Charity Village | It’s Time to Brandish Your Personal Brand

By Elisa Birnbaum

At the beginning of March, PwC Canada launched Personal Brand Week with the mission of helping students build their personal brand for professional success. Focused on the millennial generation, currently facing an extremely competitive market as they make their first foray into the working world, PwC’s initiative was an online and offline effort. A collaboration hub allowed students to participate in discussions, ask questions, watch videos and make connections, while an e-book boasted interactive tools, worksheets and tips.

As this and other similar initiatives demonstrate, personal branding can play a big part in a successful job search. But that’s not only true for first-time job-seekers. It’s a truism for anyone pursuing a career. Standing out from the pack, ensuring your story is strong, deliberate and unambiguous has never been more important.

Are you my brand?
So, what exactly is personal brand? In today’s digital-oriented world, it’s not surprising that many associate the term with one’s online reputation. But, while social mediums can certainly play a part in building your brand, according to our experts that definition can be quite limiting.

“For me it’s much more holistic,” explains Rahima Mamdani, VP human capital at United Way Toronto. “It’s partly based on concepts that have been around a long time about how you come across to colleagues, your professional or personal reputation.” Social media presence is important, she adds, but a lot of that is simply good marketing. If there’s no substance to your virtual rep, good luck finding a job. “When you do a reference check and you’re not finding the individual lives up to that social media presence, you won’t be as inclined toward [hiring] the candidate.”

According to PwC, personal brand is the ‘X’ factor that differentiates a person from other job candidates. “It begins with being self aware of one’s achievements, knowledge, skills and outlook on goals.” Helen Kim, career advisor at Vancouver’s YWCA, would probably agree. “It’s knowing what your strengths are, knowing what role you play in a group, in a team,” she says.

Meeting regularly with 15 to 30-year-olds, some first time job-seekers, others more advanced and focused on building their career, Kim insists every candidate articulate the one sentence that most defines them. Are you creative? Are you good at the big picture? Is your greatest strength facilitating others? Knowing what you do best, what you bring to the table, is key to one’s personal brand, keeping in mind you can’t be everything to everyone. Besides, in such a competitive market, “employers don’t want to know you can do the job, they want to know you can do an excellent job,” she explains.

Why now?
Though chatter around personal branding has become all-pervasive of late, Alan Kearns of the career coaching company CareerJoy, is quick to point out it’s not new. Far from it. Caesar had a brand, he tells me. It was part of his brilliant strategy of persuasion. But the concept has been gaining prominence as the myth of the permanent job grows ever-weary, he says. The need to sell oneself — continually — is growing stronger each day.

Kearns describes the personal branding imperative the only way a Canuck can: “We call it the Roll up the Rim principle,” he says, alluding to the popular Tim Hortons contest, now in its 27th year, otherwise known as branding at its finest. In fact, the coffee chain is a good example of self-promotion’s most delightful benefits, says the fan of metaphors, Kearns. An avid marketer that constantly pushes its brand in every possible medium, Tim Hortons no longer has to look for franchisees; they come to them. Similarly, job seekers need to push their brand continually so that, “you don’t actually have to look for a job, jobs look for you,” he says.

Theoretically, that sounds lovely.

Know thyself
Practically, it may not be that simple. So what can people do to give them an edge? At CareerJoy they talk about 3D personal branding: promoting a combination of your story, you, and technology. “Know your story, know what you’re trying to tell and tell it in ways that are engaging and interesting, using various platforms to do that so you tell it continually,” Kearns explains. Being able to articulate how your skills and traits differentiate you from others is essential, Mamdani adds.

But, she adds, building a brand actually begins by self-reflection. “Is your own personal impression matching what others think of you?” she asks. If not, you may need to make some adjustments in the way you work and interact with others.

For Kim, it’s a matter of knowing your value, your skill sets and strengths. “I compare it to dating,” she says with a laugh. “You have to be really clear about what you want.” Make sure you have a road map and that your values align with your interests. “It’s your own personal GPS,” Kim offers.

Ask yourself what you enjoy doing and what you’re good at. Then focus on that. “No one can evolve in their own career if they’re not finding things they like doing,” she says. Knowing yourself is central to selling yourself, after all. And it’s a vital part of the strategy no matter your age. “What’s interesting is that even people in their 50s and 60s still don’t know what they want to do,” says Kim. “They’ve simply been doing something for so long that they keep doing it.”

If you feel your brand is lacking, Mamdani suggests candidates pursue a professional development path. Helen agrees but cautions clients to first be clear on their career strategy before throwing out money. Don’t let jobs choose you, she pleads. Always think ahead, asking how one step will take you to next. Your personal brand will thank you.

And while experts agree that personal branding doesn’t only come down to an online presence, never forget its relevance. Prospective employers will be looking, you can bank on it. So ask yourself: is everything about me consistent? Your FB pictures should align with your LinkedIn profile, for example. And, says Mamdani, “If you’re portraying yourself in a professional way, your email addresses, domain names etc, should all hang together and give people one image you want to portray.”

And, for Pete’s sake, don’t write anything you wouldn’t want someone else to read. Just don’t. “We do search across the board,” Mamdani says. “We may not go there to source candidates in our first step, but it’s still a part of where we look. “Your social media presence has to lead-off from the substance of your professional skill and capacity,” Kim adds.

Make sure your posts promote you as knowledgeable, discerning and professional in your field. Do you want to come across as environmentally aware or educated? Then go ahead and put yourself out there. Tweet about that recent environmental study or promote an upcoming event. And put your two cents in for good measure. “The neat thing about technology is it can amplify and bring opportunities your way,” says Kearns.

Get out more!
Of course, people hire people they don’t hire Twitter feeds. So make sure to get off the computer and out the door once in a while too. Have meetings, do coffee, get involved, contribute, volunteer in your community. “The goal is to make you more human, more connected with people,” Kearns explains. Interestingly, there was an online survey on PwC’s Personal Branding Week Facebook page asking people what they planned to do more of to build their elusive brand. Most respondents said, “Go to networking events.”

But perhaps the best way to build a brand? Do good work. Seems obvious, yet, it works. It goes back to our discussion on substance. “If you’re not known to perform in your industry, word gets around,” explains Kim. It’s a small world, after all, even smaller now with social media’s prominent role.

Finally, make good choices. Choose things that are aligned with your “being”, says Kearns. “Whatever you do, do it consistently.” And make sure you “are” your brand and it’s not simply something you aspire to, he adds. “90% of it is about being, the rest is about being intentional; great brands do both.”


Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at: