Unlike cars and types of cereal, people aren’t normally sold under brand names. But many professionals are taking a lesson from Nike (NKE.NYSE) swooshes and the Starbucks (SBUX.NASDAQ) woodcut logo, and designing their own personal brands to prosper in today’s job market.
Personal branding, a more advanced form of constructing a reputation, is built up through the impressions people make anywhere and everywhere: in person, online, in curricula vitae and so on. "Our personal brands reside in the hearts and minds of others," said Lois Freeke, a career, personal branding and online identity strategist based in Shanghai.
While job seekers, employees and entrepreneurs all have different audiences in mind for their personal brands, the basic idea remains the same: promising unique personal value and expertise.
"It’s a way of clarifying and communicating the individual’s difference and what makes them special," Freeke said. "You’re basically taking the principles of corporate branding and applying them to a person. You’re following all the C’s of branding – being consistent, clear and constant."
More than a name
At the same time, building a personal brand isn’t simply a matter of spinning one’s abilities. There needs to be substance behind what is marketed.
Personal branding can be used to exhibit "thought leadership," enhancing an individual’s reputation within an industry through blogging or giving talks, for instance. "[Job seekers] need to have brands because, quite simply, if you’re a career seeker today you can be quite sure that more than 80% of potential hiring managers or recruiters will be Googling you online," Freeke said.
A personal brand is especially important for "solopreneurs," people who go into business on their own, often as expert consultants. Vivian Wong, a professional development consultant at Evie Consulting in Hong Kong, said that without being tied to a firm’s corporate brand, entrepreneurs risk losing an overlay that bolsters their overall professional branding.
"As we know there are plenty of opportunities in China and at the same time also plenty of people looking for opportunities," Wong said. "Defining who you are, and what you represent and value, will help you stand out from the crowd. Basically, to find and market to the right buyers effectively, you need to know what you’re selling."
After determining a niche, an online presence is key to getting solopreneurs’ names out and establishing their credibility. "This is taking it a bit extreme," Wong said, "but it’s almost as if, if you can’t be found online, you don’t really exist or you’re not worthy of mention."
Potential clients, for example, might assess solopreneurs with a few online searches before deciding if they want to contract them.
One of the first places that people look is the business networking site LinkedIn, the single most mentioned tool in connection with personal branding. While the website ranks highly on Google (GOOG.NASDAQ), it is a useful resource for people who are seeking particular services and want to check on consultants’ professional experience, Wong said.
Freeke agrees. "LinkedIn is far and away the first port of call in the online world. Many recruiters use it almost exclusively, and hiring managers use it to save money on recruiters," she said.
At the time of publication, Benjamin Joffe, CEO of digital innovation company Plus Eight Star, was the top-ranked individual when conducting a Google search for "LinkedIn China". He had 2,059 connections on LinkedIn, 776 of which were designated "China" contacts. He also has his own Wikipedia page and recommended Slideshare as a tool for sharing presentations with a much wider audience online.
Joffe said LinkedIn has helped him in numerous ways. "Companies contact me out of the blue for projects, talks, workshops, conferences, interviews, and so on. I also get to travel around the world to conferences, generally free of charge or paid. I feel I stopped working seven years ago when I left my last corporate job."
China has its own business networking site called Ushi.cn, which was launched at the beginning of the year. While it pales in comparison to LinkedIn’s current reach, (Ushi.cn has tens of thousands of members compared with LinkedIn’s tens of millions users) many anticipate that Ushi.cn’s membership will continue growing. And that means the Chinese website may be an increasingly important tool among Chinese-language speakers.
Those working on their personal brand must also remain vigilant about unnecessary "digital dirt."
Wong said people should delete what they can themselves and ask websites that host unwanted content to remove it. Successful personal branding also requires a lot of writing.
"Write blogs, articles, post comments, muscle up your LinkedIn account – all to get the positive content you want people to see ranked higher in search engines," Wong said.
In addition, building a strong professional brand may require sacrificing some of the less on-message aspects of a person’s social life in the online world. "Employers [in China] are increasingly doing checks on social media sites just to see what someone’s Facebook, QQ or Renren page says," said Andy Bentote, managing director of North and East China at recruitment firm Michael Page International (MPI.LSE).
Still, showing off personality can be an asset to personal branding, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the image a person is trying to promote.
"I think what people are realizing is that, if you can form an emotional connection to a brand of perfume or jeans, then you can certainly form a connection to a person," Freeke said. "When you bring that into your work your business can take off."
Joffe, the most LinkedIn man in China, makes the art of balancing personal and professional lives sound easy. "Work hard, be nice," he said.