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How to stand out in a branded world

by Sergey Gorbatov

Did you know that some antelopes jump high into air when they spot a predator? This behavior puzzled biologists for years. They thought that antelopes were altruistic and such jumps warned others in the herd that a danger was near. More recent studies, however, discovered that stotting (this is the correct term for this) is a signal. By expending a vast amount of energy, the antelope signals to the leopard (or whoever it might be): "I'm strong. I'm healthy. Don't even think of chasing me - I'll outrun you! Rather catch a weaker herd mate instead". Some altruism!

stotting gazelle
Gazelle to a lion: "Don't even try chasing me!"

Stotting is effective because it's intentional and costly at the same time. It's visible, it's targeted, and it costs energy.

Personal branding is also a signal. We operate in an imperfect labor market. There are huge information asymmetries between those who offer their expertise and time and those who buy them. Personal branding reduces this asymmetry by communicating why you should be chosen from the sea of competitors. But is it effective?

Consider these two questions.

1. Is your personal branding costly?

Cost can be defined directly as how much money you spend on creating your brand. For instance, you may design your personal website yourself using readily available templates from Wix or Wordpress or you can hire a professional. You can go all in with renting a billboard on Times Square to shout to the world that you have ambition and courage. A real story, actually. A few years ago, a 22-year old British graduate invested £5,000 in billboard ads to the attention of Kanye West. This extravagant CV simply said, "Hire me, Mr West, I've got ideas."

But cost is not necessarily monetary. It's also your time, your energy, or your creativity. A signal that depletes your resources says, "This matters to me". By volunteering to help a colleague you signal that you are both good in your job (since you have extra time) and you are a helpful team member. This is costly because you invest the non-recoverable resource (your time) and such helpful behavior is hard-to-fake. Unless you help others to the detriment of your own results… which is not such a good signal.

2. Is your personal branding intentional?

Intentionality ensures the quality, strength, and observability of your signal. Because you have thought it through. You have crafted simple yet powerful messaging. There is congruence between your personal value and how you signal it. You have made certain that the messages will reach the target audience. You have figured out how to minimize distortions and ensure consistency. You are intentional about your personal brand: you increase its equity.

Recently I have had a conversation with an MBA student who just went through a workshop on crafting a personal branding statement. She asked me for my opinion to which I responded with "What do you need it for?" The point is that if you don't have an end in mind, any statement will do.

Where are you?

Mapping out the costliness and intentionality of your personal branding helps identify opportunities to be even more effective. Let's consider these four scenarios based on where you are on the grid:

  • Filling the space. Unintentional personal branding that is cost-free is at risk of being borderline spam. Do you tweet just whatever comes across your feed that day? Do you send out the same version of your resume to all potential employers? Do you treat all audiences equally? (on this one, check out our podcast on faking it with Marc Effron) Then stop. You self-generate unhelpful noise that does not help and will potentially damage your personal brand.

  • Intentional but not differentiated. It could be foundational work for your personal brand visibility, such as maintaining your website and social media accounts or routine content creation. Your intentionality ensures a good fit between the needs of the target audience and your professional profile but because your signaling is not costly, anyone can do it. This strategy can be effective when, for example, you are new to the organization and need to wait to understand the environment better. In this case, keep aligning your professional self to the needs of those whose opinions matter and plan how to increase the costliness of your signaling.

  • Unguided missile. You spend valuable resources (money, time, effort, ideas, social connections, etc.) without a clear purpose in mind. Sometimes the spray-and-pray strategies work out, but most often aligning your costly efforts to a specific direction results in significantly better outcomes.

  • Top of mind. Your signal is laser-focused and it's difficult for others to match and/or imitate. This is where you want to be for the few critical career goals.

Do you need personal branding? What's your plan?

Several trends elevate the importance of effective personal branding today:

  • Employment for life is obsolete. To enhance intercompany mobility, we need to strategically signal our professional worth.

  • Work from anywhere is on the rise. Hybrid and fully virtual arrangements are here to stay. But the "out of mind, out of sight" thing is real. So, the behavioral visibility that effective personal branding provides helps you stay relevant with your stakeholders and colleagues.

  • Technology is ubiquitous. Standing out is hard when "everyone is doing it". Having a personal website was rare a while ago, today it's table stakes.

If these trends don't affect you, then perhaps personal branding won't add much value. But if they resonate with where you are today and where you are moving towards, have a self-marketing plan and execute, execute, execute.

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