“What would you like people to remember about you after they've talked to you for 15 minutes?" That's a question I often ask in coaching appointments to gauge students' understanding of their personal brand. Responses generally fall into two categories: a list of degrees and internships or silence. Neither is good.
Whether you realize it or not, you carry a certain brand. Even if you do not consciously think about it, the message is received loud and clear by everyone who comes in contact with you. If you are online, if you are in the world interacting with people, you have a brand. So you may as well make sure it's what you want it to be. Developing a personal brand that brings people and opportunities to you is an efficient way of connecting with like-minded individuals and identifying career possibilities.
“Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room," said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. In Branding Pays: The Five-Step System to Reinvent Your Personal Brand, Karen Kang elaborates and defines personal branding as “your image and reputation" as well as “the act of developing the strategy and actions to guide your brand." Your personal brand, therefore, is what others think about you, and you need to actively engage in shaping that image. Ultimately, the purpose of a focused personal brand is to help you show the value you bring to the table.
Kang relies on cake and icing as a metaphor for your brand: The cake is your expertise and the icing is your personality. To show that you are a well-rounded person, you want to clarify both as you develop your brand. “For professionals, a strong personal brand is the key to influence, opportunities and advancement," Kang writes. “For recent graduates, personal brands can be the difference between getting a job and ending up in the circular file." Having the skills and passion for an industry are not enough; what's more important is how you communicate what you have to potential employers and show them your unique advantage.
“Many people are not able to articulate who they are and the value they bring to any company, organization or audience because they have not done the hard work of defining this for themselves first," says Christy Murray, executive director of the career development office at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Before you even think about strategies to develop and polish your brand, you need to understand what your brand is. Who are you and what do you stand for? Where would you like to go professionally? What challenges have you overcome that have shaped your career path?
Many students rely on their status as students to speak for their abilities. However, if you brand yourself as a student, others will perceive you as such. Yes, if you are in college, technically you are a student, but being a student is not your brand. As you begin your career journey, it's vital that you think about the values, interests and skills that make you who you are and can help you bring value to an employer. Identifying your core values is essential because as Kang points out, these “help you to have meaning in what you do and to 'do the right thing' in your business, career, relationships and life." Who do you want others to see, and is the message received? If not, think of the steps you can take to ensure the brand you want to transmit is what's actually transmitted into the world. “You need to know what you want to be known for," writes Kang. “You need to have a branding goal and strategy."
Even if you can't have model and entrepreneur Tyra Banks teach you a class on personal branding, there are steps you can take to evaluate your brand:
- Search yourself online to see what comes up. “If you can't be found or show up poorly, you may lose an important opportunity," says Kang.
- Ask trusted friends, colleagues, professors and mentors how they describe you as a professional and as a person.
- Set a timer for five minutes and brainstorm on the topic of who you are by jotting down nouns, verbs, adjectives and phrases you want to have associated with you.
- Work with a career counselor.
Be realistic about your brand and know that you cannot be all things to all people. As you go through the steps above, think about the value you bring and what differentiates you from others in the field. Many job seekers believe that if they could only get an internship or a job, they'll show how great they are. But before you can get the internship or the job, you need to show you have potential to bring value. Explore opportunities to get that experience.
Once you have an idea of your personal brand, it's time to take action and solidify that brand, in person and online. “Articulating your brand image will help to keep you on track as you implement your brand in your communications, your wardrobe and how you relate to others," says Kang. At networking events or other professional gatherings, present yourself as the person you want people to remember. Your attire, your handshake, your body language and facial expressions all contribute to strengthening or damaging your image. In addition, be prepared to share the story you want others to hear.
The image you present in person needs to also be reflected online, and your online brand is reinforced through your social media presence. “If you are looking for a job or other opportunities, it is critical that you be found," Kang emphasizes. The goal is not to create multiple accounts and burn out trying to manage them or even worse, failing to manage them. As you think about your brand, consider using platforms that best suit your purpose. For instance, I'm active on LinkedIn. The professional platform allows me to connect and engage with other professionals as well as share resources and insights with my students.
Another avenue is to start your own blog. “Blogging can be an excellent platform for your unique point of view or your thought leadership," says Kang. “Blogs can communicate your big ideas, your core values and your personality." If you don't have the time or content to maintain your own blog, consider publishing on LinkedIn or on a school platform. An article published on LinkedIn is attached to your profile, unlike the information you share in your feed, which is eventually replaced by new information. Remember to think before you comment, share or publish, know the message others will receive and how it aligns with your brand.
Lastly, remember that consistency is key. Whether on social media, your resume, in your writing and activities or in what you share and follow, people need to see a consistent theme. As a rule of thumb, you want 90 percent of your content to be related to your field of interest. “Just like any consumer product, you must concisely and consistently market your brand to convince your consumers to trust and buy-in to what you represent," Murray emphasizes. “People don't trust any brand – personal or product – that claim one thing and don't follow through."
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