Goldfish Swimming

Decades ago, people didn’t talk about personal branding. If you wanted to think about how you could advance in your career back then, you focused on the benefits that you could provide to your company. These days, though, focusing on what you can do for the company won’t get you ahead. Instead, you need to build a personal brand. You need to package yourself so that you can take advantage of each and every opportunity that comes your way.

The Personal Branding Mindset

The need for personal branding grew out of the major changes in how most people see their careers proceeding over the years. When a person could expect to spend his or her entire career working for just one company, the easiest route to career advancement was proving one’s value to the company. But with the average employee moving between jobs — and even careers — on a regular basis now, the idea of developing a personal brand to smooth the transition between jobs and projects makes sense.

The idea of personal branding remains relatively new. It’s likely that the first mention of the term was in a 1997 article, “The Brand Called You,” that Tom Peters wrote for Fast Company. That article introduced the novel concept that an individual can use the similar branding techniques that big businesses rely on to get ahead.

There remain some key differences between professional branding and the personal variety, of course. When you’re working on developing and managing your personal brand, you don’t have the resources of a large company — but you also have extremely different goals and strategies. A personal brand doesn’t need to sell a certain number of units to offer a significant ROI, nor does it need expensive advertising to accomplish goals.

Why Brand Yourself?

You may ask yourself why you need a brand if you aren’t a big business. If you work for another company, after all, you don’t have anything you’re looking to sell, right? The fact of the matter is, though, that you do have something you want to sell: yourself. You need to sell yourself to your manager if you want a promotion. You have to sell yourself to prospective employers when you’re looking for a new job. And if you have any interest in striking out on your own, from consulting to entrepreneurship, you’ll need to have a personal brand to rely on while you promote your new venture.

A personal brand makes it easier for people to find you, as well as recognize your talents. The first step any prospective employer takes when he receives the name of a new candidate these days is to run a search on Google. A personal brand, among other things, guarantees that whatever that recruiter finds on Google will be helpful. At a bare minimum, taking the time build a solid personal brand guarantees that you will be known for your skill and knowledge in your field — rather than whatever you slapped up on a Facebook profile and forgot about. It’s just a question of packaging yourself in such a way as to help you be successful.

The Elements of a Brand

Several elements go into building a successful personal brand. One of the most important questions you ask yourself when setting out to build your brand — or even as you manage it through career changes and other opportunities — is: “what do you stand for?” The answer to this question is your value proposition, a statement that makes it clear up front why a company would want to hire you or keep you. Value isn’t always enough, of course, making differentiation the second key element of your personal brand. What makes you different from all the other folks out there with similar value propositions? If you have solid value proposition and differentiation, all you need is a little marketability — something to make you compelling — to guarantee that you’ll see a return on your personal brand.

As you consider the three major parts of your personal brand, you should keep in mind the attributes that move a personal brand from lackluster to impressive. Those attributes sound relatively simple — image, experience, trust, and relationship — but can take years to perfect.

Creating Your Personal Brand

The process of building a personal brand does not take place over night. The first step anyone interested in creating a personal brand must start with is collecting information. You’ll need to bring together information about your past achievements, lay out what you want your personal brand to do for you, and even gather data from other people. While you may have an idea of what brand will fit you closely, gathering as much information as possible will help you get a clearer picture. If you’re unsure of where your strengths lie, you may find that discussions with supervisors and others who see you work — as can tools meant to help you discover your strengths, such Gallup’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment system.

Organizing the information you bring together for developing your personal brand is also crucial. You can end up with pages of data, and not realize that you’re missing a useful piece of information. A good starting point for not only bringing order to the information that will help you create your personal brand as well as maintain it is the Career Vault, which allows you to essentially fill out an inventory of your core competencies, expertise, demonstrated abilities, experiences, and even your existing level of recognition.

Once you have all of your information in place, you have the data that you need to set out your value proposition, as well as your differentiation and marketability clearly. You can explore how your talents support your value, often finding new opportunities for both differentiation and marketability within the information you’ve collected.

If you find yourself struggling with any part of the personal branding process, there are professionals you can turn to for help. We’ve previously listed “50 Personal Branding Consultants Worth Working With,” as well as developed a matrix to help you find the right personal branding consultant for you.

Moving Beyond the Basics

Once you’re clear on what your personal brand is, it’s time to start getting your brand out there. Depending on your particular field, the exact approach can differ: the techniques that can help you build a brand in the world of accounting, for instance, may not provide you with the same quality of connections within engineering fields. No matter what field you work in, however, you’ll need to take steps to grow your brand both online and off — as well as protect it.

One especially important consideration is putting your information online. Today, having a solid web presence is an absolute must for your personal brand. That doesn’t just mean having a website of your own: you need to be involved in networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. But just how much information you share through such sites, as well as whom you share it with, can be an issue. It’s important to be aware of the affects of sharing personal information, as well as the steps you can take to protect your information on social networking sites. Each site has its own policies and tools. Despite the worries, however, social networking sites and other online tools can be extremely effective in helping you build your brand. There are a few sites that are worth starting with — these are just a few options and, once you’re comfortable with them, it’s worth exploring options on your own:

Beyond online tools, it’s worth making sure that you have a few offline options in your personal branding arsenal. Even something as simple as having the right business card can make a world of difference in your personal branding options. You’ll want to go beyond just business cards, as well: a solid portfolio, resume, and cover letter are all elements of an overall personal brand strategy.

Just as you build your brand, it’s important to know what others are saying about you — and by extension, your brand. These tools can give you an idea of where your name is popping up:

Personal Branding Isn’t Perfect

Despite being a very effective tool, personal branding does have drawbacks. Once you establish a solid personal brand, it can be difficult to move into a new field in the future: while Coca-Cola can spin off a new company if it wants to start selling orange juice, you’ll be in a position where people know you for a certain skillset and value proposition, even though you may have moved on to a new field. You can effectively pigeonhole yourself into one field if you have an especially effective personal brand.

Leo Babauta wrote up his concerns with personal branding earlier this year that were right on the money: he’s become very well-known as a blogger, primarily on productivity topics, and if he wanted to make the switch to writing fiction, he’d have a big job ahead of him. Babauta points out that other people have been able to cross those sorts of barriers, but they’ve been pretty few and far between.

In short, it’s important to build a personal brand that you’ll be comfortable with for a long time. Building in some flexibility in your personal brand can be difficult but worthwhile: arranging for some help, like bringing in a consultant, can be especially important if you’re not sure how long you intend to stay in your current field.

Image credit: lisegagne / iStockphoto