Personal branding – separating good advice from bad

I’ve gotten many requests to speak about personal branding lately as I routinely lecture to university and grad students. As part of my due diligence, I researched the prevailing wisdom on the web and discovered some horribly misleading advice that bears amending. Whether you are a young man or woman venturing out into the world seeking a job, or a person in mid-life looking to define or redefine yourself, here’s a way to separate the myths from the truths.

Bad advice: Personal branding starts with you. False. It doesn’t. It starts with your audience – the very people you hope to influence and with whom you wish to engage. A brand resides in the heart and mind of the beholder, so you must create a personal brand that’s:

  • Credible: your brand must be true to yourself or your audience will sniff it out and reject your brand as disingenuous;
  • Relevant: your brand must mean something important to your audience if they are to engage you at all;
  • Ownable: your brand must differentiate you in a way that your audience perceives you as unique so they will prefer you to others.

(Walter Cronkite: Trustworthy)

Your first step should be conducting an audit of your audience (not you yet). What are they looking for: a trusted partner? a reliable friend? an inspiring resource? Branding is the art and discipline of taking the values that your audience is looking for and imparting those values to a product, service and, yes, yourself. Find out what customers are looking for and then see if you have what it takes to be a brand they will esteem.

Another great resource to find out what qualities and skills you have that can make your brand appealing to others is your friends who know you well enough to be honest with you. (Forget family. Trust me; it’s a Pandora’s box of conflict.) Ask them to profile you using exercises that behavioral psychologists use to make intangibles more concrete and actionable. Ask them these questions, and more importantly why they give the answers that they give.

  • If you were a mode of transportation, what would you be and why?
  • If you were an article of clothing, what would you be and why?

(Oprah: Inspiring)

The answers may surprise you…or not. You will surely get a strong idea of your abilities to gauge your own values to others. And more importantly, you’ll learn what others prize about you: the kinds of qualities and skills that make you uniquely you. (I’m over-simplifying here. There are many different exercises you can do to discover the values your audience holds dear. This is just one example.)

Bad advice: Personal branding is a mystical experience that warrants meditation and anguish in finding the right strategy. Ha! Personal branding is an established discipline. It follows the protocols of branding any type of product or service. It’s like working out at the gym: there’s a right and wrong way to lift weights, do yoga or any type of exercise designed to keep you fit. It’s not mystical at all. There are three areas from which you can build an effective strategy that will guide your choices in creating your own personal brand:

  1. Functional benefits: attributes that you have, such as skills, experience, knowledge, etc.;
  2. Practical benefits: ways that you can impact an audience member’s life on a daily basis, like saving them time, helping them think of ideas, solving problems and so on;
  3. Emotional benefits: ways that you can impact an audience member’s life by building on hopes or taking away concerns, such as instilling confidence, inspiring others, helping people feel reassured, etc.

Make a list of your benefits in each category. Then comes the hardest part: choose the top benefit from each category that you feel represents what your research has revealed to you as being truly values that you own. You can choose only one from each category. Here’s an example for a female doctor who wanted to be a medical TV personality (a field dominated by men):

  1. Functional benefit: Excellent communications skills
  2. Practical benefit: Make health accessible and easy to understand
  3. Emotional benefit: Help people feel heard and cared for in a personal way

Now arrange these three benefits in the order of 2,1,3, and you have what’s called a Brand Commitment: what your brand promises to be and do for your audience. Hence –

I make health accessible and easy to understand because I have excellent communications skills, so people feel heard and cared for in a personal way.

David Bowie (Innovative)

The second part of your strategy—and you only need two parts, it’s that simple—is to frame your Brand Personality: the tone and manner with which you deliver your Brand Commitment. Brand Personality is three-to-five traits that characterize how people should feel before, during and after each encounter with your personal brand. These are derived from your research. For example, if your friends and you agree that you would be a steam locomotive as a mode of transportation because you are dependable, hard working and traditional in nature, then these are key traits for you to focus on. If the article of clothing that best describes you is a sweater because it is warm and cozy (caring) and comes in many styles (versatile), then add these values and your Brand Personality would be Dependable, Hard Working, Traditional, Caring and Versatile.

Bad advice: Putting forth a personal brand is a process of trial and error. Nonsense. If you’ve got a clear strategy, then let that be your guide in all of the choices you make. There are only three ways that you can make choices to bring your personal brand to life:

  1. Choices about how you look
  2. Choices about what you say and how you say it (this includes the written word as well)
  3. Choices about what you do, i.e. how you behave.

The last one is arguably the most important as people will judge your brand more by how you walk the walk than how you talk the talk. What is brand behavior? It’s multifarious: What you buy. How you treat others. What your online presence feels like. What events you host. Where you go on vacation. What your hobbies are. What you study in school. Etc.

To bring your personal brand to life you should ask yourself only two questions about any choice you make:

  • Does it deliver on my Brand Commitment?
  • Does it evoke one or more of my brand personality traits?

Dr. Jennifer Caudle (Caring)

Do your discovery research, build your strategy and let that strategy guide the choices that you make and you’ll be on the right road to create a unique and impactful personal brand. Want proof? Check out that female medical doctor who wanted to become a TV personality. Dr. Jennifer Caudle. ( She’s as gifted at following a personal branding strategy as she is a smart, engaging and inspiring medical TV personality.

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