Personal Branding

Or: Investing in yourself • February 12 2018

I delivered this talk to a room of very nice folks (hosted by Wealthsimple) just starting their careers in design & product.

What even is a personal brand? Can it be measured in followers on Twitter, in a positions at a prestigious company, by a boost to the trajectory of your career? And why would we do this, what are the benefits of putting in the work? I mean – do I have more followers on twitter? Do I have a position at a prestigious company? Has it helped my career?

Sure – but that’s an outcome of a personal brand, not the brand itself. What I want to share is how I think about personal branding, and why, personally, I’ve put in the work – through trial and error – on my own personal journey, discovering how to brand myself. I’m certainly not saying this is the right way or the only way to do it, but it’s been helpful for me. This is the stuff that I’m thinking about and reflecting on when I’m trying to put ‘brand’ into effect.

This tweet made me laugh when I was starting to frame up this talk – it’s obviously a joke but it really got me thinking about how to think about brand, too. A personal brand has to be – at least in some ways – reflective of the person you are in real life. There’s more to unpack there, but let’s step back: why does personal brand even matter? Can’t I just do the work that’s in front of me and not have to concern myself with this whole other world of communication and promotion and hard work on top of the stuff I already have to do?

And of course, yes, sure, absolutely – but: not doing it doesn’t help you answer the question: what makes you stand out?

This feels like a guiding principle for personal branding – it’s a good sniff test. Let’s say robots were able to replace me at my job tomorrow, create all of the same outputs that I would create, would anyone still want to work with me? Would people who have never met me want to work with me?

Or: what kind of thinking or ideas can I demonstrate that makes me someone that other people want to associate with?  What am I bringing to the table that’s uniquely me? And thinking in a longer-term way, how do I make sure that I stay relevant? That I stay top of mind? How do I make things and share things that people continue to find value in and want to share in turn? Speaking of value –

– what happens when you do this right?

This slide is a little bit of a humblebrag, because I thought this was going to be a throwaway joke about job titles. But it clearly resonated! I’m not just sharing this to show off my Twitter game, the question that I have to ask and that you should be asking if you’re constructing a personal brand is: why did this land? Why did so many people find this compelling?

You’ve got to to analyze your personal brand, what you put out there, exactly as you would any other marketing campaign, so you can make it repeatable instead of just random one-offs. I’m still working on this – can I make a viral tweet on demand? Well, no – but it’s very worthwhile to think about the qualities of the things you are putting out there, what makes them resonate with your audience? We’ll come back to this idea.

I think it’s interesting to look at the parallels and differences between a “personal brand”, and a “brand brand”. Weirdly enough, I think big companies have cottoned on to this, very clearly realized the value of the personal connection over the normal corporate communication we’d expect. Example: do you follow Denny’s on Twitter? It’s funny – and that’s because it’s very personal, they’re not trying to shill the Grand Slam breakfast, they’ve realized the fundamental absurdity of Denny’s having a twitter account and are just running with it, making jokes and having a good time.

This is a big theme that I’ve discovered in my own journey, that’s common among the brands that really resonate with me: authenticity. That is to say: does your brand ring true? When you’re putting stuff out there, does it sound like your authentic voice, or does it sound like you’re trying to sell pancakes on Twitter?

So clearly I think it’s worthwhile – for a lot of reasons – to start doing this, to put yourself out there. I think the first question you need to ask is – what’s your thing? What do you want people to associate with you when they think of you? Is there a certain subject matter in which you are (or want to be perceived as) an expert? Are there general qualities you want to exemplify? I mentioned authenticity but I think there’s a distinction to be made here – I think it’s very important to think about what it is that you want to communicate about yourself, because other people can pick your “thing” if you don’t pick it yourself, on purpose.

Steve Jobs’ “brand” was that he was perceived as a genius, but also perceived as a jerk, to put it mildly. That was definitely authentic, but probably – probably! – not something he did deliberately. And, sure, some people still wanted to work with him … I wouldn’t have wanted to! That’s fine, and there’s a lesson here: a personal brand doesn’t have to reach everyone, or speak to everyone. In fact, it shouldn’t and can’t reach everyone.

We need to be more choosy, we can’t represent ourselves as all things to all people. It’s not believable. We’ve got to figure out how to highlight and bring forward the things that will make us stand out – the things that are, as mentioned, uniquely US. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The fun part of this – for me, at least – has been there are pretty low-key ways to experiment with building on top of my existing identity and really highlight the things that I think make me stand out.

By nature I’m very introverted, but I’ve been doing talks like this for a few years – and I’ve been putting things out into the world that I care about and seeing what happens. I’ve ended up with sort of a battle-tested personal brand that I know at least a solid chunk of my audience understands and expects from me. The interesting thing about this is that it worked. People picked up on the cues I decided to put out there, and formed opinions about what was or wasn’t “my authentic voice”. Honestly, it’s really cool that people can tell when something doesn’t ring true, when something feels uncharacteristic for the “Tom brand”.

I more or less started doing this by accident, but it’s become much more purposeful, especially over, say, the last couple of years. I somewhat haphazardly built up an audience, but there can and should be purpose to building a personal brand. I mentioned one purpose already – be perceived as an expert – that’s one goal. You might want to be asked to give talks on your area of expertise, you might want to land that prestigious position. These are all good purposes, good outcomes.

So let’s talk about that. How do we build purpose into a brand? You’ve got to put the work in to get things rolling. Defining your own unique voice among a lot of other people or companies yelling similar things can be difficult. So: how do we discover those things that ring true and have value to the audience we want to build? How can you distinguish yourself in the firehose of noise?

Find the people in your industry who are doing what you want to do, find the people actually making the things you love or working at the places that you aspire to. What are they talking about? What are they posting about? What matters to the community? Then STEAL THEIR SHIT!

This feels like cheating but it’s not – these people act as a temperature gauge or guard rails around the brand you want to build, help you understand what’s inside the fence and what’s not. Personally I read a lot of tweets and articles from designers, and a lot of the tweets I make are riffing on popular jokes or points of view that I know peers that I care about will have seen. Every industry is going to have its subcultures, it’s in-jokes, it’s own language. A personal brand is not just a way to set yourself apart, it’s also a way to show that you get it, that you have the requisite knowledge be perceived as an expert.

You can honestly do this wherever your community congregates, and you can choose the medium that makes the most sense for you. I mostly interact with people on Twitter because lots of other designers are on there, that’s where I’ve found and built an audience. It’s been a really good and rewarding platform for me, but you can do this on Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram – in private Slack groups? Offline – by organizing events? There’s no one right way to do this.

So wherever you’re building that brand – think about the narrative. What’s the throughline on all of the things I post, on the connections I make and the identity I’ve constructed around myself? Bottom line: they are things I care about. Design, art, internet culture … Star Trek? Sure. It’s short-hand for things I care about in real life, things I want to be known for, the sort of person I want people to think I am.

So: curate a few things that you think have value – mine might be design and design-adjacent jokes. But: I respond to people, I create useful content, I have discussions. I create emotional value. My most successful tweets have been emotional, not informational. So getting back to the idea of analyzing what went right: why did those ones work? Here’s where we dig into the nitty-gritty.

In my opinion there are three extremely important components to a personal brand – it has to be: personal, vulnerable, relatable. I mean obviously we’re talking about a personal brand: at its core the brand has to reflect you. I can’t speak authentically about stuff I’m not interested in. I could start tweeting tomorrow about, say, extreme basejumping but I don’t know anything about it, it wouldn’t sound authentic. What’s the truth at the core of the stuff you’re putting out there? There has to be authenticity and that’s recognizable, you have to be able to speak with confidence.

The terrible secret of the design industry is we all like to pretend that nobody has any idea what we’re doing and we’re all hoping nobody figures that out. And – people actually kinda want to hear that! Juniors want to hear that from seniors. Seniors want to hear that from leadership. People fundamentally want to know that other people don’t have it all figured out, that’s it’s okay to be growing and learning all the time.

This definitely ladders back to finding and shadowing other people in your industry – what are they talking about? What are some relatable qualities? Are other people in my industry going to find themselves in a similar situation? Is this a situation that means something to other designers? Is this something that a community exists around, are they thinking about it?

It might sound mercenary to deliberately seek out communities that already exist around things you like, but I prefer to think of it as strategic and purposeful – you’re not going to be an overnight expert. I follow some people who are just yelling about how much they hate XYZ – and that’s just exhausting. It’s very much my opinion that the strongest content we can put out there is about signal boosting, not dunking on stuff that we don’t like. And that’s why, in my opinion, that job title joke worked so well – this is something that designers are already thinking about in terms of their own careers, their own development – and me, as a senior in the industry just kind of joking around about it, showing my own vulnerability, if you will, made it something that echoed their own experiences.

Let’s talk about the real-world aspect of building a personal brand. Your brand is the pitch – you still need to hit the home run, you still have to create the outcome you want. Starting a discussion, becoming known, working together, or meeting someone for coffee, making a connection – that’s all opening a door, but you still gotta execute! A personal brand is marketing! You might be going gangbusters on the brand part – are you also hitting it out of the park when somebody wants to close the deal? How are you making the sale that your marketing, your brand, is promising?

In other words, how can I live the real-person, “Me IRL” version of the brand I’m putting out there? Can I express the same personality in person that I do through my brand – I hope so! Can I make myself available to talk over coffee about the things I talk about on Twitter – sure! Can I be interested in people’s journeys through their own twisty career paths and challenges? – heck yes!

Those are some things that I’ve done and it seems to have worked out pretty well. My point is that there’s the offline or IRL component to the personal brand. When I’m not making design-y jokes on Twitter, what am I actually doing? What’s the follow-through? We touched on this already – this is why authenticity is so important. Being personal and vulnerable and relatable on Twitter, and a jerk in real life isn’t a sustainable model. You need follow-through.

This is why I said a personal brand has to be constructed from of your existing identity, rather than in place of it. Your brand, at it’s core, has to be about you, not a wholly constructed identity. You could probably fake it ’til you make it but since I’m putting in the time anyway, I’d much rather be super-enthusiastic about stuff I really care about.

Man, this all sound hard. I think the harsh truth about working in any industry, and especially when you’re just starting out, is that it can be tough to feel like you’re making a mark or doing work that really matters. When you’re starting out as a designer it’s easy to feel like you’re just a cog in a big machine. Building a personal brand is kind of a shortcut to make your voice heard and find people who care about the same things you care about – it’s about making those connections.

So: why do all of this? I’ve been really lucky to work with a lot of very fantastic people in my career. A lot of them reached out after following me, after seeing what I was putting out there, after gauging my character via my personal brand. Because I’ve been willing to be very personal, and very vulnerable, just sort of shout stuff like, “Here’s the stuff I’m thinking about! Is anyone else also thinking about this stuff?” That’s the pitch I’m making – and sometimes somebody shouts back “Hell yeah!”. Thanks.