Articles - 24th July 2020

What actually is a personal brand and how do I get one?

Words by Louise Quick
Illustration by Jon McCormack

The importance of being able to market yourself is one of the unexpected but absolute truths of freelancing. While for many people the phrase ‘personal brand’ is a distant, even laughable term, for most freelancers personal branding is an all too real concept – and an all too real fear.

For many of us, the term ‘personal brand’ has dubious undertones. The idea of dedicating time to branding yourself can sound like it requires toxic levels of control and pretence. It can feel suspiciously like dipping our toes into the murky waters of social influencing.

Also, ‘personal brand’ is one of those terms thrown around with such abandon, (see also ‘business development’ or any use of ‘leverage’), that most of us are left scratching our heads over what it actually means and how to apply it.

Most importantly, are personal brands even worth the effort? Sadly for skeptics, the answer from experts seems to be a resounding ‘yes, absolutely’.

So perhaps it’s time we finally got to the bottom of what personal branding is, how it works, and how to get one. of yourself or as simple as crafting the perfect Twitter bio?

Fortunately, a little research wields overwhelmingly large results, as there are no end of articles, bloggers, and experts eager to discuss personal brands.

According to freelance digital consultant Rob Weatherhead, a personal brand is “your identity and what you stand for”, while brand and marketing coach Cariad Rose describes how a successful personal brand “reflects your niche, that space you occupy that makes you unique”.

No pressure there then. A personal brand is simply everything you are and everything you stand for, all of which must be entirely unique. Before you start hyperventilating into a paper bag, consider this: is ‘personal brand’ actually just a fancy business term meaning ‘reputation’?

As Anna Roberts, communication and performance coach, says, “A personal brand is your professional reputation speaking for you when you aren’t in the room”. So, essentially, a personal brand is a public-facing projection of yourself and the work you produce.

In that case, good news: we all have personal brands, (whether we want to or not). Any freelancer who has done any semblance of work will have built up something of a reputation and, as such, will have the building blocks of a personal brand.

This could be an established, polished, well-crafted personal brand admired far and wide. Or it could be a small nondescript, shrub-like personal brand vaguely recognisable to a few. It still counts and freelancers can choose whether to shape it into something more.

Another revelation is that a personal brand isn’t influenced by the freelancer alone. Many people imagine that personal brands are meticulously and painstakingly crafted in private before being set in stone and revealed to the big wide world. However, it turns out that external factors – namely clients – are just as responsible for shaping it.

As a freelancer, it makes sense that much of your personal brand – or reputation – is influenced by the people you work with, the work you produce for them, and what they think (and say) about you.

As travel writer Chris Schalkx tells me, “The publications I write for shape my personal brand”. He goes on to prove that one way to reassert control is to select the projects you choose to promote. “I’m selective with the work I share publicly, and the work I simply write to make a quick buck”.

In fact, when looking to develop a personal brand, Roberts advises freelancers to actively hunt down people’s perceptions of them.

“How others perceive you and what you might be ‘known for’ in the industry could be completely different from how you perceive yourself; better or worse,” she explains. (Side note: Those with questionable self-esteem may want to ask kind-hearted friends or loyal clients.)

Once you’ve pinpointed the unique dish that you bring to the freelance buffet, it’s time to own it. To repeat Rose’s earlier point, she describes a freelancer’s niche as “that space you occupy that makes you unique and uncopiable”. As intimidating as that may sound, owning your personal brand can give you a competitive edge.

There’s an ocean of freelancers in any one industry. Being confident and clearly communicating your niche offering can ensure that you stand out at the top of the wave and are seen by the right clients for the right jobs.

Roberts echoes this sentiment when she advises, “Chances are that if you’re not too sure what you offer to clients, clients will not be too sure to hire you”.

While many freelancers fear that leaning into a niche will reduce their chances of work, brand experts are adamant that a clear and concise personal brand actually brings in more job opportunities.

As Rose argues, “Freelancers are often too cautious to commit to a niche, because they want to appeal to everyone, which can, of course, lead to appealing to no one.”

As ironic as it may sound after the slew of advice, authenticity is also seen as a powerful way of building a personal brand. A personal brand that packs some personality can build emotional connections that attracts new clients and bolsters client loyalty.

As PR coach Skye Ferguson summarises, “For people to want to buy from you or work with you they need to know you, like you, and trust you”.

It has always been the case that clients buy the person, not just the service. However, in contrast to our 20th-century freelancing predecessors, thanks to the internet and social media, there is a push for freelancers to blur the lines between the professional and personal.

“We live in a world of transparency,” explains Ferguson. “There’s an expectation now, because we’re used to knowing everything about everyone that we expect that in a personal brand too”.

So, rather than curating a professional persona to project into the world, perhaps freelancers should be injecting a little more ‘personal’ into their personal brands.

“I see it as, what more of yourself can you bring to your work, your brand, and the way you present yourself, rather than trying to craft a personal brand”, advises Ferguson.

Safe to say, there’s a whole world of in-depth, often confusing, and sometimes contradictory information on personal brands. One silver lining among the chaos is that, clearly, there isn’t one way to build a personal brand or even one platform to use.

It’s your personal brand, you choose how – or if – to shape it, whether that’s via social media, blogs, email, or in person. But now is as good a time as ever to get started on shaping it.

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