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Who do you think you are: The power of personal branding

The power of personal branding

If you laugh at personal branding, you’ve probably missed the point of it.

My all-time favourite piece of Bill Murray wisdom is this: “I always want to say to people who say they want to be rich and famous: ‘Try being rich first. See if that doesn’t cover most of it’.” 

The people Murray is talking about have missed the point about being a Hollywood star in much the same way that many people miss the point about personal branding. I hear plenty of people telling me about how anyone trying to build a personal brand is trying to become a celebrity. They often follow this up by claiming that anyone who offers advice on personal branding but isn’t famous themselves is obviously a fraud and a failure. But fame isn’t the objective of a personal brand; professional success is–and so is the personal satisfaction that comes with it. Everything else is a by-product. And if you’re not careful, it can become a distraction. 

Not too long ago, the only people who were consistently able to take control of their professional identity were celebrities: rock musicians, film actors, high-profile business leaders and the like. Everyone else had to put up with being defined by their job title, their salary and the university they did (or didn’t) go to. You were just another cookie coming off the cookie cutter and, when you landed the job, it was all too easy to become just another cog in the machine. If you played by the rules then you could make it up the corporate ladder. However, you could equally be left with a deep sense of frustration and unfulfilled potential–and a knowledge that you could be easily replaced by the next person who came along looking exactly like you. 

How personal branding democratised interesting careers 

The advent of social media changed all of this. It became increasingly apparent that everyone has a digital footprint and that people inevitably make judgments about you on the basis of that digital footprint. If your Facebook feed and LinkedIn profile are the same as the next person’s Facebook feed or LinkedIn profile, if you share all of the same stuff on Twitter, then the conclusion people will draw is that you are fundamentally unremarkable. If you set out to express who you are, what you think, how you feel and what motivates you in ways that are authentic, creative and unique? Well, then people will make judgments on that basis. Everyone has a personal brand. The only choice you have is whether to manage it or not. 

Choosing to take an active interest in personal branding transforms lives. And it does so without ever needing to make anybody famous. It democratises the ability to be yourself, differentiate yourself from the crowd based on your personality, determination and, ultimately, your experiences. It’s a calling card that enables opportunity to find you. Because it amplifies what you’re about and builds awareness of what you have to offer, it gives people well-defined reasons for wanting to work with you. It makes more interesting careers possible. 

With personal brands, you have to focus on the right metric 

The most important metric for most personal brands isn’t awareness levels, or fame. It’s distinctiveness. Your personal brand doesn’t have to reach people at scale, provided it’s standing out and shaping perceptions among the specific people that matter to you. In marketing terms, most personal brands have niche audiences, highly personalised but highly relevant, and highly influential as to your success and happiness. You don’t need tens of thousands of people to know who you are, provided the several hundred who matter do. 

When understated brands are best 

The personal brand of a sales rep, for example, has a huge impact on their effectiveness: it sends crucial signals about their expertise, about their values and motivation, about their trustworthiness and about their attitude towards their customers. However, the sales rep doesn’t need to be some sort of industry celebrity for the brand to do its work. In fact, a personal brand that’s overly self-promotional might well be counter-productive. Most buyers find it harder to trust someone who’s too obviously concerned with furthering their own, personal career rather than investing time and interest in their customers. 

The same applies to entrepreneurs, consultants, marketers and plenty of other professionals that I know. The fact that their personal brands haven’t turned them into influencers with tens of thousands of followers doesn’t mean that they’re not doing a great job for them. By showcasing their story, their personality, what they think and what they care about, they are giving the audiences that matter something meaningful to engage with. 

Why you shouldn’t judge personal brands by scale 

Many of the people who get smug and superior about the personal branding efforts of others are industry ‘names’ of one sort or another: they’ve got thousands of followers, they get asked to give keynotes, potentially write a column for this or that trade journal or website. In my view, before they criticise personal brands that don’t have the same scale, they might ask themselves why theirs has the scale it does. 

A lot of it has to do with hard graft and hustle, of course. I know this first-hand. I’ve invested a lot of time in building my personal brand–and that time was spent outside of office hours, writing free pieces for blogs, taking time off to write and present keynotes, battling hard to make myself heard and communicate what I’m about. Anyone who’s made a success of personal branding has done the same. 

However, people whose personal brands get to ‘influencer’ size and scale usually also benefit from some pretty significant investment and support along the way. And I know this first-hand too. The magic for me really happened when the businesses I worked for (first Marketo, then LinkedIn and now Microsoft) realised the value that my personal brand had to offer in helping to elevate their own brand messages. I’ve benefited from having big brands behind me, with corporate heft and influence–and I know that’s the case with a lot of influencers today. 

The real measure of success for personal brands 

That’s why I don’t measure the success of my personal brand (part marketing geek, part hair metal fan, part Seinfeld obsessive) by the number of followers I have. I don’t judge it by how many likes my posts get, or how many people turn up to watch my keynotes. That would be missing the point and taking too much credit for the support I’ve received from others.  

The true measure of success has been the way my personal brand persuaded those companies I’ve worked for to see me differently, seek me out when relevant roles came up and encourage me to bring my full personality and conviction to the jobs that I have. My personal brand has enabled me to be more effective as a professional and more valuable to my employers by simply being myself. It’s these things that matter most. Everything else is built on them. 

Not everyone wants, needs or gets to be famous. However, everyone deserves the opportunity to be, if not rich, then certainly more successful, more satisfied and more secure in themselves. 

That’s the true purpose of personal branding. And it’s not reserved for celebrities.