Lauryn Hill sang it best: “everything is everything” and it is the universal truth about the universe. While we won’t be getting into how the coronavirus is just like an idea, or how public transit mimics the cardiovascular system, there are two things that have come into clear overlap in today’s professional world: you and your brand. And while they are inseparable, they are not necessarily the same thing.
Applying the rules of branding to yourself can help you succeed in today’s brand-obsessed world. And once you start thinking about yourself as a brand, you can start to make decisions in your life based not on the limitations of yourself, but on the possibilities of what you want your brand to be.
The basis of this concept is rooted in one of the best business books I’ve ever read called You, Inc. It encourages people to think of their professional careers not as a slave beholden to bosses and boards in exchange for money but as their own small business. Like a small business, you should make partnerships from which you earn profit. When you work for a company, it must give you back at least what you put in (ideally give you back more, but you know…). When you consider your contract as a partnership, it completely changes the way that you approach it.
On the most basic level, instead of identifying as an employee, you identify as a partner. This alters the position from which you negotiate. It puts you on a similar level to the organization as a whole. You are no longer just a cog being forced to turn in circles but a voluntary contributor to the mission of the organization and being paid for your services.
When you start to think about yourself as a business, you think about growth strategies. You think about the skills that your business needs to incorporate in order to attain bigger and better-paying partnerships. And once you’ve attained those skills, in the form of training and development, you need to start thinking about how you market your small business.
This is when you become a brand.
To brand, or not to brand
We spend so much of our time working that we can afford very little time to think about how to talk about what we do. Capitalism and globalization are fueling a race for specialization that Adam Smith noted 300 years ago and that will only become more firmly entrenched in reality until all of the robots take our jobs. I’ve seen extremely capable people stumble over talking about what they do and what they’ve done, as if they can’t equate the complexities of their particular responsibilities into common language. They either talk like an expert or dumb things down too much. Either way, the message is lost.
Knowing how to sell yourself, your abilities, and your desires (and how those three intertwine) is to turn yourself into a brand.
A brand is the intangible layer of information that englobes a product. It is the cumulation of recognition, association, and perception. You can apply these basic principles of branding to yourself.
Recognition and association are two dimensions of the same concept. Before people know you they need to know about you. Brands do this by associating themselves with a brand universe, things – like colors and symbols – that are points of orientation to help us recognize the brand. They also associate themselves with the content they make. The content is often the first contact with someone new, so people form the foundations of their perception on the association with the content they experience. If you are recognized in the right way thanks to how you associate, people have a positive perception of that brand.
Now on to you. You don’t have the issue of having to promote yourself to a mass audience. You need to focus on the ways that you can be recognized. Let’s look at it step by step. First, are you already recognizable? If so, how? Are you that guy that always complains in meetings? Are you the nice one who will always stay late to help a co-worker? Are you that girl who blacked out at the Holiday party? In the immediate professional sense, people will already have things they associate you with because that’s how our brains work. These things that may or may not have nothing to do with your professional abilities. “Mary with the big eyes.” “Martin who is the son of the VP.”
Your branding exercise probably does not start with a clean slate. You’ve already made impressions on the people that you work with, and it’s the place where you need to start.
We should divide the idea of self-branding into two domains. The first is within the context of your current job situation. The other is when you are looking to find something new or raise your profile in an industry and not just a company. It is important to separate because they are wildly different.
As a worker in a company, no matter what the size or what you do, you are in B2B. You (just you) have a limited set of clients (in many cases, one, your employer) that you work with, and you need to make the most of that relationship. You need to work within the confines of your scope of work and upsell additional services (get promoted) if you want to earn more.
This is how you should think about your career. All too often a career is a series of opportunities that have little coherency. Sure, there are a lot of people that don’t know what they want out of life and so they hop from opportunity to opportunity (this is how I built a lot of my career) but you can start to truly control the trajectory of your career if you think about it as a brand.
First, you have to complete a market survey. What does the market want that I can provide? Your market, i.e. your team and hierarchy, has certain needs. You can associate yourself with solutions to those needs. And those needs are completely different between businesses and even teams. One situation might call for a tight-lipped loyalist who knows when to take detailed notes. One might require a lively federator who can rally the troops and keep projects on track.
Then the question becomes: how well do you fit naturally with that need? If you are not lively by nature, it is not a good idea to create a sort of fakeness to try and be something that you are not. Getting out of our shells is important but humans are experts at spotting artificial personalities.
The good news is that you can create a marketing plan to build your brand equity when you know what the market needs. Then it becomes a question of promotion. In your current job situation you don’t buy media to show how awesome you are, but you do need a visibility plan.
A visibility plan in this context is essentially a calendar that you build of key moments when you will have an audience with people across your organization. This could be presentations with senior management or corporate events. When you have these moments, you need to think about what you want to transmit. You build up recognition through repetition.
Like brands, you have associations that you can choose from. We associate every morning when we get dressed. Your choice of apparel is a way of creating recognition. I always wear colorful sneakers whenever I do an event. People have come up to me years later and said “you were that guy who talked at that event who had the orange Converses!” They don’t remember the name of the event of what I talked about but they remember the shoes.
I cannot overstate the importance of visual recognition, especially when your brand is unknown. I used to film tons of interviews for Whyd, the music startup I worked for when I first moved to Paris. I had worn a bowtie in the introductory video for Whyd, and so for every subsequent video, there was a bowtie. It became a sort of code because it easier to remember than Whyd (which did suffer from a difficult branding situation). So for the people that I reached out to in order to build our social network, they started with the bowtie.
Of course I wanted to associate our brand with more than a bowtie (maybe we should’ve simply sold bowties). But recognition takes time because you can only be associated with a few things at a time. People don’t keep libraries of additional information about everything they know. Eventually, recurring contact brought these people into our universe.
To combine these two thoughts: you need to know what you want to convey and when you are going to do it. Each contact is an opportunity to enrich your associations in order to become more recognizable.
It’s almost mathematic. It’s about simplifying exchanges through association:
- MANANGER: Yes and you know that Pablo really helped us with this.
- DIRECTOR: Ah yes, Pablo… Pablo… ?
- MANAGER: Pablo who always wears a leather jacket.
- DIRECTOR: Ah, Pablo.
This is the type of exchange that shows that you suffer from a lack of recognition because you are only associated with something visual. The goal is to get your immediate circle to associate you with the positionning you want to take.
- MANAGER: Yes, and you know that Pablo really helped us with this.
- DIRECTOR: Ah yes, Pablo… Pablo… ?
- MANAGER: You remember, Pablo who negotiated that partner deal for us?
- DIRECTOR: Oh yeah, Pablo!
The second stage is expanding the recognition. The people who know you will start to qualify you and that message will get picked up further out from your immediate circle.
- MANAGER: Yes, and you know that Pablo really helped us with this.
- DIRECTOR: Yeah, Pablo the negotiator!
This example shows exactly how a perception is formed. The conversation could have been the same except in a negative context. Positive information reinforces itself, negative information does too (and often much faster).
- MANAGER: You know, Pablo did not help at all with this project.
- DIRECTOR: Pablo the slacker!
And this example really shows how intangible a brand is. Each human level that comes between information and its source the more simplified it becomes. And you cannot ignore the fact that you are already a brand.
B2C – or raising your profile outside of your company
Building notoriety among an industry is more B2C in the sense that you cast a wide net and see what gets dredged up. The concepts of this branding methodology remain. You associate yourself with content, or a level of authority about a certain area. People recognize you based on your associations. If the people that recognize you like your associations, you will be perceived positively.
It is much, much easier to control how you are perceived in this wider context because no one knows about you, so the challenge goes from managing perception to making noise.
Fortunately for you, the professional world is full of needs. People are constantly jostling to up their brands and they rely on connections, experience, and content to do that. You can provide both connections and content by sharing who and what you know. The more that you self-promote in a responsible (and not braggy) way, the better you will be perceived.
If you are focused on breaking into a particular industry, then the connections and content should focus on that industry. It’s too easy to water your attention down. Do not try to become the next global business guru. Like any nascent brand you have to find a niche and figure out how to fully exploit it before branching out.
Rely on brand codes, find points of association that differentiate you from the masses of people in the workforce. Create content that people want to consume. Connect with targeted people who could benefit from your network and know-how.
Go forth and build your brand!
How have you tried to work on your personal brand? Anything that has worked or has failed? I’d love to hear your experiences!