A version of this article originally appeared in AdWeek.
Dear Class of 2020: Congratulations on your hard-earned diploma. Now, we have some bad news for you. Your education has neglected to teach you about the single most important skill set for tackling the working world.
We're talking about branding, which is no longer for the likes of just Disney and Coca-Cola, Apple and Beyoncé. Anyone looking to carve out a promising career, and “future-proof” themselves in a volatile workforce, and a pandemic, will need to focus on treating his or her personal reputation and professional offering as a distinct personal brand.
Until recently, the notion of personal branding was reserved almost exclusively for celebrities and politicians. But 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. Recent college grads take note: The hunt for employment is no longer so much about finding “the right job” as it is about differentiating, communicating and extending your brand.
Where does someone new to the workforce—or seeking a professional restart—begin? 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. Strong, enduring brands, however, start with some serious soul-searching. This brand discovery phase involves pinpointing one’s strengths, beliefs, values and key market differentiators. Dig deep, and carefully. Ask ruthlessly honest questions of friends, family and colleagues to arrive at concrete factors that help formulate your personal brand identity.
The next step is to tell a story! You need 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 be able to answer in an entertaining, concise and authentic way. You might want to portray yourself as an outlier, beating the odds. Stories of redemption are the most powerful -- just look at the boys rescued from the flooded caves in Thailand. Or you can position yourself as following a hero, or deliberately taking a different path to those currently at the top of your chosen profession. One way or another, you need to be memorably different in a specific way that offers to deliver results. What is that integral thing for which you stand, and how does that make you, 2020 graduate, stand out from the pack? In the world of corporate branding, we call this your brand promise.
Finally, develop a system for visually expressing your personal brand identity via a distinct look and feel. What impression do you hope to make? What is your personal style? You don’t need to be Lady Gaga, but a clothing or style accent can help you stand out—cowboy boots with a business suit, say, or an unusually-shaped business card. Steve Jobs’ hallmark anti-style was not only instantly recognizable, it visually echoed his beliefs about the power of functional elegance and simplicity. But make sure you stay on message. If Mark Zuckerberg’s recycling of the jeans-and-T-shirt look falls flat, it is because the Facebook CEO doesn’t demonstrate values that live in harmony with the wardrobe’s statement—right now, he’d be better off sporting a penitent’s hair shirt.
Focusing on building and strengthening identity beyond singular achievements, and aligning one’s future plans with your stated goals, is crucial to steering and growing one’s personal brand. A well-crafted and maintained public image enabled Angelina Jolie to transition from Hollywood wild child to acclaimed director and celebrated humanitarian. Demonstrating similar savvy is Emma Watson, who transcended the child-star burnout tradition by establishing a name for herself beyond Harry Potter, allowing her to deftly step into her role of UN global ambassador for women’s rights.
(A striking counterexample might be the squandered goodwill of comedy superstars like Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy, who rehash tired concepts lacking any of the daring or originality of their earlier work.)
Hollywood culture and image maintenance might seem disconnected from the needs of the average worker bee, but there are key parallels. With the exception of actors who find themselves on hit TV shows that last for years, even the most successful performers jostle competitively, from gig to gig. Today’s emerging professionals face a similar challenge.
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 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 commonplace and 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. Join the Party™ for the gig economy, and you’ll want to consider your own brand very carefully.
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. Remember: you have a lot to offer. Branding yourself is the best way to ensure you get a chance to deliver.
Class of 2020: Branding is no longer solely the purview of movie stars and sneakers, cars and toothpaste. Like it or not, personal branding is a new professional necessity. The skill of identifying and magnifying one’s personal brand requires seriousness, attention and mastery if one hopes to have the opportunities to do one’s best work.