Jun 8, 2015
In a single name or image, a memorable brand can evoke consumer loyalty, guarantees of quality, and a sense of product or service familiarity with little to no effort. While our everyday exposure to hundreds of brands usually involves multinational corporations of immense scale, it's important to know that creating a personal brand can be a hugely effective and useful tool for your own career and reputation!
Many personal brands are assembled through carefully planned and orchestrated actions, one step at a time. Others are pieced together through flexible improvisation to reach a goal on the horizon. Like our industry, full of coders, designers, planners, builders, sellers, and more, the variety of approaches and benefits to the process can be dizzying. With so many options and potential pitfalls, how do we figure out what works best? Can we be guaranteed that even these fail-safe techniques will work in our particular case?
On the Shoulders of Giants
In the words of personal branding guru Chris Bogan, "A personal brand gives you the ability to stand out in a sea of similar products. In essence, you're marketing yourself as something different from the rest of the pack". If we start by looking at some of the most successful personal brands out there, it becomes easier to identify the important pieces and patterns. These can then be applied to others in our own industry, and eventually your own brand! Hands down, the shining example of a personal brand success was the campaign efforts of the current President of the United States, Barack Obama.
In an article for the Journal of Business Strategy, Building a Personal Brand Through Social Networking, Lisa Harris and Alan Rae identify a wide range of modern tools that can (and should) be used to help build a personal brand. President Obama's strategy hit on many of the essentials for a politician, including in-person networking, a personality-voiced blog, online social networking, and things like logos, badges, pins, cards, etc., which all fall under 'social objects'. The success of the brand as a stand-alone process was led by two elements: the quality of the images and objects involved, and the multimedia accessibility of the brand. With an admittedly larger-than-average set of resources to begin with, President Obama's personal brand could be guaranteed to leverage high quality designers and product makers. In this particular example, we can largely throw out those outlier advantages and focus on the things that each and every one of us can reasonably use ourselves.
First and foremost, the brand was acutely focused. It represented the person "Barack Obama", and particularly, it focused on "Barack Obama, the Presidential Candidate". When building a personal brand, you want to build to a particular end. Like a human-based search engine optimization scheme, just throwing every random interest you have into your "brand" will do you very little good. While a growing and maturing brand will likely incorporate a degree of randomness (because who isn't a little random on occasion?), it should always be a bonus detail, rather than part of your core, established message. Second, the brand was incredibly accessible. While our intended audiences probably aren't quite as diverse as the average presidential campaign audience, the technique and benefits are just as crucial to our personal brands. If the campaign had sequestered itself to just a particularly quirky and perfect blog, or only reached out through in-person political rallies and social events, a large swath of those people who saw the brand would lack any interest at all. Worse, many people would never even have the brand appear on their social or professional radars. Striving to make his brand accessible through physical, digital, social, and political methods allowed President Obama to reach and influence an exponentially larger audience than his message alone would have.
It Comes With the Territory
While many people who are genuinely spectacular at social branding move towards coaching and consulting in the field professionally, that doesn't mean we're without amazing examples of personal branding specific to the web industry. A case in point is the personal brand work done by Rebecca Garcia . A young tech evangelist with a high profile in the pro-coding social movement, Rebecca uses some of the same tools as President Obama, and many that cater to the web industry in particular.
The universal elements Rebecca's brand showcases are a big focus on social media, an active topic-based blog, and speaking / attending conferences and events that are important to large segments of the web industry. With these as a universally accessible base, we can consider the web oriented additional brand elements that help set Rebecca apart:
- A professional track record in development positions and connections that validate her skills.
- Prominent roles in workshops dedicated to teaching others the technical skills of working in the web industry.
- Ongoing freelance services to connect with even more clients and opportunities.
- Resources and community contributions that better everyone.
Unlike the President, whose personal brand goal was to represent a singular leader, Rebecca's brand relies on the web-centric role of being a valuable member of the community. While she may lead a particular speaking event or conference, the overall context is that she is still working and contributing on the front lines of our industry. By continuing to work both within a large team at Squarespace and as a freelancer, she is able to be both knowledgeable of the actual challenges faced by other web professionals and also continue to spread her brand to other potential clients or partners outside our industry.
Another large difference is that Rebecca, and many professionals with a personal brand, don't have the option or ability to throw out a logo or trademark phrase and let it carry itself without effort. An individual will never have the same clout as Coca-Cola, no matter how well designed and orchestrated their personal brand is. This isn't to say that things like cohesive visual branding and design should go out the window, but rather that we need to consider it as a smaller part of the bigger personal equation.
The greatest advantage to building your personal brand over a corporate brand is that you already have a scaffolding in place: yourself! I can never accidentally bump into THE Mickey Mouse while getting a cup of coffee. There is no Mrs. Starbucks to chat idly with while waiting for a mutual flight. By their nature, personal brands are built around our own personalities, beliefs, and actions. If you find yourself regularly checking your own opinions with "would my brand do or say this?", you might want to consider the brand and message you are actively portraying. Shaping your brand in such a way that it both represents and sells you as a person as well as professional should always be your goal.
Leverage this goal as you build your personal brand. Unlike a corporate or product brand, you aren't starting from thin air. While your personal brand details and ultimate goals may change or evolve over time, you can start building right here and now. When I first began doing front end web development, I wandered from local business to local business, offering my freelance services for little to nothing. My brand at that point was one of a tech-savvy young person who loved his community and wanted to give back while he learned something new. After the first project or two, I made a website for myself and created the first of many visual brands I would use over the years. I ordered some cheaply made business cards designed to match that portfolio. I handed out probably ten, with the other four hundred and ninety sitting in the back of a closet somewhere, just waiting to make me cringe with nostalgia next time I move.
A few more projects meant my confidence in my skills was growing, and I started a blog on my portfolio. It was filled with many ideas, some incredibly wrong or half formed, but all meaning well. Even if I wasn't on the cutting edge of web technology, my blog represented me and the way I thought to anybody who wanted to read it. Potential clients, fellow developers, family and friends alike were able to access my personal brand from a human angle, even if I was neck deep in code or writing a business contract while they read my latest post. I hadn't started out with a universal product vision for my brand, nor did I have a fraction of the resources of a presidential campaign.
At Your Own Pace
What started out as a door-to-door sales pitch has, over time, added those valuable tools of social objects, blogs, networking events, community contributions, and so much more. A personal brand that reflects you and your goals, at this very moment, is the best tool you can have. I've encountered personal brands that artificially inflated themselves through money or tenuous name-dropping, and the only things I remember them for are their incredibly unnatural impressions. Similarly, there is nothing more forgettable than a personal brand that over-extends itself onto a hundred different platforms and tools, and never gives any attention to any of them. The sense of ghost-town dereliction wipes out any sense of professionalism the person otherwise had.
If you're also starting from square one, or just want a fresh start on your personal brand, here's what you want to keep in mind:
- Figure out what your goal is, and how turning your existing habits and skills into a recognizable personal brand can help reach that goal.
- Don't overreach. If you don't already post regular blog posts, don't assume you'll be able to blog, begin multiple social media accounts, and start attending networking events all at once without breaking a sweat.
Know Your Audience
- While you want to reach anyone and everyone possible, it's usually best to focus on at least one demographic. Looking for an office job? Focus on media and messages that are accessible and relevant to professional audiences. Championing a local technology cause? Add some personality and material that calls people to be involved.
- Focus on media that reaches your audience. LinkedIn, YouTube videos, and conference speaking are all very viable tools, but often intended for very different audiences.
Know Your Brand
- Once your personal brand begins to grow, look for opportunities that open up. Go outside your comfort zone, especially if it's a chance specifically because of the work you've already put into your brand.
- Reach out for feedback and involvement from some members of your audience. While it can sometimes feel like a personal brand involves a lot of shouting out into the void without direct response, this is also a sure-fire way to lose the connection and social ties that carried your brand forward to this point.
Growing your personal brand in tandem with your actual skills and confidence will ensure that you are genuinely representing yourself to the world. Putting that best foot forward will be to your advantage in transforming any challenges you encounter to great new opportunities to incorporate into your brand.