Personal branding happens in many ways and many places. It is a dynamic process that you start and maintain, but never completely walk away from. Every time you post something online, go to work, or make a professional appearance at a conference, how you present yourself has an impact on your personal brand.
Because your clothes, business cards and social media profiles play a big role in making a first impression, speakers and experts often refer to personal branding as “self-packaging.” Even Wikipedia, the default definition engine for much of the Internet world, resorts to this phrase:
Personal branding is… a description of the process whereby people and their careers are marked as brands. It has been noted that while previous self-help management techniques were about self-improvement, the personal branding concept suggests instead that success comes from self-packaging. [emphasis added]
There are a few problems with thinking of personal branding as “self-packaging.” At first glance this definition sounds true enough, but there’s something a bit off about the word “packaging.” Packaging is static. Packaging often goes on an entire line of equally static products that are intended to look the same. Packaging gets taken off of a product and tossed in the waste bin, never to be used again.
We are people, not products, and people don’t come in packages. People are not static, people have individual value and personality, and we don’t toss part of ourselves in the waste bin upon entering a room. People are a lot more dynamic than something that sits on a shelf. People have conversations, interact with other people, and change and grow everyday.
The Wikipedia entry does get closer to the truth as it continues:
Further defined as the creation of an asset that pertains to a particular person or individual; this includes but is not limited to the body, clothing, appearance and knowledge contained within, leading to an indelible impression that is uniquely distinguishable.
Personal branding is about personal presentation in all its many forms, not just the packaging. Yes, business cards, blog posts and suits can be part of personal branding, but no more or less than phone calls, business lunches and speaking gigs.
Self-packaging is the shell of who you are in general. Self-presentation is about taking that essence of what sets you apart from the crowd and figuring out how to convey it every step along the way. When you think about what to wear as part of your personal brand, present your essence. When you think about how to design your business card, your blog, or your social media profiles, think about how to present what you are about, not put it in a package. And when you think about what to lead with or emphasize at the next meeting, interview or conference, think about the presentation as a whole, not just the package you arrive in or wrap it up with afterward.
Essence vs. Details
Identifying and conveying the essence of what makes you stand out from the crowd is what personal branding is all about. But it’s important to distinguish between the essence of you and details about you.
For instance, you may have birds on your business cards and use that motif for your PowerPoint presentations, but your personal brand isn’t that you are a bird. It may be that one of the things that define your essence is your sense of exploration and freedom, and those birds are part of how you present it. Or you may have a blog where you post photos and tell stories about the food you make and where you eat when you travel for business. Again, your personal brand wouldn’t be defined by what kind of food you like, but more that your approach to life and business extends beyond the office.
There are an uncountable number of details about you, and when you think of conveying your personal brand, each of those details should reflect your personal brand.
To get a handle on “essence” as an idea, it’s instructive to look at the dictionary’s definition of essence, and David Ogilvy’s definition of “brand.”
TheFreeDictionary.com’s definition of essence:
1. The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify something.
2. The most important ingredient; the crucial element.
David Ogilvy’s definition of Brand:
The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.
Notably, there is a part of “personal branding” that crosses over into the realm of definition that uses words like “essence,” “intrinsic,” and “intangible.” It can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be a source of freedom. Consistency in personal branding doesn’t mean that every time you present yourself you need to do it in the same way—quite the contrary. It means that you can (and need to) creatively present that same essence in new ways that are individual to the medium you are using. The details will change, but the essence will remain.
When a company thinks about its brand, that brand is, as Mr. Ogilvy says, how all of the details come together to paint a picture. And as the definition of “essence” points out, the word means “the most important ingredient; the crucial element.” Once you find that ingredient, that element, your personal branding becomes a quest to convey it in all of the details of the way you present yourself.