Is Personal Branding a Fad Waiting to Fizzle Out?
This is chapter 1 of a 6-part series called A Handbook for the Next Generation of Ambitious Female Leaders. The series is based on 18 interviews from top women aims to empower young women in the transition from university to their first full-time workplace. Read the intro to this project here.
As a general definition, Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, summed it up quite nicely, saying, “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”.
A growing number of people believe that if they want to get ahead professionally, whether employed, self-employed or still studying, they need to market themselves. In 2017, more people Google searched ‘personal branding’ than any year prior. So is there really something to it? Do those looking to compete in the millennial workplace need to get on board? Or is personal branding a fad waiting to fizzle out?
I brought up the question to 18 savvy business women from around the globe in hopes to get some first-hand insight. While some proved to be clearly in favour of it, others were rather sceptical.
Those sceptical about personal branding weren’t necessarily against the concept entirely, but rather they were opposed to the way it is sometimes being put into practice. It tends to be more about ‘what kind of person is this employer looking for and how can I become that?’, but should instead be ‘what kind of person am I, what can I offer and how can I bring that across in the most effective and authentic way?’
This reminded me of what Judy Garland once famously said. “Always be a first rate version of yourself, instead of a second rate version of somebody else.” More than ever, perhaps, that still rings true today.
Susan Credle suggested that the notion becomes more important as your career progresses. At the most senior level, your profile and reputation in the industry greatly affect the opportunities you receive.
Some women claimed that the practice of personal branding can be a constant race for attention that takes time out of going into the world, putting yourself out there and getting actual work done. This applies specifically to the time consuming process of staying relevant and interesting enough across social. These women also proposed that education and experience should be more important focal points for young people as opposed to relying on a perfectly crafted digital identity.
This scepticism equally corresponds with the opinions of some young people entering the workforce. Even though a large majority of people surveyed between the ages of 21 and 27 believe it is important to establish a personal brand, some find it confusing and simply don’t want to get involved.
But at what cost?
Most women spoken to believe that the concept has merit. Establishing a personal brand can be important in defining personal value. It is the competitive edge in the minds of potential employers, clients or customers. The more elevated a brand is, the less convincing has to be done about being the right person for the job.
It can help to foster trust: if an employer knows upfront what energy motivates a candidate because that has been explicitly communicated, they’re more likely to demonstrate trust.
If you want to make your mark on the industry you’re in, a strong online brand may help you land your next freelance assignment, your next job, or who knows, maybe even your first speaking engagement.
“I see myself as an individual with a skill set that can be used for many different purposes, but I know not many people understand this way of thinking (yet)” - Nadine Ridder
That being said, it takes some time to know how you would like to position yourself. What may be helpful is to give some thought to what you feel strongly about.
Is it the failing education system? Is it a need for more diversity in the workplace? Is it the democratisation of creativity? Explore what gets you mad and what excites you, and if you’re opinionated, express those thoughts. Start a blog or try to get your voice published somewhere where you’re not the only person in the audience, like LinkedIn or a trade outlet. If your voice speaks something that isn’t necessarily public opinion, see it as an opportunity to teach someone something - even if that something is just your perspective on a subject.
Dare to hold opinions, but be brave enough to keep them lenient.
However, if you haven’t found your voice yet, don’t worry. Work hard, read, ask questions, challenge your own opinions as well as those of others and work on developing that voice.
“True and authentic personalities always win in my book” — Amy Wanke
Sometimes you may not want to label yourself at all, which is entirely your prerogative. That’s better than faking it.
All women to which I addressed this question brought up the notion of authenticity. A personal brand means nothing, and can even do damage if it’s just a façade. Personal branding without personal truth is cheap and unsustainable. People notice insincerity.
You differentiate yourself through your opinions and your character and by being your genuine self. Let your real personality emerge by not allowing stress to consume you or letting fear take the wheel during important interviews. Have confidence in expressing what you’re good at because if you don’t buy it, why would anybody else? Equally important is being upfront about the other side of the coin, that is, what you don’t know, bearing in mind that skills can always be learned/taught.
“Perfection bores, and cannot be trusted” - Antoinette Hoes
I think we all agree that perfection is overrated. Show some vulnerability and humanity. Everyone these days wants to be taken so seriously, and to some extent it’s necessary, but if your field allows you to be unique and even celebrates you for it, count your lucky stars and embrace that.
Perhaps we no longer really have a choice about personal branding in the first place. The world is far too connected and everything we do or don’t do becomes our brand. In my opinion, a career is a reputation, so it’s better to be intentional about how that reputation emerges and comes to life rather than leaving it to chance.
Stay tuned for Chapter Two which discusses the (un)importance of your early career choices.