Apple challenged the world to “Think Different.” Nike encouraged people, regardless of age, gender, or physical fitness level, to “Just Do It.” Dunkin’ Donuts persuaded busy professionals that “America Runs on Dunkin’.”
Over the years, these recognizable slogans have morphed into rallying cries—setting the tone for how each company communicates and identifies itself in the market. In just a handful of words, these slogans have told a story and influenced how people perceive the organizations behind them. Together, they represent the power and potential of branding.
“Branding is what companies stand for,” says Dr. Sean Gresh, a faculty member in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program. “It’s reflected in how that company acts, how it serves people, the value that the company shares, and how the company projects those values.”
A strong brand stands out in the crowd—and gains more sales, increased awareness, and better customer experiences as a result.
But branding isn’t just for companies. Professionals each have their own story to tell and goals, skills, and expertise to share. In today’s increasingly digital world, a personal brand is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s expected.
What is a Personal Brand?
A personal brand is, in many ways, similar to a corporate brand, Gresh explains. It is who you are, what you stand for, the values you embrace, and the way in which you express those values. Just as a company’s brand helps to communicate its value to customers and stand out from the competition, a personal brand does the same for individuals, helping to communicate a unique identity and clear value to potential employers or clients.
Or, as Gresh summarizes: “Personal branding is one’s story.”
Why is Personal Branding Important?
Your story can play an important role in establishing or boosting your career. In fact, an overwhelming 85 percent of hiring managers report that a job candidate’s personal brand influences their hiring decisions. Your personal brand should highlight your strengths, establish a reputation, build trust, and communicate the unique attributes that you bring to your current (or desired) industry. Cultivated well, your personal brand will signal to employers whether or not you’ll be the right fit for an open role.
Personal branding is also immensely important if you’re looking to change careers and break into a new field. Employers will want to learn more about why you’re making this change and how your skills and experience translate across different industries. In addition to an impactful resume and cover letter highlighting your transferable skills, your personal brand helps you tell your story to potential employers.
Developing a personal brand might sound challenging, but there are incremental steps you can take to build credibility in your field. Here are ten tips to help you create an authentic personal brand—and amplify your career in the process.
Ten Tips for Developing Your Personal Brand
1. Figure out who you are.
In order to build a personal brand that accurately reflects your personal and professional identity, you first need to know who you are. Be introspective, and create a list of your personal strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself:
- In which areas of work do I excel?
- What motivates me?
- What characteristics have others complimented me on?
- Which projects have others had to help me with repeatedly?
- Which roles seem to drain my energy?
- Which projects can I spend hours on without feeling overwhelmed or tired?
If you’re struggling to answer these questions, ask friends, family, and co-workers how they would describe you. Once you’re more aware of the different facets of your personality, you can decide how best to brand them.
Keep in mind that many people struggle to choose a specific niche because they don’t want to limit themselves. Realize that your personal brand, like many corporate brands, will change as your career grows. The best strategy is to choose a particular area you’d like to focus on and let it evolve over time.
2. Determine what you want to be known for.
Your personal brand is more than a reflection of who you are today; it’s a roadmap of where you to go. In addition to understanding your existing skills and competencies, Gresh suggests assessing your strengths and weaknesses as they relate to whichever industry or career you want to break into next.
By doing this, you’ll uncover the skills and traits that make you distinct, as well as the areas where you need to improve or gain new knowledge in order to advance. Forecasting where you want to be in five or 10 years—and the attributes you want to be known for—can help you better determine what steps you need to take in order to get there.
3. Define your audience.
Before you start crafting your personal brand, you also need to determine who you’re trying to reach. Is it other industry thought leaders? An individual at a particular company? Recruiters? The sooner you define the audience, the easier it will be to craft your story, because you’ll better understand the type of story you need to tell (and where you need to tell it.)
For example, if your goal is to reach hiring managers and recruiters, you might start by creating or updating your LinkedIn profile. Why? Because 92 percent of recruiters leverage social media to find high-quality candidates and, of those, 87 percent use LinkedIn.
On the other hand, if you are a graphic designer trying to impress existing clientele and attract new customers, you might choose to tell your story via a personal website or portfolio, where you can better express your wide range of talents.
4. Research your desired industry and follow the experts.
As you start mapping out the careers you want, Gresh recommends compiling research on experts in those roles.
“Find out who the thought leaders are in whatever field you’re interested in, and don’t just follow them,” he says. “Go online and find out if they have blogs, or where they contribute their thinking. Look for people who are successful and examine what they’re doing. Imitate them, and then do one better.”
In building a personal brand, your goal is to stand out—but you can’t rise to the top without taking inventory of who’s already there.
5. Ask for informational interviews.
As you start forming a list of companies you aspire to work for and industry leaders you admire, consider reaching out to these professionals to ask for an informational interview.
“They take 20 minutes, but are of high value,” Gresh says. “Don’t be afraid to ask anyone you’re interested in learning more from. You’d be surprised by how genuine and generous people are.”
When you meet with these individuals, ask questions that can help you garner new insights about your desired field, such as:
- How did you break into the industry?
- What steps would you take if you were to make the transition all over again?
- How do you see the industry evolving?
- How do you stay up-to-date with industry trends?
- Are there any professional or trade associations I should join?
According to Gresh, informational interviews come with an added benefit: “You’re learning about what it takes to get into the profession, but you’re also sharing in the course of this dialogue a little bit about yourself. What you’re doing is building your brand.”
Although there might not be a job on the line in one of these interviews, one day there could be—and you want that employer to think of you when he or she is envisioning the ideal candidate.
6. Prepare an elevator pitch.
As you begin to conceptualize your personal brand, spend some time crafting an elevator pitch—a 30- to 60-second story about who you are. Whether you’re attending a networking event or an informal party, having an elevator pitch prepared makes it easy to describe succinctly what you do and where you’re going (or would like to go) in your career.
“You need to come up with very short, concise things to say—stories to tell—that frame your attributes in the right light,” says Frank Cutitta, founder of the Center for Global Branding and a Northeastern University graduate professor who teaches a course on personal branding.
Keep your elevator pitch brief by focusing on a few key points you want to emphasize. This could include that you’re looking for a new position, have strengths in a particular niche, or recently increased the value of your current department or company.
7. Embrace networking.
As you cultivate your ideal personal brand, it’s important to network regularly (and effectively) to grow your professional circle. Connect with peers and industry thought-leaders by going to formal and informal networking events.
The more connections you make—and the more value you can provide in your interactions—the more likely it is your personal brand will be recognized. And, considering 85 percent of all jobs are filled through networking, regularly attending these events will help you not only build your brand, but potentially advance your career, too.
At these events, don’t be shy about asking fellow attendees to meet again for an informational interview or a casual coffee chat. And remember, if you don’t get a chance to connect at the event, reach out via email or LinkedIn to spark a conversation.
8. Ask for recommendations.
Having current and former colleagues and managers endorse you is one of the easiest and most effective ways to define your personal brand, allowing others to communicate your value for you. Just as a business might cultivate customer reviews and testimonials for use in sales and marketing collateral, you too should cultivate your own reviews in the form of recommendations.
LinkedIn is a great place to ask for endorsements because these recommendations will likely catch the eye of future hiring managers. But don’t forget to ask the people endorsing you to act as an actual reference during your job search, being sure they’re willing to speak with a potential employer or write a bonafide letter of recommendation if needed.
Not sure who to ask? Former managers who mentored you closely are ideal, but other connections can also craft effective recommendations, including professors and leaders of organizations you belong to.
(To learn more about who to ask—and how—check out this comprehensive post on how to effectively leverage professional references.)
9. Grow your online presence.
One of the most important aspects of personal branding is making sure your online presence is engaging to hiring managers, co-workers, and others—even if you’re not on the job hunt.
With so many different social media tools available today, your online presence will likely look different depending on the medium you choose. While your story should match across all platforms, once you know where your targeted audience is most likely to turn, you can redouble your efforts in telling your best story there.
Additionally, if you want one of your sites or profiles to be exclusively for friends and family, adjust your privacy settings to ensure that potential employers don’t stumble upon any information that could potentially harm your chances of landing a job. Here are some platform-specific tips to help you effectively craft your personal brand online.
LinkedIn serves as a professional social media tool and is the ultimate site for defining your brand. The best way to use this network is to participate in groups, make introductions with people who interest you, and ask for (and give) recommendations. Some other tips for effectively telling your story through LinkedIn include:
- Focus on key industry skills: Recruiters will often search for keywords that relate to the role they’re trying to fill, so it’s important to feature industry terms in your profile—whether in your headline, summary, or job description—and explicitly state your skills. For example, if you’re pursuing a communications role, zero in on your area of interest and key qualifications, such as public relations, social media, or crisis communication.
- Quantify your accomplishments: Saying you’re “results-oriented” isn’t nearly as effective as your actual results. Quantify your accomplishments when possible, whether it’s the number of articles you’ve written, dollars you’ve raised, or deals you’ve closed.
- Complete your profile: While this might sound obvious, it’s not uncommon for users to leave sections of their LinkedIn profile blank. Recruiters want to see what work experience you have, your educational background, and a detailed list of accomplishments, so make sure you’re showing the full picture. Convince them you’re the person they should hire.
- Use a professional photo: LinkedIn users with a professional headshot receive 14 times more profile views than those without. Upload a current photo that’s closely cropped to your face. Remember, you should be the focal point, so avoid any busy backgrounds—and smile. The more welcoming you look, the more likely recruiters are to contact you
Leverage this platform to highlight and build upon your industry expertise. Try to incorporate your personal brand into your Twitter bio by using hashtags to focus on your niche, following leaders in your field, and retweeting top industry stories. Don’t forget: what you tweet is still a part of your online image.
Other Social Media Platforms
In addition to LinkedIn and Twitter, there are of course many other platforms you may want to consider. Choose the platforms where the audience and network you are trying to reach spend their time. Additional social media platforms include:
- Instagram: While you may not think of Instagram as a career tool, the app gives individuals a platform to build their professional brand in a creative, visual format. Instagram is an especially helpful resource for those in creative fields and digital marketing.
- TikTok: TikTok is a short-form video platform that has recently become popular amongst Gen Z and Millennials. Some of the world’s largest businesses are building a TikTok presence, so it can be an effective platform to creatively build your brand and interact with organizations that interest you.
- Snapchat: Like TikTok, Snapchat is a favorite for younger audiences. You can utilize features like special effects and emojis to demonstrate your unique personality and brand.
- Reddit: Boasting over 52 million daily users, Reddit is a popular news and discussion platform where users can submit content and interact with threads posted by other users. Reddit communities, called subreddits, are made up of like-minded individuals who are interested in a specific topic. Because of this, Reddit is a great place for you to build your personal brand and connect with others in your field.
Personal website or portfolio
If you’re in a marketing or design field, it’s especially important to have a personal website or portfolio that provides essential information about who you are and helps visually highlight your work. You can create your own site using Squarespace, Wix, or WordPress, among others. Small brands and business owners can also take advantage of helpful design resources like Canva and Venngage’s logo templates to get started creating brand-specific content.
10. Remember that your personal brand isn’t just online.
Your brand is more than just an online persona; it’s how you carry yourself at home, in the office, and even on your daily commute.
“Your reputation is everything,” Gresh emphasizes. “Those who frustrate or annoy others—that will come back to haunt them. The more opportunities you have to work with others, volunteer for projects, and assert yourself as a leader, take them. That’s part of your brand.”
Leadership isn’t reserved for C-suite executives. Strong leaders exist at every level of the organization.
“Leadership comes from how you behave, how you act, and how you inherently interact with people,” Gresh says. “That’s real leadership.”
That story you tell, combined with those everyday interactions, ultimately define your personal brand.
Reinvent Your Personal Brand As You Grow
As the digital ecosystem changes and your career evolves, so will your personal brand. Adjust your persona accordingly as you meet different people, find new networking opportunities, and grow in your career. As long as it reflects your professional life, don’t hesitate to create a brand that lets you shine.
When developing your personal brand, remember to highlight what sets you apart from others, including your unique interests, values, professional experience, and educational background. For example, if you have an advanced degree, this can help you to differentiate yourself from other professionals in your field and demonstrate your expertise. Consider one of the 200+ degree and certificate programs at Northeastern as you develop your personal brand to help set you apart from the crowd.
Editor’s note: This blog post was originally published in July 2017. It has been updated for comprehensiveness and clarity.