Personal Branding

February 18th, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

Personal branding is basically the way you market yourself to the world. Your personal brand is what other people think of you. In some ways it’s outside your control, but you obviously have some influence over it.

Personal branding is unavoidable. As others interact with you, they’ll automatically form mental associations that connect you with certain labels, often within the first few seconds. You can’t avoid being labeled, and other people can’t avoid labeling you. It happens automatically because our brains are wired to recognize patterns and form associations. The labels people attach to you become part of your personal brand.

If you type an email, you’re branding yourself. If you have a conversation with a friend or family member, you’re branding yourself. How you dress, what you eat, and how you talk all contribute to your brand. Think of your brand as the summation of all the associations about you that are stored in people’s minds.

A test of personal branding

This section has been edited since its original version. In the original version, I included a quick branding test, but that test is now over, and the branding results have been posted. Here’s what the original text said in case you’re curious:

Before we continue I’d like to ask you to do me a simple favor. It should honestly take you less than a minute. Go to my contact form, and send me a quick 3-word message. Just type 3 adjectives that you feel describe me. Maybe you’ve been reading this site for a while, or maybe this is your very first visit. It doesn’t matter. Just go with whatever pops into your head. Just type those 3 words into the message box, and send it. Don’t worry about whether your words are in order or priority or whether they sound positive or negative. Just send me any 3 words that you feel describe me as a person. You don’t need to type anything else for the message other than those three words, although you can type more if you want to. I’ll know that the 3-word messages are for this exercise.

Please take a moment to do this before you continue reading if you’re going to do it at all. Otherwise what you read next could influence your results, and I’d rather get your first impression for this before I start filling your head with other adjectives. I’ll wait… :)

After a day or two, I’ll compile the feedback and see if I can make sense of it. If so I may share the results in a future post, so we can all see what you collectively think of my personal brand and if there are some interesting general lessons we can extract.

For the purpose of this exercise, I have no control over what you might say, and I really don’t know what the most common adjectives will be. But obviously I’ve had some influence over your opinion, especially if you’re a long-term reader.

Your external brand

Your external brand is how you project yourself to the world. There is an element of choice here. You can decide what to say or write in order to convey a certain image. Your projected image will influence what others think of you and how they might choose to interact with you. You may stumble upon this image accidentally, or you can deliberately target a specific type of image.

I think the best external image to project is the one you believe best reflects who you really are. Being yourself simply means being honest.

In my view it makes little sense to pretend to be something you’re not. I don’t pretend to be a therapist with a Ph.D in psychology because that isn’t who I am. I could pick up a Ph.D from an unaccredited “degree mill” school and call myself Dr. Pavlina, but what’s the point? That mindset assumes that in order to get what I want, I must pretend to be something I’m not. But how can I get what I want if I have to disconnect from myself to get it? To me the whole notion of projecting a false image makes no sense. It can only stem from a lack of acceptance of who I am.

When people project an obviously false image at me, it only causes me to brand them in a negative way… with labels like fake, phony, insincere, disconnected, inauthentic, shallow, and so on. Those labels automatically trigger other associations like: probably wants to sell me something, going to throw up now, and where’s the fire escape?

On the other hand, I think there’s some value to projecting an image that fits who you really are. For example if you’re a very neat and organized person, but you have a scruffy beard, you’re broadcasting an incongruent message, whether you agree with it or not. This is why facial hair and salespeople don’t go well together. Many people think that if you have facial hair, you’re trying to hide something, and that isn’t good for work that requires you to build trust. Many years ago I heard about a salesperson who increased his sales just by shaving off his beard.

Paying attention to your external image needn’t become an ego trip. Really it’s just the opposite. Becoming aware of how others see you helps you identify blind spots within yourself. Then you can work on those blind spots to help you become more internally congruent. For example, our bearded salesperson may realize he (hopefully not she) was sabotaging his results because he didn’t really want to work in sales anyway.

Sometimes there are practical problems with getting your external brand and your self-image to match up. This is why I can’t dress myself. If I were truly being myself, I’d probably dress like an off-duty Star Trek character, but since I also don’t know how to shop for clothes, I still dress like it’s 1989 instead of Stardate 42523.7. But when I look deeper into this problem, I see it points me to a bigger issue — that I still need to learn to delegate. The right person, such as an image consultant, could probably fix this problem for me. So the internal-external inconsistency is really there to help point me in the direction of positive growth. Time to say goodbye to Thrilla Gorilla. :(

Your internal brand

In addition to your external brand, which is how most people think about personal branding, you also have an internal brand. This is what you think of yourself.

What 3 adjectives would you use to describe yourself? Take a moment to think about that, and jot them down. Is this a brand you feel good about? Does it really resonate with you? Is this the same image you project to the world? If you could change those adjectives, what would you change them to?

If I were to do this exercise, I’d probably pick intelligent, curious, and direct. Other words I could use to describe myself include honest, growth-oriented, happy, independent, unconventional, deep, compassionate, purposeful, ambitious, conscious, focused, disciplined, strategic, responsible, thorough, persistent, practical, funny, holistic, clever, creative, accepting, and inspired. Ask me tomorrow, and I might pick different adjectives, but these are the ones that popped into my head right now. Your choices may be totally different than mine, but this is how I think of myself at this particular time.

Now ask yourself if your internal personal brand matches the external brand you project to others. You don’t necessarily know what others think of you, but you should at least know if there are any parts of yourself you don’t fully accept which you try to hide from others. If you find some areas you’ve been hiding, consider that your lack of self-acceptance may be blinding you from seeing these aspects as the assets they really are.

For example, if you see yourself as introverted, you could see that in a negative light (shy, antisocial) or in a positive light (intelligent, deep). If you sometimes describe yourself in negative terms, see if those terms also have a positive side. Consider focusing on the positive aspects instead.

I’m colorblind, so I could certainly see that in a negative light. I could internally brand myself as limited, defective, or impaired. But instead I choose to focus on the positive aspects. I see the world differently than most people, so that gives me the opportunity to be original, insightful, and non-superficial. My colorblindness also helps me connect with people, since I always need help picking ripe fruit, and when I try to do it on my own, it often gives others a good laugh.

Brand interaction

It’s expected that your internal brand and your external brand won’t completely coincide, and that’s OK, but those incongruencies can create interesting interactions that help you grow in unexpected ways.

For example, people sometimes send me emails indicating they find me a bit quirky or strange. That’s how they see me, but it isn’t really how I see myself. However, I can understand why people see me this way because I’m really curious about a lot of things, I like to learn through direct experience, and I especially enjoy creative undertakings. So while I don’t try to be intentionally quirky, I must admit that is a side effect of my general approach to life. By understanding that this is how others see me, however, I can acknowledge it up front, such as by poking fun at myself for undertaking yet another strange experiment, even though it doesn’t seem that way to me. When I do something strange and don’t acknowledge the strangeness, people can feel disconnected from me, but when I show that I’m aware of their perceptions, it keeps us connected.

Once you’ve gotten yourself assigned a few adjectives in someone else’s mind, it can be very difficult to change that. So just make the best of the adjectives you’ve been assigned. When you learn how others see you, you can “play back at them” by acknowledging their expectations. Instead of trying to fight your own branding, roll with it and turn it into a strength. This actually helps you reconnect your external brand with your internal one.

If I see myself as curious, while others see me as quirky, I can accept the quirkiness label and run with it. I can see how quirkiness still aligns with my internal brand. Quirkiness connects well with being creative and unconventional. It can also fit with intelligence because some people associate quirkiness with genius. Geniuses are strange people with odd personality quirks, right? By acknowledging and accepting what other people think of me, I can help to bring that projected image into better alignment with my own self-image. This helps other people connect with me as I am instead of connecting with a false projection of who they think I am.

This morning I did some spontaneous personal brand testing my family. Erin brands me as “insightful, courageous, and passionate.” My 7-year-old daughter, Emily, describes me as “tough, big, and strong.” I told her I brand her as “cute, creative, and sneaky.” Erin brands Emily as “funny, mischievous, and caring.” Emily described her 4-year-old brother as “little, clean, and bumpy.” Everyone is right because these brands all exist in their minds.

Personal branding has a lot to teach us about personal growth. It’s a rich place to explore. I encourage you to try the earlier exercise with your friends, family, and coworkers. Ask everyone to describe you with 3 adjectives. You’ll learn a great deal from it.

Incidentally, the Stardate I mentioned earlier (Are you geek enough to have already Googled it? Or worse… recognized it from memory?) is from an episode that really brings home the importance of personal branding. If you aren’t a Trekkie and have no idea what I’m talking about, well… methinks you’ve got bigger problems than personal branding. ;)

If I ever get bored of the tagline “Personal Development for Smart People,” I think I’ll go with “Tough, Big, and Strong.” :)



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