Who’s Afraid of Personal Branding?

David Deal
May 2 · 5 min read

It’s important to know how to build your personal brand. If you don’t, you give agency to everyone else to tell your story for you. And you may not like what you hear. Or you won’t be heard at all. So don’t let anyone tell you that personal branding is crass and uncouth. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and they are doing you a disservice.

Why Personal Branding Is in the Public Eye

The concept of personal branding is not new, but it’s become more prominent in the digital era as people become more conscious of the image they want to project on social media. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve become more accustomed to adapting our personal brands for different social experiences — a more buttoned-up image on LinkedIn, perhaps an artistic one on Instagram, and a more playful one on TikTok depending on which apps you use.

Gen Z in particular is getting more savvy about personal branding because they’ve been raised on digital and are acutely aware that there’s money to be made on apps willing to pay them for creating content, which makes them more conscious of creating a personal brand. Occasionally, a digital star loses their following because of an ill-timed comment or action on their socials. They learn the hard way that acting foolishly is a surefire way to damage a personal brand.

You Already Have a Personal Brand — Whether You Know It or Not

At the same time, not everyone is comfortable with the concept of personal branding. Some look at a divisive attention grabber like Kanye West and wonder, “Is that what personal branding is all about? Forget it!” Or they confuse personal branding with being online 24/7. Here’s the truth: a personal brand is nothing more than the perception you want people to associate with you in your professional life. The fact is, you have a personal brand already — it’s the perception people are forming of you on their own. Taking control of your personal brand means having a say in how they form that perception.

Finding Inspiration for Building a Personal Brand

But maybe you just don’t know how to start. That’s OK. If you’re not sure what kind of personal brand you want to project, start looking around for examples of people you admire online. What is it about them that you like? Why? What makes you want to stop what you’re doing whenever you see one of their Instagram posts or livestreams?

One of my favorite examples, especially for people uncomfortable with personal branding, is Paul McCartney. The man is a genius at personal branding. His secret is simple: he tells stories. That’s it. He has enough self-confidence to go on an Instagram livestream and assume that what he has to say is interesting. And he is interesting. Charming. Engaging. Like someone you’re sitting next to in a pub sharing a pint.

McCartney recently joined musician St. Vincent for an Instagram livestream conversation about his recently released McCartney III album, which had been remixed by several artists (including St. Vincent) into McCartney III Imagined. In one-half hour, they talked a lot about McCartney III Imagined and McCartney III, but not in an obviously self-promotional way. Rather, McCartney discussed the process of writing songs and making music. He discussed how McCartney III was a product of living in lockdown during the pandemic, and he shared his fascination with artists such as St. Vincent who wanted to do their own versions of the songs on the album. He complimented St. Vincent on her guitar playing and asked her about the type of guitar she uses. He provided insight into a song he’s working on now.

In 30 minutes, Paul McCartney projected the personal brand of an artist who loves to create and who is curious to learn about other artists. Sure, he discussed his own art, and if you were not aware of McCartney III or McCartney III Imagined, you certainly were after the interview. But he gave something valuable to his audience: a conversation about creating.

Now, if you’re thinking, “But I’m not Paul McCartney,” remember this: he is not you, either. He cannot tell your stories the way you can. Only you can do that. And you do have something valuable to share. Everyone does. It’s just a matter of learning how (and there are plenty of resources to help you master the art of personal storytelling in interesting and succinct ways, such as this article).

Consider also that even Paul McCartney had to learn how to build his personal brand. He’s no different from you and me. Throughout his career, he’s stumbled, sometimes coming across as whiny, grouchy, and bossy. (He once angrily doused a photographer with a bucket of water.) It took him some time before he really hit his stride and became the widely beloved Sir Paul that he is today.

Yes, Paul McCartney has a huge audience and global fame. But don’t worry about how big your audience is or how famous you are. Focus on connecting with the audience you have. That’s all that matters.

Five Steps to Get Started Building your Personal Brand

Here are some steps to get started building your personal brand:

1. Think of the words you want people to associate with you. Think about the positioning you want to achieve — or the perception you want people to associate with you in their minds when they hear your name. Consider your positioning as a list of words and phrases you want your name to evoke. Do you want people in your professional life to consider you a creative thinker? Leader? Trusted adviser? Write down whatever comes to mind.

2. Road test your socials. Ask some people you trust to go through your socials and write down the words and phrases they associate with you based on your socials. Then ask yourself how well those words and phrases align with the ones you intend. Now, it’s OK if your brand varies a bit depending on which platform you use, as I noted above. But your social identity overall should add up to an overall impression. And remember: people in your professional life do form impressions of your personal socials, whether you like it or not.

3. Mind your visuals. Take a very close review of the visuals you use, such as photos and videos you post. This is especially important in the Instagram era, when visual storytelling is more important than ever. There are great resources to help you learn how to take effective selfies (here’s one). There’s just no excuse for posting a crappy image of yourself on your socials.

4 Learn from others. Think of someone whose personal brand you admire. What are they doing well? What’s their approach? I just told you about why I admire the way Paul McCartney builds his brand. Whose approach do you admire?

5 Find resources. Fortunately there is no shortage of guides to help you. My buddy Jason Falls, who knows a thing or two about branding online, suggests the writing of Dan Schwabel as well as Branding Yourself by Erik Deckers and Kyle Lacy. Do some exploring and find a resource that connects with you.

Most importantly: get started taking control of your personal brand now.

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