“Differentiation is a way of thinking. It’s a mindset. It’s a commitment. A commitment to engage with people–not in a manner to which they are merely unaccustomed, but in a manner that they will value, respect, and yes, perhaps even celebrate.” ~Youngme Moon
Harvard Business School professor, Youngme Moon, in her remarkable book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, discusses the ways in which many brands have adopted a herd mentality as they compete in the marketplace. In accounting for a “proliferation of sameness,” she says:
“In category after category, companies have gotten so locked into a particular cadence of competition that they appear to have lost sight of their mandate – which is to create meaningful grooves of separation from one another. Consequently, the harder they compete, the less differentiated they become.”
So, increasingly, we live in a world where we don’t see meaningful differences between offerings like cars, cereals, or cell phone plans. Equivalent features foster sameness, not distinction.
In many ways, we face a similar heard mentality with personal branding.
As the idea of personal branding has become mainstream, career coaches and resume writers are now offering branding advice. Yet, based on some of the examples I’ve seen, this advice tends to lead to “personal brands” described in terms of some bland mix of job title, transferable skills, personal attributes, accomplishments – and perhaps even clever tag lines. In fairness, I suspect their advice is geared to presenting oneself, in the employment market place, in a risk-averse way. Yet, this superficial brand creation leads ultimately to “accentuating non-essential distinctions…cloaking sameness as differentiation.”
So, how do we arrive at true differentiation?
Broadly, I think we can find part of the answer in what Professor Moon calls Idea Brands, that is, brands that challenge limits and assumptions. One example is the Breakaway Brand which disrupts our consumption classification patterns with new frames of reference; as did Cirque du Soleil in it’s careful positioning as “being everything a CIRCUS is not.”
Overall, idea brands are “…not perfect brands. … They are polarizing brands. They are lopsided brands. …[yet]…they make perfect sense to us.” Still, in their unique imperfections, I think that idea brands give us some hints for re-imaging personal branding.
So, how does this apply to personal brand in general, and to you in particular?
Starting with the three characteristics of idea brands that Professor Moon points to, here are some thoughts on re-imagining personal brand:
Offer something that is hard to come by. It may seem simplistic, but no one is “youer” than you. You have no substitute. So, whatever your profession, by bringing your unique style and perspectives, you deliver value in a way no one else can – even people with similar skill sets.
Reflect commitment to a big idea. In thinking about your personal brand, remember that some of the most successful people have a vision for the world and a sense of life purpose. So, consider your vision and purpose. While you may not achieve global change, your vision and purpose will guide your daily actions to make a difference in things you can control.
Have sensitivity to the concerns of real people. Strong brands evoke an emotional connection. People typically love their favorite brands! But this is a two-way street where most loved brands earn loyalty through their responsiveness to their fans. For you to achieve this, you need to maintain a level of engagement that allows meaningful responsiveness to the people you serve.
Embrace your weirdness. In his wonderful book, We Are All Weird, Seth Godin says real choice and richness comes, not from following the norms of a mass culture, but from connecting with those who love what we love. So, you enhance your chances of success by joining or creating tribes or brand communities where people who pursue common goals and interests “get it” — and therefore “get you.”
Remember your brand is your story. No one else has your life experiences, so nothing differentiates you as much as your story. In sharing your story, it’s important to convey the life events that support your brand – including the failures and key life turning points that shape the vision, purpose, values, passions, beliefs, and skill sets that you bring to creating value.
Always be a person and not a brand. Perhaps one of the most valid and well-argued criticisms of personal branding makes the point that people are not brands. In pursuit of a personal brand, most often, it’s the contrived cleverness gets people into trouble – because it’s perceived as fake. So, just be yourself. Most of your little quirks make you likeable, and the ones that don’t can be managed.
“Think about it: If you do things the same way everyone else in your field does things, why would you expect to do any better? Being different is what makes all the difference.”
Walter Akana is a Reach Certified Personal Branding and Online Identity Strategist. Founder Threshold Consulting, he works with mid-career professionals and executives. His career advice has been featured online at marketwatch, cnnmoney, and online.wsj. He is a long-time blogger, and avid user of social media.