I find myself talking to high school and college students about personal branding all the time. Brands and labels are so much a part of our culture today. In fact, many companies actually hire Brand Managers, whose job is to insure that they company’s brand is solidly embedded into the psyche of the American consumer for their industry.
Have you ever noticed how powerful a product’s brand is? Brands carry reputations. What comes to mind when you hear these brand names?
- Abercrombie and Fitch
As you well know, people have brands too. In December 2013, Nelson Mandela (the former president of South Africa) passed away. Two weeks later, the fight was on for his brand. Family members fought with the African National Congress and his foundation for the rights to his name and the phrase Long Live Mandela. Why? Because it carried such clout. Rival politicians battled over ownership of his legacy in the next general election. What’s more, an intense conflict surfaced over the iconic Mandela brand as family members began to sell products using the Mandela name.
Taylor Swift has built a brand, too, don’t you think? She’s now a major brand in the music industry and beyond. She’s very intentional and aware of her personal brand as a singer, songwriter, and savvy businesswoman, who’s also known for turning down movie scripts. Swift has built a humble, girl-next-door image as the CEO of an enterprise she built from scratch. As a shrewd start-up, she’ll only take on a movie role if she believes it fits who she is.
Owning an Identity
So when I speak with students about building their personal brand, I always mention that they already have one, whether they know it or not. By default or design, they’ve built a reputation among those who know them… as solid or flighty, as mature or immature, flirtatious or soft-spoken. When people are intentional about their brand, it informs their actions and words. I have noticed that successful companies who build their brand intentionally are good at “owning” a word or a phrase in the minds of their customers. They’ve boiled down what they do to a single idea. For instance, when most people think of:
- Volvo, they think of “automobile safety.”
- FedEx, they think “overnight.”
- Crest toothpaste, they think, “it fights cavities.”
- BMW, they think of “quality.”
May I encourage you to do what I am doing with students these days? I ask them:
- As you launch your career, what will your brand be?
- What word or phrase will you own?
- What’ll be the big idea you want people to ponder when they think of you?
- What will define your identity and vision?
- Is it about your performance, your production, or merely your appearance?
It works a little like a toolbox. Students carry an imaginary toolbox with them each day. They’re filling it with knowledge, experiences, skills and relationships that will make them more or less valuable to the marketplace. They are either preparing for the future or just surviving, living from day to day. Their toolbox is either filling up or remaining empty. When they fail to get ready for tomorrow, they end up with much more work to compensate for later. My warning is this: if you aren’t preparing today, you will be repairing tomorrow.
As you can imagine, building a brand doesn’t happen overnight. It took Coca Cola decades to become the number one brand in the world—and they are still managing their name. Similarly, managing your career takes a lifetime. It requires:
- Choosing a career path based on your strengths and interests.
- Deliberately seeing each job and task as an opportunity to grow.
- Using social media wisely, knowing your future employer may see it.
- Keeping the big picture in mind as you progress through your career.
Tell Students: It’s Your Story
It’s up to you to manage your career. Most do not have the luxury of having someone else do it for them, like an agent or personal assistant. Your life is like a fingerprint. It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind mixture of qualities that you can offer to an organization. Your brand is like a property or a patent that you own. It’s important to work so you can be proud of who you are and what you offer, yet it’s not just about you building your personal fame. It’s about you becoming valuable to others. Albert Einstein said it best: “Don’t seek to be a person of importance. Seek to be a person of value.”