Brand is a secret handshake, a way of knowing you’re in or out.
– Seth Godin (paraphrased)
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Why personal brand matters so much
in the digital age
When business dries up, you’ll be tempted to wonder how you can work harder. It’s commendable. But when we ask ourselves what will really move the needle, we find that it’s much more about building relationships, and our own brand.
Why does business dry up in the first place? It just happens. The economy inhales and exhales, expands and contracts, grows and slows. Sometimes, tons of people will be hitting you up for work. Other times, it’ll be crickets for miles.
In those moments, the only thing that will save you is your credibility and memorability. Your brand: people thinking of you when they think of a service they need. When people know what to come to you for, that‘s brand. It’s your reputation. Personal brand and reputation are very similar concepts. The difference? Many people have a great reputation for motivating and advising people. But there’s only one Gary Vee.
Brand is hard to define, but incredibly obvious when we’re in it. What does that mean, though, “in it?”
Brand is a secret sauce. A secret language, a seven-second handshake, a way of knowing that you’re in or out.
Start around 16:00 for this bit of Seth Godin genius on brand (tribes)…
Brand matters specifically because, by definition, it’s unique, which makes it irreplaceable. Impossible to copy.
And when you start feeling the pains of competition, or the struggle to try to explain why you’re a better choice than the other writers, forget all of that. Focus instead on how you’re you, and who resonates with it.
Brand is positioning yourself to matter to someone.
Godin again, in This is Marketing, tells a tale of two local piano teachers. They’re both local, but if they start with that (“I’m local!”) they aren’t saying anything unique. After all, there are other teachers just as local, right? They haven’t done anything to make their personal brand stand out.
Instead, one teacher can choose to say “I’m serious, and this is about rigor because my students win competitions.” A different teacher might take a totally different approach, focusing on the whole student, the experience, and the human connection.
As a result, these two piano teachers now have the inklings of unique personal brands. They’re no longer competing—though they are on the same board. Instead, they’re each owning a piece of the total available market for piano students.
People hire freelancers who fit their worldview.
Think about the last time you bought coffee. Or went to see a movie. Or picked a book to read. Why did you pick that brand of coffee, that movie theatre, that author?
Deep down, you very likely made that choice because it represented something you believe in—it reinforced one or more of your values.
You picked up the Seth Godin book because you’ve heard he has a very human-centered approach to marketing, as opposed to all the transactional noise out there. You bought the organic non-GMO coffee because you care about that stuff. And you bought that particular brand because they’ve convinced you that they’re trustworthy and have the same values as you do.
Brands constantly play to our value systems and fight for our attention based on them. In today’s incredibly noisy world, brands that know how to make us feel good about ourselves, and then keep showing up with the same message, the same ideas, are brands that win. And it’s no different for freelancers and our personal brands. When clients choose us, they’re choosing how we make them feel about themselves.
What will you stand for? To whom will you matter?
It’s not worth explaining that we can do great work—that’s just a prerequisite. (Always be improving, and let your work speak for itself.) It doesn’t matter what we charge or how beautiful our work is going to be. What matters to clients are the stories they tell themselves, and how our personal brand narrative fits into their stories, their worldview.
By deciding what we stand for, and what we want to be known for, we attract the types of clients who want the same things we want. We avoid competing with other “freelance writers” or “freelance developers.”
It becomes a whole lot easier to stand out from the noise with this kind of thinking. This kind of positioning. That’s what personal brand strategy is all about—positioning yourself in a certain way.
Identify your axes of differentiation