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Blue Sky Resumes is a small team of professional writers and job search experts. We offer one-of-a-kind resumes, smart career advice and fantastic customer service. This is our blog.


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Should You Have a Personal Brand?


personal brandIf you’ve read anything about job search in the last few years, you have surely come across the term ‘personal branding’ and some of you may even have worked with a coach to develop your own personal brand.

I’ve watched the trend develop and grow over the last few years as a result of some good marketing and PR, but I’ve remained uncomfortable with the idea and have not been able to recommend it to my clients, even though I think there are some talented and wonderful people working as personal branding coaches.

For a while I wasn’t sure how I felt and even flirted with the concept – after all, providing coaching on developing a personal brand would be a great way to increase revenue. But in the end I just couldn’t do it and I want to explain why, so that you can decide for yourself how you feel.

Do You Have a Personal Brand? Should You?

I have a couple of issues with the concept, which I’ll explain, and then I’d like to talk about my preferred alternative.

1) I don’t think the term is used correctly.

Marketers have many different definitions of ‘brand’ but Seth Godin’s is a nice clean description:

What’s a brand?

I think it is the product of two things:

[Prediction of what to expect] times [emotional power of that expectation].

If I encounter a brand and I don’t know what it means or does, it has zero power. If I have an expectation of what an organization will do for me, but I don’t care about that, no power.

Therefore, if your name doesn’t conjure up expectation and an emotional response outside of your immediate circle, you don’t have a brand.

Geoff Livingstone of Buzz Bin put this brilliantly in his post “Top 10 Ways to Determine If You Actually Have a Personal Brand” so I won’t belabor the point – I’ll just encourage you to click the link and read what he had to say.

2) I think that there is a real danger when we encourage people to focus on developing a personal brand. Let me give you an example.

Gretchen Glasscock writes:

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlitt Packard and one of the most visible women in business, knew style was critical. When asked by a young girl how to dress, she declared, “expensive and decisively.” Fiorina dressed, looked, talked, and acted like a leader.

Right – but this is a real problem. Carly Fiorino was a disaster as a CEO. She drove HP into the ground. More recently she turned her talents to being a disaster as a political surrogate by saying, on national TV, that John McCain (her chosen candidate) wasn’t capable of running a company. Hey, she should know!

So is it a good thing that she managed to convey an image of strong leadership, even though she didn’t have the ability to back it up? I don’t think that’s something to be celebrated or copied. I think that if Fiorino had added real value, people might still think of her as the strong and successful leader she aspired to be.

The essence of the problem

For me, there is something a little self-centered about consciously creating and communicating a “brand.” It’s focused on Me, not You (and I would argue that Fiorino shows it may also not be based on reality). As ‘Eyecube’ writes:

… the inward-looking focus on branding yourself is no longer the best way to serve yourself […] the Seth Godins and Chris Brogans have created very strong personal brands by creating real value for thousands of people every day. Their personal brands are focused on helping others, not on promoting themselves.

I don’t think it’s good for the world for all of us to be focused inward. And in the long-term I don’t think it works in terms of career development.

So if not Personal Brand, what?

Instead of worrying about creating and communicating a personal brand, I think we should be focused on adding value – to our families, to our community, to our employers, or to our audience. Here’s an example.

Within the world of political polling, Nate Silver is an overnight sensation. A baseball statistician, he didn’t turn his attention to writing about politics until March 2007 when he started a website to predict primary results. He devised his own methodology and when he turned out to be more accurate than well-respected polling outfits, his site traffic exploded and the media came calling. Towards the end of the general election, you couldn’t turn on a political talk show without seeing Nate. There is no doubt that he now has a strong personal brand – he just signed a $700K book deal – but it wasn’t built on spending hours defining who he is and then putting that out into the world. It was built on adding real value to the political community.

This to me is how true personal brands are created. And by the way, if you truly have a personal brand, other people might even be able to describe it better than you (because you were too busy adding value to sit down and think about it).

The Value of a Value Proposition

All of this is not to say that you shouldn’t communicate what makes you special. As a job seeker, that’s an important part of your marketing. And since we’ve already established that most of us don’t have the luxury of being a true brand (instantly recognizable and creating an emotional response), we have to communicate who we are and what makes us special.

But rather than worrying about a personal brand, I encourage you to focus on your value proposition – meaning how do you add value? This will be important when you write a resume or – if you are a consultant – when you draft your marketing materials. You need to be able to quickly and clearly describe your value to others so that they know whether they should hire you.

For me, the beauty of thinking about marketing yourself in this way is that it is outward facing (how do I add value to the world?) rather than inward facing (what’s fabulous about me?)

I know that many personal brand coaches will feel I have misunderstood. They will say that they encourage clients to develop a personal brand built on a foundation of value-added, and I believe them. But most of the people who hear about the concept will never spend thousands of dollars on a coach. They will simply read an article or a book and then try putting it into practice, often with disastrous results.

In the end, I think that all of us should strive to make a real difference like Nate Silver. If we put our energies into that, the personal brand stuff will take care of itself. Maybe we’ll never have a record contract or a $700K book deal, but we might well become known in our field so that recruiters are constantly calling with opportunities.

What about you? What do you think?

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About the Author

Louise Fletcher

Louise co-founded Blue Sky in 2002 after a career as an HR executive. Her industry experience includes music, video games, fashion and advertising. She lived and worked in the US for many years, but moved back to her native UK in 2012, where she now lives in the Yorkshire countryside. In addition to her full-time role with Blue Sky, she's a professional artist, so you can imagine why she couldn't answer the 'what do you do with your free time' question! Contact Louise by email.

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8 comments on “Should You Have a Personal Brand?”

  1. I feel EXACTLY like you do. I seriously could not have written this better myself. 🙂

    I have had several clients come to me after talking to other resume writers and career coaches that offer branding as part of their services. When I send them back a fee quote, they always act baffled that I do not offer branding.

    Great article!

  2. If personal branding were about ‘creating’ an image, it would be self-centered. But genuine brands are not created; they are unearthed. True branding is based in authenticity – we learned from Milli Vanilli that you can’t get away with creating an image for very long. Your brand is held in the hearts and minds of those around you. So you DO have a brand. The question is not ‘should you have a personal brand’ it is ‘ Is your brand working for you?’ Clients use our personal branding assessment, 360Reach, and learn that they do have a brand – and for many people this is validating, for others, it is a call-to-action.

    Going through the personal branding process helps you understand who you are, what you want and what value you can provide to others. Focusing on your personal brand is critical because it keeps you on track. When you know what your unique promise of value is, you integrate it into everything you do – adding value to those around you while enhancing your own visibility.

    In the new world of work, ‘me-too’ is not going to cut it. Knowing what is authentic to you, differentiating from your peers and relevant and compelling to your target audience is critical. That’s what personal branding is all about. In working with thousands of people around the world on their brands over the past 8 years, I have seen how powerful personal branding is.

  3. Louise says:

    Jennifer, Nice to “meet” you and nice to know I’m not alone. I feel like the odd one out at times.

    William, thanks for stopping by. I do understand what you’re saying and as I said in my post, I do believe there are good personal branding coaches and I do believe they can add value for the right person – but I also think most people can’t or won’t pay to go through that process. They will just try and figure it out from books, articles and blogs and they will get it wrong.

    And even for those who do work with a good coach (and I know many of those people – they’re great!) I see potential for a distinct downside to the concept of personal branding in that, at a time when we need to be community-focused, we may become too insular and focused on our own needs.

    I also agree that ‘me too’ doesn’t work but clarifying your unique value proposition ensures that you’re not saying ‘me too’ and helps you articulate what makes you different and compelling to your target audience. While I realize we’re all different, for me, the outward-focused value proposition is more interesting and more valuable than the ‘me-centered’ focus of personal branding.

    I truly appreciate your comments however and welcome the discussion!

  4. Hi Louise. Reach’s definition of personal brand is “unique promise of value.” It is the **value** that you consistently bring to your target audience, and it’s unique because it separates you from your peers and competitors. It’s your reputation. The communications that are developed in the branding process should be benefit-oriented (whether you call it a value proposition or a personal brand, we are probably getting at the same thing).

    I was a career coach and resume writer for about five years before discovering personal branding five years ago. The work that I do with my clients now is far more valuable to them incorporating the Reach personal branding methodology (that I now teach to other coaches/consultants). As William explained, we don’t “create a brand” for someone either. The process helps my clients to think much bigger about the legacy that they want to leave. My clients have some incredibly admirable goals (helping to solve the energy crisis; building sustainable, affordable housing; improving the healthcare system; serving on education boards, etc.) that make them amazing citizens of the world and not at all insular. Personal branding is not about becoming famous, it’s about being known to the people you need to reach in order to achieve your personal and professional goals. We also deliver personal branding programs with Fortune 100 clients. They certainly wouldn’t be investing in these programs if it were about focusing on the employee’s needs rather than increasing their value to their teams, clients and the company at large.

    I agree that there is misinformation around the subject of personal branding and there are some personal branding consultants that may not be worth any investment — just like there are many unqualified resume writers and horrendous resume samples.

    I respectfully disagree with what you wrote about someone needing to hire an expensive branding coach to be able to effectively implement what they learn from personal branding books, seminars, etc. This is like saying a layperson couldn’t write an effective resume after reading a great how-to book like Resume Magic. Likely the resume or branding effort will be much better with well-qualified professional help. But, I’d give people quite a bit of credit. I’ve seen what readers of Career Distinction have been able to do to build their personal brands and applaud them for it.

    1. Louise says:

      Kirsten, thanks for stopping by.

      I think that you are viewing ‘personal branding’ purely in terms of your programs, books etc. That’s understandable, but 2 of the 3 blogs I linked to are written by web and social media experts and their definition and understanding of building a personal brand has nothing to do with career coaches or formal programs. They are talking about the reality of the way so many of their peers have gone about what they think of as brand-building. (The fact that so many of these people have veered off course as a result isn’t debatable. I see it myself all the time).

      Many of my clients and readers inhabit that world, so their understanding likewise has nothing to do with your program. I honestly don’t know much about the Reach program and nothing about my post was addressed to it or written about it. For me this discussion is much broader than that.

  5. Danny Iny says:

    Louise, I completely agree with all of your arguments, just not completely with your conclusion. I think (as some readers have already commented) a distinction needs to be made between a brand that is based on an experience of value, and a brand that’s just marketing fluff, selling air.

    I like the Seth Godin definition of a brand… which can also just be called a reputation, right? If you have a good reputation, that’s your brand. In which case your brand is valuable. On the other hand, if you have a bad reputation, that’s your brand too – doesn’t matter if you dress it up in fancy clothing.

    A rose by any other name still smells nice, or so the saying goes. “Personal Branding” is a much overused term for creating a good reputation and communicating it to others.

  6. Louise says:

    I think words matter though – hence my problem with this. If we take the Seth Godin definition of a brand, most people don’t have one. Seth has one. Bruce Springsteen has one. Simon Cowell has one. And Nate Silver has one.

    But most people don’t. I agree with Geoff Livingstone. You know you have a personal brand when recruiters won’t stop calling you and journalists want your opinion on every major story in your field.

    If we mean value proposition, let’s say value proposition. Words matter – they carry meaning far beyond what any one person may have intended, and they spur actions far beyond what any one person may think is advisable.

    Of course, this is simply my preference, but having thought about it for a year or two, I finally decided to put into words what I have long felt.

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