Branding yourself is very personal and opinions vary on approach. Let me tell you what I know. The most valuable commodity you own and will ever promote is you. I have found that people don't buy what I am trying to sell. They buy me! And it is on that basis that they decide to buy anything else that might be associated with me. It is all about their comfort factors. You've heard this before.
Al and Laura Ries, authors of “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” write, “If you can build a powerful brand you will have a powerful marketing program. If you can't, then all the advertising, fancy packaging, sales promotion, public relations and social media won't help you achieve your objective.” That is also true when the “product” you are branding is yourself.
You are your brand and as humans, we connect on an emotional, visceral level. Sometimes we refer to it as our “gut.” Setting aside your professional or business interests for the moment, your brand is really your name, your word and your character. Your prospective customer has to be comfortable with you on this level. It may take a little time, but this is your first sale in the personal branding process. Therefore, your product or sales pitch, at least initially, is secondary.
Throughout my earlier career, I worked hard to establish my “personal brand” with those whose friendship and support were instrumental to any success I hoped to achieve while on assignments abroad. I viewed my situation this way: My professional, social and business contacts held the major cards. They could have chosen to have the standard professionally correct relationship with me. The choice was always theirs. I would not have accomplished the ambitious goals I always set for myself had they chosen to deal with me in this fashion. My goal really was to differentiate myself; I wanted their friendship and support and so I worked hard for it! You cannot avoid this.
My brand was ultimately trust, credibility and character — integrity. Representing your country, your company, your organization, your product, or yourself, it is important to get it right. I felt if I could get it right in laying the foundation for a real relationship (as opposed to the “extractive” friendships Americans are often noted for favoring), promoting my country's policy initiatives (not always popular) would be less problematic. I was correct.
Effective communication is at the heart of building your brand and the best approach is honesty. Be truthful. Tell personal stories because they reveal who you are. One story begets another. “Stories are truth,” says Jeffrey Gittomer.
Part of communication has to be the appreciation you display for cultural, linguistic, social and sometimes, religious nuance during initial meetings. And part of the experience can be the physical image you project. You laugh; don't! A former colleague of mine struggled with the pictures in peoples' heads because he did not recognize that the image he projected was too distracting. He eventually came to appreciate the role image can play on occasion. Your goal is to frame the image you want to project in the optic lens of others. So it is all about blending those elements that create the most favorable reception. Be pre-prepared. Learn all that you can about your prospective customer — if time and circumstances permit.
Building my brand, for example, was the essence of cross-cultural communication because business, for even small businesses or the independent business owner, is global. I sought to lay the foundation for a long-term relationship and then, together, build that relationship brick by brick. I learned that in some cultures, for example, it is considered rude to discuss business during that initial meeting. Fortunately, I was able to share that information with a presidential cabinet member traveling to Asia for the first time. He listened, asked a few questions and adapted quickly. Later, he was regarded by many in the corporate world, including the President of the United States, as one of the most successful commerce secretaries in recent history. This cabinet secretary knew the value of personal branding since it was instrumental in his meteoric rise in American politics.
On the other hand, I witnessed acts of personal destruction on more than one occasion with business representatives insistent on selling a product rather than themselves. They not only ignored their brief, but operated under the false assumption that because they thought their product was better, that their prospective customers would see them differently than their competitors. Wrong! They failed to understand, or worse, accept, that “people don't like to be sold, but they love to buy.”
It was often my experience that good products were recognized by our prospective customers for their quality, as most good products are. Prospective customers also did their homework. But the “real deal” was the difference the right individual could make in the mind of that customer. A successful outcome meant the person was a better listener, that they were more engaging. It could mean they were better prepared or more culturally sensitive. The point I wish to make is, part of preparation is anticipation. This also makes the experience more fun.
Remember that friendliness helps to build your brand. Smile! Friendliness rounds out the edges, the awkward moments that occasionally grip each of us. Be prepared to respond to questions: personal questions about family, marital status, interests, etc. None of this may have any direct relationship to the purpose of your meeting, but how you respond may foreshadow the outcome of that meeting and those to follow. So, be friendly!
“Patience is a virtue”, goes the old adage. It is equally valid when building your brand. Go slow. Do not lose sight of the fact that you are selling yourself and the process involves the patience to wait, to listen and even learn. Body language is important. We Americans can be notoriously conscious of awkward moments of silence during a conversation, an unconscious predisposition to talk, and a goal of moving a conversation to a desired outcome.
Building your personal brand also involves creating a climate in which your host (I use host synonymously with prospective customer) senses the personal elements that connect the two of you. Here's one for you. They will want to know if you are loyal to your product, your team, and your purpose? Would you be loyal to them and the relationship you suggest you want to build? Is loyalty important to you or does your loyalty only extend to the product you promote?
Branding is also about giving “value” in a relationship. This can tip the scales in your favor. Value becomes almost tangible. Your host can sense it, sell it to their team, or visualize how it will affect their bottom line. Again, Jeffrey Gittomer ("Little Black Book of Connections") places great store in having “a value-based game plan to connect and get what you want … when you begin to give value, somehow the people you affect will find a way to tell you. Even if it takes a couple of years.”
Work on you; develop the qualities that make marketing your brand easier. I always knew, for example, what I could do for my hosts — the value proposition. I wanted to be seen as someone that could perform, that could deliver. Consistency matters. It buys the understanding for those moments when you might fall short. The rest was really out of my hands.
To summarize, to establish your brand, you must be prepared to work for the trust of others. That takes a positive attitude, time, consistency and flexibility. Be prepared to give rather than receive. Your reward comes later. Character, honesty, patience and integrity should be the cornerstones of your brand. Without them, you are just another peddler in the marketplace.