Get out your branding iron and make your mark

March 23, 2012

I recently came across a cleverly organized résumé that resembled a Google search page. Although not a new idea, it illustrates how people expect others will examine them, in particular their working life, before they ever meet in person.

What a Google search discloses can mean more than any résumé, and it seems many share this view, given that there exists an entire "personal branding" industry to help professionals hone their message and image.

When the concept of personal branding started to take hold, I felt skeptical. The idea that so many people could claim to be an expert in their given field seemed highly implausible and I lamented this latest sign of the "me, me, me" era.

As an active user of social media, I often feel like a spectator in a digital coliseum, where experts battle it out in forums, trying to prove to their industry peers they know more than others.

But I've recently been converted to the idea of personal branding when it's done properly, and isn't just a fancy way of saying that you regularly update every social-media site under the sun.

With so many people vying for a piece of the knowledge-based economy, the market dictates that we must differentiate ourselves if we want to stand out. Entrepreneurs learn the value of branding quickly, but even those working in a corporate environment, where many people trumpet the same kinds of skills and experience, should realize the value of personal branding.

"In the corporate world, you need to look at yourself differently than before. Your employer is interested in your skills, but if you want to separate yourself and get ahead, you have to stand for something," said , a Toronto-based personal branding specialist who works with senior leaders in the private and public sectors.

"If you have a skill that a lot of people have, you need to have more than a great résumé," she said, adding that many recruiters now feel that branding is a must.

First, let's define personal branding, a term that is largely misunderstood, and agree that it goes beyond using , and . Experts say the term refers to finding your "ultimate value proposition"– the unique value you bring to an employer or customer – and ensuring that you convey that story in all facets of your work life.

Ms. Bishop calls it your "secret sauce." She takes the same approach with people as with major product brands and insists that once you discover your unique value offering, and align your career (or product) around it, it paves the way to greater revenue.

For example, Ms. Bishop worked with one prominent female politician and found her brand to be "scrappy," an attribute that the woman embraced and that helped her with voters. Oprah Winfrey, one of the world's biggest personal brands, could stand for "generosity of spirit."

Discovering your personal brand can be a liberating process. Ms. Bishop said she encounters many senior, female leaders who feel they cannot be themselves at work. They lead a double life: the persona they have developed for the workplace, and their real life outside the office. This double life no longer works in our modern environment, where personal and business lines are blurred.

The concept of personal branding seems to appeal to women more than men; consultants I spoke with said they work with considerably more female clients than male.

Tyler J. Smith, who runs Toronto-based , said the ratio of her clients is 10 women for every man. She attributes the high number of female clients to the various career transitions women encounter. At some point in her career, Ms. Smith said, "the average woman will need to manage a leave for family reasons."

She believes that being strongly aware of their personal brand helps women develop a clear career path, and ensures that they make fewer missteps as they enter, or re-enter, the work force.

For many people, developing their personal brand helps them focus on their achievements.

"In general, women can be more modest in their accomplishments," said , an image consultant in Toronto. She works with clients to develop their brand through their physical appearance, such as their wardrobe and hair, but said she is increasingly coaching women on their body language and voice.

Branding, Ms. Miller explained, extends to everything you do and touch, whether it happens online or face-to-face. She cautions that there are risks in not taking control of your own image.

"If you don't work at branding yourself, other people are going to do it for you," she warned. "It's one of the few things you can help control."

Leah Eichler is co-founder of , a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail:

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