Personal Branding is Not a Pick-Up Line

Hey baby, what’s your personal brand?

When someone asks us about our personal branding it can feel as off-putting as a pick-up line.   Personal branding gets mentioned by influencers, our professional network, and possibly in our workplaces.  We are expected to express our personal brand in a way that helps people to get to know us better and what makes us unique.  There’s the assumption that we understand what personal branding means and that we know how to articulate our own personal brand.  If you are not entirely sure what personal branding means you are not alone.

With this post I offer a working but solid definition of personal branding:   A personal brand is a living system of authentic assets that can be cultivated to help you create value for others.

Personal branding reaches beyond a LinkedIn profile, a style of dress, or your office nickname.  The way a brand name is an intangible yet highly valuable asset to a company, your personal brand is an intangible yet highly valuable asset to you as a career focused man or woman.

Based on my experience as a brand director, branding consultant, and modern leadership coach, seeing personal branding as cultivating a living system of authentic assets to help you create value for others seems to fit.  I invite you, the reader, to contribute your thoughts on this definition as I share the thinking behind it.

“Authentic assets” is the “personal” component of personal branding.

If I were to describe to someone my personal brand, I might say: “I am known for giving shape, meaning, and words to intangible concepts.” This quality helped me succeed at brand innovation and at understanding millennial culture. I spent much of my youth doing creative writing and reading stories, so this quality is authentic to me and I use it with relative ease.

I might also describe my personal brand as being known for presenting a fresh point of view on a common topic.   There’s evidence as to why I’m able to do this:

  • Fancy personality tests have confirmed that I have an innate curiosity and interest in the world around me and that I approach life with zest, enthusiasm, and energy.
  • I’m an African-American woman and I tend to see the world a little differently than mainstream culture.
  • I’m the overachiever/perfectionist type so I tend to be thoughtful about a lot of things. Yes, I do think too much at times too.

This post on personal branding is an illustration of how I give a different spin to something we’ve all heard about.

How did I come up with all of this? I have a grasp on my personal brand because I know branding and I know myself. Now getting to such an understanding of myself was not so easy. Friedrich Nietzsche said,

“One’s own self is well hidden from one’s own self: Of all mines of treasure, one’s own is the last to be dug up.”

Understanding my personal strengths and qualities involved a lot of self-awareness work and I did not do it all alone. A good coach, a caring boss, honest friends, or an involved mentor are all examples of people who can help you better understand the “personal” part of personal branding, which is what will make your personal brand authentically you and not a carbon copy of someone else.

“A living system” is the “branding” component of personal branding.

Branding as a term requires more than an explanation, but a reboot in thinking. Branding and marketing are often used interchangeably but there is a difference between them. A LinkedIn profile, for example, is personal marketing. The thinking and positioning that is required in order to write a compelling LinkedIn profile, is the work of personal branding.

A historical view on branding

Originally, branding was the act of marking skin with a fiery iron as identification of owned property. Animals, slaves, criminals and heretics were branded against their will. For example, see the hand of Captain John Walker, a white abolitionist who was caught trying to help free a slave. “SS” stood for “slave stealer.”

1844. The branded hand of Captain Jonathan Walker. (Source: uslave.blogspot.com.)

1844. The branded hand of Captain Jonathan Walker. (Source: uslave.blogspot.com.)

Branding separated the law-abiding from law-breakers and the free man from slave. This simultaneous existence of unmarked citizens and the branded created a rift in society. The branded often came together to create communities of their own, or subcultures.  An example of such a subculture is the Underground Railroad.  While the term refers to the actual journey slaves took from captivity in the south to freedom in the north, it also refers to the system of people, structures, strategies, and resources that made the dangerous migration north possible.

Three observations about branding based on this historical view are:

  • Branding created a separation between people who might otherwise be alike.
  • That separation forged a new identity that brought people together who might otherwise not have shared the same community.
  • People created subcultures or subsystems within their communities which helped to give them protection from outsiders.

An allegorical view on branding

Personal-branding-Cain

Henri Vidal’s statue, Cain, stands in the Tuileries Garden in Paris. Multiple books of faith tell Cain’s story. Cain kills his brother and is found out. Subsequently he is separated from his community and becomes a vagabond. Fearing being murdered, Cain cries out to God for help. Cain receives a visible mark, or brand, on his forehead. The mark provides Cain with divine protection as he wanders the earth. Cain’s mark also gives him a new identity that is perpetuated through his offspring, figuratively called “sons of Cain.” This allegorical view also shows how branding was used to separate, identify, and protect.

A modern view of branding

To redefine the provisions of branding in a modern business context, consider the following that branding provides:

  • Identification – a graphic and verbal articulation that associates an organization, product or service with a deed or belief.
  • Separation – the position of the organization, product or service in the market amongst its competitors. (Separation is indelibly linked to identification.)
  • Protection – the legally guarded intellectual property that creates monetary value for the organization. (The brand is often largest asset on a company’s balance sheet.)

Putting all three of these provisions together shows how the creation of a modern brand is the creation of a subsystem in the massive system of commerce where there is a sea of sameness amongst organizations, products, and services.  Within a subsystem, consumers find community, trust, and safety in the sense that this subsystem cannot be easily dismantled and is counted on to deliver its promises.

Managing a brand is attending to the relationship between the branded entity and the consumers who inhabit or will inhabit the brand’s world, a living system.

A personal brand is a living system of authentic assets that can be cultivated…

With a high degree of accurate self-awareness, one can position their authentic assets in a way that provides:

  • a clear identity – you know what you do best and in what conditions you are likely to thrive.
  • separateness – you stand out in a sea of sameness because others can see how you are different.
  • protection – you are more likely to excel in initiatives that are well suited to your authentic strengths and values, which protects your reputation, career, and enjoyment of your work.

Cultivating your authentic assets along these 3 dimensions creates a meta-asset, a living system, that is larger than the sum of its parts. This is your personal brand.

There are a several ways that you can cultivate your living system of authentic assets:

  • Strengthen your assets. There may be strengths you possess that can be made stronger. Taking a class, asking for a stretch assignment at work, or adopting a skill-honing hobby are ways to do this.
  • Ask for feedback. Seek the input of your peers, bosses, and friends, on how what you are doing well and what can improve.
  • Decide what to do about your weaknesses. We all have weaknesses. We just need to determine whether we want to strengthen our weaknesses or use our energy to strengthen our strengths.   This is a personal choice that can be worked on with your coach or trusted advisor.

Personal branding is cultivating a living system of authentic assets that helps you create value for others.

You can imagine that when you take possession of your personal brand, your living system of authentic assets, that you cannot help but create value for others.

Cultivating your personal brand creates a sense of empowerment and the ability to make wise choices about where you work, how you work, and with whom you work. You will find yourself naturally gravitating towards assignments that play to your strengths and challenge you in ways that you want to grow. We are more likely to excel at work that we enjoy. Cultivating a personal brand brings a heightened level of engagement with our work that inspires us operate at our best.

Your Thoughts on Personal Branding

In what ways would you improve upon this definition of personal branding?  How could cultivating a personal brand serve you and your career goals? Please post your comments here or email stacie@factsandheresies.com.  I would love to hear your thoughts!

Have questions or are curious about coaching? Schedule a conversation with Stacie here.

Stacie Hoffmeister is an organizational coach and branding professional. She is the founder of organizational coaching firm, Facts and Heresies. Facts and Heresies helps individuals step up into their next level of personal and professional potential. Based in the New York, NY and Westchester County, NY area, Stacie serves individual professionals and organizations in her area and all over the world. 

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