A new approach to building your personal brand



by Jill Avery and Rachel Greenwald

Much of professional and personal success depends on persuading others to recognize your value. You have to do this when you apply for jobs, ask for promotions, vie for leadership positions, or write your dating profile. For better or worse, in today’s world everyone is a brand, and you need to develop yours and get comfortable marketing it.

Personal branding is an intentional, strategic practice in which you define and express your own value proposition. And though people have always carefully cultivated their public personas and reputations, online search and social media have greatly expanded the potential audience for—and risks and rewards associated with—such efforts.

Unfortunately, while we’d like to think that we’re in complete control of our personal brands, that’s rarely the case. As Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is quoted as saying, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” It’s the amalgamation of the associations, beliefs, feelings, attitudes, and expectations that people collectively hold about you. Your goal should be to ensure that the narrative created about you is accurate, coherent, compelling, and differentiated.

A strong, well-managed personal brand benefits you in several ways. It enhances your visibility, particularly among those who matter to you and to the things you hope to accomplish. It can also help you expand your network and attract new opportunities. And on a deeper level, the process of building one can help you uncover, celebrate, and share the unique abilities you bring to the world.

We—a branding thought leader and a professional matchmaker and dating coach—have come together to map out a personal branding process that draws on the latest academic research on branding, brand storytelling, and brand management, as well as on decades of practical experience helping people craft their professional and personal images. Our hope is that this article will give you the guidance you need to create a personal brand that you can comfortably and authentically live into each day to achieve your most important goals.

A Seven-Step Process

Our approach involves seven steps, each of which informs the others as you move from strategizing to testing to tweaking in response to feedback.

1. Define your purpose.

First you need a long-term vision and mission. What difference would you like to make to the various audiences that are important to you, personally and professionally, and what values would you like to embody as you do so?

Start by identifying your “through line.” Think about your significance to others, which is embedded in your past experiences, decisions, and actions. Ask yourself how and why you have lived the life you have, and look for any consistent interests, competencies, or character traits that could also lead you into the future. Then explore how they connect to your mission, passions, and goals by writing a personal value proposition, a statement with four components: the group you will target, what you hope to provide, your competitive cohort, and your distinctive capabilities. Here’s a template:

For [a particular target person or group of people]…

I will make a difference by offering [the unique, memorable, and meaningful value you want to provide]…

Among all [the other people also vying to make that difference, whom you would like to both fit in with and stand out from]…

Because of [the skill sets, personality traits, habits and tendencies, prior experiences, social capital, cultural capital, and credentials that will allow you to credibly deliver].

For example, an IT professional’s proposition might be “For a prospective employer, I’m the best cybersecurity manager to hire among all the applicants because of the multiple industry certifications I’ve earned and the strong leadership and perseverance I developed as a Division I college athlete.”

2. Audit your personal brand equity.

You need to identify and analyze the brand you are today so that you can fruitfully build on or shift it to stay true to your personal proposition. Think about the raw material you have to work with, including awareness (what people know about you), associations (their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about you), and meaning (the stories they know and tell about you).

First, catalog your credentials, such as your education, significant professional or personal experiences, and achievements. Then outline your social connections and relationships within various groups and organizations. That will help you gauge your current level of social capital and understand and leverage it. Next, analyze your cultural capital—the expertise you’ve developed through your upbringing, interactions, hobbies, and interests that allows you to operate smoothly in different milieus.

Then make a list of adjectives or descriptive phrases you think capture the real you, including both positive and negative ones. Be as specific as possible and avoid simple descriptors, such as “University of Michigan graduate” or “financial analyst.” Brainstorm descriptive language that will distinguish you. For example, maybe you’re a “detail-oriented financial analyst” or a “financial analyst who sees beyond the numbers.” And ensure that all your adjectives sing: Instead of “smart,” try “intellectual,” “well-read,” “educated,” “street-smart,” or “expert at cost-based accounting.” Similarly, “funny” might become “quick-witted” or “good at lightening the mood with a well-timed joke.”

Finally, evaluate whether your self-assessment lines up with your desired brand identity. For example, if your personal value proposition relies on your being a strong leader who is warm, empathetic, and able to deliver results, you’ll want to see words like “compassionate” and “results-driven.” How well are you exhibiting and showcasing those attributes?

Another important exercise here is to do some market research to find out if your take on your image rings true for others. Begin by identifying your key audiences (for instance, colleagues, bosses, teachers, family, friends, romantic partners) and selecting several “truth tellers” from each group—people you trust to give you objective feedback. Enlist some people who know you well and some who barely know you at all. Be brave enough to also include someone who has rejected you (say, for a job or for a date).

Invite each person to spend some time with you openly discussing your strengths and weaknesses and assure him or her that you’re looking for complete candor. Then ask open-ended questions, such as “How would you describe me to a stranger if I wasn’t with you?” or “Which adjectives or phrases do you associate with me professionally and personally?” Don’t give leading prompts like “Do you think I have a good sense of humor?” Instead try “Is there anything unique about me in terms of my conversation style? Personality? Interests? Experiences? Skills?”

You can then get more specific. Ask your truth tellers to rate you on your desired attributes. Compare their opinions with your own. How do they align or differ? What gaps have you identified, and how might you fill them?

Remember, too, to assess yourself against the “competition”—on your own and with help from your advisers. What skill sets, credentials, social capital, cultural capital, and personality traits do those people have? Which attributes and benefits are unique to you? Those will become your points of difference. Which things are missing from your portfolio? They’re the things you need to work on.

3. Construct your personal narrative.

A brand is not just a jumble of descriptors floating in the minds of other people; it’s built on the meaningful stories that you’ve communicated and that your audience has processed. You need to identify, craft, and refine the narratives that will communicate your brand. Think about times when you have felt most authentic, alive, positive, and productive; when you have stood out from others; when your uniqueness made the difference between success and failure; and when you’ve fully embodied the brand you want to have.

When an interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself,” don’t just recite your résumé or even describe your brand attributes. Instead, you should share illustrative stories about yourself and your experiences. For example: “In all the positions that you see on my CV, I’ve really played one role—problem-solver. Most recently, my team was struggling with an outdated review process, so I spent the past month working with a colleague in IT to revamp it, and we’ve since increased on-time completion rates by 100%.” Similarly, your answer to a conversation starter like “Where are you from?” could shift from a simple “New Jersey” to “A very rural part of New Jersey, where I spent my childhood hiking mountains and building campfires. How about you?” This is a way to show that you’re adventurous and resourceful without explicitly saying so.

Your personal value proposition becomes more memorable, resonant, accessible, and persuasive when you convey it with stories.

4. Embody your brand.

Each social interaction can move your personal brand closer to or further from your ideal. In casual conversations, at parties, in job interviews, people are forming opinions about you whether you like it or not, and consciously or subconsciously, you’re advertising yourself.

It’s therefore important to be aware of the messages you’re sending. Consider how you answer a simple question like “How are you?” to a colleague you see in the break room. If you reply, “I’m exhausted, work is stressful, and traffic was terrible,” you’re communicating mundane and negative vibes and missing a chance to reinforce appealing aspects of your brand. If you instead respond with something more intentional, such as “The commute wasn’t great this morning, but I used the extra time to listen to a really interesting podcast on creativity that I’m going to share with the product launch team,” you signal your positivity, productivity, and desire to learn.

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