Calling all entrepreneurs, is your personal brand a priority? If not, it should be according to ESCP professors of entrepreneurship Marc Sasserath and Benjamin Voyer. In the conversation below, Marc and Ben explain the foundations of personal branding and why it is a must-have for today’s entrepreneurs.
Professor ESCP Business School
Professor ESCP Business School
Q: What is personal branding and why does it matter today more than ever?
Marc: John Jantsch once said “Personal branding is the art of becoming knowable, likable and trustable.” In 1997 Tom Peters first used the term personal branding in a Fast Company article as a commercial concept for optimising professional opportunities.
The concept was pushed by Peter Drucker who describes the relevance of knowing, managing and leading oneself for a successful career.
In our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, which is highly dysfunctional, knowing who you are and how to strategically develop your identity and how other people experience you as a brand is even more important than ever before.
Ben: Excellent definitions, Marc! In the marketing literature, the concept initially came of age under the name of ‘self marketing’. The idea behind it was to apply the traditional concepts of marketing to the ‘self’ as a product. The emergence of social media celebrities has led to a resurgence of interest on this topic. Social media influencers are powerful marketing forces, some of which eventually become entrepreneurs, and have to draw from the toolbox of a marketer to promote their content, collaborate with other influencers / brands.
Q: Why should entrepreneurs care about their personal brand in the first instance?
Ben: For entrepreneurs, especially in the early stages of their business venture, they often tend to incarnate their company, what it stands for, and their value. Arguably, they are actually an incarnation of the brand itself so that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the brand and the product. A bad personal brand can affect a business’ ability to raise funds, or eventually affect a business reputation altogether.
Marc: Ben is absolutely right. The world is run by strong narratives and people follow people. The entrepreneurial idea born by an individual (or even a group of people) is best told and experienced by the respective person. The overlap between the personal brand and the start-up brand is huge – the entrepreneur becomes the strongest asset for the brand and creates relationships with all important stakeholder groups, laying the foundation for trust and preference.
For entrepreneurs, especially in the early stages of their business venture, they often tend to incarnate their company, what it stands for, and their value.Ben Voyer
Q: What are some of the components of a good personal brand for an entrepreneur?
Marc: To develop a strong narrative you have to understand identity and what drives people’s preferences. Preference is created by a relevant, unique and coherent identity. Identity is composed of your factual strengths (what are you good at?), your personality and your values (how are you as a person?) and your manifestations (what gives you gestalt (shape)?).
Ben: I would add that a key component is storytelling. Entrepreneurs incarnate a ‘bigger than life’ personality, and can really sway people and give a lasting impression by bringing to life these values. To develop a strong personal brand as an entrepreneur, tell your story.
Q: What are the top 5 tips you would give to an entrepreneur that is getting started? How can they create a powerful personal brand experience?
- Start with deconstructing your identity. Where are you coming from – who are you and what do you want to be?
- Define what makes you relevant and what makes you unique
- Try to understand who you want to create relationships with and determine when, where and how can you connect to these people
- Develop a coherent experience
Ben: Great top 5, Marc! I would say, first and foremost, be authentic. It’s all too tempting to create a fake personal brand image, but it is increasingly difficult to hide anything in the age of social media. Second, be consistent. Once you identify what you want to stand for, stick to it and make sure you adopt a holistic communication about this and hammer down the point. Third, make sure the positioning of your brand is sustainable over time. We all grow up, and if youth is a key part of your personal brand, ensure that your brand will still stand by the time you turn 40, 50, etc. Fourth, be memorable – perhaps consider what you wear or using a go to catch phrase. Strong brands are the ones that can be identified easily. And finally, do not try to please or appeal to everyone. That’s the number one branding issue. The best brands appeal to a niche – but niches can still be large – audiences.
It’s all about creating connections. Connect your personal brand with the people that matter.Marc Sasserath
Q: Any DOs / DON’Ts?
Ben: I think an entrepreneur’s personal brand should be first and foremost about being original. Branding yourself is about being different from others and easy to recognise. The term branding comes from the times when we were marking animals with hot iron tools. It’s visible and permanent. The opposite advice is to not copycat other brands, as one is truly never as good as the original.
Marc: It’s all about creating connections. Connect your personal brand with the people that matter. Coherence is key – a coherent experience leads to lack of questioning and uncertainty – the world seems to be ok and trust can grow. Trust is the mother of long-term brand strength. Without trust we don’t want to create any kind of relationship. Which is something we all know from our own experiences.
Q: Can you name any entrepreneurs who have developed a strong personal brand and explain what is good about their personal branding?
Ben: I give a lot of credit to Bill Gates, who, over decades, has managed to cultivate the image of a tech person that also cares about the greater good.
Marc: Well, there are a lot of strong personal brands in entrepreneurship. Steve Jobs was amazing in his pursuit for perfection and how he encapsulated all of Apple’s values. Karl Lagerfeld was a god in design and so remarkable at always delivering a clear, concise and unique gestalt. The eternal Richard Branson and Virgin are a match made in heaven, and if we think about the zeitgeists Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos with their respective brand ecosystems, they clearly demonstrate the power of personal branding.
Q: Are there any cultural differences in personal branding?
Ben: You can expect traditional cultural differences to play a role here. In collectivist cultures, modesty will be an important part of the brand: you are succeeding with and thanks to others. In more individualistic cultures, you owe your success to your perseverance, unique skills, ability to be a forward thinker…
Marc: Very good point, Ben. Apart from culture, other factors, such as gender stereotypes, can also have an impact on personal branding. For instance, women in general are expected to be more humble and modest in their approach to personal branding than men. Given the impact and popularity of Michelle Obama, Angela Merkel, Anna Wintour, Sheryll Sandberg and the likes of young female entrepreneurs like Jenni Baum, this definitely needs to be changed.
Q: Has Covid19 changed the meaning or content of a personal brand?
Ben: Beyond the importance of authenticity – some of my recently published work shows that Covid-19 can make people look for more authentic brands – brands that provide certainty and reassurance are welcome in a post Covid-19 world.
Marc: I strongly believe in the power of brands to give hold and orientation. The uncertainty that Covid-19 has created and the anxiety that has grown among leaders, and which – through digital platforms – was immediately to be observed by everyone, has led to a demand for clarity. We need to understand who we are to know where we want to go to be able to be our best selves. The analytic and strategic bit of personal branding will give leaders the confidence to consciously and even intuitively develop their identity and develop the experience accordingly.