Why Your Personal Brand Matters

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Yes, it’s my real voice!

90 days after leaving my job, I attempted to jump back into the working world with my newfound career as a consultant. I printed business cards at Staples, went to an intense, ritualistic breakfast networking event where I killed my 45-second pitch, and hoped that just maybe someone would want to hire me. A few people flagged me down to talk, and they all seemed interested in working together.

Well, I never followed up with those people and no one ended up hiring me. I also haven’t gone back to another one of those events again. After a couple days, I had this feeling of confusion as to why I felt so uncomfortable about the whole experience. I certainly had the professional background to back up everything I said in my pitch. But something just didn’t sit well. I didn’t feel the chemistry with the people I met, and I even felt a bit like a fraud. Sure, maybe some people would be able to just switch into “fake-it-till-you-make-it” mode. But I’m just not one of those people. My insecurities often keep me risk averse.

What was my problem? My ill-defined personal brand was my problem.

As strange as it might sound to think about ourselves as “brands” to some, it’s most definitely true that, indeed, we each have our own. A brand is simply a perception of an entity, like a business, organization, movement, or person. To break it down even further, it is a collection of abstract (i.e. values) and tangible assets (i.e. products) that is identifiable, evoke emotion, and drive action in others. When it comes to personal branding, it’s essentially the essence of a person. When you meet someone, that first impression is equivalent to the moment of initial perception of a “brand.” The person giving the first impression hopes that the essence of their brand is perceived the way they intend.

In true introvert style, I retreated back into my unofficial sabbatical of solitude after my failed attempt. The feelings I had were ones that were similar to what took me over in my corporate days. I felt phony and inauthentic.  

It wasn’t until I read Anne Helen Petersen’s thoughtfully written essay on BuzzFeed shortly after the New Year, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” and then every other news piece on burnout published thereafter, that a light bulb went off. There I was presenting my so-called personal brand in a pitch that empty-heartedly checked off the boxes and was optimized for efficiency in attracting people. My 45-second pitch for the breakfast networking event was a jumble of buzz words strung together. Was it efficient? Yes, people wanted to continue a dialogue with me. Was it effective? No, because they were the wrong people for me.

This was the first lesson I learned on personal branding without the luxury of leaning on a corporate entity. Back then, I simply had to play the internal politics. I didn’t have to sell myself so hard because I had the leverage of an internal reputation. But as a freelance consultant, I realized that although the backing of my past work experience at big name companies gave a sense of security to people, building the connection and mutual trust was even more important. My purpose, values, strengths, and clarity on who I want to work with had to be conveyed in a way that was personable, honest, and not force-fed. And without thoroughly understanding my brand, a genuine connection couldn’t be sparked, particularly from my end. 

So, I thought about personal branding more deeply. Why is it so important?

We continue to witness a movement of the American workforce. By 2020, 40% of the workforce will consist of freelancers. And by 2027, more than half will work as freelancers (Edelman Intelligence). As the barrier to entry in starting businesses have lowered and the tools to do so have been democratized, we have also experienced an increase in “nonemployer firms” (aka one-person businesses) that generate $1M-$2.49M in revenue. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that from 2011 to 2016, this category of business climbed +35.2% (Forbes). Assuming that nonemployer firms continue to operate and grow, the need for freelancers will follow. As such and competition grows, individual branding and building both credibility and personal trust will be of utmost importance.

On the younger end of the spectrum in age, we have the entry of Gen-Z in the workforce, in which the oldest of Gen Z is now 24 years old. This generation has effortlessly adopted the notions of personal branding and authenticity. They’ve grown up engaging with technology and watching uber-relatable YouTube stars. Access to information has been easiest for this generation, and they are accustomed to personalization. They’ve grown up exploring and identifying what their interests and hobbies were since they were young. And they’ve had tools like social media to document their lives:

“Gen Z has scrolled through their most formative years, capturing and curating their own personal brands on platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Music.ly, and Snapchat.”

- E. Paul on Forbes

In other words, they inherently view themselves as brands, whether they acknowledge it or not. As they see brands as extensions of themselves, they affiliate with ones that are actually “doing” to better the world and not just selling and making money. (Mintel, Marketing to the iGeneration - US - May 2018).

If we aren’t already there, Gen-Z’s engagement with brands and ease in branding themselves will soon become the norm which foreshadows implications on standards of hiring. Will it be enough to have just the work experience or will the weight of knowing one’s personal values become more significant?

For myself, I realized that developing my personal brand was important after I burned out during my corporate career. Petersen’s essay featured a quote from author Malcolm Harris, “Efficiency is [the Millennials’] existential purpose, and we are a generation of finely honed tools, crafted from embryos to be lean, mean production machines.” This “lean, mean production machine” is exactly what I felt like once I awoke from the slumber of my seemingly “cookie-cutter” career path. I didn’t feel differentiated among my peers, and thus felt lackluster in my existence. It was my desperate pursuit to uncover meaning in my own life and my values that made me see a personal brand isn’t something superficial or only for those in the public eye. Instead, a well-defined, authentic personal brand could support us in navigating our priorities, social circles, relationships, careers (as a freelancer or employee), and life, in general.

So how does the evolution in the workforce, the Gen-Z mindset, and burnout all tie together?

We currently have convergence of all three trends, and we have an opportunity to seismically shift our minds to think about what is best for ourselves via personal branding rather than naively leaning on our social conditionings as the roadmaps for our lives. We have the chance to establish who we are, what is important to us, and carry out lives that are anchored in purpose.

Based on my firsthand experience, figuring out who I am, what I stand for, and for what reasons wasn’t something that I did overnight or by simply checking off boxes on a list. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I have it all figured out either. Personal branding in today’s age is a reprogramming of our minds and permitting ourselves the runway and time to explore and experiment what is truly meaningful to us versus what is not. The process of creating, sharpening, and evolving a personal brand is the practice of separating what’s actually from the soul versus the ego. What is truly within our desires versus what has been expected of us. This is simply a part of life and personal development – just in new form.