How and Why You Should Build Your Personal Brand

If you run a business or startup, chances are you chose the path of entrepreneurship because of a great idea or a desire to make the world a better place with your unique innovation.  So why is it that any media attention you manage to capture seems just as interested in you – the entrepreneur – as it is in your product?

Why Personal Branding Matters

Over the past few years, there’s been a noticeable shift from judging businesses on their merits alone to including public perceptions of the entrepreneurs at the helm as part of this analysis.  In a perfectly capitalist culture, it shouldn’t matter that Pinkberry’s founder Young Lee was recently arrested for assaulting a homeless man – the only thing consumers should care about is the quality of his frozen yogurt and its value for the price.

Of course, that’s a simplistic look at judging business success, but it’s important to separate the two factors at play here – the entrepreneur and the product he produces.  Increasingly, our opinions on the two are intertwined and indistinguishable from the other, leading us to select products based on whether or not we “like” their founders.  There are likely a number of different factors playing into this trend:

  • In the pre-internet, pre-“Big Box retailer” days, many purchasing decisions were made based on the relationship customers held with their retailers.  If one clothing retailer went out of his way to set aside new garments in your size, you likely frequented his shop more often than his competitors, simply due to the relationship you’d built.  Just because the internet and major retail chains have changed the way we shop doesn’t mean that we’ve lost the desire to form these types of personal connections.
  • Celebrity culture (along with the rise of the internet) has given us unusually high levels of access to the personal and professional lives of a select few.  When we can open People magazine’s website and see photographs capturing every aspect of a celebrity’s life, it’s only natural that this type of curiosity would extend to others that interest us.  Entrepreneurs – who may also conduct a substantial number of public transactions via Twitter, Facebook and other social sites – could easily fall into this same expectation of an open and accessible life.
  • According to research conducted by the Hill Holiday and Lippincott, trust in “Big Business” has eroded significantly since the 1970s.  As a result, many consumers swing to the opposite end of the spectrum – choosing to do business with people they know personally.  Enterprising entrepreneurs recognize that they can capitalize on this desire for more meaningful relationships by turning themselves into brands, perpetuating the cycle of consumers seeking increased access to the entrepreneurs’ lives.

Whatever reason you attribute this trend to; you can’t deny that entrepreneurs’ personal brands are becoming integral parts of their businesses’ public perception.  As a result, current and future entrepreneurs need to carefully consider personal branding initiatives as a part of their business growth strategies.  If you’re an entrepreneur, know that there will be a public conversation about you as a person.  It’s up to you to take control of this image before the media can.

Examples of Good vs Bad Personal Branding

Before I jump into a few recommendations on what you need to do to harness the power of your personal brand, let’s highlight a few good and bad examples of these marketing initiatives:

The Good

If you want to see an example of great personal branding in action, just think about the combination of black turtlenecks and jeans that came to characterize the innovative mindset of Apple’s Steve Jobs.  And don’t think that these connections happened by accident.  In his hugely-popular Stanford commencement speech, Jobs made it obvious that his rise to public popularity wasn’t accidental:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Or what about Tim Ferriss?  Although the productivity guru was relatively unknown at the launch of his first book – The Four Hour Work Week – in 2007, he’s since translated the book’s popularity into an entire lifestyle design empire.  Of particular interest is his catchphrase – “The world’s best guinea pig.”  Given to him by Newsweek in 2012, Ferriss has since incorporated this slogan across all has various media outlets and appearances, making it a great example of active personal branding.

Of course, when it comes to great examples of personal branding, you can’t ignore Oprah.  From her TV show to her magazine to her website, Oprah has associated her name and image with good living and heartfelt advice (not to mention great gift giveaways).  But what’s most interesting about her personal branding journey isn’t her success – it’s the failure of her OWN TV network.  From its launch in 2011, network’s ratings declined season after season; that is, until Oprah made herself a regular on-air presence.  No Oprah, no ratings – it doesn’t get more powerful than that!

One final example of great branding I want to cover is Amanda Palmer. Whether or not you like her music, you can’t deny that Palmer’s success in mounting new albums and tours without the support of a traditional label comes directly from her success at personal branding.  Her personal brand might not be one that you agree with (as it’s based heavily on nudity, swearing and an anti-authoritarian vibe), but her story is well worth a look in terms of cultivating a public persona that resonates with fans and customers.

The Bad

The past few years have given us some excellent examples of how having a well-known personal brand can backfire.  Besides the example of Young Lee cited above, just look at Lance Armstrong, whose dominance as an athlete and wellness advocate was almost completely undone by revelations that he’d used performance-enhancing drugs for years.  Or what about Sean Parker, whose lavish Big Sur wedding was widely criticized for its environmental impact and egregious display of wealth?  Whatever your stance on the subject may be, Parker’s clueless 9,500-word rebuttal to his critics certainly didn’t help his brand!

These three examples show what can happen when personal branding and public controversy intersect, but that’s not the possible negative outcome.  What about the thousands of entrepreneurs who haven’t invested in personal branding and, therefore, can’t leverage the types of highly-engaged audiences that Oprah, Jobs, Palmer and Ferriss have cultivated to buy products and spread ideas?

Having a badly-damaged public reputation is one thing, but being entirely unknown in your industry isn’t much better.  If you want to be able to reach more people and sell more products, you need to have a personal brand operating alongside your professional and corporate reputation.  Here’s how to do it…

How to Build Your Personal Brand

Feeling inspired?  Hopefully the examples above have you fired up about the power a personal brand can have in your startup’s success.  Now how do you go about creating a positive personal brand?  Make sure all of the following strategies play a role in your personal marketing initiatives:

Develop a strong brand infrastructure

The first step to good personal branding is to control the conversation.  If media personnel Google your name and find nothing, they’ll feel compelled to fill in the blanks themselves in order to place you into a neatly-labeled box for storytelling purposes.  Don’t give them this opportunity!

First, sit down and write a killer bio – the kind that inspires others and gives readers a complete story about you and your background.  If you aren’t a naturally strong writer, hire a copywriting specialist who can make your story pop.  The goal here is to put words in the mouths of the people who want to get to know you as a business owner before they have the chance to make up their own narratives.

As soon as your bio is ready, put it everywhere!  Completely fill out your LinkedIn profile, add it to the “About” section of your Facebook and Google+ pages, link to it from your Twitter bio and feature it prominently on your personal website.  If you don’t yet have all these properties (or if there are others that are unique to your specific customer base), invest some time in setting them up fully so that people can find your information wherever they look.

Monitor social/internet channels

Once you’ve established the elements that you want to be a part of your personal brand, it’s up to you to enforce it!

To be clear, enforcing your brand doesn’t mean taking legal action against anyone who writes something different.  But it does mean being aware of any conversations that are taking place online about you and setting the record straight as soon as any misinformation appears.

For example, imagine that a competitor starts a negative thread on a popular forum in your industry, claiming that you’re misrepresenting your history or your product’s strengths.  If you aren’t actively monitoring social and internet channels for these types of brand mentions, you might miss the opportunity to add the truth to the conversation.

Unfortunately, no entrepreneur worth his business has the time to sit around all day, patrolling the web for negative brand mentions.  To simplify the monitoring process, set up Google Alerts for your name, your company name, your product name and any other relevant keywords you can think of.  Then, invest in a social media monitoring tool (Sprout Social is the one I use) that’ll let you know if any of your branded keywords are mentioned on popular social sites.

Be awesome

One way to cut down on the number of negative brand mentions you’ll encounter is to be so awesome that there’s simply no way to criticize you or your products.  As an entrepreneur, any mistakes you make stand a good chance of being publicized – and like they say, the best defense is a good offense.  Here’s how to be so awesome that nobody can call you out on mistakes:

  • Be responsive to user feedback – You probably already have a grand vision for your product that encompasses the features you’ll add in the future and when you hope to roll them out.  But if your customers are leaving review after review clamoring for a different feature set, you might want to alter course to incorporate their feedback.  Don’t let pride and stubbornness prevent you from making the product your customers actually want to use.
  • Debug, and then debug some more – Don’t rush your rollouts to meet some arbitrary deadlines, as buggy releases can cause an influx of negative reviews that can be difficult to overcome.  Instead, make it a priority to thoroughly debug every new release.  If you aren’t confident that your own team can identify the kinks hiding out in every nook and cranny of your product, bring on an outside consultant or firm that can help you uncover any issues before they’re made public.
  • Make your company bigger than your product – Tech startups are a dime a dozen.  And if there’s nothing special about your company compared to another, there’s nothing to prevent reviewers and media figures from ripping you to threads over the smallest issues.  To avoid this, make your company “more” than every other young business out there.  Contribute to a charity program you love, take an active role in planning major industry events or make customer satisfaction a top priority – just do something that gives your company a presence beyond its product lines.

Be transparent

Of course, there’s no way to prevent every, single mistake – no matter how thorough you are.  That means that, at some point, you’re going to find your personal brand thrown into damage control mode.

That said, there’s a big difference between handling emergencies well and burning down both your personal and professional reputations in response to handling crises.  To see this distinction, take a look at the way Buffer handled its recent security lapse, compared to the vitriolic response of Amy’s Baking Company to negative feedback.

Buffer – a well-known social media scheduling tool – experienced a minor security breech on October 26th, 2013.  Instead of blaming users or hiding the details, Buffer posted an immediate, transparent update to the situation that also included a sincere apology.  Over the next few days, as the team worked to resolve the issue, Buffer constantly update its social profiles with up-to-date information.

The result?  Buffer came out of the issue looking great.  Not only did the company’s brand not suffer, it actually improved as consumers recognized the lengths to which the service went to appease its customers.

Amy’s Baking Company, on the other hand, experienced a major blow to its reputation following what Buzzfeed called, “The Most Epic Brand Meltdown on Facebook Ever.”

Certainly, these two instances feature the impact of potential negative press on company brands – not personal brands.  However, as the two are becoming more intertwined than ever in the case of tech entrepreneurs, it’s worth keeping in mind that the individuals associated with the targeted brands can see just as much of a negative backlash.  Prevent this occurring by being proactive, transparent and sincere when handling potential PR emergencies.

Be everywhere

Up to this point, the recommendations I’ve made have mostly revolved around securing your personal brand – that is, protecting it from potential challenges.  But that’s really only part of the picture.  As a tech entrepreneur with a personal following, you shouldn’t just be defending your brand – you should be leveraging it!

Don’t just think of your personal brand as an unfortunate inconvenience that you have to tend to.  Look at it as a way to connect with even more consumers and expand your company’s reach even further – all through the power of personality marketing.  Think about it…  Does it really matter if somebody connects with you (the entrepreneur) or your products?  Either way, you’re attracting new customers, and by recognizing the power of both of these avenues; you stand to grow much faster than those businesses that rely on product marketing alone.

So how do you market your personality?  Simple – be everywhere.  Every time potential customers see your name somewhere, they have another chance to connect with you and your business.  If you hide out and fail to invest your time and money into good personality marketing strategies, you’ll lose out on every one of these opportunities.

Here are a few of the different things you’ll want to do to get your name out there:

  • Run a company blog – Add a blog to your company website and pepper it with personal posts (for example, “A Day in the Life of [Your Name]” or “An Inside Look at the [Company Name] Office”) to give readers the impression that you’re more than just a business.
  • Participate on social networks – Don’t just create social media profiles.  Make it a point to reach out to consumers directly by responding to their posts and answering questions as you’re able to.
  • Seek out guest post opportunities – Look for well-known blogs in your industry that give guest authors the chance to publish their own articles.  Seeing your name on these external sites immediately increases your perceived authority among your target customers.
  • Write for print publications – Don’t limit yourself to writing guest blog posts.  Look for opportunities to contribute to print publications for an even bigger reputation bump (don’t forget that you can hire a ghostwriter if your own writing skills aren’t strong enough to secure these gigs).
  • Practice good PR – Press releases have been abused in the past by SEO scam artists, but when used correctly, they can be an important part of your personal branding.  Write good releases whenever you have newsworthy content to share and then distribute them directly to your carefully-cultivated list of relevant media contacts.  Getting your name on TechCrunch or Mashable using this technique will go a long way towards boosting both your personal and professional branding!
  • Leverage all relevant channels – Spend some time figuring out which social platforms your customers use most frequently and then flood them with content.  Don’t forget about platforms that specialize in alternative content types, like Youtube, Vimeo, Scribd and others.
  • Work on viral content pieces – Invest in hiring a graphic designer or marketing agency to produce an infographic that expounds on an important issue in your industry.  Work with a professional videographer to create the kinds of product demo videos that people actually want to share.  Even if you don’t see a positive ROI on this type of content immediately, know that it’s still playing an important role in getting your name out there and building up your personal brand.
  • Speak at conferences and trade shows – Make a list of every major event in your industry and then submit presentation proposals to all of them.  Every time you have a chance to speak in public (no matter how small the event), you’re giving people the opportunity to connect your face with your business brand.
  • Attend conferences and networking events – If your presentation proposals aren’t accepted, attend the conferences instead.  Look for local networking opportunities as well that’ll allow you to advocate your cause (not just your company) whenever possible.

Be helpful

As an entrepreneur in the digital age, your entire life is on display for public consumption and commentary.  So what do you want people to say about you on a personal level (apart from your reputation as a business owner and the public sentiment surrounding your products)?  To see what I mean, think about Kanye.  Nobody’s disputing that he’s a brilliant artist, but would you really want to sit down and hang out with the guy?

Of course, Kanye has an established career and a track record of releasing good work, so the fact that he comes off as a jerk doesn’t prevent him from selling records.  If you’re just starting out, you don’t have that advantage.

Since your personality and personal life are all up for public judgment, I believe that one of the best things you can do is to be helpful.  Look for opportunities to mentor those who are facing similar challenges that you have, and give advice freely in whatever way you can to help people.  Every time you do so, you’re building both personal relationships with the people you’ve helped and banking some reputation brownie points that might help you sail through rocky patches in the future.

In my case, I’ve been using clarity.fm to help younger entrepreneurs, and it’s helped grow my personal brand tremendously.  Whenever people have good experiences with me as a mentor, they share their experiences socially, pass along my content and even send me gifts.  And while I’d still be just as generous with my time if these types of recognition didn’t exist, I can’t deny that the volunteer work I’ve done in this capacity has helped to grow both the “Sujan Patel” and the “Single Grain” brands.

Now, if this all sounds overwhelming, don’t worry.  I wanted to give you a comprehensive look at the personal branding process, but I don’t want you to feel that you need to tackle all these different recommendations overnight.  Brands aren’t built in a day, but by taking time every week to put in some hard work on a few of these different priorities, you’ll find yourself sitting pretty with both a well-liked personal brand and a well-regarded company over time.

What else would you add to my list of recommendations?  If you have any other personal branding techniques that have worked for you in the past, share them below in the comments!

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About Sujan

Sujan Patel is the VP of Marketing at thisCLICKS, the makers of When I Work & Wage Base. Previously Sujan founded Single Grain, one of the top Digital Marketing agencies in San Francisco, CA. With more than 10 years of Internet marketing experience and has led the digital marketing strategy for companies like Sales Force,…