Coca-Cola. Tesla. Google.
Each is a distinctive, iconic brand that we recognize as an assurance of quality. With these names, you know what you’re getting.
But would you drive a Coca-Cola car? Would you drink Google soda? As much as we might trust these brands in their area of expertise, that same trust doesn’t extend to other products.
Why Brand Yourself?
Let’s consider another example. What about a company that sells a huge range of different products and services? Or just one product that’s supposed to do many things? There’s a classic SNL skit about a floor wax that can also be used as a dessert topping.
Or if you’re in the meme generation, remember Jones BBQ and Foot Massage? Not so appealing either, right? The expression “a jack of all trades is a master of none” comes to mind.
Both branding problems are intuitive and easy to follow, but somehow many job candidates completely ignore them when presenting themselves to potential employers. The problem is particularly pronounced after graduation with students who haven’t yet accumulated a track record of work product to give their career a strong identity.
When you’re marketing yourself as a professional, it’s essential to sell yourself using a focused personal brand. In the competitive job marketplace, it’s not enough to be merely capable of doing a job. You need to be able to present yourself as a perfect fit, or at least close to it.
What Is Personal Branding?
Branding is about communication. By establishing a cohesive ‘brand identity’ for yourself, you’re able to announce to potential employers right off the bat what skills you have and what sorts of jobs you’re likely to be a great fit for.
As an illustration, let’s consider what the brands we discussed earlier communicate about themselves and how you can apply similar strategies for yourself.
Coca-Cola: Classic, warm, dependable, sweet sodas.
Tesla: Forward-thinking, high-performance electric cars with innovative features.
Google: Presenting the entirety of the complex Internet in a friendly, easy, accessible package.
These identities emerge from a combination of these brand’s ‘looks’ and the actual functionality of the products themselves. In the same way, your own brand identity will encompass your self-presentation and your skills.
Think of your brand as an avatar to be put to use in your own self-promotion. An avatar is a frequent figure in popular media (the James Cameron film, The Last Airbender, etc.). It refers, most formally, to a deity in bodily form on earth.
While companies and you may not be deities, per se, a brand is a visual representation of a whole host of intersecting visible and invisible phenomena that comprise what a company or you really are.
You can send your avatar out into the world to do your bidding without involving all the messy complexities and ambiguities that make up actual human personality.
How to Create Your Brand
Building a brand is very much a creative exercise.
When considering how to market yourself for a job, you have to take into account a whole host of considerations and fashion them into a package (your avatar) that incorporates your goals after college, current skill set, and avenues available.
If you’re a recent graduate, there are a few components to work with:
- Extracurriculars: Activities you participated in during college. You’d be surprised how some of them can become relevant.
- Major: Your field of expertise will suggest your likely knowledge and skill set.
- Internship and Work Experience: Even if you haven’t yet held a permanent position, internship experiences still define your areas of emerging expertise.
Combining these pieces into a good story about who are and where you’re headed demands as much self-assessment as any artistic project.
Self-assessment, though, is challenging for all of us and, in turn, is one of the primary reasons so many recent graduates reach out to tutors and other mentors to help shape their personal brand and perfect the art of upskilling to qualify for new roles.
How a tutor helps
In any case, consider what skills and experiences you have that others in your field competing for the same jobs don’t have. These experiences may not be obviously relevant at first, but a great creative exercise is just to make a full list of all the things you know how to do well.
You’ll be surprised at the connections you form.
Your Elevator Pitch
Once you’ve started to narrow down on your personal brand, try to shape it into an elevator pitch.
An elevator pitch is a short (less than thirty second) description of who you are and what you do. The idea is that if you stumble upon a valuable networking contact in an elevator, you can get them on your side before you reach your floor.
This isn’t so much to mean that you should take to loitering around elevators and barking at anyone who happens to get into a car with you – more that by condensing and making succinct your brand, you’ll eliminate the non-essential distractions and elements.
In other words, the exercise of crafting the elevator pitch is every bit as valuable as the spiel itself.
Where to Present Your Brand
While there are plenty of jobs that have you apply with just a traditional cover letter and resume, you can do a great deal to bolster your profile by supplementing these materials through other means.
Not only can you present yourself through these platforms, but they can also serve as a valuable resource for career advice.
“Facebook for Professionals”, LinkedIn lets you curate a profile that highlights your strengths and areas of expertise as a cohesive picture. It’s standard in many industries to check out new potential hires to see any shared contacts, so it’s worth investing some time into making sure your presence is sharp. If you’re new to the platform, consider reaching out to a professional development tutor (like me!) who can guide you.
The best way to market yourself on social media depends on your field. Even though more traditional industries may not as closely observe your social media, it’s still wise to make sure your presentation is professional and, ideally, supplements your brand.
Personal Website or Blog
A high-profile website or blog about your activities is a huge asset in your job search, just make sure it reflects the skills you want to advertise. Even a smaller (but regularly maintained) blog can reveal your knowledge and background in a way that shows your unique insights.
It seems obvious that this would be a huge help for recent grads, but many either forget about it right after graduating or never even use it at all. Your school’s career center can help select a brand and deploy it by giving you in-depth information about career trajectories.
One of the most important professional goals for college students is learning how to network. Alumni networks from your school help you learn on “Easy Mode”, as you already have a built-in connection to contacts rather than having to establish one from scratch.
For careers that involve any kind of creative activity, a portfolio that showcases your work can help show off your area of specialty.
Examples of Personal Branding
Here are a few examples of recent graduates I’ve helped figure out how to execute on their plan for what to do after graduating college.
Brian – Sustainability Policy Investment Pro
Brian is a recent graduate of Arizona State, where he studied Economics and Global Policy. He’s interested in becoming a financial advisor, targeting Private Wealth Management down the road.
Because it can be difficult to get started as a recent grad in a field like financial services that’s dominated by older advisors who are likely to be perceived as more trustworthy with clients’ hard-earned money, Brian needed to differentiate himself by becoming an expert in a niche area his more established competition is less likely to pick up.
Brian’s expertise in international policy came in handy as he began to explore ESG Investing (environment, social, governance), also known as “sustainable investing”. His knowledge of likely policy solutions to climate problems allowed him to write blog posts, LinkedIn briefs, and short white papers on investment opportunities unlikely to produce social or environmental harm.
As a result of his branding as the ‘ESG Policy Guy’, Brian was able to open up two avenues of opportunity. First, he was able to work with large non-profit foundation endowments, which would apportion some of their holdings to socially and environmentally beneficial investments. Second, he could appeal to more conventional investors who wanted advice on how to hedge against traditional holdings that could be subject to regulation or social backlash down the road.
He ended up taking a job at Morgan Stanley in one of their ESG advisory groups.
Erica – Educational Product Manager
Erica left UCLA with a degree Computer Science looking to work as a product manager at a large tech firm. On campus, she had been head of an entrepreneur organization and leader in new student orientation.
Even with those impressive accolades, Erica found herself behind the curve applying as a product manager (PM) to her first choice, Google, with MBA grads and other, more experiences candidates landing the role.
Erica instead took a PM role at a food delivery service company. Over the course of her first year, she consciously edged towards working with HR to refine the company’s internal onboarding and training processes. In addition to her regular job duties, Erica volunteered to leverage her leadership skills to lead both the creation of a training video series and step-by-step orientation for other new hires.
Erica was able to share about her accomplishments on LinkedIn, but she also made sure to connect her company with her UCLA alumni network to broadcast her expertise in creating new company educational training processes and products.
When a new educational product initiative began at Google, the UCLA grad who had connected with Erica through her school’s network reached out to her to see if she might be interested in a PM role. Had she not branded herself as an expert in that specific area, the opportunity would not have been as strong a fit.
Lee – Music Publishing for Millennials
Leaving Georgetown with two years of experience studying business and a degree in English, Lee only knew that he never wanted to work a 9-5…or a 10-6 or even an 11-7 for that matter.
He had spent enough of his time in school performing in the jazz band that he was able to teach music in Washington, DC for 18 months after graduating, but his focus on jazz music left him skeptical about his ability to write enough hit songs to make a career out of his own music.
He relocated to Los Angeles, where he took an internship with Universal Music Group. There, he learned about the business side of music and the vast apparatus of publishing and licensing opportunities for artists. He realized that being a musician didn’t have to be feast or famine: recording artists could make a solid living by publishing their work in music libraries and licensing it while still earning whatever royalties they could from streaming outlets like Apple Music and Spotify.
After finishing his internship, Lee founded a small music label and began aggressively engaging on social media, much more effective for interacting with artists than LinkedIn. He focused on how these musicians could monetize their recordings through publishing deals without needing to become mega-stars.
By focusing on this specific area of the music business, he was able to stand out from the crowd of artists and dealmakers preoccupied with more prominent stars, beginning to build a label for emerging talent.
Now It’s Your Turn
Think carefully through what kind of career you want and what skills are in demand there.
Try to think outside the box! The conventional avenues tend to be overcrowded, but the better you understand the job you want, the better you’ll be able to work you way in through angles that others miss.