Branding is a weird word. It’s a term that many people are suspicious of. Even me — someone who eats, sleeps, and makes money developing brands every day.
We’re constantly bombarded with branding messages, and we’re skeptical of companies trying to assert a trustworthy identity everywhere we look. Branding is associated with commercialization. Strategies to influence how people perceive a “thing” seem manipulative, deceptive even, eroding trust and evoking skepticism.
For better or worse, we’re stuck with it. I like to call what I do “strategic branding,” whether I’m working on someone’s personal brand or developing an overall brand identity for an organization. Strategic branding means that there is an underlying “why” baked into the process. It’s not just a pretty overlay. Good personal brands are authentic and trustworthy, a “what you see is what you get” promise of personal mission and ethos.
And yes, personal branding IS self-promotion, but in the best sense of the word. It is a promise of genuine value, of image based on substance, of character. It’s a narrative that you’ve taken charge of, not left to the vagaries of other people’s opinions.
Here are the six most fundamental, most urgent things I want you to know about creating your own brand, stuff I wish I’d known along the way.
1. You Aren’t Who You’ve Become
What are the stories we tell ourselves? Memory is malleable. Naturally, we pick and choose those to keep, those to retire, those to embellish. But somewhere along the way, most of us lose sight of why we set off on the path to do. Many of those early fires begin to smolder; go out. Opportunity begins to trump passion.
For me, I wanted to be two things: an actor and a writer. But I quickly got waylaid, lured by a series of jobs in television that morphed into decades of increasingly senior positions in higher ed; the money, the prestige (Harvard, MIT, Sarah Lawrence), and how great I looked on paper. It was only after losing my job in the early days of the pandemic that I was forced to look at myself and what I wanted going forward. It was a painful reckoning that ultimately led me to the work I love that I do today.
2. You’ve Got To Be Fearless
Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun, is right.
“We waste precious time exaggerating or romanticizing or belittling ourselves with a complacent surety that yes, that’s who we are. We mistake the openness of our being — the inherent wonder and surprise of each moment — for a solid, irrefutable self. Because of this misunderstanding, we suffer.”
For me, this reckoning meant that for years I’d ignored those early certainties, but when they came back to me, I could see the threads had been there all along — I’m a great coach, great cheerleader, and inspire-er, a memorable presenter and public speaker (that’s the acting part). I’m a pretty good writer, too. Both of these inform my work, my success, and my brand every day.
But it requires a fearless inventory, which is at the heart of all substantive, memorable personal brands.
3. Don’t Let Others Define You
It’s easy to leave this to chance and rely on your intrinsic worth. But It’s a really bad idea. When I work with large institutions, the first thing we do is figure out what the “myths in the marketplace” are. This is a polite way of saying we try to find the crap that’s out there. At Sarah Lawrence, one of the first things we found out was that most people were under the erroneous assumption that Sarah Lawrence was still a single-sex college. In fact, it had gone co-ed in the early 70’s. That was a major thing to understand, and it went a long way to reshaping its brand narrative and the marketing strategy we developed.
4. Being Good Is Not Enough
It’s not enough to be good at what you do. Everyone is good. You’ve got to take charge of your own narrative and — wait for it — tell people how you want them to think about you. Being good isn’t just about what you do; it’s about how you showcase it, connect it with others, and grow in the process. A successful personal brand is a symphony of skills, stories, and sincerity that resonates far beyond competence alone.
5. Branding Is Not Bragging
As women, we’re prone to downplay our own self-worth, much less shout it from the rooftops. Historically, we’ve been encouraged to be modest and humble. We don’t want to “overvalue” our accomplishments. I talk to really successful women every day who are reluctant to acknowledge their worth openly. Get over it.
6. You Can’t Go It Alone
Trust me. I do this for a living and, yet, seeing my own worth, what I’m really good at (and what I’m not) took looking in a mirror I didn’t have. I was the cobbler’s child with no shoes. It’s a struggle because it’s not an objective measure but rather a deeply personal and always-complex set of variables and process of evaluation. It means being able to ask yourself the right questions. It’s about throwing all the cards up in the air and being able to have someone else see where they land. For me, this meant working with a colleague and friend, Michael Katz, one of the best marketing for small business gurus around, whom I’d known decades ago. He was able to align the starry, clear-eyed me back then to the capable, talented me of today.
A kind of “brand therapy,” if you will, from someone who understands the deep relationship between marketing and public perception, the immutability between the two.
I needed someone to help me forge my own personal brand. And so do you.
Sounds like a pitch? I suppose, on some level, it is. I’m good at what I do. I create personal brands that change professional lives. But that’s because I love it. And that’s an old love, one that’s been there from the beginning. I just didn’t see it for a long time.