A version of this article originally appeared in AdWeek.
Dear Class of 2020, congratulations on your especially hard-earned diploma. None of you got the ending you wanted or deserve, and you have the sympathy of (quite literally) the entire world. Your final semester—which should have been spent celebrating “lasts” with the friends you’ve cherished for the past four years and punctuated by your graduation ceremony—melted into a screen.You were forced to say your goodbyes over zoom calls while watching your very world crumble due to a virus. Nothing in your life before could have prepared you for that, or the world you’ve just been thrust into.
There is no question about whether this pandemic will change the working world: it already has—irrevocably. Now that offices are essentially extinct and meeting in-person is a safety-hazard, we’ve learned that almost every corporate job can be done with just an internet connection and a laptop. In this new, virtual era, your online presence is more important than ever before, and unfortunately the key skill set you need to tackle this new professional world was not included in your education.
We're talking about branding, which is no longer for the likes of just Disney and Coca-Cola, Apple and Beyoncé. Today’s expectations and realities regarding self-promotion have changed. Microsoft’s multibillion-dollar acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016 underscored the confluence of self-publishing, social networking and professional development—too big to be ignored.Anyone looking to carve out a promising career, and “future-proof” themselves—especially in the age of COVID-19—will need to focus on treating his or her personal reputation and professional offering as a distinct personal brand.
Where does someone new to the workforce—or seeking a professional restart—begin, especially at a time like the present? These five steps will be your how-to guide for branding yourself.
- Social Media—Nearly all existing advice on personal branding boils down to posting regularly on social networks, blogging, establishing “thought leadership” and other hackneyed and purely tactical prescriptions.
- Brand Identity—Strong, enduring brands start with serious soul-searching.This brand discovery phase involves pinpointing not only your strengths, beliefs, values, but also your key market differentiators. Dig deep—and carefully. Ask ruthlessly honest questions of friends, family, and colleagues to arrive at the concrete factors that will help formulate your personal brand identity.
- Create a Narrative—The next step is to tell a story!It’s imperative to create a compelling narrative that brings your unique brand elements together. When a prospective employer asks some variation on “So tell me a little something about yourself?” you need to answer in an entertaining, concise, and authentic way. You may want to portray yourself as an outlier, beating the odds. Stories of redemption are the most powerful—just think about Gamestop’s ascension from the brink of bankruptcy. Or position yourself as following a hero, or deliberately taking a different path to those currently at the top of your chosen profession.
- Brand Promise—One way or another, you need to be memorably different in a specific way that promises to deliver results. What is that integral thing for which you stand, and—more importantly—how does that make you, 2020 graduate, stand out from the pack? In the world of corporate branding, we call this your brand promise.
- Personal Style—Finally, develop a system for virtually expressing your personal brand identity via a distinct look and feel. What impression do you hope to make? What is your personal style, and how can you express that through a screen? You don’t need to be Lady Gaga, but a clothing or style accent will help you stand out—a quirky pair of earrings, say, or a unique email sign-off. Steve Jobs’ hallmark anti-style was not only instantly recognizable, it visually echoed his beliefs about the power of functional elegance and simplicity.
With the average worker beginning his or her career now predicted to switch positions roughly once every four years (Pew Research) and given that our time in the workforce is only expected to lengthen, most of you face the daunting prospect of securing a dozen or more jobs over your lifetime.
Add in the effects of the pandemic and gig economy—where temporary, flexible jobs are common place because companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers rather than full-time employees—and that number goes off the charts. Choosing to work for companies that align with one’s own stated mission is a must, but strong personal brands need to exist beyond and outside the imprimatur of any single employer.
Lastly, stay on message, but let your brand flex and develop. Defining one’s professional identity by current position is not a viable long-term strategy, given that one’s position is likely to change in the (relative) near term (which we’ve seen up close over the past year).
The pandemic has taught us that we can take nothing for granted—so your best bet is to invest in and rely on yourself! Remember, Class of 2020: you have a lot to offer. Branding yourself is the best way to ensure you get a chance to deliver and succeed.