What is a Personal Brand?

Your personal brand is the entirety of how you present yourself in the world. It encompasses who you are as a person, as an employee and as an expert in your chosen field. Creating your personal brand can be the linchpin in achieving your professional goals, by providing a fuller picture of who you are to your potential employer.
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A woman shaking hands with an employer, looking to use her personal brand in a job interview with the text Building a Personal Brand

What does it mean to have a personal brand, and why is it important? Building a personal brand may be a more significant factor in the advancement of your career goals than you might think. 

Your personal brand is the entirety of how you present yourself in the world. It encompasses who you are as a person, as an employee and as an expert in your chosen field. Creating your personal brand can be the linchpin in achieving your professional goals, by providing a fuller picture of who you are to your potential employer.

Education and experience are of course key elements considered by potential employers; but keep in mind that you, as an individual, are also part of that equation. Creating a personal brand is part of self-marketing – and in the digital age, a growing facet of your well-rounded overall impression to those making hiring decisions. 

Whether you work in a virtual environment or in a traditional onsite model, building your brand is extremely important. “It’s what separates you from other  Christopher Dodds with the text Christopher Doddscandidates, and aligns you with the company vision, brand and culture,” said Christopher Dodds, a career advisor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “It sets you apart and (makes you) unique compared to other applicants.”

Applying for your dream job is no longer just about your resume and cover letter, or a few attached examples of your work. You should flesh out a complete snapshot of themselves, in order to rise above the throngs of other applicants vying for your desired position. Personal branding is the way to do that.

“Personal branding is a way to come across as a ‘3D candidate’ over your 2D resume, to stand out to potential employers,” said Jillian Giambruno, a career advisor at SNHU. 

How Do You Build a Personal Brand?

There are several elements to your personal brand that you should develop, crystalize and unify, as you craft yourself as the best candidate for the job. “The more ways you can do this, the better value you show. It also helps your negotiation power,” Dodds said.

When creating your personal brand, you'll need to have a clear personal branding statement, echoed in your online portfolio, resume and cover letter, and the knowledge of how to present yourself in-person to potential employers.

Personal Branding Statement

A personal branding statement is essentially an “elevator pitch” – a concise summary (that you could quickly express in the brief duration of an elevator ride, is where the expression comes from) of who you are, what you bring and what you do, and maybe even your personal mission or vision. 

Grace Donahue with the text Grace DonahueIt’s about approaching the creation of your branding statement as if you are “a business of one,” explained Grace Donahue, a military career advisor at SNHU. “You're marketing yourself, and that’s the brand strategy to think creatively about – what’s relevant and important.”

She noted that your branding should be adjusted depending on if you are working for yourself or seeking a company position. Consider if you’re “pitching to a potential client as their contractor, versus applying to a certain company,” she said. You, as the “product,” may need to be presented differently in those scenarios.

Online Portfolio

When seeking a job relating to your visual production skills – as a graphic designer, web developer, writer, marketing and communications specialist – offering potential employers the opportunity to view samples of your talent and prior projects via an online presence can be the tipping point for getting hired.

“Sometimes the portfolio is more important than literal experience,” Giambruno said. “If you have a showcase of your work – e.g., writing samples or graphic design (projects) – that can have more of an impact.” 

Your body of work being easily accessible to hiring eyes “helps differentiate yourself and shows that you can use the tools you say you can on your resume,” Dodds said. “Show, instead of tell. Highlight your creativity and skills. Some (potential employers) will even have you do a mock marketing campaign” if that’s your sought position, he said.

Resume

Despite the modern world demanding more and different creative additions to how we market ourselves, a resume is still required by nearly every hiring agency.

Resumes can vary wildly, and how successful yours is as your work-history calling card will depend on the company and position you’re pursuing and their own preferences as to resume length and level of detail. Dodds interacts with many companies in his role, and said every employer has its own preferences on resume style.

“There can be different expectations – some like 3-page resumes, some prefer only one page,” he said. “Some never read the cover letter, while others screen out applications if there isn’t one.” If you can find out ahead of time what your desired company prefers, it can help you get your application seen and advanced.

To best shine a light on your personal brand, your resume should not only give the facts of your employment history; it should also give hirers a clear picture of who you are, and what skills you’ve acquired through those previous jobs. What’s very important to keep in mind as you craft your resume – especially if you’re just starting out in the work world, or are changing your career direction – is how possibly disparate job experiences can be parlayed into proof of your eligibility for a new position.

What that means is, if you are looking to segue from one type of industry to another and are worried that your job history isn’t relevant, examine what characteristics of yours shined the brightest and are traits a new employer would value. These traits are called soft skills. In addition to your “hard skills” that are things like machinery you can operate, or technical abilities, your soft skills are positive aspects of your work style and showcase how you are as a member of a team.

Jillian Giambruno with the text Jillian Giambruno

“What I always say to students is, soft is how you do (your job), hard is what you do, and how you can apply it,” Donahue said. “For example: Students transitioning from entry-level positions ... are sometimes embarrassed to talk about how those jobs relate.” 

There are always positive aspects you've attained through past job experiences that you can tout. “You can call soft skills ‘transferrable skills.’ especially in (developing or) changing careers,” Giambruno said. “For example, being a food industry server or being a babysitter. You can show (potential employers) that you were a responsible and dynamic team member, reliable and punctual, able to work in a fast-paced setting. All (those characteristics) can transfer to a corporate or office position.”

Cover Letter

Though not always requested, a cover letter with your resume and online portfolio can be the critical item that convinces those doing the applicant culling to move you to the next step in the process. 

A cover letter is even more important now with the high level of unemployment and the subsequently larger pool of candidates, Donahue said. It is how you can show your personality and interest in the specific company you're courting.

And if you’re searching for a career in any facet of communications, Dodds noted “what better time to use your marketing degree than in your job search? Your cover letter can showcase your writing and communication skills; are you a good investment for them? I’m a huge proponent of cover letters. Submit one unless it specifically says no. It shows you go above and beyond. You can show your value in your personal brand.”

A cover letter is also a helpful tool for the person reading – and culling – an influx of resumes.

“Think about the hiring manager reading it – e.g., they might not know about your skillset. Explain how you're a good fit to a third-party screener,” Dodds recommended. “Recruiters know what things to look for – industry terms, skills and experience – but your cover letter can help them understand if they’re not an expert in, say, marketing or nursing. You can expand their surface-level understanding in the cover letter. And never assume they’ll know what industry acronyms mean.”

It’s also a good idea to refer to your digital portfolio in your cover letter, Dodds said, so hirers can immediately see your work and your brand.

“I had a student hired very quickly from that,” he said.

Yourself

Your handshake, how you speak, eye contact and appearance all go to representing your personal brand identity. This is the in-person piece of the job search process – even if it’s via virtual meetings or submitted videos. How you present yourself is especially important in the latter case, as video is less personal. You may be faced with providing a one-way recorded interview where you’re not talking to anyone.

“And that’s where you really have to show your personal brand and that you did your research," Dodds said.

Little things like following application directions, dressing business professional, that’s all part of how they’ll remember you. “You were the one very well-prepared, who hit the marks on interview questions, and followed up,” Dodds said. “That’s not a decision that will be made by the computer that screened resumes; they’re hiring a person, not a portfolio.”

Confidence is key in the screening process, experts agree. “You need to be comfortable in your own skin, and in talking about and advocating for yourself,” Giambruno said. “Be confident regarding what you’re about, and clearly communicate what you mean and who you are.”

Tips For Building a Personal Brand

Creating your personal brand is a continual process before, during and after the initial contact has been made with your desired employer. Here are some top tips from career advisors:

Be Visible

In a current role or while job seeking, consider taking on new or diverse projects that will bring a new spotlight to your efforts; attend networking events, job fairs and conferences, any kind of professional development; utilize employment networking tools like LinkedIn (or Handshake if your university offers it). Put yourself out there as “actively seeking” on other social media outlets, too.

“Network with people who will advocate for you and your brand. The importance is establishing value in your brand,” Dodds said. 

Be Consistent

A lot of personal branding has to do with being consistent across platforms – in person, on paper, on social media. And be sure to show authenticity – come across as who you really are. 

Be Current

Keep up with breaking news in your desired industry, Giambruno said. Share articles and express your own opinions about topics related to a company you would like to work at or with. Get conversations going among fellow professionals in your field; this shows potential employers you are engaged and committed to the industry, and can be valuable during the interview process.

Be Social Media Savvy 

Ensure all your social media accounts are “clean” – meaning that there’s nothing out there that you wouldn’t want a potential employer to stumble across – or set your personal accounts to private, and create a public professional profile. 

Research what your field uses for social media – for example, creative, publishing, or visual arts jobs likely lean more heavily on their Instagram and YouTube accounts, Donahue said. Industries with fast-moving news to share may focus more attention onto Twitter.

“If you’re job searching, you don’t want someone to glean (their perception of) your whole personal brand from what they see (on your social media); have a professional and private profile,” Dodds advised. “Everyone’s watching. Free speech is very important, but if it’s out there, be careful with photos that might reflect negatively from a company perspective. It is a big deal for your personal brand, and you can let your guard down. It can be problematic.”

Dodds said he knows of a start-up company focused solely on getting rid of things people should omit from their social media accounts. And that might be a good idea, because “you’d be surprised how employers will hire third-party companies (to conduct) social media checks sometimes,” he said.

Donahue added that “a lot of nonprofits and political organizations pay more attention to what you say on your personal social media” than some other industry sectors.

Be an Influencer

Start a blog or do videos on YouTube and Instagram all related to your field, providing interesting and engaging content. LinkedIn and Twitter are also good places to make a name for yourself as an industry expert. “Most people make the mistake of just creating a profile and not interacting with it,” Dodds warned. “One student I worked with is creating stories with related hashtags to companies she desires, to increase her visibility and show industry interest. It’s the opportunity to show more of yourself than just a resume. When (potential employers) see their own industry interests on your accounts, you can interact and network with people all over the world.”

Be Thorough

Cross those Ts, dot those Is, do that networking. Make sure you’re never caught unaware, unedited or uninformed. Your personal branding starts on day one, as you prepare to apply for a job. Ensure any website or digital resume/portfolio are devoid of spelling or functional errors; triple-check the job application you’ve filled out. Apply in accordance to the job description and given instructions, and do so professionally. Then be sure to follow up – that goes toward showing you’re an excellent communicator. 

Being thorough includes being informed and prepared. Do “interest interviews,” often referred to as informational interviews, with someone already in your desired career. This lets you practice how to talk about the field. Learn the lingo. “Show a personal, specific passion for that job you're applying to; that shows your level of interest and attention to detail, beyond just reading their website. For example, cite something you’re interested in that this company does, like their community service,” Dodds said. 

Be Confident

This can be the hardest part of creating your brand. A lack of confidence can be the biggest barrier to attaining that dream job, and some might be surprised to have that pointed out. “A lot of people tell me ‘Oh, I don’t have any skills’, so we have to work backwards from there and really show them what they have to offer,” Donahue said. “Those soft skills that are present, especially with no prior professional or industry-specific job experience. With any personal branding strategy, it’s about delivering it with confidence – believing in what you’re talking about and saying about yourself. Be proud of what you did! Those skills are very transferable,” she said.

Key Considerations in a Personal Brand

Remember your goal in seeking employment should go beyond merely securing a position, any position. Financial security and benefits may drive a certain level of urgency in your job hunting, but it’s also important to consider if the direction you’re going is truly going to bring you personal satisfaction. 

  • Be true to yourself. “The biggest takeaway I leave people with is the whole process of developing a personal brand has to start with your skills, but also your value, and what you want from work,” Donahue said. “You might get jobs, but you might also not be happy. A lot of people focus on getting the job, then get trapped in a job that doesn’t make them happy once they’re in the door.” Keep in mind your values; do they jive with your potential employer? You can get short-term jobs to get you towards your goal, but will you be satisfied doing them?
  • Be specific. Don’t be so amenable to accepting any foot in the door to a company that you sell yourself short. Telling potential employers “I can do anything and I'm open to any position” can backfire, Donahue warned. If you’re not showing a clear specific interest in the job you're going interviewing for, you might not be seen as a committed candidate, she said. Your personal brand should show clearly your intentions and strengths.

  • Be real. Just as you would be upset to discover a company or position were not what they were advertised to be, so too can your new employer feel that way if the personal brand you presented to them in the hiring process isn't’ revealed to be a true reflection of you or your work ethic.

“It’s important to be yourself and have fun, in a professional way. Show them who you are. It’s so much less stressful to be yourself and let your real self shine through,” Donahue said.

Dodds agreed. Your personal brand must give hirers a true vision of who you are. In some ways, it’s the most important part of the equation, as your brand must match theirs. “Company culture is their company brand,” Dodds said. “They can teach skills, but they want someone who will fit into the company culture.” And that cannot be taught.

Kathleen Palmer is an award-winning journalist and writer.

Career

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