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One Word That Defines a Great Personal Brand

Julia Allison, one of the Web's biggest self-promoters, explains how to define your brand before others do it for you.
Julia Allison
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I was convinced that trying to build a personal brand, especially for the average small-business owner, is a waste of time. And I was admittedly kinda smug about it.

Then Julia Allison put me solidly in my place--in the nicest possible way, mind you.

Here's another in my series in which I pick a topic, connect with someone smarter than me, and we discuss. (There's a list of previous installments at the end of this article.)

This time, I talked to Julia Allison, Elle columnist, speaker on all things branding related, and star of the Bravo series Miss Advised. She was also profiled in Wired a few years ago for her personal branding savvy.

Jeff: If I say the average small-business owner shouldn't worry about personal branding, what would you say?

Julia: I would start by laughing.

Founders are the best advertisement for their companies. The best ROI you can get is from developing your personal brand, because your personal brand is linked directly to the value of the service or goods you provide your customers. It's all the same thing.

Whom do I do business with? Someone I trust, someone who's honest, someone who treats me well.

Jeff: Unfortunately, I think of a personal brand as an artificial construct, like Tom Wolfe's white suits.

Julia: A great personal brand isn't artificial. It's authentic. A great personal brand is analogous to a great reputation, which is based on providing exceptional service to your clients.

Obviously, that's often not manifested in popular culture; if you hear "personal brand" and Paris Hilton is the first thing that comes to mind, you might see "personal brand" as a pejorative. But personal branding doesn't mean duping someone. It doesn't mean you're manipulative or self-aggrandizing.

What it means is you are incredibly efficient at getting across to your customers who you are and what you stand for.

Jeff: But shouldn't the focus be on what your business provides, what value customers receive, what problems you solve? Isn't that more important than trying to establish a personal brand?

Julia: Forget "trying to establish a personal brand." You already have one. Everyone has a personal brand--he or she just doesn't know it.

A small-business owner's personal brand is inexorably tied up with the brand of his or her company. Those two things are one and the same. You can have huge impact if you use yourself to be almost a transitive property. The brand is your company.

Jeff: I get that everyone has a personal brand. But as for the transitive-property concept, you lost me.

Julia: Take a step back. You have a great brand when people immediately associate a positive term with that brand--the term you want people to associate with your brand.

Take Mercedes: If you think "luxury," it's happy. Or Kathy Griffith, the stand-up comedian: If the first word that comes to mind isn't "funny," then she's failing. Tony Hsieh: You think "Zappos," but you also think "culture" because of the outstanding business culture at Zappos.

Or take Donald Trump, one of the best personal brands in the world. If he wanted his personal brand to be "humble" or "kind," he failed. But he doesn't care if you like him; he just wants to communicate "rich."

Jeff: I'm old enough to remember the Trump of the '80s; "rich" was definitely his mission. That's evolved a little since then. Now, when I think "Trump," I do think "rich," but I also think about politics and Miss America and The Apprentice.

Julia: A personal brand shouldn't be static. It better evolve as you change and your business changes. When a business grows, the brand should grow--and so should the personal brand of the owner. Still, in Trump's case, those other things that come to mind are still extensions of "rich."

Jeff: OK, then, take Bruce Jenner. I'm old enough to have seen him in the '72 Olympics. For years, I thought of him as this muscular guy with wavy, long hair who won a gold medal in the decathlon. (To this skinny, insecure 12-year-old, Bruce Jenner was it.)

Now he's like this hapless pawn with "plastic surgery face" who is caught in the vortex of his kids' reality show. I don't think "athlete" or "champion" when I think of Bruce anymore. I think "Kardashian."

Julia: Here's the thing: We don't know what Bruce wants to accomplish. In order to know whether his brand is a success or failure, you have to look at it from his perspective. You think it's an odd move for him, but he may be achieving exactly what he wants to achieve. Maybe all he cares about is supporting what his family wants to do.

Everyone has different success metrics. I did an interview with my parents' local paper; I could have gotten a lot more exposure elsewhere, but to my parents, seeing me in the local paper was awesome. That was worth my time and effort, because I want my parents to be happy.

Jeff: Good point. Sorry, Bruce.

Julia: Also remember that a lot of people relate to Bruce. He has this big extended family and faces family and interpersonal issues, and he's doing the best he can.

People relate to people. They don't relate to companies. That's why companies have spokespeople. It's not rocket science. I can't relate to a company, but I can relate to someone who smiles at me.

Jeff: When I talked to Shama Kabani, she made a similar point: Letting people connect with the CEO of a company is incredibly powerful, because then it's like you know someone at the company.

Julia: The most important reason to have a personal brand is that you are your company. Your company is who you are. If you aren't taking care of your personal brand, that will negatively affect the brand of your company.

Take American Apparel and its founder, Dov Charney. If that's not convincing as to why a personal brand matters to the company, nothing is.

But on the flip side, nothing can be more positive. In terms of getting press for your business, the most powerful asset you have is you as a founder.

Mark Zuckerberg's story is fascinating. If a VC fund had hired a bunch of talented programmers to build Facebook, the company story would be a case study, not a movie.

Jeff: OK, say I'm a small-business owner. Where do I start?

Julia: Start by deciding on the word you want to define you.

Quite frankly, I made a big mistake early on: I didn't set the word before it was set for me. You must decide on your word before other people decide it for you. One of the reasons I know so much about personal branding is that I did so many things wrong.

Make a list of the adjectives you want people to repeat after they meet you, talk to you, see or read about you... What do you want your customers to think of when they think of you--and by extension, your company?

Maybe you want them to feel happier, healthier, more energetic, more confident, safer... make your list. Then boil it down to one word you want to encapsulate your personal brand.

Jeff: What's on your list?

Julia: Mine includes words like "irreverent," "humorous," "intelligent," "insightful," and "relatable."

Jeff: So I make a list. Other than making me feel a little self-conscious, how does that help me?

Julia: For years, I would do interviews and then read the article and think, "Wait, what just happened? That's not the interaction I thought we had. That wasn't my intention at all."

So I wrote down my intentions. Not in a manipulative way, but in a way to help me focus. I thought about what I wanted people to get from their interactions with me; once I did, things started to change.

Before I did the TV show, I wrote down things I wanted viewers to get from our "interaction." I wanted them to be able to relate to me; to feel like they can laugh about things that are depressing, like having a crappy love life; and I wanted to make them happy. The feedback I've gotten is almost exactly that.

Jeff: So you just extend your list to all your interactions: with customers, suppliers, employees, PR and media opportunities.

Julia: Exactly. And that's why a personal brand is so important: It allows people to trust you. When you're authentic, people can trust you--and they want to do business with you.

So instead of trying to be something you're not, be exactly who you are and intend to be.

Jeff: One of the risks of promoting a personal brand is that you open yourself up to criticism, especially if you have strong opinions. In a world of online reviews and instant feedback, many small businesses will do anything to limit negative "coverage."

The more you're out there, the less control you have.

Julia: We live in exceptionally difficult times for unwarranted and ad hominem attacks. The key is to realize that comments fall into one of two categories.

The first category is genuine complaints you need to address. Once you're finished cringing, fix the problems. Then, respond to every single comment on any public forum with every ounce of kindness and class and diplomacy you have ever mustered in your entire life.

The second category is angry people who criticize you unfairly or just for spite; there's nothing you can say or do to make them feel better. Every public figure gets those comments. You just have to accept it.

If you want to be successful and make a difference, you will run into people who are unhappy and take that unhappiness out on you.

Sometimes people say really nasty stuff to me. It's not easy to take, but you have to take the bad with the good. That's just how it works, so knowing how to separate those two kinds of comments can make the difference.

Jeff: I've seen some of the stuff people have said about you. I'm not sure I could get past that.

Julia: The good that will come from establishing a great personal brand totally outweighs the bad. Part of life is learning how to deal with criticism. It's not fun; it's not been my favorite activity for the last 10 years; but it has taught me how to deal with unhappy people.

Sometimes things go wrong. Go forward with humor and a humble attitude and a willingness to do right--even if you didn't screw up--and you will win over 95% of your detractors.

Also, don't be afraid to show weakness. We live in a culture that celebrates bloopers. If you can apologize for your mistakes and address them in a classy, funny, and humble way, people will forgive you.

Just do your best, and apologize when you fail.

Jeff: Even if you don't get criticized, it's still a little scary for the average person to think of setting out to be more public, whether that's media opportunities or just networking.

Julia: I jumped out of a plane recently. That's scary, but it also makes me feel more alive.

For many people, getting in front of a television camera or talking to a journalist is like jumping out of a plane. It feels very dangerous, scary, and antithetical to survival. It's not: It makes you feel alive.

If you have your own business and you're relying on yourself, you're already a risk taker. Why not go that extra 2 inches?

Talking about why you're so passionate about something you chose to devote your life to--compared to starting a business, that's easy. And the return can be incredible.

Check out other articles in this series:

IMAGE: Flickr/eschipul
Last updated: Aug 6, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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