Co-Founder & Managing Partner
In business and in life, how to stand out from the crowd in 2024
As the end of a year approaches, thoughts of resolutions for the year ahead often begin to surface. Among these resolutions may be the desire to change jobs, or even careers. This means reflecting on what you’ve been doing and figuring out what you’d like to do next. Or, if you’re just starting out, as my kids and their friends are, figuring out what you want to do to begin with.
As the dad in their midst known for brand-building, I’ve been the go-to-person for advice, specifically on the matter of “personal branding.” This term has grown in popularity over the years as people have found the need to “package” themselves for everything from dating profiles to LinkedIn pages to Instagram posts and, yes, to new career opportunities. This being the case, anyone and everyone can be a brand, with success dependent on getting others to recognize your value proposition - what you stand for, what makes you different from the competition, and why it matters to those you hope to impress. And, as is the point of this article, that would be a potential employer.
While I may be the go-to person for advice on branding from my kids and their friends, it was on the Columbia Business School podcast, Brite Ideas, that Amy Fuller, former Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of Accenture, and I had the pleasure of sharing our views with a wider audience about how to embrace and better characterize personal branding as it relates to advancing a career. Discussing the innate tensions around the need to be “findable” in an age of infinite platforms, and how to leverage a reputation, we started by suggesting that the notion of personal branding had not only become cliché but, paradoxically, lacked clarity. It’s an easy term to bandy about, but what does it mean, exactly?
Obviously, whatever you put out there will be “personal.” A brand is essentially your "story.” It’s what you want a target audience to know about you. What associations you’d like to bring to mind. The word “branding,” on the other hand, refers to all the devices utilized to get your story into peoples’ heads. It’s tactical and, generally speaking, encompasses everything from logos and packaging, to advertising, promotions and social media, along with the myriad other "touchpoints,” or interactions, that build brand awareness.
A strong personal brand should define who you are in a way that makes it easy for people to understand your strengths and expertise. But, more so, in a way that clearly distinguishes what makes you different from others on a playing field chock-a-block with Ivy League resumes and claims of surpassing this sales target, or that ROI. (As well as helping you get beyond AI gatekeepers mining for significant buzzwords.) As any branding pro will tell you, relevant differentiation is the most critical factor for any brand’s success.
As we discussed in the Brite Ideas podcast, the key to creating a strong personal brand – something that relelvantly differentiates you within your competitive set - starts with determining and refining the story you want to tell. Understanding your strengths and areas of expertise may not be easy to do in the early stages of a career. However, as you gain work experience and become aware of your unique talents or competencies, you can begin to think about honing your future brand story. It’s important to remember that unlike a product, a personal brand has nuance; it’s not static. Or, as Amy said, quoting Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.”
Whether you’re at the begining of a career path, or looking for a new beginning, a simple exercise to start the process of identifying a potential brand story is to imagine putting your work, and life, experiences in a conceptual “box.” Ask yourself how you might “label” that box in a way that captures its contents. This label - or brand idea - should not be based on a list of facts and figures, like education, companies, or titles. Nor should it echo, or be a combination of, formulaic modifiers, phrases like “team player,” “detail-oriented,” “flexible” or “fast learner.”
Don’t think of the label on this personal story box as a snappy tagline, but as a “throughline,” an internal GPS to help ensure it authentically captures the idea you want to leave in peoples’ minds and reflects a narrative that can work consistently from one touchpoint or platform to the next. You’ll be using this idea as the lens through which you focus your story, adding depth and dimension to it as your career gains momentum and you gain experiences. Your objective is to help you be able to tell a more powerful story when interviewing for jobs, and across all of your communications from emails to social media.
Not to take the box analogy too literally, but for many years, FedEx’s core brand idea was "absolute certainty.” It was not used in their advertising tag lines, or on their website but, rather, served as an internal GPS to guide all of their branding executions for many years.
When hearing the term personal brand, most people will jump to activation, much akin to a struggling client asking an agency to fix things with a new logo or spiffy ad campaign. This is short-sighted. Creating and managing a personal brand is like creating and managing any brand. It’s a marathon of continuous iterations on a theme. You start with a simple idea – what you want people to associate with you. You use this idea on which to build an authentic and compelling story that reflects who you are and what you stand for beyond facts and figures. You keep the heart of the story as a point of reference as your career progresses. While employers will definitely look for the relevant skills – be it a new job or first job you are in search of - it is imperative that your brand story clearly differentiates your value proposition above and beyond the pervasive buzz of any AI buzzwords.
Previously published in Forbes Magazine.
by Allen Adamson
by Trace Cohen