Local Media in a Postmodern World
Your Personal Brand
December 2008

by Terry Heaton

Car salesmen are marketing themselvesOne of my large-market televisions station clients made an interesting discovery while developing a unique hyperlocal news and information portal covering the community they served. The station employed people to probe each community and make contacts to establish themselves in these, often small, suburbs. Along the way, they found many hyperlocal online publications and discovered ads on one of them purchased by automobile salespeople.

Think about that for a minute. People who do business with auto dealers often relate to their point-of-contact instead of the dealership as a whole, and good salespeople will usually "take" customers with them. This is true in many service businesses where customers enjoy a personal relationship with an individual representing the company. And so, in this little suburb, car salespeople are running their own advertisements, seeking to recruit new customers for, one presumes, their database of clients.

They are, in fact, practicing the art of branding themselves in the community, and this is a bigger deal than it may at first appear. In today's increasingly networked world, everybody who has a personal web page or web site is a form of a media company, reaching out to others, whether tribal or the public as a whole. This is changing the dynamics of identity, because a networked person's identity is vastly more tied to what they do than it ever was during the modern era. The ability to shape one's identity is a big part of action-oriented branding, and this will be a part of every human being's life in the future.

Seth GodinBut marketing guru Seth Godin warns that brands are always in the minds of the people who interact with them, and it's that interaction, not what you say about you, that matters. "What's a brand?" he asked in an email. "It's not a logo, or an ad campaign. It's a shorthand for the memories and expectations we have about our interactions with a product, service, organization or person."

He added that today, people interact with a thousand times as many brands as they did twenty years ago. "So before," he continued, "you could get by with vanilla or invisible. Today, no reputation, no trust, no sale." So reputation is a big part of your personal brand, and as Stephen Covey wrote in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "You can't talk your way out of something you behaved your way into."

Godin agreed. "Brands are souvenirs of what happened," he told me. "So, if what happens with you is that you tell the truth, show up on time, exceed expectations, surprise me, delight me, trust me, inspire me and give good value, what sort of brand is that?"

Godin believes that a person's brand is already a part of the hiring process, "At least it is among employers you'd be willing to work for!" But one primary source of an individual's brand — social networking memberships — can lead to employment problems, for the indiscretions of youth can have long legs on the World Wide Web. A young person applying for a good job may be dressed to the nines, appear intelligent and mature, and leave a great impression, but if that person's MySpace or Facebook page (or YouTube video) reveals a different person, it can (and does) cause problems. The issue is which represents the person's brand, the interview or the identity projected on that person's web page?

So we are how people interact with us and the impressions they take away, and we need to understand that it's almost always in our best interests to put our best foot forward. This has profound consequences for culture, because a people always striving to do so — even in the name of enlightened self-interest — is a people predisposed to Life's ancient golden rule, which would be the opposite of what we have today.

Long ago, a person's identity was tied to their occupation, the place from which they came, the (known) family to which they belonged and other things, and the idea of a personal brand is taking us back to that time. In old England, surnames came from occupations, such as Smith, Miller, Carpenter, Weaver, Knight, Cook, Archer, Cooper (one who makes barrels) and many others. So upon introduction, much more than surface things was revealed. Identity in a networked world similarly reveals more, and this is why I use the term "brand."

Doc SearlsDoc Searls doesn't like that word, because its origins in the marketing world were devious (How many different brand names can you use to sell the same soap?), and I don't disagree. But in my view, the marketeur today doesn't have as much say about the brand as does the consumer, and empowered consumers tell a different story than does the marketeur. In this, Godin is right when he says the brand is in the mind of the consumer.

Searls told me that in the future, our reputation will always precede us, because reputation in a networked world "is" our identity. This, he noted, is similar to the way life used to be prior to the industrial age, when the world of the community was much closer and people knew what they needed to know from others in the community. The industrial age, he noted, robbed us of individualism and our very identity by turning us all into nameless, faceless cogs in the machine and changed the way we relate to each other. "We need to take the best of how we relate in the industrial age," he said, "but go back to pre-industrial times and find a combination that works to the betterment of everybody."

Many will read into that the ideals of some unreachable utopia, but the reality is that nobody really knows what's possible in a networked world, although it's certain that it will be different in the information age than it was in the industrial age.

My 23-year old daughter, Brittany, is getting married in a couple of months. She has a marketing degree and works as a make-up artist at a local Nordstrom store. She's gifted in this area and really enjoys her job. Her fiancé, Clint, is an assistant manager at a nearby Game Stop. He's a serious gamer and the job is a perfect fit for him, too. So my daughter is Brittany, the make-up artist, and my future son-in-law is Clint, the gaming expert. There is much more to their identities, but these form a nice foundation.

In their networked worlds, they are each known as such. If someone in either's tribe needs make-up advice or products, he or she will turn to Brittany. Likewise, if someone needs knowledge or products in the gaming world, they will turn to Clint. In this way, their brands flourish and grow, because the people in their networks who choose to become customers in their areas of expertise have different expecations — higher and better ones, for their knowing Brittany and Clint as people — than customers off the street who are not part of their network. In the non-networked world, mass marketing is needed to put your message in front of as many "potential" customers as possible, but in a networked environment, your customer base is grown from the inside out. Each of the people in their networks have their own networks, and that's how word is spread.

Like the car salesmen mentioned above, however, Brittany and Clint can actually begin to market themselves beyond their networks by not only growing their network and sphere of influence but by advertising themselves to people beyond their networks. I have strongly encouraged them to do this, and I recommend it to you as well.

Here are ten things that you can do, at any age, to strengthen your personal brand:

  1. Blossom where you're planted, because it leaves a good taste in the mouths of your co-workers and impacts your reputation. For young people especially, this includes your network, because one's network at that age often includes people you work with.

  2. Build a database of customers and people of influence. Let technology do the heavy-lifting here, but these are the people who spread your reputation beyond your own reach. Get to know them. Remember them. Help them. Stay in contact with them. This strengthens your brand.

  3. Spread the brands of others in your network, for it's the best way to motivate people to spread yours. Go to them as a customer, and let the shop owner know what you think. Help that person be the best they can be at their gift or chosen field.

  4. Make personal business cards with your brand and spread them everywhere. Advertise yourself with people in person and online. Talk about what you do. Share your experiences and maybe even provide tips as part of your social networking. Everything you do, especially if it's negative, reflects on your brand.

  5. Be a good person, not an ass. People are watching, and the last thing you ever want to do is prove yourself a jerk through your behavior while your intentions tell you you're really a good guy.

  6. Get comfortable with yourself, even if it takes professional help. People intuitively recognize self-destructive or self-centered behavior, and it's a huge turn-off. If you use, for example, your Facebook page to constantly gripe about this or that, your brand will be that of a complainer and someone who enjoys life atop the old pity pot. You can't control what people think of you, but you can choose not to give them ammunition with which to interpret your brand as negative.

  7. When someone asks for your help, offer it freely, for Life loves a cheerful giver, and your brand will continue to grow. This is also a hedge against those bad days (that everyone has) that contain bad behavior. People will know that's out of character and cut you some slack.

  8. Devote some time each day to the study of your craft, and this is especially true for young people. You don't have to pretend to be an expert when you really are one.

  9. Don't be afraid to be human. Nobody's perfect, although we all seem to think that we should be. Get off your own back, and soon you'll find it easy to get off the backs of others. You will make mistakes, sometimes pretty big ones. When they happen, admit them, turn the page, and move on. Tolerate your own imperfections and you'll discover how easy it is to tolerate the imperfections of others, and that is a good brand characteristic.

  10. Be teachable and stay teachable, no matter how much (you think) you know. Run, don't walk, to those who can teach you and help grow your brand. Seek out such people and invest your time, for it will pay dividends beyond what you can imagine today.

Consistent and reliable behavior is also a great defense against those unscrupulous individuals who would use the network to harm a competitor's reputation. I trust the network — the tribe — to wade through such nonsense and award the benefit of the doubt to those who consistently prove themselves trustworthy.

The farther we get down the road of a networked culture, the more we're going to see our identity being shaped by what we do and how we interact with others in the network. In the industrial age, one's identity was more often associated with status than anything else. He lives in the big house up the street. She drives that beautiful Porsche. He's the youngest millionaire in town. Her family is old money. He doesn't have a pot to piss in.

Status also means "connections," and only those with the right ones can advance. In a networked environment, true meritocracy has a chance, and it puts the ability of a person to influence his or her reputation with the individual, for better or for worse. The Web levels playing fields, or at least it can. As the years go by, we're going to hear great weeping and gnashing of teeth from the people who used to "own" the playing fields of the industrial age.

Remember well the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, who said many years ago that "the web is more a social creation than a technical one." The cultural disruptions that technology is creating are turning the old world upside-down, and identity is one of its greatest — and most exciting — challenges.

The business of personal brands in a networked world has implications for local media companies and how they relate to and with the people formerly known as the audience. As employees of these companies build their own brands (they are), the value of these brands will exceed that of the media company, especially as it relates to integrity, authenticity and trust. People won't need to "trust the history of our station (or newspaper)," because they'll have made a connection with individuals who work there.

In a networked world, media identity will be more tied to individuals and their identities and brands than to the corporate identity of employers, and this will be good for journalism. Gone will be the amorphous, elitist blob known as "the press," with its "trust me, because I'm the press" perspective. The trust of individual journalists will be the corrective measure that journalism needs to find its way in a networked world.

Journalists today would be smart to take their individual brands very seriously.

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© Terry Heaton