How not to be plastic, smarmy, shady, or fake when marketing your business

I woke this morning to a post where a fitness influencer with a following of over 500K posted a dangerous and dismissive comment about mental illness, essentially saying that “being present” (whatever that means) was the cure for anxiety and depression. Her words accompanied a post where she preened before the camera and this has become the norm on social media — a carefully composed selfie followed by some “deep” thoughts. Apparently, this is what many perceive as being “real.”

Many of her long-time followers called her to task for her ignorant comments about mental health, that it is, in fact, an illness just like cancer or diabetes, and she responded by blocking people, deleting comments, and ultimately deleting the post. All without contrition or comment.

I say this because in the long game of business and brand building, what you delete and hide will invariably rise to the surface to haunt you. That ignoring constructive feedback from your community can be your ruin. That a brand built on the superficial is not sustainable because there’s always a younger, prettier, richer person that is all too eager to nab your spot. That people who are so frightened of a world that is not bathed in blush pink and filled with pithy “love and light” platitudes are willing to spend their lives fleeing the mess.

But here’s the thing: life is messy. We are flawed by design. Being authentic and real is about appreciating all aspects of yourself and your business. It’s about weathering the tough moments with grace and setting a path and example for others who are standing alongside you in the struggle. It’s about acknowledging and learning from your shortcomings and blind spots. It’s about saying, you’re right. I fucked up. Here’s how I’m going to make amends. There’s nobility in leading an honest life and being the kind of person who is unabashed, shamelessly you.

Whether you’re a business of two or two hundred — using plastic tactics to market yourself and your business is a surefire way to start the clock on your expiration date. I’m in the midst of creating a seven-day challenge on real and practical tips on marketing yourself whether you’re fresh out of school and looking for a job or you want to switch careers or you’re in the nascent stages of starting your own business.

Why? People have developed allergies to bullshit. People can see right through duplicity, and there’s always a non-smarmy option hovering in view. Here are five simple ways to market yourself without being a large-scale douche.

#1 Know your why and own it: Be honest with yourself. Why did you start your business? Why do you want to do what you want to do and how do think it’ll impact your life and others? Your “why” doesn’t need to be lofty or idealistic — it just needs to be honest. It’s easier to pitch ourselves if we believe in what we’re saying. The passion comes through. The vibe is infectious. When I was a partner in a social media agency, I hired smart and passionate and trained. I always went for the person who was so excited about why they wanted this particular job — their energy was like a double shot of espresso. It takes a lot of energy to fake it. It takes little to articulate why it is you’re doing what you set out to do.

For example, in all of my marketing material (website, portfolio, pitch emails, intake calls, etc.), I’m candid about shifting the focus of my business to solely working with women entrepreneurs and executives as well as lifting up marginalized communities. I tell people that I want to use my experience and privilege to not just get women a place at the table but to build their own fucking table. And every single time I talk about this on a pitch, I get instant connection and warmth. People can tell that I’m not bullshitting because my why is real.

#2 Tell your story in plain English. Humans love stories and anecdotes. Back in my agency days, I said that people hire and fire people — not entities — and what keeps us connected are stories. In my brand development work, there’s a term called “Signature Story,” which is the bridge between your elevator pitch (or anchor statement, if you want to get all jargon with it) and your positioning (why you’re different/better than the pack). People hire people based on expertise, value, and the connections they cultivate, and every single time I get on an intake call, I win the business. Literally. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Why? I’m confident, I know my shit, and I tell a story.

So, what makes a good story?
Authenticity: A real story is more powerful than you think. Real stories attract your people and connect people to you and your brand.
Serendipity: How your story came to be as a result of fate, fortune, coincidence, or grace.
Specificity: Use specific images, words, and cultural signifiers they relate to and understands.

How to do this:
• Inspire their imagination.
• Solve their problems.
• Make them sit up and pay attention. Give them something they didn’t expect — especially since everyone else’s offering is generic and far from collaborative.
• Associate your brand with your fresh take.
• Project that freshness, imagination, and intrigue onto you.

We understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. We feel first, think second. Scientifically, we home in on “mirror neurons” — creating words that simulate your customers’ actions, and the thoughts and feelings behind their actions. They feel like you’re talking to them, about them.

I tell my career story and I share anecdotes along the way so they see more than just another portfolio.

#3 Know your audience/customer: There’s an adage in marketing: if you’re trying to market to everyone, you’re marketing to no one. Real talk: you will not appeal to everyone and that is okay. If you did, you’d be generic and non-specific because you want to appease the masses rather than focus on that one person you want to reach. Think about the kind of company and people you want to work for (if you’re job seeking), or the audience you want to attract (if you’re a blogger to a small business owner or consultant). Do your research. Ask them questions. Observe how they talk about your competitors and category. Get really specific on their behavior, motivations, influences, and pain-points and shape your story and product to address them.

#4 Ignore the herd: Okay, this is SO HARD FOR ME, admittedly, but your “before” is not their “during” or “after.” There exists no comparison. Ignore the follower counts, souped-up vacations, and accouterments. All you need to do is put your head down and focus on your work, your hustle. Yes, it’s important to know what the competition is doing, but don’t make that your life’s work.

#5 Know that every person counts: At the start of this post, I referenced an example of an influencer who got big and started to ignore the very people who got her there. Even though we laugh when we hear J.Lo sing, I’m still Jenny from the block, there’s something to being humble. Biggie once rhymed, on Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song”: Gotta try to stay above water, y’know? / Just stay busy, stay working Puff told me, like, the key to this joint / The key to staying on top of things / Is treat everything like it’s your first project, nomsayin’? / Like it’s your first day, like, back when you was an intern / Like, that’s how you try to treat things like, just stay hungry.

You might be laughing at me — a 42-year-old quoting Biggie — but I’m sharing the truth. Be humble, be curious, be a student, be receptive to change, be agile in how you work, what you create, and whom you serve. It’s easy to get high off your own supply (yes, I loved Biggie since ‘95). It’s harder to remain grounded and focused. Listen to everyone around you. Treat them with respect.

I constantly say that I’m good to everyone from the receptionist to the CEO — no one is given preference. No one is made to feel small. I know this because I grew up with nothing and know it’s like for people to make you feel like nothing because you’re not wearing the right jeans or carrying the right purse, etc. And because I was honest and respectful 90% of my referrals when I first went out as a consultant came from people who reported to me. Not from my peers, but from twenty-five-year-old badasses whom I managed and mentored.

Be good on the come up because you will certainly see all the people you hurt waving to you on your way down.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +364,117 people.

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