It’s been over ten years since the father of branding Tom Peters, writing in Fast Company, told us that “regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.” Peters’ point was that whatever your area of expertise, you have to take steps to ensure that people think of you when they think of your field.
“You do that by creating a message and a strategy to promote your personal brand,” says Jenny Handley, who is an expert on building practical personal marketing and brand plans that create buzz for individuals – and their business.
What is a personal brand?
“A brand is a distinctive mark,” she says. “And more than that, it is the perception in the hearts and minds of the consumer. It is a relationship between a product or service and a person. A personal brand includes perceptions created by everything you do and say, and by what you do not do or say. It is a reflection of the real you, taking what is inside and communicating it to the outer world.”
Handley adds that a strong brand speaks for you when you are not there. Because of that, engineering a good personal brand is essential in today’s competitive world if you wish to be distinctive and make your mark. “From leader to learner, the aspirant to the arrived, employee to entrepreneur – we all need to market ourselves,” she says. “It is not the most intelligent or educated who become the most successful, but those who are accessible and make an effort to market themselves effectively.”
Why do you need one?
Handley notes that there are several good reasons for entrepreneurs to market themselves:
- To be perceived as a specialist rather than a generalist.
A specialist has greater status and earning power than a jack-of-all-trades. Further, a specialist gets clients and new business by referrals, or word-of-mouth advertising. “It’s more about focusing on your special talents than offering a one-stop-shop,” Handley explains. “This denotes quality rather than quantity.”
- To be considered first choice rather than most convenient or cheapest.
Handley equates this to the difference between a designer label and a no-name brand, the first being the one that is sought after as it is perceived to be of better quality.
- To have easier access to decision makers.
People who are well known find it much easier to get past gatekeepers.
- To attain the level or status where you are called upon for opinion, comment or endorsement.
This is when your brand has been elevated to a level where you are being invited to enhance other’s brands and help them to develop their own profiles. “This is the cheapest and most cost-effective marketing campaign you could ever embark on,” Handley notes. “It’s the equivalent of building brand equity.”
- To solicit the work you love, rather than having to accept any work that is offered to you.
“When you start out as a consultant or a small business owner, you may often be persuaded to take on any business,” she says. “By defining and refining your product offering, premium work will come your way.”
- To allow more work to come to you.
“When you have a higher and more visible working profile, work comes to you,” Handley says. “How wonderful to be asked if you would like to take on a client, with them having the thought that they are lucky enough to have you to service their business.”
- To get paid.
Handley says people who have visibility, credibility and good working relationships are given the respect they have earned. “They are in a better position of negotiation, and can receive higher remuneration, plus they will be paid on time out of respect alone…when a business has a cash flow problem the suppliers with the better, more valued long-term relationships are often paid first.”
No successful business is successful by accident; it has a plan. “Every ambitious individual also needs a plan,” Handley explains. It should reflect what goals are to be achieved, and what personal strengths can be leveraged to achieve them.
To kick off your personal brand strategy, Handley suggests creating a brief comprised of three questions: Where am I? Where do I want to go? What work do I want to attract? “Goal-setting is an important process,” she maintains. “It needs to be focused and realistic. For some people, short may mean three months; for others, three years. The same applies with medium- and long-term goals.”
Many entrepreneurs find it hard to believe that it’s possible to develop a personal brand without blowing the budget. Handley suggests that a personal budget is not only about money, but also the resources you have available to you.
She advises creating a balance sheet of “you”. “The first column will show your assets, the second your liabilities, the third perceptions (what people think of you), and the fourth your potential and areas for growth. You may want to add a fifth column called ‘loans’, listing what you can borrow in terms of skills, techniques and tactics, from those around or above you.”
One of the most vital aspects of developing your brand is to build credibility based on a worthwhile reputation – brand equity. Ideally, you should perform at such an optimum level that everyone you deal with becomes part of your marketing team, resulting in good word-of-mouth coverage. Giving excellent service and going the extra mile costs nothing.
To measure the effectiveness of your brand, you need to benchmark yourself against your competitors and perform research in your industry to determine what your reputation is. There are several means through which smart business owners can elevate their positioning in their industries.
“One way is to benefit from continuous learning and extending your broad-based skills,” Handley points out. “Small business owners especially deny themselves the chance to attend courses or further their studies, often because they feel they cannot afford the time away from the business. One solution is to send your staff on courses and ensure they report back on the experience to the entire team so that everyone benefits.”
Joining associations that are relevant to the work you do is also advisable. Membership of associations shows that you have met certain criteria and adhere to quality standards. Related to this is attendance at lectures, talks and networking functions, which will give you the opportunity to interact with many key people in your own and other industries.
“Make sure that you have a comprehensive understanding of your field,” Handley advises. “Read trade publications and newspaper headlines. Speed read and just take in the headlines if you are pressed for time. Listen to radio news bulletins and search the Internet constantly.”
Another important element of personal positioning is making your expertise available to others – even freely, if you can. Public speaking, writing, and addressing colleagues and students are all ways to elevate your position while you help to spread knowledge.
We live in a world that is characterised by constant change. As a result, the personal brand you build and consolidate will also have to change over time to keep it current. “Don’t rely on the fact that you were considered high-profile a decade ago,” Handley says. “Instead, make a concrete effort to maintain your credibility, visibility and flexibility. Move with the times.”
She advises taking stock of your brand offering once a quarter or at least every six months. “It’s not always a huge shift. Make some notes or implement some minor changes. It’s taking the time and trouble to reflect that will make you become more conscious of your personal marketing and your goals.
She also suggests getting clients involved in a re-brand by inviting them to give feedback and be part of the change.
When your brand goes bad
A reputation is not only hard-earned, it’s also largely out of your hands. Damage to your reputation can happen at any time, and for reasons that may not be of your own doing. That’s when careful management is required.
“Always be honest and transparent,” Handley cautions. “Good communication is key. Tell people personally if you have a crisis. Being positive and staying in contact with all stakeholders can help you to create good perceptions of your brand and improve its positioning.”
Handley adds that creating good brand alliances is essential, as you are judged by the company you keep. For example, know that your suppliers should be selected to enhance your brand. Business is, after all, a team sport. If you are connected to a company or individual that has tarnished your reputation, stand up and speak out.
“Always remember that to be your own brand champion requires you to be genuine, to be confident and to have self-belief,” she says.
Jenny Handley is a brand strategist, public speaker, author and owner of Jenny Handley Promotions, a brand management and PR company.
Contact: +27 21 686 0287, www.jennyhandleypromotions.co.za