Building your personal brand from scratch: a guide for graduates

Personal branding has become a hot topic in the last couple of years, but it’s easy to look at it superficially, either as an aspect of celebrity or as a function of how active you are in social media. But I believe personal brand is both more profound and more subtle than that.

I get asked all the time by students how they should approach it, mainly because they need to attract the attention of potential employers. I think there are some clear steps.

Understand that brand is a collection of shared associations and concepts: Nike, Apple, The Guardian: each of these brands has a small set of powerful meanings or concepts shared by their audiences. Think Apple, for example, and you think beautiful, cutting-edge consumer technology – and a little apple logo. Your personal brand is the same. The aim is to develop a set of meanings for yourself which are positive and strong. So your brand is not something that you can decide on the morning of an interview: it’s not a mask that you can put on and take off. It’s never too soon to start building those associations, and the best way start is to examine your core purpose.

Have a sense of purpose: Powerful brands know what they are trying to do, and so do their customers. Think about your purpose: what you want to achieve and why. It doesn’t have to restrict you in the long term, but it will give you a clear focus and narrative in the short term. And if you have a clear sense of your purpose, it will not only be reassuring to employers, but also enable you to answer questions such as “What do you hope to be doing in five years?”

Pull together your career history – and future: Many people have diverse and sometimes conflicting educational and career histories, and there’s no problem at all in that, providing that you can weave your experiences together to make a coherent career story. From all your experiences what did you learn, how did you change, how has it brought you to a clear sense of where you are now and where you are going? In the end, all successful branding is about story. Learn yours well so that you are comfortable telling it.

Richard Branson’s story of market stallholder to record-label entrepreneur, combined with adventurer, challenger to major brands and shameless playboy contributes directly to his business success. Levi Roots has reinvented himself and made a successful business from his particular story of combining a passion for reggae music with Caribbean food.

Be clear about your ‘brand positioning’: Positioning is a relative concept, referring to the place that you occupy in the mind and heart of your audience, relative to other brands. What position do you want to occupy? “Simply the best” is not an appropriate answer. Fine artists talk about a “specific”, which is a similar concept. What is your “specific”? It’s not just something that you are good at but something that truly distinguishes you. The trick is to be very clear in your own mind about the combination of things that you offer and how they together make something compelling and distinctive.

Tell an irresistible story: Facts alone are dull, and lists of qualifications are just facts. To create a brand for yourself, you have to capture the imagination of your audience. Tell them something that makes them feel something (excitement, trust, confidence). Buried in almost every CV that I’ve seen, there is a story of an achievement, or a skill, or an approach, which has the potential to help an individual stand out from the crowd. I have just reviewed a CV of a graduate looking for a PR role, in which (buried deep in the bullet points) was the fact that she had real experience of handling crisis PR for McDonald’s. It turned out there was a powerful story in that point which was not being told. Another recent encounter was with a young marketing professional whose previous employer had described her as the most reliable person they had ever met. That simple statement is a powerful foundation for a story of how the person can bring real value to an employer.

Resist the temptation to exaggerate or to invent: At all costs, resist. Great brands are founded on authenticity. You don’t need to be anything other than you are: just to tell your story better. A classic example is to over-state levels of responsibility or of skill. But, depending on your personality type, it can also be tempting simply to add unnecessary swagger and false self-confidence, in the manner of a contestant in The Apprentice. Straightforward presentation of what you might call a modest self-assuredness is much more appealing.

Become not just irresistible but irreplaceable: The best way to build a brand reputation early on is by the way you act and the value that you add. Throw yourself into every opportunity to serve. Your enthusiasm and commitment to the organisation will be noticed and valued. When they are begging you to stay, you’ll know you’ve started to really build your brand.

Simon Middleton is the author of Build A Brand In 30 Days and What You Need To Know About Marketing. He is running a masterclass Reinventing A Brand New You in London October 26.

Leave a Comment