How to build a powerful personal brand (and increase your impact) in 7 steps

In a fast paced and competitive professional world, how can you stand out from the crowd? What will make you shine above other candidates for a job, take your team to new heights or help your enterprise find its voice? Personal branding helps steer your career success and establishes you as a leader, allowing you to make a greater positive impact in the world. And yet how many of us have stopped to ask ourselves, ‘What is my personal brand?’

When I was a younger, aspiring PR consultant looking for my next promotion, my manager would advise me to identify my personal brand, so that I would become respected by my peers, sought after by our clients and ultimately so the company leadership was left with no doubt that I deserved to take the next step. It was a useful process to stop and think ‘what do I want to be known for, and what am I missing?’, and it’s now something I stop to ask myself regularly, to ensure my brand is up to date and reflects where I want to be, professionally.

One of my early PR clients was a leading branding agency — named the most creative company in the world. It was my job to tell the story of why they were the best and as I immersed myself in their work, I learned more about the subtlety and power of the correct brand development; how the right strapline can help you leapfrog your competitors, but how a single errant tweet could take it all away.

In my work now specialising in communications for positive social and environmental change, I frequently see where personal brands can take both organisations and individuals. And whilst ‘branding’ may seem to some people focused on positive impact as a ‘nice to do’, I hope this article gives some sense of how important this topic is and how to apply it. I hope it finds its way to many aspiring changemakers, and that many more of us who are passionate about change, get serious about branding.

So, what is a ‘personal brand’?

When I ask people to tell me what they think a ‘brand’ is, the common answers include ‘a recognisable logo’ or ‘a clear offer’, and there’s some truth in that simple take, so let’s start there. And let’s take Nike, Innocent and Virgin as three examples.

For each, we have an immediate association with what they do and how we feel about them. Nike is very clearly a sporting goods manufacturer, but the brand offers a lifestyle association; a tribe that makes us feel like an athlete when we lace up those trainers. Innocent provides healthy drinks and we accept their sometimes higher price point as we associate them with a trusted quality and a playful identity that reflects our vision of ourselves. And whilst Virgin offers everything from flights to broadband and banking, their brand stands for none of these — it offers us a mark of a fresh, exciting take on established consumer services. Through all these brands, one of the most powerful ideas behind each is the promise of consistency — we know what we will get.

None of our associations with these brands is by chance, but is the result of vast investments in visual, written and experiential brand opportunities. And whilst we might not have these budget as individuals, we must play the same game. Are we a tribal leader like Nike, a trusted and likeable Innocent or do we stand for entrepreneurship and enterprise rather than a single product, like Virgin?

Now let’s look at some individuals with strong personal brand — Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and, yes, even Donald Trump.

Each also offers a specific promise of services / actions, and a personality — whether we like them or really really hate them — brought to life through their public image and communications style. They stand for certain values, they display specific qualities and often maintain a visual reminder of their consistency through what they wear. And if there is one personal brand that defines the idea of consistency then it is perhaps Steve Jobs. Although, perhaps he took it too far?

The power of the promise behind a brand means that when that promise is broken, when the consistency is interrupted, then our perception of these brands flips. When Tiger Woods — the once wholesome face of golf — was revealed to be have cheated repeatedly on his wife — he fell from our favour, and his sponsors dropped him. When Tesco in the UK was found to have been selling horse meat in its beef burgers, we wondered what other promises were being broken, and many took their trolleys elsewhere. So, a vital reminder is that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is a brand.

Remember the ‘Three Ps’

So… in summary, in my definition of a brand, I believe there are 3 Ps:

  1. Promise — at the heart of every brand is a promise. Specific products or services, a consistent offer. It’s the promise that we will make quality trainers or healthy drinks, or that we will deliver the best work, a day before deadline.
  2. Persona — the promise is established, brought to life and communicated through a persona or personalty. The language we use, the way we dress, our visual materials, the type of content we provide, the public decisions we take. These are recognisably ‘ours’.
  3. Perception — but ultimately, a brand really only exists in the perception held by the brand’s audience. We can say we offer market-leading quality but if our client / boss associates us with sloppy work and tired ideas, then that is exactly what our brand is.

If there’s one message from this article it is to encourage you to at least be mindful of the 3 Ps of your brand, and reshape them to the vision you have. But since you’re still here, let’s go a bit deeper and get brand building…

7 steps to build your brand and increase your impact

There are two types of ‘why’ behind a brand. The first question is to ask yourself ‘whydo I need a personal brand?’ Really ask yourself what you want this branding process to lead to — pay rise, promotion, leadership? The brand you construct should ultimately serve this ambition. It may sound trite but there’s some truth in that old interview question ‘where do you see yourself in ten years?’ Too often in life we feel too busy to raise our heads above the tasks at hand, steering the rapids of our everydays. It’s important to take the time to pick your own destination and then set your course.

The second ‘why’ is related and it is to identify your bigger purpose. It is easy to define what you do and how you do it. It is more powerful to layer on why you do it, the mission you are on. You may have seen Simon Sinek’s Ted talk on the ‘why’ that sits at the heart of powerful brands, and which helps foster leadership. People powered by purpose are more energised to achieve great things, and are hugely more attractive to potential employers and clients.

Build the brand further by really identifying the 3 Ps. Map out the promise of your brand, lay out a consist personality that will stand behind it, and that you can support, then note the perception you want others to have of you and compare it with the general perception now, detailing what you need to do to bridge the gap. Write all this down — you’ll need to refer back to it. Of course, when you do this, you may need to consider what aspects of your brand you focus on and what you need to keep as background noise. I came 3rd in the first ever UK Air Guitar championships (purely for a magazine article…), but regrettably you won’t find that top of my LinkedIn profile.

Note how your tone of voice contributes to your brand personality, especially when so much of our brand is conveyed in writing and not in person — the vocabulary you use, the stories you tell, how you weave in humour and whether you use simple words or multisyllabic complexicology… Remember the playful tone of Innocent — on their packaging they don’t encourage you to call customer services but to chat to them on the ‘banana phone’. What tone will you take on and make your own?

Now you have the essence of your brand, it’s time to set up the shop window. No doubt, you have taken control of all the short forms of your social media profiles, and your twitter name is not @I_love_hotdogs but is professional and relevant. But when was the last time you updated all your social profiles, and ensured the message being conveyed was really doing your brand justice, and that it was clear, concise and consistent across your channels. Update your profiles today, and bring them to life with your own tone of voice, and then remember to keep them fed and watered regularly. And make sure to convey the essence of your brand right up top in your descriptor. Maybe you are a project manager for a tech start-up, but aren’t you also perhaps an entrepreneur for sustainable cities? For some people a personal website can be a great way to stand out and show off your skills, particularly for those in the creative industries. There’s a bunch of simple website builders, such as Wix, Sqaurespace and Wordpress. So get to it.

Online branding is a lot like online dating. With the latter, we carefully select our pictures, we filter out our bad habits, like snoring, and we dial up the ones that we want to be known for, like Air Guitar… We do this for a purpose — to get a date and hopefully meet our long term partners. And branding is just the same. Tell the story of yourself that will make the audience take note, and really think about the action you want people to take as a result of seeing our profile. But please don’t confuse the two — LinkedIn is not a dating site. I have seen far too many profile pics of professionals pumping iron, partying or pouting (the wrong 3 Ps). If your profile pic is you on your wedding day, or silhouetted walking on a beach, drinking jaegers, pointing at a pyramid… please change it today.

Network network network. Building your brand and profile as an influencer involves getting out there; getting informed and informing. Beyond the numerous professional associations and events you can attend, there are dozens more where you can talk, at whatever level you are, including online events like the Disruptive Innovation Festival. Build your public speaking proficiency and get a name for yourself. Networking also connects you with big time influencers, people who can take your message and brand far and wide — so build these connections and nurture them. And make use of all those juicy shared connections on LinkedIn. You’d be surprised how many people respond to being asked for a coffee just to share ideas. An important aspect of networking is to ensure that you give, as well as take. Join in with networks and contribute to their success. Be helpful, do favours — it always comes back to reward you.

You hear a lot about content, but how can you evidence the authority of your brand and position yourself as a thought leader if you don’t produce content. Writing blogs and articles about issues related to our work shows we have ideas and are industrious. Sharing tools and resources makes it clear we are skilled and able. It might be a simple blog on a professional lesson you learnt from an event you attended, or it might be a more provocative or personal take on a topical issue, posted to tie in with an established diary date (such as World Values Day, which comes up next month). It may help to develop a simple personal marketing planner — laying out the key dates related to your brand. This could include events you’re attending, speaking opps, dates you want to post blogs… then fill the gaps. Remember that beyond places like LinkedIn, there’s a load of great platforms to share your ideas like Medium and Huffington Post, and many more specifically related to your trade and industry. Whatever content you produce just make sure it is related to your brand promise, in your tone, accessible and shareable. And always ask yourself before crafting content, ‘what do I want people to do when they read this?’, whether it’s buying your services or simply acting more socially responsible.

According to some stats, CEOs tend to read 4 to 5 books a month. Like 92% of facts, that one is made up but there is truth in the point that to achieve your goals you must keep learning and developing. Always be a student of your own industry, no matter how established you become, to really understand where it is going and where you can contribute or lead. Seek out the opportunities to learn new trends, and become confident in new principles. There are dozens of online courses for skill-building but also thousands of articles, how-tos and videos for quick top ups and idea sparks. And once you’ve learned them, share your knowledge (see step 5!)

Just when you think it’s safe to put your feet up, I’m afraid it’s time to start all over again. Branding is a constant cycle of building, sharing and evaluating. It is essential to regularly see what is working, what needs to adjust and how you can refine your plans to reorientate yourself to the new direction. You’ll have a sense of what needs to change when you go back to Step 1 and follow the steps, but you can also treat yourself as the client — set some goals and KPIs, such as writing one blog per month, taking on two speaking opportunities per quarter — set goals that act as way markers to your ultimate destination, superstar successville.

That’s it. Building your brand and nurturing it does take time, but then it deserves your attention.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. And if you enjoyed it please share, so we can power up more people with purpose (so many Ps…).

Communications, social purpose, cycling & odd words | Writer, A‘dam Comms founder