How (Not) to Create a Personal Brand
No matter what marketing gurus say, seeing branding (and business as such) as a linear sequence of steps (1. Find your niche > 2. Find a unique business name > 3. Create a visual identity > 4. Build a website > etc.) is too simplistic.
But simplicity is not what bothers me. We, teachers, do it all the time – we simplify complicated things so we can explain them to others. We “package” information so we can teach it.
But our job shouldn’t end there. We should help our students “unpack” what they’ve learned so they can internalize it, connect it to what they already know, and apply it. The “package” is just a means.
What does it have to do with personal branding? Read on.
Why Step-by-Step Branding Doesn’t Work
Think about language learning. There’s no inherent step-by-step process. Language teachers use artificial processes of different kinds: they follow textbooks, grammar books, alternative learning methods, or create their own syllabi. But learners who only follow the steps, no matter how “innovative” and “effective” the steps are, never become fluent.
Language is messy, and you have to get your hands dirty. You have to start speaking before you’re ready, before you learn all the grammar and vocabulary, before you fill in all the exercises in your grammar books. Fluency emerges when you remove the safety net and start using and living the language.
And branding is similar. Thinking in step-by-step sequences will only get you stuck because you believe you can’t proceed to the next step until you finish the previous one. That’s why many people never start a business – they get stuck when figuring out their niche, domain name, or logo.
I’m not saying these things aren’t important. What I’m trying to say is that branding doesn’t work this way. And it’s too easy to get distracted by all the should-dos and must-haves and waste months “creating a brand” instead of doing work that matters.
I like to think about branding in layers. This way, you don’t have to go one step at a time. Here’s what I mean by that:
Branding in Layers
The heart of your brand is your core message – this is the only static thing (see the previous post). All the other layers are always in motion. You’re always working on multiple layers at the same time. Your audience. Your social media presence. Your marketing strategy. And so on.
You don’t have to finish one thing so you can move to the next one.
Now, your copy and your visual identity are the outer layers – the ones that everyone sees. After some time, you may feel – you will feel – that the underlying layers no longer fit into the shell, and you have to change or adjust the outer layers.
That’s what happened to my brand. I’ve recently decided to rewrite my web copy because it didn’t reflect the changes my business went through during the first months of its existence. But changing the copy wasn’t enough.
By working with and talking to my dream clients, I learned more about myself, my brand, and the people I want to serve. And I needed my online presence to represent the current state of my business. So I needed to rebrand.
You can see the outer layers by yourself, so I’d like to show you what’s happening under the surface.
What follows are the layers of my brand – and of any brand, for that matter – I find the most important. I believe that when you concentrate on these layers, your brand will naturally emerge. Like achieving language fluency, the process is messy and scary, but there’s no other way.
Because by working in layers, you’ll create an original, authentic, and therefore a memorable personal brand. Whereas by working step-by-step and following textbook-y guidelines (no matter how innovative), you’ll create a manufactured, spiritless, and dull brand.
1. Doing your work well
Paradoxically, when you start building your own brand as an online entrepreneur, it seems that doing your work (whether it’s teaching, coaching, or something else) is the last thing you should worry about. Right?
There’re all the plugins you have to buy, all the social media you have to be on, all the marketing tricks and hacks you have to follow, all the courses you have to take. You simply don’t have time to focus on getting better at what you do.
And even if you do, you have a hard time finding no-BS resources.
I mean, you can find so many courses on teaching online, but how many of them are about teaching? Not about how to find students, not about how to market yourself, not about how to make money teaching. Teaching: getting the knowledge from your head to someone else’s head in a way that works (i.e. helps people do something they couldn’t do before).
The same goes for creating online courses.
How many people who teach how to develop an online course actually know how to teach? Not how to put together random info and sell it to as many people as possible, but to create a non-overwhelming syllabus, meaningful activities, and transformative learning experience?
I’m convinced that doing your work well is more important than anything else. That’s all.
That’s why doing my work well is my priority in 2017.
Here’s something I know for sure: You can’t make it on your own.
Without your tribe, you’re nobody.
And by “tribe,” I don’t mean only your paying clients.
Your business friends, your mentors, your followers, but even random readers and people who don’t agree with you, they all play their roles, and they’re all parts of your brand.
The way you treat them is everything.
But life is busy. Sometimes, it’s not so easy to treat everyone well.
You forget to reply. To send an email. You don’t manage to finish a project in time. You get sick and don’t check your inbox for a couple of days. You don’t stick to your promise because you forget about it.
It all makes you look rude and unprofessional. But that’s life – these things happen every day. You’re not superhuman. You can’t remember everything, never miss a notification, and always be present and fully focused.
And that’s why you need to organize your business so that it works no matter what happens to you. Which leads me to my next point:
I hate to admit it, but the idea of systems scares me. Planning scares me, too. And so does tracking my numbers. As a right-brained person, I don’t like charts, lists, figures, graphs, and any kind of administration.
At the end of last year, I co-created a planner for teacherpreneurs with my friend Elena Mutonono. Researching and discussing how and why to plan and track your business as an online teacher was transformative for me. For the first time, I saw planning as an opportunity for more creative freedom, not as a limitation.
Elena, who is a master of planning and tracking her business (she even wrote a book based on her business numbers), showed me that systems aren’t a luxury – they’re essential.
It wasn’t a complete surprise; of course, I knew I needed more systems and better systems for my biz. But knowing and doing are two different things. I thought I could always improve my systems, you know, later.
Now I see that systems are crucial for doing my work well and for treating people well. Without effective systems, small problems become big problems, and your brand suffers.
If you’re like me, you will need to hire a coach to help you get organized. I hired Elena to help me plan my year and create systems so I can automate and outsource parts of my work. It’s hard work. Exhausting. And scary. And so liberating.
Speaking of coaches, hiring one can be the best investment you’ll ever make in your business.
I’m not saying it as a coach, but as a (recovering) online learning junkie. Consuming information (through online courses, newsletters, blogs, podcasts, e-books, etc.) doesn’t help you unless you take action. But taking action is much more difficult than learning.
A coach will help you get unstuck, cut through the noise, use your superpowers, and make things happen, as opposed to just reading about them.
You do need to learn a lot, but don’t let learning and researching be the thing that keeps you from creating. If you don’t want to hire a coach, you have to coach yourself.
Branding is about clarity. You need to get crystal clear about what you do, how you do it, who you do it for, and why. Here are ten questions to help you.
6. Being yourself
Your personal brand has your personality. You have to inject You into everything you do – your web copy, the way you treat your clients, the way you show up, the way you package your products and services, and even things that are “invisible” – systems, professional development, time management, and so on.
With all the noise around us, it’s so hard to be yourself. So sometimes, you need to take a break from social media and online courses and listen to your gut. What do you really want to do? And how?
You’ll see that you don’t have to do things like everyone else. You don’t have to settle for the first option.
That’s how you stand out. That’s how you create a memorable brand. Not be watching other people and doing what they do or trying to beat them.
Being different is better than being better.
7. Creating & showing your work
If you aren’t putting yourself out there, your brand is invisible.
It’s easy*: Share your journey and your expertise: write a blog, record a podcast, make videos. Then put it where your people will find it.
That’s how your brand gets discovered by your dream clients.
These seven layers aren’t all the layers, but I believe that by concentrating on them, you can form an authentic, memorable personal brand. A brand that isn’t just an empty shell.
What to do now? Try this exercise
“Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
What do you think people say about you? What do you want them to say?
Start with honest answers to these two questions, and think about 3 concrete things you can do the next month to get closer to your vision. Not by working on your brand as such, but by focusing on your work, business relationships, systems/planning, clarity, and the way you show up online.