have to offer and what makes you unique.

What you have to offer

One of my jobs was at a fairly large international consulting firm.  Five of my years there were spent in business development and account management (read: sales).  Like many consulting organizations we were given standard company sales presentations.  A key slide in the presentation, and probably one in yours, was the Key Differentiators slide. 

The problem was that none of the key differentiators listed really were “key” or “differentiators”.  They sounded nice, things like “customer-focused”, “strategic partner”, and “results oriented”, but let’s be honest, every consulting firm said those things.  They may have been value adds, but they weren’t key differentiators.  We did have one key differentiator at the time, but because it was listed with all the rest, and wasn’t treated like the true gem it really was, I believe we missed a golden opportunity to leverage something no one at the time was really executing well.

So if your personal brand is of the what I have to offer flavor, think of it as your “true gem(s)”.  This may take you a while to get to as we’re all used to talking about our value adds and never really spend the time to get down to our core.  If you are on LinkedIn, take some time to go through your list of contacts and look at a good sampling of headlines.  A LinkedIn headline is the short, ten words or less self-description that appears right after your name on your LInkedIn profile.  If you’re still having trouble grasping the concept of a personal brand, LinkedIn’s headlines are a great example.

What makes you unique

Other people focus more on what makes them unique versus strictly what they have to offer.  This is a more creative play and I see these brand headlines more consistently from entrepreneurs, creatives, highly successful people, and also people just starting out in their career.  This type of branding is very effective for all these groups.

Especially for individuals just starting their career, a personal brand more oriented towards your personal uniqueness versus what you have to offer may be a good way to get around a relative lack of experience.  Just because you don’t have 20 years of experience on your resume doesn’t mean you don’t have unique, highly valuable skills or talents to offer an employer.

For creative folks, the notion of condensing themselves down into a couple “value-adds” will be an exercise in futility.  You just don’t think that way.  Rather, your view of yourself and the world is much more open and expansive, and it will be a natural exercise to create a personal brand along those lines.  I’ve been reading Chris Guillebeau’s blog The Art of Nonconformity for quite a while now.  Chris’ blog “chronicles my writing on how to change the world by achieving remarkable personal goals while helping others at the same time.”  It’s no wonder Chris’ LinkedIn headline is “Challenging Authority Since 1978.”

My personal branding experience

Personally, I’ve taken a hybrid approach.

I just recently changed my LinkedIn headline.  It used to be “Versatile Operations and Technology Leader”.  I’ll spare you the thought process I went through, but in the end I think most of that was value adds, not key differentiators.  Certainly this wasn’t a personal brand, there are thousands of people out there who could say the same thing.

So what did I change it to?  This is a work in progress, but I changed to “Business Chameleon and Technology Interpreter.”  I suppose you could argue these are value adds also, but I think this is starting to get to my true value.  Business Chameleon speaks to the fact that I’ve officially held just about every functional role you can in an organization, and those I haven’t held officially, I’ve either held unofficially or added significant value to.  Not everyone can say that.  I’ve also spent almost an entire career straddling technology and business and effectively communication between those two camps.  Not everyone can say that either.  So while I lose the title “leader” out of this headline, along with all the positive connotations, I feel this new headline does a much better job of communication my true gems versus just value adds.

Unfortunately, there is no magic to speeding up this process or helping you get started.  I’ll be writing some follow-up posts on this topic I hope will help if you’re having problems.  If you have specific questions, leave them via a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

Demonstrating your Personal Brand

While I will be covering this topic in-depth in a future post, here are some simple ways to get started demonstrating your brand:

  • A picture is worth a thousand words they say, and nothing helps communicate your brand than seeing it first hand.  There are plenty of online sites that allow you to share documents and graphics as part of your resume.  I’m currently playing around with VisualCV, but you can also check out Brandego, BlueSkyPortfolios, and Careefolios.com.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a tip solely for creative types, sharing a complex project plan, an employee handbook or an executive presentation, all superbly executed, can help reinforce your business brand visually.
  • Start your personal “brand strategy” examination.  I will post a step by step process for doing this in the near future.  In the meantime, start thinking about what you want your personal brand to represent.  What is essentially “you”?  What are the “true gem(s)” you have to offer?  If you don’t have marketing genes, and I find a lot of technical people don’t, then try this: instead of trying to hone in on your personal brand, start examining how you usually describe yourself to prospective employers and new business contacts.  Now start throwing away elements in common with more than a handful of others.  What are you left with?
  • Consider starting a blog.  If you are a thought leader, a creative type, or a business visionary, a professionally executed blog can help reinforce your brand.  If nothing else, you gain knowledge and experience with a technology you knew nothing about previously. 
  • If you’re not comfortable starting your own blog (or there are reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t), venture online and find out where people in your industry hang out.  Comment on those blogs and contribute to the discussion.  Prove you know what you are talking about.
  • Find a social network that matches your brand.  Join it and use it as a base to build and reinforce your brand.  My brand is business-focused so my social network of choice is LinkedIn.  Remember it’s not just about joining, but becoming active.  One of the best ways within LinkedIn to reinforce your brand is through their Answers section.  Find the categories that match with your brand and become active both answering and asking questions.  Try to get at least a couple “best” answers under your belt.
  • Make sure your resume reflects your brand and matches all the efforts you are putting into other channels. 

These ideas should get you started in the right direction.  As I’ve mentioned, I will have some follow-up posts on this topic forming what I hope will be a nice little series on Personal Branding.

In closing

I hope you enjoyed this primer on Personal Branding and I welcome your comments and observations.  Pleae stay tuned for follow-up articles containing more detail on the process of creating a brand and some ideas on how to support your brand statement.

Please feel free to share this post with those you think could benefit from it.

6 thoughts on “A Personal Branding primer

  1. Dave…it is truly great to see some deeper thinking on Personal Branding. I like your approach here with content creators v leaders and their personal brand. The piece on ‘demonstrating your personal brand’ also contains some nice practical insights. I am looking forward to your other posts on the subject!

  2. Great article. I think the trap with personal branding is to a.) think it’s image management and b.) that the point of focus is on what you do rather than seeking authenticity from who you are.

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