Brand yourself, but don’t be a dweeb

Kempner’s Unofficial Business

This is a new column by me, Matt Kempner. I’ve been a reporter or editor since gas was about a dollar a gallon and “Hands Across America” was a thing. I’ve spent lots of time covering government, the environment and, for most of my career, business. But I don’t day dream about fiscal policy and corporate earnings. What I love about business is the strategy and the people and the journeys that those people take. I like irony and surprise and nuance. I’ve interviewed soldiers, oystermen, football stars, chicken plant workers, Fortune 500 CEOs, suburban activists and entrepreneurs dreaming big dreams. How cool is that? I’ve teared up in interviews, laughed inappropriately, been yelled at, and snookered. I do like an adventure. Let’s see where this one goes.

Coke promises happiness. Home Depot pledges savings and doing. Delta Air Lines aims to “Keep climbing,” which I guess means it’s making flying less sucky.

So what are you offering?

Regular people are increasingly racing to personally brand ourselves online so we can get a job, a promotion, investors or a date. Feel free to put some of the blame on Twitter, search algorithms and economic globalization.

But no matter where the fault lies, we’re under pressure to figure out what we stand for and condense it into a few telling words that will fit in a Twitter profile, Instagram summary or other social extension. The result is a bumper crop of people proclaiming themselves to be quite glorious business beings, from “thought leaders” to “futurists.”

The potential for being a dweeb is immense. (More about my Twitter profile later.)

There’s money to be made from the resulting angst. An Inman Park startup recently launched to help law firms, consulting companies and others make sure their high-priced partners and employees have built meaningful online personas that bring in more business. The startup, called Kredible, encourages using words and images rigorously tested for clients’ specific industries.

You may be thinking, ‘But they spell their own name wrong.’ Fair comment, but Brad Shepard, the 40-year-old chief executive, said his 26-person team has already nabbed five of the world’s top 20 law firms as clients and two of the 10 largest professional consulting firms, plus Fortune 100 companies.

Personal brand fixers

Trying to win a contract as outside counsel for a major company? Don’t bother including quirky personal interests in your social media profiles.

Kredible’s research shows company general counsels don’t care about that human stuff, at least when it comes to picking outside counsel, Shepard says.

Looking to help your professional services firm land some work? Use personal photos that are full-face, in color, fully framed, plain background, showing you with just a slight smile, direct eye-contact and wearing a professional blouse or an open collar shirt and a sport coat.

If this seems icky and shallow, don’t forget that branding isn’t a new idea. People have long been working their resumes, joining the right clubs and — back in the day — wearing just the right power tie.

The difference now is that the online world is always on and ever remembering.

Said Shepard, “It’s almost like you are walking around with your resume on your forehead all the time now.”

Goodbye humility

The result is that plenty of us have conquered any innate humility to become steroidal self-marketers.

And if you haven’t you may be tagged as being: A) In denial, B) Uncaring, C) Very well grounded D) So high up the food chain you have others do that dirty work for you.

We are up against powerful forces:

1) Things change so fast that virtually no job or company seems stable. We’ve got to constantly let people know how great we are so we’ll have a network and resume’ to get us a job the next time we’re laid off or our startup stops.

2) We have online personas on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. that push us to synthesize our essence for general public consumption.

Either one can drive us to do foolish things. On Twitter, I announce that I’m a snowflake eater. While this is a factual statement, I’m sure it would prompt eye rolls from sophisticates and doesn’t exactly serve as chum for job offers.

Dorie Clark, an adjunct professor at Duke University, speaks on personal branding and says the concept tends to be pretty polarizing.

Some people try to opt out, as if their work should speak for itself. Others, she said, go overboard in telling rather than showing people how good they are.

Thought leaders

I recently got an invite to a business conference in Atlanta and scanned the speaker bios.

Some described themselves as “thought leaders.” Others disclosed that they are “highly sought after” and have “a proven track record.” Or they have been busy connecting and optimizing, building strategies, focusing on performance or being data driven. They’ve got vision and produce outcomes while delivering deliverables.

One guy wrote that he focuses on “adapting technologies to work naturally with existing paradigms of behavior to aid in both decision making and task completion, and to broaden how search removes obstacles and enables people to take action on their ideas, questions, and desires.”

I think that means he uses tech that helps us figure out things and do stuff. Or he raises zebras.

Another guy’s “potent levels of moxie drives the increasingly multifaceted modes he can operate in to deliver on a cross-discipline strategy.”


Eating snowflakes

Not everyone sweats their online descriptions.

Muhtar Kent, who may be distracted by the task of trying to prevent his company’s name from becoming a synonym for “obesity,” keeps his Twitter profile simple: “Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company.”

I ran upon one local real estate leader who describes himself as “Experiencemaker” and another who uses the title “PlaceMaker.”

Dan Cathy, who uses a Twitter image of him going head-first down a slide, profiles himself as “CEO and President of Chick-fil-A, but I like to say I’m in Customer Service.”

I asked both Clark and Tom Collinger, a Northwestern University marketing professor who offers students seminars on personal branding, to give me their professional reaction to a certain somebody’s Twitter profile.

“Atlanta journalist, communications pro, business story shaper and a snowflake-eating, strategy-thinking, backroad-seeking family guy.”

“It’s a start,” Collinger wrote in an email to me. But it “falls apart a bit on the ‘communications pro’ (differentiation?), and snow-flake eating (relevance?).”

Clark said, “It’s pretty good. You are not making outrageous claims for yourself.”

I queried her a little more deeply on the snowflake eating business.

She seemed to pick through her words carefully. It could, she said, be considered a bit “precious.”

“But if you feel that image describes you well, then why not,” she said. “You are never going to please everyone with your personal brand.”

I’m sticking with the snow.

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