What is your personal brand and how should you cultivate it?
I was asked to offer my perspective on this topic during a recent technology conference in Austin, Texas.
I started by doing a quick survey of the room. Ninety percent of the audience agreed that having a personal brand was important to their career success, but less than 20% had a specific plan in place to build one. As unscientific as my polling was, it points to a problem that many of us can relate to: When it comes to your own brand “strategy,” there is a disconnect between aspiration and execution.
Branding itself has a long history. The term “brand” originated almost 4,000 years ago in the Indus Valley from the Old Norse word brandr, which literally means “to burn.”
First applied to livestock, branding was meant as an effective way to communicate ownership and rights to property. It since evolved to reflect an identity of work. This includes unique creations of artists, artisans, and (eventually) manufactured goods and services. For businesses, it has become a means of differentiating value and creating positive perceptions that separate you vs. your competition. As the power of branding grew, its value grew as well. Today, close to 50% of a business’ value lies in its brand.
With the rise of social media over the last decade, branding has become more “personal” – the gateway to popularity, fame (or infamy), and money. In this new game, the principle of branding is no longer about burning a print on livestock. It is about creating an impression, an identity, a persona, and a following associated with you – a human.
Personal brands have always existed, but they’ve evolved organically over time, becoming symbolic of a person’s social work, points of view, or career trajectories.
Now, personal brands are being grown in a socially active petri dish of likes and shares – artificially cultivated, honed, and perfected on a real-time basis. An entire industry has spun off of personal branding. People pay self-styled gurus, agencies, and experts large sums of money for methods, best practices, and advice on how to develop and grow their brands.
With so much money and so many reputations at stake, personal branding is a hotly discussed and widely debated topic.
Some argue that a personal brand is essential because it allows you to stand out and effectively communicate your value. People often decide to develop their brand because it is perceived to increase job opportunities and promotions. Ilana Gershon, associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, has proven that this is not the case. She reveals a contrast between what people expect personal branding to do for them and the reality of it. In an interview discussing “Why Job Hunters Don’t Find Work,” Gershon says the reason personal branding doesn’t work is that “being good at [a personal brand] isn’t an indication that the person will be good at the job.”
An alternative to creating a personal brand is to develop a personal voice. A strong advocate for this is Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg. At the 2016-2017 Roanak Memorial View From The Top, Sandberg shares her beliefs that people are too carried away with personal branding. “Colgate has a brand; this bottle of water has a brand” – but not people. Products need to be packaged neatly and completely. We cannot do this with complex human beings.”
Given that the human experience is far too complex to be simply and conveniently put in a can or defined in a box, I tend to favor personal voices over personal brands.
While brands can appear to objectified and fixed, a voice tends to be more visceral and fluid. Brands can be passive, whereas voices are active. Brands leave impressions. Voices create action. Many brands are rooted in history and tradition. Voices spark ideation and shape new perspectives.
So how does one create an authentic, distinctive, and impactful personal voice? I visualize it as the intersection of three circles of a Venn Diagram.
The first is focused on your story. Within this area, you describe all the things that are authentic to you: your personal intrinsic and external values. This is your story – the sum total of your personal experiences and learnings.
The second circle, your identity, involves more of the classical definition of brand – what your unique identity means – what differentiates you from others in the market.
And finally, your value is your service to others and its value as they perceived it.
The intersection of these three points is where you can anchor your personal voice.
Is it possible to have multiple personal voices? The short answer is yes – if your voice’s value serves completely different needs. And, you need a “true north” that ties them together.
In classic marketing, this means the difference between a master brand and a house of brands.
Personal brands aren’t only for the already rich and famous. Social media has democratized and flattened the playing field for sharing and socializing your voice. Anyone with a smartphone and a social media account has the ability to reach every part of the world with their voice in an instant.
But it is the strength of your platform – the novel ideas, the unique points of view, and clarity of message – that resonate and move agendas. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking more is better. However, your motivator for creating a personal voice should not be a soulless chase of likes and followers. It shouldn’t be the flavor of the month, a flash-mob approach that is soon forgotten.
As one of the most well-known people on the planet with a uniquely resonant personal voice, Warren Buffet, says, “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
In an increasingly AI-oriented world, it’s more important than ever to cultivate Human Skills for the Digital Future.