Personal Brand Defined by Habits

clock gears and parts

 The pursuit of excellence sounds like a lofty ideal that one may or may not be able to achieve. Why does it sound so far out? It sounds that way because we do not know what excellence looks like. How can we recognize something if we are unfamiliar with it? If we have never done it (achieved excellence) before, will we be able to do whatever it takes to get there?

What if excellence was not some nebulous behavior in which you engage but rather action based on habits? That is exactly how to reach excellence according to author and philosopher Will Durant. He states that excellence is an outcome of what we repeatedly do. Durant’s statement also suggests excellence is a choice. Excellence is a habit, but so is laziness. The good news is you get to decide which outcomes you wish to chase.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit. Will Durant quote

The Habit Outcome

I reflected on Will Durant’s thoughts on excellence and concluded it was not a platitude. Many results in my life—good and bad—have been fueled by habit. Earning a Ph.D. degree, gaining weight, losing weight, running a half-marathon, writing three books, improving relationships, and damaging relationships all resulted from habits. We are indeed creatures of habit. People like me who love routine and consistency can easily find themselves in a groove (or rut) as a result of habits.

If habits define us, it is imperative that we define our habits. You can choose which habits to practice. Some choices are proactively made because of anticipated benefits. If you wake up one hour early each morning to write 500 words of a novel, you see a payoff from consistently engaging in that behavior. You are more likely to have a finished novel one day if you embrace a regular practice of writing. We become what we repeatedly do; choose to spend time on activities that will take you closer to who you want to be.

The Destructive Habits

To this point, I have focused on positive habits that will lead to desired results. Habits cut both ways, however. Bad habits can move you further away from the outcomes you want to achieve. It is not that you plan self-sabotage, but repeated “bad” acts can have a cumulative effect of hindering personal growth.

So, what destructive habits are impeding your progress? Some of the usual culprits include:

  • TV. American adults watch more than five hours of TV daily on average. Although some of that time includes multitasking (often on other media consumption like Facebook), the takeaway is we spend a lot of time in front a screen. Is that use of time moving you closer to or further from your goals? No need to respond—we know the answer.
  • Social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social networks have become media staples for many Americans. Pew Research Center estimates that 69% of American adults are social media users, and many are frequent users. An estimated 76% of Facebook users are on the site daily. Daily usage numbers are also sizable for Instagram (51%) and Twitter (42%). Could you be using social media to work toward goals? Sure. Is that how you are using it, or could you envision time spent on social media being used more effectively?
  • Wellness. Using the best time management techniques could be derailed if you are a physical mess. Some combination of too many calories, too little exercise, and too little sleep hinders our physical effectiveness. We have less energy and endurance to partake in constructive activities, missing out on growth opportunities.

Wash, Rinse, and Repeat

This week, reflect on the habits in your life. Which ones are working in your favor, moving you toward the person you wish to become? Are there habits that you would be better off not having your life? Recognize them, understand how they are hurting you, and set out to replace them with other habits (i.e., behavior patterns) that will move you closer to excellence.

Note: This quote is often attributed to Aristotle, but it was made by Will Durant in a critique of Aristotle’s work.

 

Branding and the Three Degrees of Different

peas with one different color

In branding, sameness is considered a weakness. You may have heard the term “Commodity Hell” used to describe brand parity or sameness. Notice the term is not “Commodity Heaven” or “Commodity Bliss.” The quest to avoid sameness in branding can be traced back to the purpose of brands. They identify the source of a product (i.e., the responsible party) and differentiate from other products. A brand that does not set apart a product as distinctive could be doomed to become lost in a sea of similar offerings.

The importance of separation through branding applies to personal brands, too. We like to think that the quality of our work is enough to signal our value. It can happen, but do not count on your hard work being the difference. Chances are many employees in your organization work hard, so work alone will not make you stand out. Instead of focusing on working hard, maybe it is time to make being different a priority.

In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different. Coco Chanel quote

This week’s One to Grow On quote comes from fashion designer Coco Chanel. She suggests that the ultimate in branding, becoming irreplaceable, is driven by being different. Let’s unpack what it means to be different.

Three Degrees of Different

Coco Chanel’s advice to be different sounds simple enough. Different is the opposite of same, right? Well, yes it is, but we must be strategic in how we set out to be different. You can realize three degrees of differentiation through personal branding. Each one has potential to work (i.e., set your brand apart from others). The question to ask about each degree of different is whether it would be effective for your brand.

Different for the sake of being different. We can be different simply by adopting a distinguishing branding element. For example, a man could make polka-dot handkerchiefs a signature look in his professional attire. Similarly, a woman could always wear a scarf (even have every scarf be the same color). These memorable attributes become associated with that person. They become “the polka dot guy” or “the scarf lady.” This degree of different allows us to check the box that we are somehow different, but we may not possess a point of difference that actually helps other people.

Different but not unique. Most personal brand differentiation is described as different from others but not one-of-a-kind different. College students earning graduate degrees join a small minority of the population with an advanced degree (only 12% of Americans have grad degrees). Select group? Yes. Different from the rest of the world? No. You may set yourself apart from many others in your organization or field in some way that benefits others. That outcome is good; it is the overarching aim of branding. The downside is that there is still room for others to eclipse your point of difference and render you less competitive.

Different and unique. The ultimate in personal brand differentiation is to set yourself apart from others in a way that no one else can replicate. That point of difference is likely small and could be a combination of traits such as skills, personality, and experience. This degree of different is realistically achieved over time. You will not start out world class at anything. Different and unique should be an aspiration, not a starting point for personal brand differentiation.

The Courage of Different

Brand differentiation comes at a price: risk. Sameness offers comfort and certainty. We are less likely to fail or stand out for the wrong reasons if we do not go looking for a way to be different.

Coco Chanel’s quote intrigued me. I wondered how she had been different. Chanel is credited with breaking ground in fashion and women’s fragrances. She challenged status quo in attitudes toward the traditional black dress. Chanel transformed it to clothing worn for mourning to a fashion staple. Equating becoming irreplaceable with being different was not merely a pithy quote uttered by Coco Chanel. Her contributions as a designer and entrepreneur were due to her willingness to take risks.

What degree of different are you at today, or are you mired in sameness? If the latter describes you, it is imperative to select how you will break out of those chains. You probably know people that are irreplaceable at what they do. What makes them different from others who are vulnerable to being replaced? What do you need to do to move to the irreplaceable list? Differentiation is not about novelty; it is about necessity.

Your College Degree Doesn’t Mean Much

graduation

It is an exciting time on campus at my institution, Middle Tennessee State University. More than 2,500 students will graduate in three ceremonies today and tomorrow. It is a joyful time for graduates and their families. It is a significant accomplishment for students who persevered through exams, presentations, and assignments with a dysfunctional group. Congratulations! Now here is something else to know: Your degree does not hold much value.

The headline seems heretical coming from someone who earns a living in higher education. How can I say a college degree does not mean much? It certainly costs a lot in sweat equity and of course, money. A former boss introduced me to this idea about the value of a degree during a job interview. I was dismayed and disgusted at the time, but later I understood.

What Does It Mean?

It was during my first meeting with my future boss that he proclaimed “your degree doesn’t mean much to me.” I was taken aback. As a first generation college graduate, I was proud to have a bachelor’s degree on my résumé. How dare this man disparage my education!

The boss followed his statement about my degree with an explanation. He said “To me, it shows you are trainable. We will train you in our systems and ways of doing things.” I was still miffed by his statement about the value of my degree, but I understood his point. That encounter occurred 27 years ago. It is still the most salient exchange in a job interview I have ever had.

The belief that a college degree does not mean much is a viewpoint to which I have come around. The issue is that many graduates see their degree as being akin to a golden ticket. They feel entitled to a certain salary or position because they earned a college degree. In that regard, a college degree does not mean much. It is not a “fast pass” to the front of a line… although not having a degree can exclude you from the line.

There is Value

Before you begin questioning me, or worse, the value of having a college degree, let me state that it is definitely worth the time and investment to earn. On one hand, there is tangible evidence of the benefits of a college degree as measured in dollars. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median lifetime earnings for persons with a bachelor’s degree is almost $2.3 million compared to $1.3 million for persons whose highest education level is a high school diploma. Obtaining a college degree opens doors by equipping graduates with necessary skills. At the same time, a degree serves a gatekeeping function to exclude persons without a college education.

The most valuable aspect of a college degree is not the deliverable (the diploma). The most valuable aspect of earning a college degree is the transformative process students go through to complete their academic program. In the book Me: How to Sell Who You Are, What You Do, and Why You Matter to the World, Colby Jubenville and I discuss the role soft skills play in shaping your personal brand. The tendency might be to associate a college education with learning hard skills (e.g., computer programming languages or generally accepted accounting principles). Hard skills are taught, but what many employers long for are employees with solid soft skills. What are some soft skills? They are intangible abilities such as:

  • communication (oral and written)
  • leadership
  • teamwork

You can take college courses pertaining to many soft skills like communication and leadership. More importantly, students have opportunities to develop soft skills in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, and in their social lives.

You need not choose between focusing on developing hard skills or soft skills because you need both to shape the makeup of your personal brand (one of the three Ms of a personal brand along with meaning and message). Think of hard skills and soft skills as complementary pieces for your brand. Consider these statistics as reasons to pay attention to developing hard skills and soft skills:

  • Hard skills get you in the door—69% of human resources professionals say that they look first at an applicant’s hard skills to determine if they are viable candidates.
  • Soft skills get you the job—56% of human resources professionals say the most important abilities in new hires are soft skills, especially interpersonal relations.

Leverage Your Value

My former boss was wrong—a college degree does mean a lot. However, it is up to you to unlock the value. The degree itself is a commodity, with many variations of the product issued by higher education institutions across the country. It is up to you to differentiate our brand with a mix of meaning, makeup, and message unique to your identity. Leverage the benefits of earning a college degree to add value to your brand and stand out from millions of other people that have the same credential.

Don’t Find Your Brand, Create It

create

The month of May is an exciting time in higher education. The conclusion of the spring term brings with it commencement ceremonies. This rite of passage marks both an ending and beginning. Graduates have completed requirements to earn a college degree. It is a time of celebration, but it is also an uncertain time as they open the next chapter of their lives.

I don’t mean to sound too dramatic when saying that graduates’ future is on the line as they transition from college to career. Given the stakes involved, you would not want to aimlessly wander off a college campus and see what comes your way next. A plan is needed for a first career step. It does not have to be a quest to find the job or company to which you will commit your entire career. You are looking for a starting point as you build something unique and valuable: your personal brand.

This week’s One to Grow On quote speaks to college graduates embarking on their professional journey. But, it also speaks to all of us regardless of where we are on life’s path. Are you actively creating what you want to be, do, or have? Or, are you hoping it will cross your path, and you will know it’s what you want when you see it?

Creating Work Life

Transitioning from full-time student to full-time employee is one of the greatest challenges for college graduates. Their experience and understanding of business can be limited. Even if you study business in college you quickly find there are many differences between business as examined in the classroom and the inner workings of a business to which you contribute. In other words, college can help prepare you to be an accountant or salesperson, but it is not equipped as well to train students to be employees.

You can choose to find yourself or create yourself when it comes to your career. One way creating yourself is manifested among workers today is the trend toward a higher number of jobs held in one’s career. Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that workers born between 1957-1964 held about 12 different jobs on average between the ages of 18 and 48 . Holding different jobs has become a part of the early career stages. A LinkedIn study found that workers have an average of four different jobs by age 32. This trend among Millennial workers is markedly different from Generation Xers at the same age who changed jobs an average of twice during their first ten years after college.

The frequency of job change might raise some eyebrows, but it can viewed as a positive behavior… if the change is done in the name of creating yourself. Workers stuck in jobs in which they are not challenged or find their work meaningful are prime “create yourself” candidates.

Lost and Found

The choice to create yourself is so much more appealing than hoping to find yourself. Choosing the latter suggests that you must be lost. Many people are lost when it comes to their jobs. Surveys of workplace satisfaction have found that about 70 percent of American workers are unhappy about their job. The degree of unhappiness might vary, but it is a sobering thought that most workers have negative feelings about their work situation.

Statistics on worker dissatisfaction suggests most of us will become lost when it comes to work at some point in our careers. If you are unhappy, you can take comfort in knowing you are in the majority. Now, it is up to you to be rescued. You can drift and hope for a rescue, or you can take actions to get rescued (create a desired outcome).

What to Create

The find yourself-create yourself quandary has no quick fixes. However, the choice to create the life you want is connected to creating the personal brand you want. Your brand is a representation of who you are (meaning), how you are trained to create value (makeup), and your interactions with others (message).

Creating the life you want is impossible without first creating the person you must be to live out the life you want. The 3Ms of your personal brand are the ingredients needed to make that happen.

Three Defining Traits of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Personal Brand

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was restless in the early hours of Tuesday morning. He admitted as much in a tweet.

A few hours later the world would find out the reason for Dale Jr.’s feelings. He announced his retirement from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at the end of the 2017 season. He is stepping away after 18 seasons racing in the Cup Series. Earnhardt missed much of the 2016 season after sustaining a concussion. Now, he will step away permanently at season’s end.

The planned retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr. marks a continued changing of the guard in NASCAR. Jeff Gordon retired two years ago, followed by Tony Stewart last season. Earnhardt’s departure will leave a void for NASCAR, too. Dale Jr.’s retirement will be felt because he has one of the most distinctive personal brands in NASCAR. His brand stands out because of three traits: authenticity, accessibility, and likeability.

Authenticity

A distinctive personal brand must stand on one’s inner moral voice to guide actions. Making decisions in an effort to gain approval of others is not a sustainable approach. Your brand is not based on you at that point but rather your response to what others want from you. An authentic personal brand will not be universally admired, but that is OK. The aim of branding is not to please everyone. Instead, your task is to clarify brand meaning and act upon it—work, play, or anything else you do.

The outward appearance of brand authenticity can be described simply as “what you see is what you get.” This trait is salient for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has not erected an elaborate facade that is his brand image. He is not the product of a PR machine. Like his father, legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Jr. seemed to become more polished over time as his role as product endorser and marketer expanded. But, he never lost the “feel of real” racing fans observed in him even before his professional racing career began.

Accessibility

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a fan favorite throughout his racing career. You want proof? He has been named NASCAR Most Popular Driver by fans 14 years in a row. His retirement means someone else will get to win the award, but that driver will probably have to wait until 2018! Dale Jr. is at ease engaging fans face-to-face and on social media. He comes across as very transparent compared to most people living in the public eye. Dale Jr.’s accessibility to the public is a contributing factor to his brand authenticity. There are no discrepancies between public persona and private life.

Likeability

The endearing personality of Dale Earnhardt Jr. has enhanced the marketability of his personal brand. Although he has enjoyed his share of success on the race track (26 Cup Series wins, including two Daytona 500 victories), it is Dale Jr.’s brand image that attracts sponsors. A primary car sponsorship in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series can run upward of $20 million a season. Racing teams are finding it harder to secure corporate sponsors. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is an exception. Some 20 brands are partners with Dale Jr. today. In 2016, Forbes reported Dale Jr.’s earnings at $23.5 million, with the lion’s share of his earnings coming through product endorsements. Sponsors seek to link their brands with the favorable associations racing fans hold for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A Victory Lap

The remainder of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season will undoubtedly include many tributes to Dale Earnhardt Jr. He will be showered with recognition and gifts as he visits different tracks for the final time as a Cup Series driver. At a press conference discussing his retirement decision, Dale Jr. said “I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms.” That sentiment is fitting for someone that has “been his own man” even though he was the son of one of the most famous NASCAR drivers of all time.

Enjoy this video tribute to the Dale Sr.-Dale Jr. relationship by the Zac Brown Band. Dale Jr. tweeted after watching it for the first time that “it made my eyeballs sweat.” Not a surprising reaction from someone who is as authentic as they come and lives his brand.

Authoring the Definition of You

dictionary

The definition of a brand is more complex than you think. A narrow view of a brand is that it is a name, logo, or other identifying marks that denote the owner or responsible party of a brand. Branding used for these reasons can be traced back to the medieval period. Today, the role of brands has evolved far beyond these functional purposes. A brand concurrently fulfills the roles of:

  • Identity (name, logo, etc. for which brands were originally created)
  • Image (perceptions in the minds of people who come in contact with the brand)
  • Promises (expressed and implied performance attributes associated with a brand)
  • Relationship (connection point between a customer or other person and the entity represented by the brand).

Brand building entails a tug-of-war between brand owner and constituents. Who defines brand meaning? The owner does… but so does the brand’s audience. The goal of brand management is narrowing the gap between how the brand owner wants to be perceived (identity) and how the brand is viewed (image). The wider the gap, the more branding and marketing attention needed.

"Accept no one's definition of your life; define yourself." - Harvey Fierstein quote This week’s One to Grow On quote admonishes us to fiercely protect our brand. Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein suggests it is our obligation to author the definition of our brand. Others will want to do it for you, but their definition could be incomplete or worse, incorrect.

Harvey Fierstein knows something about the importance of defining one’s self. He was one of the first openly gay American actors at a time when few celebrities had come out. Rather than hide or skirt the issue, Fierstein has woven his sexual orientation into his brand. His self-definition comes through in his writing on gay issues and by incorporating gay life into dramas.

The Define Line

Why is Harvey Fierstein’s quote on defining your life (and by extension, your brand) so important? You must keep in mind that your brand will be defined. There is no such thing as anonymity when it comes to your personal brand. Some brands are more distinctive and better known than others, but all brands are defined. The question becomes who will define it?

We live in a world in which people are quick to form judgments about a situation or person. If you have any doubts, scroll through comments on just about any news article posted on Facebook. Sometimes, you wonder if the people making comments read the same article… or whether they read the article at all. Depth of understanding is no obstacle to having an opinion.

This instant reaction environment has huge implications for personal brands. While I loathe the parade of articles and blog posts about the importance of a professional looking photo in one’s social media profiles, the point made is valid. People make judgments about us with no more information than a thumbnail-sized square full of pixels. They surmise our age, form opinions on physical attractiveness, and immediately can have a like-don’t like position.

Although there is much, much more to personal branding than your photo, it is a reminder that you must put in the work to define yourself. If you do not, the world around you will be all too glad to do it for you.

What’s the Definition?

It is imperative that you proactively manage your personal brand. No product or corporate brand manager in their right mind would let their brand be defined however the market wants to define it. The reason for marketing as we know it is to create a process for influencing others’ definition of a brand. Rather than accept others’ definition of you, stake out the position you want. If not, the labels assigned as others judge us will be our defining attributes. Do you want to be known as:

  • Too inexperienced
  • Not assertive enough
  • Lacking the ideal education pedigree
  • Uninteresting
  • Incapable of leading others?

I am hard pressed to think of an instance where any of these labels would promote your personal brand. They are labels handed out by others. Do you want to own them, or do you want to operate the label maker?

Have Fun with It

Take on the challenge to define your brand rather than allowing others to have that privilege. For far too long, efforts I made to define my brand were reactive, even driven by fear. I wanted my brand to be flawless and avoid making mistakes. That was my first mistake! I have gotten over pursuing that unrealistic ideal.

Today, I am having more fun than ever living my brand. It is what it is, and there is a lot of value offered through it. It is not perfect, nor does it have to be.

Becoming Known the Key to Personal Branding Success

Known book cover

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be famous (assuming you are not already famous)? Celebrities and their lifestyles fascinate us. I once saw a “person on the street” interview in which a teenage girl said her career goal was “to be famous like Paris Hilton.” Fame has become a career path, apparently.

You may have no desire to become famous like Paris Hilton, but you can aspire to be something even more important: known. That idea is at the heart of the latest book by social media marketing expert Mark Schaefer. His sixth book is Known: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age. Schaefer knows a thing or two about being known. He is recognized, err known, as an authority on blogging, content marketing, and social media marketing. His {grow} blog has legions of followers, and his podcast “The Marketing Companion” (co-hosted with Tom Webster) is billed as “the most entertaining marketing podcast”—and delivers on that claim.

A Fix for Bad Personal Branding

You can find a lot written about personal branding… and a lot of it is crap. Oh, you can find plenty of blog posts sharing the five or seven steps to building your personal brand. The problem is the task of building a brand is such a monumental task it cannot be tackled in a 600 word blog post.

Another shortcoming of most works on the topic of personal branding is that they are heavy on what you should do but light on how to do it. In Known, Schaefer overcomes both of these limitations. The book has the needed depth to walk anyone through the process of positioning and communicating your brand. Moreover, application exercises throughout the book enable you to gain personal brand clarity.

Becoming Known

Known is the culmination of extensive research and interviews with people who are where those of us reading the book aim to reach: being known. Schaefer distills his research into becoming known by identifying four critical factors.

  1. Finding your place (what it is you want to do and can do consistently)
  2. Finding your space (an “uncontested niche” to be differentiated)
  3. Finding your fuel (creating content in an “open space that reflects your interests and personality)
  4. Creating an actionable audience (activating responses through engagement, networking, and influence).

Schaefer’s presentation is so effective, it is tempting to say “it’s that simple.” OK, becoming known is not as easy as 1,2, 3, 4. It is hard work and requires persistence, themes that appear regularly throughout the book. But, the blend of concepts, how to, and case studies of people who have succeeded in communicating their personal brand’s value indeed make Known a personal branding handbook.

Best of the Best

So what are my takeaways from Known? Here is the list:

  • Be wary of following your passion. It is advice espoused by many personal branding and career experts. Instead, Schaefer advocates focusing on a “sustainable interest” that can connect your brand to the well-being of others.
  • While you seek to stake out an uncontested niche (i.e., your space), you do not have to be the first person there. First-mover advantage can be just that, an advantage. However, history reminds that being first does not equal being the greatest (think Atari video games and Commodore PCs).
  • Content is the fuel to become known. People may come to know you, but it will happen because they know your content, first.
  • Never publish content that can be created by someone else. Lack of distinctive content puts one on a fast track to anonymity.
  • Audience is the fire created by fuel (content). It is not enough to create great content. An audience must be aware of it, relate to it, and accept it.

Now What?

A drawback to many business books is that it is difficult to maintain momentum from ideas taken from a book. If that happens after reading Known, it will be our own fault. Why? The key to being known is consistency. Managing the four areas of your brand (place, space, fuel, and audience) is an ongoing concern. Consistency is a must. It will not come from a book, blog, conference, or other person. It’s our turn to become known.

Become a Master Biscuit Maker

2014 Bojangles Master Biscuit Maker Challenge winner Travis Squire (bojangles.com)

A serving tray liner at a Bojangles restaurant was the last place I expected to get a personal branding lesson. But, I have come to realize that learning is possible in the most unlikely situations. On a recent breakfast visit to Bojangles with my youngest son, my chicken biscuit came with a side of personal branding. More specifically, the tray liner featured winners of the company’s biscuit making competition. At first, I thought the “competition” was a witty means of persuading diners how delicious Bojangles biscuits can be. I quickly realized it was no joke; there are skilled employees practicing the craft of biscuit making at Bojangles.

A Master Biscuit Maker- Really?

The information on the tray liner about the Master Biscuit Maker Challenge intrigued me, so I researched it further. First, the name Master Biscuit Maker is not just something made up for a contest. Bojangles certifies employees as Master Biscuit Makers. The process includes passing a written exam about the company’s 48-step biscuit making process. Second, certified Master Biscuit Makers compete at the store, area, and regional level for a chance to go to company headquarters in Charlotte for the finals. The 2016 competition included 17 finalists representing  a mix of corporate owned and franchise locations. Each finalist received $250 while vying for a grand prize of $2500. Two grand prize winners included one employee one from company stores and one from franchise stores.

Perhaps I am too easily impressed, but the concept of a Master Biscuit Maker kept crossing my mind in the days after my breakfast visit to Bojangles. Could it be envy? After all, my definition of achievement when it comes to biscuit making is successfully popping open a can of biscuits. No, I don’t think it is envy that attracts me to this story. I think it is awesome that Bojangles elevated the process of biscuit making to something akin to a craft. The significance of biscuit making in Bojangles’ brand experience is reinforced by the Master Biscuit Makers certification program.

Working on Skill Set

A takeaway from learning about the Bojangles Master Biscuit Maker Challenge is that skill development is indispensable to personal branding. One of my favorite sayings is “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.” This idea applies to personal branding, too. No amount of tweets, blog posts, or slick web pages can conceal an under-developed skill set. Skills are central to your personal brand Makeup. They are at the heart of your “product” offering.

In the book Me: How to Sell Who You Are, What You Do, and Why You Matter to the World, Colby Jubenville and I devote a chapter to skill set development. A blend of hard skills (i.e., measurable competencies or knowledge) and soft skills (indirectly measurable abilities like critical thinking and communication) are essential to differentiate your brand. Bojangles Master Biscuit Makers invest in strengthening their hard skills by elevating biscuit making from task to craft.

Do the Work

A Chinese proverb says “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.” When it comes to enhancing the skill set of your personal brand, it could be argued that the best time to develop expertise has passed. The good news is that the next best time is now, followed by tomorrow, and the day after, and so on. Too many people aspire to be the pro or expert. They forget to plan for the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book Outliers. To be among the best in your field requires work… a lot of work. Consistent practice and repetition is where you build your “muscles” in the skill or job you have chosen.

A fierce commitment to skill development can have another positive impact beyond getting better at what you do: It can fan the flames of passion. Despite all of the calls to “follow your passion,” you are more likely to experience a passion awakening by becoming better at what you do. You can be energized by successes, recognition, and especially realization that you are creating value for others.

I am impressed by the commitment and ability shown by Bojangles Master Biscuit Makers. Their story illustrates you do not have to be in a high profile environment to perform at a high level. The kitchen of a quick service restaurant might seem like an unlikely place to find people sharpening skills, but that is exactly what is going on. Bojangles biscuits taste even better knowing the commitment of the company to the skill of biscuit making.

People Don’t Like You and That’s OK

Your brand is not for everyone. The sooner you stop worrying about being liked and focus on the people you can best serve, the sooner you will create a distinctive personal brand.

crying child

Acceptance is a basic human need. Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed love and belonging (i.e., having relationships with others) as being one of five types of needs we strive to meet. In Maslow’s hierarchy, these social needs sit squarely in the middle, pursued once physiological and safety needs are met. When we are satisfied with relationships and acceptance from others, we are freed to pursue higher level needs: esteem (feeling of accomplishment) and self-actualization (achieving one’s full potential). Please don’t leave; the psychology less is now over!

I share a brief review of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with you because it has implications for personal branding. Our pursuit of fulfilling the need to belong and feel loved could lead us to try casting a wide net. At an extreme, you want everyone to like you. Forget that extreme—everyone will not like you or me. Once we embrace this marketing fundamental we can focus on creating value for the people who matter most.

Hit the Target

Identifying a target market is a default marketing strategy. That means targeting is not a question of should you do it but rather how should you do it. If that is disheartening to you, think about it— a brand cannot be all things to all people. When it comes to product brands, even highly successful products and services do not appeal to everyone. For some people, the price is too high. For others, they do not see the brand’s image as being compatible with their self-image. Yet others do not like a brand because of negative information held in memory, whether it be from first-hand experience or word-of-mouth. I could go on to create a lengthy list of reasons people do not buy a particular brand, but you get the point.

Free yourself from trying to be a brand for everyone. Instead, focus on serving a target market. By definition, a target market is a group of people most likely to be interested in what you have to offer. Knowing your target market is important because it enables you to make two important decisions:

  1. How to best utilize your talents to create value through your work, content creation, volunteerism, and other ways you have impact.
  2. Gives direction on how to allocate two precious resources, time and money, to serve other people.

When you embrace serving a specific target market, it will give you clarity in how to use your resources. More importantly, you will feel less pressure to try to please everyone.

Finding Your Target

Understanding the benefits of serving a defined target market is one thing, figuring out what that market is can be a more daunting task. My favorite approach for determining your target market is to ask three questions that give insight into the people you serve. They are:

  1. What benefit or unmet need can I help people realize or fulfill?
  2. What are the personal characteristics of people I can help (i.e., age, profession, geographic area, life situation, etc.)?
  3. What are the best communication channels to reach and engage these people?

Effective marketing involves asking questions, lots of them. Defining your target market is no exception. Ask questions about the people you serve, and you shall receive clarity on your target market.

Take a Stand

Creating a distinctive brand entails taking a stand to be the real you. It is this choice that will turn off some people from your brand. For example, Gary Vaynerchuk is known for having one of the most powerful personal brands in marketing and social media. His direct, sometimes profane delivery at the same time attracts and repels. People turned off by his style can go elsewhere to consume and learn. Gary will do just fine without them. Why? He has clear answers to the three questions about the people he serves. Gary creates value for those people; his message resonates with them.

Taking a stand means you will have non-fans, detractors, and even haters. The alternative is indifference because your brand does not elicit reaction. The former is preferred to the latter. Don’t let a quest to gain acceptance dilute your convictions. Stay true to your brand.

Three Questions Behind Your Personal Brand

question marks

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with instructions. Sometimes, we follow instructions for a while but stray from them when they become too complicated or vague. Other times, we forgo instructions altogether under the belief that we can “figure it out.” And, we may be able to figure it out with some success. Ultimately, the choice not to follow instructions can leave us with a less than ideal outcome, like assembling a piece of furniture with a couple of screws left over. We do not know what to do with the screws because we did not follow instructions and hope that the unused screws do not come back to haunt us later.

Your own brand is too valuable to be left to chance or following only those instructions that you find easy or comfortable. Instructions can answer questions you do not even know you have. You may want to transform your personal brand. Or, you may come reluctantly to personal branding because someone has made it a requirement- a teacher or boss has given you an assignment to complete.

Regardless of where you are coming from, reflect on three important questions that inspired Colby Jubenville and me to share our instruction set for personal branding in Me: How to Sell Who You Are, What You Do, & Why You Matter to the World: 1) Why me? 2) Why not me? 3) If not me, then who?

Why Me?

It is possible you are taken aback by our book’s title: Me. If you are a millennial (often defined as persons born between 1981 and 2000), you are tired of labels associated with your generational group of “self-centered” and “self-absorbed.” A book about “me” seems to play to those labels. Contrary to that notion, a decision to proactively market yourself has positive connotations. First, no one else in this world has the incentive or urgency to manage your brand that you have- not parents, spouse, friends, or boss- only you. These important people in your life can support you as you build and maintain your brand, but they cannot do it for you as well as you can do it for yourself.

Second, managing your personal brand creates value for the people with whom you interact or serve. The personal benefit to you in terms of professional growth, income, and satisfaction are by-products of the value you add in others’ lives. So, far from being a venture in self-indulgence, personal branding is an ongoing process of creating benefit for the world around you.

Why Not Me?

Personal branding is an ongoing concern just as brand management is an ongoing concern for companies and products. However, do not look at managing your brand as a burden to bear or price to pay. Rather, you will enjoy the fruits of proactively managing your professional and personal identity. You should not be excluded from the potential growth that managing your personal brand offers. As you observe others who have “made it,” consider that they most likely earned whatever success or status they have attained- it was not handed to them. Similarly, you can be that person other people notice moving up and ahead because of your commitment to nurture your brand. Give yourself permission to grow through building a distinctive personal brand.

If Not Me, Then Who?

It is not surprising that many people hold themselves back through fear of failure. They cannot fathom what will happen to them or what others will think of them if they do not land their dream job, do not get the promotion, fail at a major project, or lose their job. Some level of fear is natural and can even be motivational, driving you to overcome limiting fears to achieve goals. But, another fear that may be more surprising is fear of success. “How will my relationships change if I am promoted?” or “What will my new goals be if I reach my current ones?” Yes, we can be afraid of what we will encounter if we actually get what we want.

The combination of fear of failure and fear of success can serve to sabotage our growth plans, ensuring we do not get hurt… except that is exactly what happens when we limit our own growth. Could someone else step up? Yes, but do not shortchange yourself. Do not defer to others at the expense of your own growth and advancement. A clearly defined personal brand will give you confidence and direction to deal with and overcome the dual threat of fear of failure and fear of success.

The Only Dumb Questions…

You have heard the expression that the only dumb questions are the ones never asked. This timeless saying applies to personal branding, too. You should be asking “why me,” “why not me,” and “if not me then who” daily. These questions keep us oriented as to why our brand matters and how proactively managing it can create value for others.