I expect that doctors in the delivery room will soon hoist up newborns and proclaim, "Congratulations! It's a brand!" That's the world we live in, folks. We're no longer just people — we're warm-blooded versions of Nike or Budweiser or, in my case, Breyers or Dairy Queen. Dehumanizing though it may sound, the chance to be a brand isn't such a bad thing. Particularly not for people building careers or seeking employment. It gives you control over how the world views you, which is why shortly after this column began I branded myself "America's most-beloved workplace advice columnist." (That's my brand; don't even think about stealing it!)
"Careers are really made now online, and you're going to see it more and more in the future," said Dan Schawbel, a personal branding expert and author of the upcoming book Promote Yourself: The New Art of Getting Ahead.
"Think of the online world as a global talent pool. That's where you're going to be finding people. If you don't exist in that pool — having your own website, being on the top social networking sites — then you can't compete in that pool. And once you're in the pool, you have to constantly manage that presence. It should be part of your daily routine, part of your career."
There was a time not long ago when turning an individual into a brand required a team of publicists and marketing experts. You had to be a Michael Jordan or Madonna. Now you just need a decent Internet connection and a willingness to work hard, thanks to social media powerhouses LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
"Social media has become a channel by which everyone can develop a following and a platform, like celebrities but at a microlevel," Schawbel said. "We're all microcelebrities now. We're famous to a certain number of people. It's free, for just the cost of your time."
And it's beneficial, regardless of where you are in your career.
Most people looking for work know the importance of social media, particularly LinkedIn, the business networking site that recently reached 200 million registered users. But people settled into jobs often forget that the John Henderson or Jane Johnson brand isn't going to manage itself.
"Most people don't think of themselves in terms of a brand. They don't think in terms of, 'What do I need to do to be taken seriously on a site like LinkedIn?' " said J.D. Gershbein, CEO of the Chicago-based Owlish Communications and a speaker and author of the upcoming book, The LinkedIn Edge: Creating a Psychological Advantage in Social Business.
"They put up a profile and throw a few things on there and say, 'All right, let it happen.' "
Our ability to create and control our brands is a great power, but utilizing that power requires far more than creating a Twitter account and occasionally letting the world know that you're "eating a burrito." You need to bring something to the table.
Schawbel and Gershbein stressed the importance of interacting online with people in your industry: sharing links to articles; commenting on others' posts; composing your own posts on professional topics that interest you; going out of your way to help people in your networks who have questions.
These activities not only help you build a web of professional connections, they also give voice to your brand. You can define yourself far more through online activity than through the standard resume.
"You have to live the brand promise every day," Gershbein said. "A brand promise is something that evolves through the writing of a profile (on a social media site) but also through your actions. People see your LinkedIn profile, they see that posting articles, not just shamelessly self-promoting, giving other people kudos and credit. Nothing builds brands better and quicker than respect — giving it, knowing how to receive it and being in conversations that mean something."
And finding ways to stand out from all the rest.
Gershbein said you want your LinkedIn profile — and the rest of your online presence — to "position you immediately in the minds of those accessing you."
He recalled helping an accountant develop his LinkedIn profile: "He was a good guy, but he was giving me no content I could work with. Finally I said, 'Is there anything you do or interests you have or anything you've learned along the way that makes you a better business person?' He mentioned that he had run in the Chicago marathon, and I said I like the parallel between the discipline and preparation that goes with long-distance running and the effort he puts into being a tax preparer."
They wove the man's marathon interests into his profile and before long he was making better connections. "He soon had people who remembered that piece about his profile," Gershbein said. "They'd say, 'You're the marathon-runner accountant.' That's an example of personal branding. Because of that little piece in his profile, he was in front of people he normally wouldn't be."
Whether you like the idea of personal branding or not, you need to embrace it. So give it a shot — just remember that America's most-beloved workplace advice columnist is already taken.