Building Your Personal Brand

In 2019, Merriam-Webster officially added “influencer” to its dictionary, marking yet another way that social media culture has trickled into our daily lives. Everything from the “Up” dance to the Ice Bucket Challenge to baked feta pasta has come to us through online channels like Instagram and Tik Tok. But maybe none of these has been more pervasive than the influencer, a new combination of entrepreneurship and celebrity.

Influencers use their social platforms to raise awareness of causes, call for social change, and recommend their “Holy Grail” skincare and makeup products. And they have made us all aware of the importance of positioning yourself as a certain kind of person — the kind of person we might allow to determine our purchasing … or our politics. This has become known as “personal branding.”

In the business and marketing world, “branding” refers to the process of making a product or company instantly recognizable for specific features, ethics, or a level of quality. For example, the FedEx logo, with its arrow subtly embedded in the white space between the E and the x, subliminally reminds us that this company delivers packages overnight. And the Apple logo has become so ubiquitous that the company recently attempted to block other companies from using outlines of fruit shapes in their logos.

Online influencers have taken that concept and put it to good use, essentially marketing themselves as commodities. The process has been so successful that it has been picked up by hiring managers, college admissions officers, and even The Mouse — Florida students can enroll in a workshop at Walt Disney World in Orlando titled “Managing Your Personal Brand.” Colleges around the state offer lectures, seminars, and full courses in personal branding.

Given its myriad applications in our daily lives, just what does personal branding entail, and why do you need to do it?

For starters, college admissions trends prove that schools are seeking students who position themselves as a “right fit” for the institution. Gone are the days when a mixture of academic achievement and community engagement could write your ticket to the school of your choice. Now that more Americans than ever are choosing to attend 2- or 4-year schools, admissions has become infinitely more competitive and selective. The best way to bump yourself up in the line is by marketing yourself to the institution.

The same logic applies to the business world. When you apply for a job, you are competing against an unprecedented number of applicants, so you need to be able to demonstrate what you, personally, can bring to the organization and how your values dovetail with theirs. Being aligned with their corporate culture will give you an advantage over those who aren’t.

You can also dramatically increase your chances of receiving certain scholarships by demonstrating that you, rather than your qualifications, make you the right person to represent the donor. Think of yourself as a potential brand ambassador for the school or scholarship organization, in the same way that YouTubers or TikTok-ers get exclusive sponsorships with certain companies or products because they reflect the influencer’s values and content.

So, how do you build your personal brand? To get some answers and practical advice, we turned to an expert: Ken DeGilio, the course director for Business Storytelling & Brand Development at Full Sail University in Orlando. DeGilio has spent decades working in strategic marketing, nonprofit management, and higher education; he also runs Greco Consulting, which provides brand strategy for companies — a great source of real-world examples to bring to his Full Sail students.

DeGilio tells his students that a personal brand is more than having a cool-looking website or posting a few photos and articles right before you apply for a job. Rather, he says, “A personal brand is your strategic plan for how you define yourself, your values, and what is important to you in your interactions with the world around you.” This brand is built in every interaction that you have, both in person and online. “Having a ‘well-oiled’ personal brand helps you define your place in the world and in turn helps people understand what makes you tick. That’s the promise you make to others — that you are who you say you are.”

Authenticity is the key to successful branding. If you apply for a job, internship, or scholarship — even if you match with someone on a dating app — the first thing they’ll do is Google you. Our online presence becomes, in DeGilio’s words, “a shortcut to ourselves.”

“What I tell my students is that we should always be planting the seeds for our future personal brand. We can do this by investing in what is important to us each day. That could be writing more, researching our field, or finding a mentor to help guide us. If we don’t start the journey, we will never experience what we were intended to do.”

DeGilio recommends that you embrace building your brand as soon as possible. You can start by creating a profile on LinkedIn, which will also give you a place to research companies, jobs, and potential co-workers. “You can also create posts and content to build your personal brand as the expert in the field you want to be known for.” If you have an eye for design, consider using Canva, Adobe Spark, or Unsplash to create a consistent visual identity. You can then promote your work, ideas, and brand on sites like About.me.

Personal branding matters for college applicants and job seekers alike — and its importance goes beyond a form or an interview. “We owe it to ourselves,” urges DeGilio, “to build our personal brand as we try to create a life with purpose.”

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