Be noisy and hip! Build a personal brand! Salespeople are being urged to do this at all costs. Much of the advice being offered about personal brands is about visibility and style. You’ve read and heard a good deal of it, I’m sure. If you distill the advice down, “be noisy and hip” is what you get. And seeing it described that way probably answers why much of what you’ve heard about personal branding left you uneasy.
“It’s as powerful as Frodo’s ring.” That’s what you’re hearing about personal branding. And social media is always promoted as the primary means to that end. Highly visible B2B salespeople are sometimes accused of unrestrained egotism. A few deserve the label, I’ll admit. And the mad pursuit of personal branding is bringing out the worst in some of them. But top-flight salespeople are rarely vain little egotists engaged in relentless self-promotion. They are much deeper and much more substantial.
My problem with many of the self-declared experts in personal branding is two-fold: First, they seem to know little about real branding. Second, they seem to know even less about character. And for highly successful salespeople, the two are always in alignment.
What’s a Brand Anyway?
It is possible to create and maintain a “personal brand” if we first understand what a brand actually is. A brand, any brand, is not what it says about itself. It is what others believe about it. That means that brands belong to the people to whom the brand is important. Which makes personal brands (as well as B2B brands) tough to observe. It’s the classic iceberg scenario: what you can observe is a tiny fraction of what exists. Let me illustrate with an example.
When I look at companies that are my clients, the hardest things I need to uncover and understand are their brands. That’s tough because my clients are small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) and their business models are all B2B. So intense listening is required, and I need to listen to their active customers and potential customers in order to understand what their brands mean and stand for in the minds of their customers. Their brands are nearly invisible to casual observation because those brands exist in the minds of those inside their spheres of influence: their customers, former customers, potential customers, friends, and competitors.
It’s impossible to understand brands (personal, B2B, or consumer) simply by observing their outbound messaging, their identity package, and their product and service design. Sorry, but that’s true. But the fact that we can observe so little of brands doesn’t make them any less powerful or any less real.
Try this for a working definition of brand: “A brand is what others know to be true and valuable about you.” That’s true of B2B brands. That definition applies to personal brands too. A brand answers three questions directly: Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? I’ve quoted Greg Galle, co-founder of Future Partners before, and those questions are his. And they are the key questions that need to be asked of all efforts at personal branding in the same way that they are asked of B2B and consumer brands. So let’s do that.
Substance and Style
The first and second are easy to answer. You can quickly tell anyone who you are and what you do. At minimum you can give them your name, company affiliation, and the products and services you represent. But it gets tough personally when you try to describe why it matters.
For top-flight B2B salespeople, a personal brand is powerful when it’s welded to personal character. And we need a useful definition of personal character to understand what should drive any effort at personal branding.
I’d propose that personal character has three elements: your own values, your own strengths, and your own purpose. If you can describe what’s important to you, what you bring to the party, and what you intend to accomplish, then you can easily answer the third of Galle’s questions: Why does it matter. And you can also start to determine what kind of personal branding effort is going to reflect those traits honestly and accurately.
“There is a big difference between reputation and personal brands. Reputation is built upon past experiences — good or bad, a real track record. Personal branding is often an ego-based image based on communications. A personal brand can demonstrate a person is there, but it’s often shallow and can be contrived. It’s just like a sport stripe on a car, nice but no engine, no guts, no substance.”
— Jeff Livingston
Now, if your personal character traits include dishonesty, apathy, ignorance, selfishness and / or laziness, don’t bother reading farther. In fact, the only action you should be taking is getting out of B2B sales because you’re a sea anchor, and a miserable reflection on the highly professional and highly ethical B2B salespeople with whom I have the privilege of working.
By the way, I’ve never subscribed to the belief that under-performing salespeople lack sufficient motivation, or that the motivation can be applied externally (by me or anyone else). Motivation is entirely intrinsic for the best B2B salespeople, and it is rooted in their characters. In fact, for most of them, the primary drive is to be of service to others.
If your company calls on you to compromise your character by being less than forthright with customers, manipulating them consistently, or ignoring the customer’s interest in favor of their own, you’ve a different decision to make. Given the unmet demand for top-flight salespeople, there’s no reason for you to sit tight when a company’s customer experience is a consistent fist to your gut.
Hype-free Personal Branding
If your efforts so far to create a personal brand have the flavor of Mad Men, there’s a reason. It’s likely because you started with packaging rather than with the product. A strong personal brand isn’t about egotism. It is about vulnerability and openness. It’s about standing for something that will resonate with others, particularly with your customers. So as you begin thinking about how you want to represent yourself, there are four of questions I find useful to ask:
1. Is your brand in concert with your character? In other words, is everything about how you present or represent yourself about more than merely your personality and appearance? Does your character come through? It should. Let me give you three examples to illustrate what I mean. A personal brand for Mother Theresa would clearly signal compassion and self-sacrifice. A personal brand for Abraham Lincoln would signal strength and resolve. A personal brand for Warren Buffet would signal both integrity and humility. Your own should signal the core elements of your character: your core values, your significant strengths, and your personal purpose.
2. Does your personal brand reflect the real you? If you’re the jeans and tee shirt type, then branding featuring you in Seville Row suits isn’t going to ring true. If you’re the geeky type, then featuring you on a motorcycle with a swimsuit model riding behind you isn’t going to ring true. Style needs to be subordinate to substance. Which means you start with substance and figure out the style that echoes it clearly and honestly. Again, your personal brand needs to reflect the elements of your unique character.
3. Does your personal brand tell your own story? This has nothing whatever to do with being “multi-faceted” which is the code word for creating multiple personas aimed at different audiences. That advice to create multiple personas is incredibly misguided and downright dangerous for B2B salespeople. It undermines your integrity.
“Integrity” and “integrated” come from the same root word in Latin: integritatem. It means whole, undivided, intact, uncorrupted. My favorite working definition of integrity is “consistently making and keeping commitments.” And a person of integrity is the same person wherever we meet her. There’s no mask. That doesn’t mean that she’s making inappropriate disclosures of herself (insufficient boundaries). But it does mean that she’s the same person from the veneer all the way down to her core. Therefore, everything about your personal brand should tell your story. And it should make sense to your spouse, children, colleagues, and customers.
4. Is your personal brand “fully human?” Can people easily relate? If your photos have been retouched to perfection, you may be missing the point. If your career path hints that you’ve never made a misstep, never joined the wrong company, and never stubbed your toe in some fashion, that’s probably not going to serve you well. If you present yourself as fully human, you’re on the way to being appreciated as approachable and winsome. That will enable people to make an emotional connection to you, and that’s vital.
Any effort you make to build a visible, personal brand needs to start with the substance of who you are, with the core of your character. So resist the temptation to focus first on the packaging and appearance. Make the main thing the main thing. When the live human fits perfectly with the expectation created by your brand, you’ve gotten your personal brand in alignment with your character. And that’s a powerful thing.
Answer Galle’s third question: “Why does it matter?” But make it personal: “Why do you matter?” Another way to ask it is my favorite: “What difference do you make?” Your personal brand should have a specific and a tangible answer to that incredibly pertinent question. What’s yours?
“Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.”
– David Ogilvy
What do you think?
Part of my practice is training and direct coaching of sales managers and individual salespeople. Another part of it is building intentional and strong brands. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.