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It’s Time to Brand Yourself
Business Journal

It’s Time to Brand Yourself

In this recession, having a strong personal brand has become an urgent priority

A Q&A with Blaise James, Gallup global brand strategist and senior practice consultant

The purpose of branding is to promote the virtues of a company or product and differentiate those virtues from all other companies and products. And what works for products goes for people too. Just as you can construct a brand for a product or service, you can build a strong brand identity for yourself.

Now is the perfect time to be thinking about developing your personal brand. In the current economy -- when millions are looking for work and those lucky enough to be employed must worry about demonstrating their worth to their company -- the value of a strong personal brand is crucial.

You already are a brand, whether you know it or not. What you need is a clear brand strategy.


So says Blaise James, Gallup global brand strategist and principal and a former partner and strategic planning director at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. But, James says, your personal brand must be authentic, of value to your boss, and aligned with your company's goals. What's more, your personal brand should be more than an elevator speech, self-help jargon, or a couple of positive corporate buzzwords. In fact, "Brand You" is a distillation of who you genuinely are -- and how you must appear to your current and potential employers.

In this interview, the first in a series of two, James discusses the importance of personal brands in today's employment environment. He explains how to determine your unique value based on your talents and strengths. Finally, he shows why knowing yourself well enough to build a differentiated brand is a strategy that's hard to beat -- or replicate.

GMJ: "Self-branding" sounds a little like that terrible advice people sometimes get: "Never miss an opportunity to promote yourself to the boss." That's just tacky.

Blaise James: Yes, and the self-proclaimed personal brand gurus out there aren't making it any better. Look, great brands are demonstrated, not told. If you say, "Our company stands for innovation," your customer will say in return, "I'll be the judge of that." Branding is strategy, and just like any other important corporate strategy, companies should show, not tell.

It's the same for people. You already are a brand, whether you know it or not. Your bio, experience, skills, behaviors, appearance, even your name -- they all express your brand. What you need is a clear brand strategy -- just like good corporations strive for -- to make sure you are portraying yourself in a way that achieves your objectives. You don't run around and discuss this brand strategy with your bosses. That's because your purpose, your point of view, and your principles -- three key components of your brand -- are about more than just your job; they're integral to your career and your life. You want to have your long-term strategy nailed down so that your tactics are as effective as they can be.

GMJ: So Brand You is a strategic plan?

James: For starters, yes, but that's only one part of it. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor, 7.2 million people have filed for unemployment since December 2007. And according to a report in USA Today, the Business Roundtable's CEO Index shows that 49% of CEOs surveyed said there will be more job losses over the next six months. Not surprisingly, Gallup's data shows that only 9% of Americans say that now is a good time to find a quality job -- and that's an all-time low.

Finding a Quality Job

We have an increasingly competitive environment for obtaining new employment, so people need new strategies to help with that. For those who are managing to stay employed, there's some real soul searching going on. As employees, we're looking for ways to revitalize our relationship with our employers so we don't operate out of a sense of impending doom. To do our best work, we need a sense of control -- and more importantly, a way to ensure that our employers are seeing the unique value of what we bring to work.

This is a direct analogy to why companies create brand strategies, and it boils down to sustainable differentiation. The most successful businesses have learned a thing or two about how to differentiate themselves in today's cluttered markets, and they're not necessarily the things that are being taught in M.B.A. programs today.

GMJ: Why is that?

James: These decades-old models -- such as mind-share branding and unique-selling propositions -- don't work as well in today's economy. What we've found is that these branding strategies are often easy to replicate, and they limit the way companies can grow. And often, these strategies don't motivate the employees who must deliver the brand because the brand's benefits are focused on the customers the companies are trying to attract. This happens because companies interpret consumer-centricity too narrowly. If businesses realized that employees and potential employees are also key consumers of their brand, it might shift their thinking.

Change the way you think about employment. You are not a cog in a wheel. And you're not a victim of the economy.


GMJ: How does personal branding work?

James: The point of personal branding is to harness the science and art of what we know about building brands for products and corporations and apply it to people. There's no better time to build Brand You than right now because of the hyper-competitiveness of this recessionary environment. Building Brand You can help you obtain your career goals because it gives you a strategy. It also gives you a sense of confidence and a sense of control.

GMJ: So how do I build my personal brand?

James: There are four steps. First, you must think of yourself as an "embedded entrepreneur"; you work within a firm for the good of that firm, but you'll equally seek personal benefit now and into the future.

Embedded entrepreneurs have a different mindset; they come up with new solutions to company problems and new ideas to fuel future growth. Embedded entrepreneurs find out what makes them unique and use it to navigate a profitable and fulfilling trail within the company and across companies over the course of their careers. They're exactly the kind of employee whom hiring managers will want to see on their payrolls.

You might need to shift your mindset to understand this correctly and to develop a sustainably different brand for yourself. That means you must change the way you think about employment. You are not a cog in a wheel. And you're not a victim of the economy. That kind of thinking gives you permission to abdicate control to the powers that be, and that just will keep you reactive. It will keep you grounded in fear. It will make it difficult for you to figure out what you want out of your job and your life -- and knowing those things is crucial to establishing your brand. So instead of thinking of yourself as an employee, I recommend that you think of yourself as an embedded entrepreneur.

GMJ: What's step two?

James: The key to creating a sustainable, differentiated brand is understanding your talents and strengths. You also must understand your consumer's strengths, whether that is your boss, your employer, or your client. Finally, you want to understand the positive aspects of your environment, whether that's your workplace, your industry, or some other context you share with your consumer. This construct is important because you must be confident that your brand not only is true to you but that it's also relevant to your boss -- and that it makes sense to your company's culture.

But the most important thing, the first thing, is to "know thyself." Only when you have a clear idea of what you stand for, what you're good at, and what you want out of life should you begin building your brand. Now, there are many ways to approach this. Many self-proclaimed personal brand consultants will tell you that knowing yourself is about discovering what you're passionate about. Others will tell you to pursue some kind of dream that you'd been longing for: Finally, I'm going to become an archeologist, or a rock star, or whatever.

The problem is that passions can change pretty quickly, and there is a great deal of competition in any field, so a lot of people hop the fence and end up back in the beginner end of the pool, which they don't like. Just like some companies, some people have absolutely no aptitude for the new field that they're trying to enter. That makes it difficult to create sustainable differentiation from a branding perspective. Often, we're not the best person to identify what we're good at because we have an idealized or incorrect vision of who we are.

Companies also face this problem, which is why they hire outsiders to come in and help identify their strengths and weaknesses. If we left brand differentiation to most CEOs, most companies would stand for "quality, service, and innovation," and there would be even less differentiation than there already is.

GMJ: So if you can't go by passion, self-analysis, or buzzwords, how are you supposed to figure out what differentiates you?

James: One way is to take Gallup's Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to help you identify your talents: the way that you naturally think, feel, and behave as a unique individual. Your natural talents pretty much stick with you your whole life. So find what you're naturally good at so that you can develop your strengths regardless of what field you're in.

If you know your talents, you also know a lot more than most people do about themselves, and it gives you a real edge in helping you build your brand. You have real clarity about some of the unique facets of yourself. Then, once you know your talents, you need to know your consumer's talents.

If you know your talents, it gives you a real edge in helping you build your brand.


GMJ: "Consumer's"?

James: The consumer of your brand. That consumer could be your current boss, or it could be the hiring managers within your industry, or it could some other party. Knowing their talents is also crucial to building your brand because your talents must mesh with theirs if you are to be effective. If your brand is only relevant to you, others won't want what you're offering because it's irrelevant to them. For maximum relevance, Brand You must be shaped for your consumer too.

Incidentally, many companies go about this in the wrong way when building their brands -- they spend millions of dollars measuring customer attitudes and perceptions, but these are short term and fleeting. Instead, you must measure the core traits of your company's best customers to get a long-term, deep understanding of their needs and desires. You can meet customers' core needs through your company's brand experience, and this leads to a much deeper connection. That's what you need to do personally too.

GMJ: How do you do that? Once you figure out your core traits or talents, how do you use them to create an individual brand experience?

James: Say that you are a strong consensus builder; this is a talent that someone who is strong in the Clifton StrengthsFinder talent theme Includer is likely to have. Say your consumer -- the person you're trying to approach -- is your CEO. CEOs often have a strong need to take charge of situations. Now, your CEO could misinterpret your inclusive approach as indecision. So knowing this in advance will help you tailor your approach to your CEO. You know she won't respect indecision, so preempt that response by explaining why you seek out your team's input before weighing in with your final decision. You're respecting your talent theme and providing a rationale that makes you look smart.

If you work in a firm that provides strengths assessments, figuring out how to tailor your approach is easier. But if you don't have that, you can learn a lot from working alongside someone you trust. It's a question of developing a relationship so that you know where he's coming from, and he knows where you're coming from. It's the same thing that companies do in a high-level brand strategy when they try to get the company's beliefs to reconcile with customers' and employees' beliefs.

GMJ: What do you do if you're unsure who the consumer of your brand is?

James: If you're having trouble thinking about your consumer's strengths, remember that your goal is to understand what they find relevant in the world so that you can make your talents resonate with theirs. Think about a typical job interview: You're usually too busy sweating bullets in the elevator or the reception area to care about what your interviewer needs to hear. That's why it's so important to get your brand nailed down so you don't have to construct a persona every time you're in contact with a potential consumer. That's exhausting, and it never comes across well.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

In part two of the series, Blaise James discusses the final two steps in building your personal brand. He'll also share how to determine the "three Ps" of your brand strategy and explain the critical difference between strategy and tactics in brand building, especially when using social networking sites.

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