Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Brand Called You

Big companies understand the importance of brands. Today, in the Age of the Individual, you have to be your
own brand. Here’s what it takes to be the CEO of Me Inc.
First appeared: FC10, p.83
Nobody understands branding better than professional services
firms. Look at McKinsey or Arthur Andersen for a model of the
new rules of branding at the company and personal level.
Almost every professional services firm works with the same
business model. They have almost no hard assets — my guess
is that most probably go so far as to rent or lease every tangible
item they possibly can to keep from having to own anything.
They have lots of soft assets — more conventionally known as
people, preferably smart, motivated, talented people. And they
have huge revenues — and astounding profits.
They also have a very clear culture of work and life. You’re
hired, you report to work, you join a team — and you immediately
start figuring out how to deliver value to the customer.
Along the way, you learn stuff, develop your skills, hone your
abilities, move from project to project. And if you’re really
smart, you figure out how to distinguish yourself from all the
other very smart people walking around with $1,500 suits,
high-powered laptops, and well-polished resumes. Along the
way, if you’re really smart, you figure out what it takes to create
a distinctive role for yourself — you create a message and a
strategy to promote the brand called You.
What makes You different?
Start right now: as of this moment you’re going to think of yourself
differently! You’re not an “employee” of General Motors,
you’re not a “staffer” at General Mills, you’re not a “worker” at
General Electric or a “human resource” at General Dynamics
( ooops, it’s gone! ). Forget the Generals! You don’t “belong to”
any company for life, and your chief affiliation isn’t to any par -
ticular “function.” You’re not defined by your job title and
you’re not confined by your job description.
Starting today you are a brand.
You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the
Body Shop. To start thinking like your own favorite brand
manager, ask yourself the same question the brand managers at
Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop ask themselves: What is it
that my product or service does that makes it different? Give
yourself the traditional 15-words-or-less contest challenge. Take
the time to write down your answer. And then take the time to
read it. Several times.
If your answer wouldn’t light up the eyes of a prospective client
or command a vote of confidence from a satisfied past client,
or — worst of all — if it doesn’t grab you, then you’ve got a big
problem. It’s time to give some serious thought and even more
serious effort to imagining and developing yourself as a brand.
Start by identifying the qualities or characteristics that make
you distinctive from your competitors — or your colleagues.
What have you done lately — this week — to make yourself
stand out? What would your colleagues or your customers say
is your greatest and clearest strength? Your most noteworthy (
as in, worthy of note ) personal trait?
Go back to the comparison between brand You and brand X —
the approach the corporate biggies take to creating a brand.
The standard model they use is feature-benefit: every feature
they offer in their product or service yields an identifiable and
distinguishable benefit for their customer or client. A dominant
feature of Nordstrom department stores is the personalized
service it lavishes on each and every customer. The customer
benefit: a feeling of being accorded individualized attention —
along with all of the choice of a large department store.
So what is the “feature-benefit model” that the brand called
You offers? Do you deliver your work on time, every time? Your
internal or external customer gets dependable, reliable service
that meets its strategic needs. Do you anticipate and solve problems
before they become crises? Your client saves money and
headaches just by having you on the team. Do you always complete
your projects within the allotted budget? I can’t name a
single client of a professional services firm who doesn’t go ballistic
at cost overruns.
Your next step is to cast aside all the usual descriptors that
employees and workers depend on to locate themselves in the
company structure. Forget your job title. Ask yourself: What do
I do that adds remarkable, measurable, distinguished, distinctive
value? Forget your job description. Ask yourself: What do I
do that I am most proud of? Most of all, forget about the standard
rungs of progression you’ve climbed in your career up to
now. Burn that damnable “ladder” and ask yourself: What have
I accomplished that I can unabashedly brag about? If you’re
going to be a brand, you’ve got to become relentlessly focused
on what you do that adds value, that you’re proud of, and most
important, that you can shamelessly take credit for.
When you’ve done that, sit down and ask yourself one more
question to define your brand: What do I want to be famous
for? That’s right — famous for!
What’s the pitch for You?
So it’s a cliche: don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle. it’s also a
principle that every corporate brand understands implicitly,
from Omaha Steaks’s through-the-mail sales program to
Wendy’s “we’re just regular folks” ad campaign. No matter how
beefy your set of skills, no matter how tasty you’ve made that
feature-benefit proposition, you still have to market the bejesus
out of your brand — to customers, colleagues, and your virtual
network of associates.
For most branding campaigns, the first step is visibility. If you’re
Motors, Ford, or Chrysler, that usually means a full flight of TV
and print
ads designed to get billions of “impressions” of your brand in
front of
the consuming public. If you’re brand You, you’ve got the same
need for
visibility — but no budget to buy it.
So how do you market brand You?
There’s literally no limit to the ways you can go about enhancing
your profile. Try moonlighting! Sign up for an extra project
inside your organization, just to introduce yourself to new colleagues
and showcase your skills — or work on new ones. Or,
if you can carve out the time, take on a freelance project that
gets you in touch with a totally novel group of people. If you
can get them singing your praises, they’ll help spread the word
about what a remarkable contributor you are.
If those ideas don’t appeal, try teaching a class at a community
college, in an adult education program, or in your own company.
You get credit for being an expert, you increase your
standing as a professional, and you increase the likelihood that
people will come back to you with more requests and more
opportunities to stand out from the crowd.
If you’re a better writer than you are a teacher, try contributing
a column or an opinion piece to your local newspaper. And
when I say local, I mean local. You don’t have to make the oped
page of the New York Times to make the grade. Community
newspapers, professional newsletters, even inhouse company
publications have white space they need to fill. Once you get
started, you’ve got a track record — and clips that you can use
to snatch more chances.
And if you’re a better talker than you are teacher or writer, try
to get yourself on a panel discussion at a conference or sign up
to make a presentation at a workshop. Visibility has a funny
way of multiplying; the hardest part is getting started. But a
couple of good panel presentations can earn you a chance to
give a “little” solo speech — and from there it’s just a few
jumps to a major address at your industry’s annual convention.
The second important thing to remember about your personal
visibility campaign is: it all matters. When you’re promoting
brand You, everything you do — and everything you choose
not to do — communicates the value and character of the
brand. Everything from the way you handle phone conversations
to the email messages you send to the way you conduct
business in a meeting is part of the larger message you’re sending
about your brand.
Partly it’s a matter of substance: what you have to say and how
well you get it said. But it’s also a matter of style. On the Net,
do your communications demonstrate a command of the technology?
In meetings, do you keep your contributions short and
to the point? It even gets down to the level of your brand You
business card: Have you designed a cool-looking logo for your
own card? Are you demonstrating an appreciation for design
that shows you understand that packaging counts — a lot — in
a crowded world?
The key to any personal branding campaign is “word-of-mouth
marketing.” Your network of friends, colleagues, clients, and
customers is the most important marketing vehicle you’ve got;
what they say about you and your contributions is what the
market will ultimately gauge as the value of your brand. So the
big trick to building your brand is to find ways to nurture your
network of colleagues — consciously.
What’s the real power of You?
If you want to grow your brand, you’ve got to come to terms
with power — your own. The key lesson: power is not a dirty
In fact, power for the most part is a badly misunderstood term
and a badly misused capability. I’m talking about a different
kind of power than we usually refer to. It’s not ladder power, as
in who’s best at climbing over the adjacent bods. It’s not who’sgot-
the-biggest-office-by-six-square-inches power or who’s-gotthe-
fanciest-title power.
It’s influence power.
It’s being known for making the most significant contribution
in your particular area. It’s reputational power. If you were a
scholar, you’d measure it by the number of times your publications
get cited by other people. If you were a consultant,
you’d measure it by the number of CEOs who’ve got your business
card in their Rolodexes. ( And better yet, the number who
know your beeper number by heart. )
Getting and using power — intelligently, responsibly, and yes,
powerfully — are essential skills for growing your brand. One
of the things that attracts us to certain brands is the power they
project. As a consumer, you want to associate with brands
whose powerful presence creates a halo effect that rubs off on
It’s the same in the workplace. There are power trips that are
worth taking — and that you can take without appearing to be
a self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing megalomaniacal jerk. You
can do it in small, slow, and subtle ways. Is your team having ahard time organizing productive meetings? Volunteer to write
the agenda for the next meeting. You’re contributing to the
team, and you get to decide what’s on and off the agenda.
When it’s time to write a post-project report, does everyone on
your team head for the door? Beg for the chance to write the
report — because the hand that holds the pen ( or taps the keyboard
) gets to write or at least shape the organization’s history.
Most important, remember that power is largely a matter of
perception. If you want people to see you as a powerful brand,
act like a credible leader. When you’re thinking like brand You,
you don’t need org-chart authority to be a leader. The fact is
you are a leader. You’re leading You!
One key to growing your power is to recognize the simple fact
that we now live in a project world. Almost all work today is
organized into bite-sized packets called projects. A projectbased
world is ideal for growing your brand: projects exist
around deliverables, they create measurables, and they leave
you with braggables. If you’re not spending at least 70% of your
time working on projects, creating projects, or organizing your
( apparently mundane ) tasks into projects, you are sadly living
in the past. Today you have to think, breathe, act, and work in
Project World makes it easier for you to assess — and advertise
— the strength of brand You. Once again, think like the giants
do. Imagine yourself a brand manager at Procter & Gamble:
When you look at your brand’s assets, what can you add to
boost your power and felt presence? Would you be better off
with a simple line extension — taking on a project that adds
incrementally to your existing base of skills and accomplishments?
Or would you be better off with a whole new product
line? Is it time to move overseas for a couple of years, venturing
outside your comfort zone ( even taking a lateral move —
damn the ladders ), tackling something new and completely
Whatever you decide, you should look at your brand’s power as
an exercise in new-look resume; management — an exercise
that you start by doing away once and for all with the word
“resume.” You don’t have an old-fashioned resume anymore!
You’ve got a marketing brochure for brand You. Instead of a
static list of titles held and positions occupied, your marketing
brochure brings to life the skills you’ve mastered, the projects
you’ve delivered, the braggables you can take credit for. And
like any good marketing brochure, yours needs constant updating
to reflect the growth — breadth and depth — of brand You.
What’s loyalty to You?
Everyone is saying that loyalty is gone; loyalty is dead; loyalty is
over. I think that’s a bunch of crap.
I think loyalty is much more important than it ever was in the
past. A 40-year career with the same company once may have
been called loyalty; from here it looks a lot like a work life with
very few options, very few opportunities, and very little individual
power. That’s what we used to call indentured servitude.
Today loyalty is the only thing that matters. But it isn’t blind
loyalty to the
company. It’s loyalty to your colleagues, loyalty to your team,
to your project, loyalty to your customers, and loyalty to yourself.
see it as a much deeper sense of loyalty than mindless loyalty to
the Company
Z logo.
I know this may sound like selfishness. But being CEO of Me
Inc. requires you to act selfishly — to grow yourself, to promote
yourself, to get the market to reward yourself. Of course, the
other side of the selfish coin is that any company you work for
ought to applaud every single one of the efforts you make to
develop yourself. After all, everything you do to grow Me Inc.
is gravy for them: the projects you lead, the networks you develop,
the customers you delight, the braggables you create generate
credit for the firm. As long as you’re learning, growing,
building relationships, and delivering great results, it’s good for
you and it’s great for the company.
That win-win logic holds for as long as you happen to be at that
particular company. Which is precisely where the age of free
agency comes into play. If you’re treating your resume as if it’s
a marketing brochure, you’ve learned the first lesson of free
agency. The second lesson is one that today’s professional athletes
have all learned: you’ve got to check with the market on a
regular basis to have a reliable read on your brand’s value. You
don’t have to be looking for a job to go on a job interview. For
that matter, you don’t even have to go on an actual job interview
to get useful, important feedback.
The real question is: How is brand You doing? Put together
your own “user’s group” — the personal brand You equivalent
of a software review group. Ask for — insist on — honest, helpful
feedback on your performance, your growth, your value. It’s
the only way to know what you would be worth on the open
market. It’s the only way to make sure that, when you declare
your free agency, you’ll be in a strong bargaining position. It’s
not disloyalty to “them”; it’s responsible brand management for
brand You — which also generates credit for them.
What’s the future of You?
It’s over. No more vertical. No more ladder. That’s not the way
careers work anymore. Linearity is out. A career is now a
checkerboard. Or even a maze. It’s full of moves that go side-ways, forward, slide on the diagonal, even go backward when
that makes sense. ( It often does. ) A career is a portfolio of projects
that teach you new skills, gain you new expertise, develop
new capabilities, grow your colleague set, and constantly reinvent
you as a brand.
As you scope out the path your “career” will take, remember:
the last thing you want to do is become a manager. Like
“resume,” “manager” is an obsolete term. It’s practically synonymous
with “dead end job.” What you want is a steady diet
of more interesting, more challenging, more provocative projects.
When you look at the progression of a career constructed
out of projects, directionality is not only hard to track — Which
way is up? — but it’s also totally irrelevant.
Instead of making yourself a slave to the concept of a career
ladder, reinvent yourself on a semiregular basis. Start by writing
your own mission statement, to guide you as CEO of Me
Inc. What turns you on? Learning something new? Gaining
recognition for your skills as a technical wizard? Shepherding
new ideas from concept to market? What’s your personal definition
of success? Money? Power? Fame? Or doing what you
love? However you answer these questions, search relentlessly
for job or project opportunities that fit your mission statement.
And review that mission statement every six months to make
sure you still believe what you wrote.
No matter what you’re doing today, there are four things you’ve
got to measure yourself against. First, you’ve got to be a great
teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you’ve got to be
an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third,
you’ve got to be a broad-gauged visionary — a leader, a teacher,
a farsighted “imagineer.” Fourth, you’ve got to be a businessperson
— you’ve got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes.
It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your
brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one
right way to create the brand called You.

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