Professional branding rubs me the wrong way. Correction. The act of cultivating a personal brand or a professional brand chafes my notion of what it means to be authentic. Can’t I just be me without having to wrap myself in some kind of slick conceptual packaging?! I try not to get too hung up on the verbiage and think about branding as a means of communicating value to my prospect. The people who depend on you (customers, colleagues, management, stakeholders, etc.) will, by virtue of being human, have gut reactions to you, your company, your products and services. Your face, your eyes, your tone of voice. Your shirt, your shoes, your hair, your car. Your social media profile, your email tag line, the results they come up with if they Google your name. Get the picture? Having a personal brand, or a professional brand means that you’re doing what you can to communicate to those people, on a conscious or subconscious level, how you can be of value. It means knowing who you are and what you bring to the table. And that’s something I can get behind unequivocally.
Which is good, as it seems we’ve entered the golden age of personal branding. Amazon offers me 2,300 options when I search for a book on the subject. Google lists four million results. To me, it seems most of the writing on personal branding / professional branding seems in a bit of a hurry to distill one’s identity into a one- or two-word “brand essence” or “brand identity” which signals, as if by pheromone, how the world does / will / should experience you. I diverge from a lot of good writers here, but I contend that the most important deliverable isn’t the word you put on your clients’ lips or in your clients’ minds. Yes, the brand essence is important, but before you start filling a legal pad with pithy self-identifiers, you’ll need a more complete understanding of who you are and what you have to offer, because without that, whatever adjective you choose to model won’t necessarily fall in line with how the world actually experiences you.
Enter the brandscape. Brandscaping is a technique I came up with when launching Learning Resource Group, but it applies to personal branding equally well. I developed it with the realization that a hastily-contrived brand essence which feels right in a bout of brainstorming inevitably leads to mismatches between who you are and how the world experiences you. The act of answering a handful of highly-focused questions helps map the landscape in which your brand inhabits. The brandscape also outlines the scope of value you offer to a group of people, and what you do to communicate that value.
The brandscape, by itself, is not designed for external consumption; in fact, to do so is a little bit like explaining the humor of a joke before you tell it. Still, this definitional statement is the key to everything else you do, in writing and non-verbally, to convey value to one group of people. The brandscape informs everything else you do: where you’re most vocal online and off, the activities in which you engage, the groups you join, the affiliations you choose to make, etc. in order to communicate that brand’s core value.
Exercise: Mapping Your Brandscape (90-120 min)
The brandscape circumscribes the value you bring to the people in your life. If you’re a sales professional, your goal in this exercise is to map out one brand which describes the value you bring to your customers, how they perceive you and how you manage that perception. But this exercise is equally valuable for those in fields other than sales.
Fill in the blanks in the following sentences using the instructions BELOW the paragraph as a guide. Feel free to modify the structure as needed for clarity, and expand it as much as you need in order to clearly define what you offer, to whom, how it’s distinct from the various alternatives and how you will convey that value, both verbally and non-verbally. Don’t expend too much time dressing up the language just yet, though. Once you’ve got an clear line separating what you’re trying to communicate from what you’re not, then you’ll be ready to figure out how to express your brand: your tone, your attire, the specific words you use, etc.
1. What role(s) do you play? Imagine someone asks what you do or how you know some mutual acquaintance. The off-the-cuff answers which you don’t have to think about are the ones you’re looking for. Will a job title work? Maybe. Remember, you’re not going to get a lot of mileage out of emphatically reminding people that you’re an accountant or a sales rep. They want to know that you can solve a problem for them, so find words which describe your role in terms of the problems you solve for your customers (be they actual customers or more broadly the people who depend on you).
2. In that capacity, what value do you bring to others? Again, think about the things you do which make the lives of others easier. If it makes more sense, you can tweak this sentence to describe what you offer in terms of the deliverables, or the goods and services which you hand off to other people. Also, within reason, it doesn’t hurt to be aspirational here; describe the value you believe you can offer, even if you’re not perfectly skilled at doing so already.
3. Who benefits from each type of value you offer? Now think about the people who benefit from each of the things of value you bring to the table. In some cases it might be a very specific group (e.g. your aviation industry clients benefit from your ability to craft technical solutions around their specific challenges) or it could be a more general group (e.g. people for whom you provide technical support).
4. What are the main alternatives your clients might consider? That is, if you suddenly left your job, where might others turn to replace the benefits they receive by working with you? If you represent a large organization, this might be a competing firm, or other reps from your own company. Independent consultants might find their fiercest competition among other contractors who offer the same services. In some cases, you might find your main competition to be alternative solutions. List the most common option(s) your customers (internal or external) have to working with you, and repeat line 2 once for each competing alternative.
5. What unique value do you offer which each competing alternative does not? For each alternative your target market might consider (#4) give at least one succinct, measurable reason why you are superior to the alternatives. Try to put yourself fully in the shoes of the people you servce, and focus on the aspects they value most.
Consider repeating this line (blanks #4 and #5) for each major alternative (e.g. one for competing firms, another for colleagues at your own company, and a third for an alternate type of solution). Include however many instances of Line 2 to describe what you’ve got over each competing alternative.
6. What assets and attributes have placed you (or will place you) in a uniquely advantageous position? This is, in short, the competitive advantage which you are, at present, able to sustain. You’re thinking broadly about the assets — knowledge, skills, attitude, experience, connections, resources, brand recognition — which have helped you dominate your industry. Not dominating just yet? That’s okay. Life is a work in process (until it’s not) so apply forward-looking statements liberally and don’t feel sheepish about listing the assets and attributes which will fuel your future growth.
7. What is the key benefit which your internal and/or external customers receive as a result of working with you, as opposed to working with someone else or choosing an alternate solution? There may be hundreds of reasons to choose to work with you, but remember you’re not trying to fit the entirety of your marketing communications into this one definition. Focus on those benefits which differentiate you from your peers, competitors and substitutes; those are the ones to include here.
8. If your customers had to describe you in a word or two, what would they be? There is power in having a word or a short phrase which describes how others mentally categorize you or (remember: aspirational) how you’d like to be regarded. Are you the strategic option? Do they choose to work with your company because your team is more friendly? Do they feel more sophisticated when they buy from you? If you can find one or two words (Looking for just the right word? Try Steve Pavlina’s “list of values.”) which separate you from the alternatives, you’ll have a much easier time managing the way your customers, partners and competitors perceive you, and frankly you’ll have an easier time living up to the image you’re promoting.
Here’s an example I wrote about three years ago.
I’m a tech industry sales professional who possesses a deep understanding of the IT and finance-related concerns around investing in CRM / ERP systems in order to develop easy-to-implement CRM solutions which give my clients the fastest return on investment. Unlike my largest competitors (think: the biggest CRM system vendors) I am able to offer far more cost-effective solutions and can be rolled out quickly. Conversely, smaller CRM vendors don’t inspire prospects’ confidence the way my company can—our brand is recognized and respected by most potential buyers—nor do most smaller CRM companies offer the level of support and training that my company does.
Unlike most of my colleagues, I’ve worked in technology deployment and have been responsible for an IT department’s P&L, and can draw on that experience to craft better solutions for my clients and close more sales. As a result, I’m regarded by my peers, partners and customers as a source of insight which is genuinely valuable. I waste no one’s time.
Great writing? Not really. The point is to make it as easy as possible for me to compare any aspect of my communications to see if it matches the value I seek to create. This is a particularly useful exercise for the purposes of social selling, and I recommend figuring out your brand first, before you start making changes to your LinkedIn profile.
Remember, too, this is one of many facets of who you are, who you serve and how you present yourself to the world. No doubt, it will change over time, and you may create any number of personal or professional brandscapes to describe your relationships to different groups of stakeholders. I tend to be an obsessive writer, so I’ve got a dozen or so of these printed and folded up in a stack at the back of my dresser drawers, which I periodically review (usually on laundry day) and modify.
*** The catch is that this is an exercise which never ends. You’re dynamic! You evolve and so will your brand. You’re also different things to different people, which means you may be straddling a few different brandscapes at any given time. The key is to keep an eye on the changing landscape that is your life and when you find yourself challenged to produce in some new way, revisit this exercise.