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When you think of the words “Think Different” you think Apple. You think Mac. You think Steve Jobs. The 1997 campaign, which also launched Jobs’ return to Apple after a decade-long exile, plastered the faces of Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Mahatma Gandhi, Pablo Picasso and Martin Luther King Jr. across billboards and bus stops around the United States. Their faces sat alongside two words: Think Different. Across many of the ads, and voiced on TV, there was an accompanying message: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do”. It wasn’t a campaign simply pushing a product or pricepoint, but an entire philosophy underpinning Apple’s values. Apple was a company for content creators and, in turn, Microsoft – its greatest competitor – was pitted as a company for content consumers. Later, a shift occurred. Consumers paid to become creators, they paid for the brand Apple created.
Fast forward to 2018, and we live in a world where everyone has the means to create. Everyone can generate an idea, and sell it, including themselves. The paradox of the internet is that it has democratised small business and enabled everyone to sell a product, yet in creating this noise, individual voices are muffled. Which is where branding comes in as the new-age language for customer connection. Social media has created a prosumer world where people are not simply consuming but advocating for brands. Individuals are now influencing companies’ decisions through the feedback loop or building personal profiles leveraging their own careers. The best are, much like Apple, selling a philosophy over simply a product or a service. With the sheer number of products sold daily across the globe, building an appealing brand around a price tag is where value is added.
The modern framework has made it easier and cheaper than ever to build a personal brand, but it’s also complicated the process. Richard Curtis, CEO of the Australian division of branding agency FutureBrand, however, believes the process can be simplified. “A brand is what a brand does,” Curtis says. It’s this very definition which is at the crux of all good branding. “I think the most successful brands are very action oriented and are very much about the experience. Their actions speak louder than their words. Yes, what they say is important but what they do is really the essence of who they are.”
The common mistake of personal brand building is the embedded belief that the internet created the personal brand. When you reflect on Apple, Steve Jobs comes to mind; Virgin, Richard Branson. Apple didn’t feature companies in its “Think Different” campaign, but people who resonated and connected. Martin Luther King Jr, Pablo Picasso, and Albert Einstein all stood for something: their value systems created a personal brand surpassing their existence. They are now remembered as entities over identities and it’s their internal value system which fostered this.
“More often than not individuals think about themselves in a very singular manner and, when it comes to branding an individual, without wanting to sound exaggerated, the task is really to mythologize that individual or that celebrity in a way in which their brand can live beyond them as a physical person,” Curtis says. “You’re looking to build an idea that is true to who they are but in some respects bigger than them so that everyone can work with it. Otherwise, you’re doing nothing more than reinforcing their identity, in which case it really isn’t going to deliver anything extra.”
“A brand is what a brand does. What good brands say is important but what they do is really the essence of who they are.”
Author and marketing consultant Simon Sinek believes “The Golden Circle” is at the crux of every successful company and leader. The system entails three reflective steps: why a business or individual is doing something, how they will execute it, and, eventually, what they are executing. Starting with their “why” is their trump card, and defining a purpose or value system before anything else builds the foundation for success, Sinek believes. Luther King Jr stood for racial equality, Einstein for science and Branson for affordable, quality products. As Branson has said, “purpose over profit” is at the heart of Virgin and a reason why 400 companies now sit under the Virgin banner. Research shows establishing a value system is crucial. A Harvard Business Review study revealed 64 per cent of people have a relationship with a brand because of shared values. However, there is a small clause within each of these success stories, and something Curtis believes equips people to create an effective brand beyond themselves or their company. Curtis says you should start with your ‘how’, and use this tool to navigate the personal branding process.
“While purpose can be quite daunting, how you might make people feel is something quite basic and rational that everyone can achieve and work with,” Curtis says. “It is a really useful shorthand. If a brand is what a brand does, then consider how you might want to make people feel as a result of anything that you might do.”
Luther King Jr’s “how” was fighting for racial equality with love; Einstein’s was imagination and simplicity in his approach to physics, while Branson’s was playfulness in the way he created affordable and quality products with a playful nuance. In 2000, at the height of the Virgin Atlantic and British Airways war, Branson received a call informing him the British Airways-sponsored London Eye had technical difficulties. With his renowned sense of humour, Branson pulled one of his greatest stunts and had a blimp hover over the dysfunctional tourist attraction with the words, “BA can’t get it up”. He got a laugh and he further embedded his brand into the company’s DNA. In focussing on their “how”, professionals automatically create authenticity as they are walking the walk, not just talking the talk. This rules out opportunities to project a false sense of self or identity. It also allows individuals to create a point of difference from competitors.
“If a brand is what a brand does, then consider how you might want to make people feel as a result of anything that you might do.”
We now live in a post-TED world where it’s no longer how “credible” you are, but how “incredible” you are, says Curtis. To be incredible, one element of your brand must sit in convention, but one aspect must sit outside of it to differentiate a personal brand from peers. While purpose is useful, it may not set professionals apart from others. Honing in on how you do your job will differentiate individuals from competitors and help them get ahead. If your brand is what you do, then you already have one. Therefore, the key lies in honing how you do what you do and projecting these traditional elements of branding into a modern framework.
Gandhi and Einstein didn’t have Twitter accounts, Instagram profiles, or personal websites, but they understood their values and knew how to operate within them – and gained followers as a consequence; real followers, not the virtual kind. Understanding this strategy, and applying it to your online identity is the key to personal branding and individuals don’t have to project it all immediately. Professionals can start small.
One of the most effective ways to begin – once individuals have defined their values and point of difference through their how – is to start with language, says Curtis. In considering how you want to make people feel because of you and your brand, decide how to speak to them in every facet of the business, whether it’s through social media, on a website, in an email, or in a meeting. This not only becomes a fabric connecting your personal brand across platforms, but is scalable beyond you as an individual, which is eventually the goal of many professionals.
“If you can consider your branding for not necessarily how you look but how you speak, then that’s a branding tool that everyone in your business can use,” Curtis says, “and it’s nothing to do with a logo, or a colour palette, or a font choice.”
Personal branding elements such as a logo and website, while important, can come downstream, as these landmarks often act as handbrakes preventing people from starting. Focussing on language can help personal brands maintain familiarity across online platforms, so use this mindset to streamline a tone across your LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter accounts. This will evolve as your personal brand expands across more platforms, and Curtis believes familiarity is now the best metric to manage a brand.
Decades of marketing and spin has resulted in an era of automated distrust which has permeated the authenticity space. Authenticity is commonly referred to as a successful branding tool, but overuse of the word has diluted its meaning, says Jennifer Naughton, head of literary for talent agency RGM. Brands may well project a sense of authenticity without actually being authentic, and hence, personal brands claiming to uphold authenticity do not hold as much weight as they used to. Naughton encourages individuals building a personal brand to focus on reputation instead, with authenticity a by-product of a good reputation.
“Reputation is underestimated on many fronts,” Naughton said. “I think reputation is something people who are looking to create a brand should aspire to, because if you create a reputation for the brand, that flows through to the values, and that flows through to the loyalty, and that flows through to the quality. Reputation is something that can’t necessarily be diminished in lots of people using that word. It still means what it means.”
One of the common missteps in the personal branding journey is the belief personal brands only exist online. They go far beyond an online footprint. Much like reputation is a culmination of daily behaviours, a personal brand doesn’t have an off switch. If a brand is what a brand does, every action taken both online and offline contributes to a brand’s identity.
“Reputation is something that can’t necessarily be diminished in lots of people using that word. It still means what it means.”
“As a writer, you are your brand,” says Naughton. “So, everything that you do, whether that’s social media, whether that’s walking into a writer’s room, whether that’s delivering a script, whether that’s meeting with a network, whether that’s meeting with the production company, or talking to an actor about being in your script, it’s everything. If you do one thing – drunken tweets at night – that affects your brand.”
By shifting focus towards reputation over authenticity, personal brands will not only automatically evolve authentically but avoid making the same mistakes as many large corporations. Many corporations have projected themselves as either what they believe their customers want, or what their competitors are. Consumers have always had the ability to see through this. We call it our subconscious. If it doesn’t feel right it rarely is.
In The Social Animal David Brooks writes about the power of the subconscious; if the conscious mind is like a general analysing things linguistically and linearly the unconscious mind is like a million scouts coating things with emotional significance. “These signals don’t control our lives, but they shape our interpretation of the world and they guide us, like a spiritual GPS, as we chart our courses. If the general thinks in data and speaks in prose, the scouts crystallize with emotion,” Brooks wrote. “After all, the conscious mind chooses what we buy, but the unconscious mind chooses what we like.”
To convince the market that you are what you are not is expensive. It is swimming against the tide. It requires pumping thousands of dollars into a campaign and marketing strategy that may or may not work. Meanwhile doing what you do is free. It is organic. It will grow without the investment of a single dollar. A brand is the result of perceptions, not what a company or individual says they are.
The power of the subconscious proves why people gravitate towards brands with shared values and some of the most successful brands across the globe are now capitalising on this alignment. Many companies and personal brands are using the digital feedback loop with their customer to evolve their businesses. American entrepreneur Emily Weiss started a small beauty blog Into The Gloss in 2010 which quickly developed a cult following and evolved into beauty brand Glossier in 2014. Recently securing USD$52 million in Series C funding, Glossier is one of the most impressive beauty industry disruptors and its impact largely lies in harnessing the power of community. Speaking to customers on every channel daily, Glossier allows its consumers to help build a new product every six-to-eight weeks. “In our product development cycle, we ask and listen to our customer about what she wants,” Weiss told Tech Crunch. “It comes back to making everyone an influencer.”
While digital feedback loops and consumer driven brands may feel like revolutionary concepts, their roots lay in tradition. These businesses are simply reading the digital room in the same way individuals read the physical room during personal interactions. Giving their audience at little more of “this” and a little less of “that”. This strategy not only gives the consumer what they want but creates buy-in and with buy-in comes greater uptake of both brand and product.
The outtake for individuals is they not only can create a personal brand, but consumers will now listen to it. Disgruntled consumers who feel exploited by big business are redirecting their spending habits towards authentic and socially-minded value systems. In the search for authenticity and good character, consumers are now looking to smaller, nimble brands for authority and it has empowered personal brands to make significant impact. There is a lesson to be found in this shift. For a long time, companies have projected what they believe their customers want to hear, which has only delayed disappointment. A brand should be a window, not a mirror; it should allow people to witness and feel the action within a company or an individual, not project a facade which may be untrue. This becomes exhausting and expensive for companies or individuals to uphold.
A brand is what a brand does, and hence, building your brand can only occur through action. The greatest advantage of starting immediately is the feedback loop also starts immediately. Personal brands can grow with their followers and eventually use this potential customer base to navigate their direction. To quote a famous entrepreneur, “Screw it, just do it” and the rest of the brand will evolve because of your action. Yes, Richard Branson said this, and knowing this proves the very power a personal brand can hold.
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