The idea of a “personal brand” gets a bad rap these days, but it’s an essential part of building an online presence. Here’s how to do it right.
In the age of Instagram influencers, the concept of a personal brand might be more misunderstood than ever before. Some people think personal branding suggests someone who is inauthentic in their daily or digital life.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. When done well, a personal brand reflects your authentic self in a way that translates online, so people who’ve never met you get a sense of who you are.
In fact, you already have a personal brand. It’s expressed in the things you do, the clothes you wear, the art you like, and the way you live your life. The trick is to figure out what your brand is and how to communicate it to other people. Here’s what you need to know.
Who Needs a Personal Brand?
Personal branding, as a concept, isn’t as new as you might think. Some people would argue that it’s been around as long as the modern concept of business. There was a time when personality drove people’s shopping decisions: you bought from people whose character—or brand—you liked.
But with the growth of massive companies, the “personal” part disappeared for much of the 20th century. Personal branding never played a role in people buying Coke products or Dawn dish soap. However, the digital age has brought personality back into the mix of how we do business.
Today, personal branding is vital for anyone who wants to use their online presence as a way to grow in their career. This can include artists, editors, designers, teachers, and many others. Once, customers would have stepped into your shop or studio to get to know you. Today, they find you online, and may never meet you in person at all. Personal branding takes the place of a personal meeting to show them what you’re all about.
To decide whether you need a personal brand, take a close look at how you use online spaces and where you plan to take your career. If you use social media purely for entertainment and staying in touch with friends, you might not need a personal brand. But if you use social media to get new clients or connect with potential customers, you probably do need one. If you ever plan to launch a business or become a freelancer, you should also have a personal brand—it’s never too soon to start working on it.
What Makes a Good Personal Brand?
Many people feel an aversion to the concept of personal branding because they think it means being fake. However, the only thing that can make a personal brand successful is authenticity.
It’s certainly possible to create an inauthentic brand based on what you think appeals to the masses. But you’ll find it much harder to stick to something that’s not grounded in your personality. Modern consumers generally know when they’re being marketed to, rather than connected with. Creating an authentic brand might take a little more work, but the results are worth it.
How Can You Create Your Personal Brand?
Saying that your brand should be authentic is one thing, but how do you decide what your genuine, compelling personal brand is?
Your goal is to harness your personality and how you present it to the world, as well as how it’s reflected in your professional online life. This means you need to translate the things that make you “you” into colors, words, and images. A personal brand gives you a unifying theme for your online presence.
Remember, your brand already exists. You just need to discover and define it. It’s also meant to be flexible. It should change and grow with time, while maintaining some essential qualities, just like you do. Ideally, you’ll be able to sum it up with a handful of descriptive words or a series of images. But to get to that point, you’ll need to do some creative introspection. Here are a few methods that work well.
Have you ever felt like certain people know you better than you know yourself? Those are the people you should talk to about your personal brand.
Grab some coffee with a few of your closest friends, tell them you’re working on your personal brand, and ask them for input. You could also poll your social media followers with questions like, “What’s one word you would use to describe me?”
Talk to as many people as you like, but keep in mind that the best answers will probably come from those who know you best. Try to get first impressions, such as the first image that comes to mind when they think of you. These quick intuitions will tell you what you’re putting out into the world, so you can capture that energy and translate it for your brand.
Make a Mood Board
The opinions of others can help steer the process, but defining your personal brand is mostly a solitary experience. Making a mood board (or several) is a great way to discover how to represent yourself visually.
A mood board is simply a collage of ideas around a central theme. You can make a physical one using poster board and clippings from magazines (or anything else you can stick to the board). You can also make a digital collage—Pinterest is great for this. Pick whichever medium works best for you.
No one else ever needs to see your mood boards. If you use Pinterest, you might want to set your board to private. Enjoy the process and don’t worry too much about the finished product.
We recommend letting your first couple of mood boards be stream-of-consciousness collections of whatever resonates with you. Let them sit for a couple of days (or weeks). When you revisit the project, you’ll probably notice specific unifying themes. Maybe there are recurring colors, images, or words. Use these elements to make new, more refined mood boards, until you feel like you have an idea of your brand.
Try a Word Cloud
Word clouds take words from a selection of text and arrange them, showing you which words were used most often. You can plug anything you’ve written into a word cloud generator to see which terms come up most. For example, try writing a professional bio about yourself (or pasting in one you already have). See which words are the biggest in the cloud—these might point you toward your brand.
If a digital word cloud isn’t quite your style, you can tuck a notebook in your pocket. Spend a few days (or weeks) writing down words or thoughts that might suit your brand. Then, go back and read what you’ve written for branding inspiration.
It can sometimes help to ground this conceptual process in specifics. Consider picking a set of brand colors, or creating a mantra or tagline. Maybe there’s a particular aesthetic that fits your brand, such as soft and feminine, or sleek and modern. You might even sketch some logo ideas.
While you’re defining your brand, you can change these specifics as often as you like until they feel right. But working toward some concrete ideas can help you feel like you understand your brand better. This also makes it easier to present your brand to the world when it’s time.
How to Use Your Personal Brand
While you’re brainstorming, mood-boarding, and refining, you’ll eventually hit some ideas that just feel right.
When you can sum up your personal brand in a couple of sentences (think “elevator pitch“), it’s ready. Here’s what to do once you reach this point.
Review Your Online Life
Your personal brand does its best work online. It gives people a clear idea of who you are and what you do from the moment they search your name on Google. To put your brand to good use, start with a comprehensive review of your online presence.
Make a list of every site or profile that belongs to you. This includes any social media pages or personal websites. This is all the information about you online that you have the power to change.
There might also be information that you can’t change, such as mentions in online articles. Even though you can’t change these things, it’s good to be aware of them. Posting new content that aligns with your brand helps hide anything you don’t like.
Now, turn your focus back to the sites you can update. Review your personal websites and profiles, and decide how you’ll change each to reflect your brand.
Not every site will need the same amount of work. For example, on LinkedIn, you might only update the “About” section. But on Instagram, you might decide to delete all your old pictures and start fresh with images that reflect your brand. Keep in mind that even sites you use for personal purposes might need updating—if someone can find it in an online search, it should be linked to your brand.
What you change and how much you change it is entirely up to you. However, your goal is to have everything about you online reflect your personal brand as clearly as possible. If you have multiple websites or social media pages, this project probably won’t get done in an afternoon. Take your time, and break it down into manageable steps.
Review Your Offline (Professional) Life
This step should be a little easier. If you’re creating a personal brand, chances are most of your professional life plays out online. However, it’s still valuable to take stock of ways you can use your brand offline, too.
List anything physical you have that’s branded or could be branded. This might include business cards or other items you hand out to potential clients. For example, if you describe your brand as “relaxed” and “edgy,” maybe it’s time to ditch the traditional off-white business cards in favor of some metal ones that double as bottle openers.
Your offline brand can also extend to other things, such as how you dress. Maybe the way you present yourself in client meetings could be more on-brand. If you’re a graphic designer who works with creative startups, it might be time to trade in your stiff, formal suits for relaxed separates.
Think about how you’re going to talk about your brand, too. Even if you don’t plan on networking, there will be times when people ask what you do for a living. Your brand will provide you with a good answer.
Review Your Brand
When it comes to developing a personal brand, many people make the mistake of thinking about their audience first instead of themselves.
While it’s true that all businesses need customers, the best personal brands don’t come from thinking about how to sell to people. They come from understanding yourself so well that you can show your confident, authentic self to potential clients.
Once you’ve completed the above steps, the only thing left to do is to keep your brand authentic and thriving. You can do this by periodically reviewing it. Jot down new branding ideas when they come to you. Search yourself on Google occasionally to make sure you like what you see, and update your social media sites, so they continue to reflect your true self.
Creating a personal brand is challenging. Once you’ve done it, though, it’s easy to keep it up-to-date with these periodic small changes. It can help your business thrive and bring new customers your way. But most importantly, it can give you a stronger sense of self and what you’re capable of in your career.