Me, Inc.

HighTalk: the before and after brand image.

HighTalk: the before and after brand image.

I went to the coffee shop last week to meet a friend. I was running late and threw on an old fleece jacket. I was already wearing jeans (admittedly they had one or two holes – but tasteful holes) and a Grateful Dead concert t-shirt (old, but no holes). And there in line, dressed smartly, was a client that I worked with at my old agency. His eyes got momentarily wide and then he greeted me in his friendly, professional manner.

But I could instantly read his thoughts: “The poor bastard looks terrible. Things must be rough out there. Wonder if he’s subsisting on government cheese and a cot at the YMCA?”

I instantly remembered a blog post by New York Times Reporter Alina Tugend on personal branding: “Don’t go out in sweats and old T-shirts, even if you’re just going to the local coffee shop. You never know who you might run into. Have business cards — it’s not necessary to be elaborate, just something with your name and contact information — to hand out.”

I did a pat down (and found my library card), but no business cards. Strike two!

My first instinct was to reassure my client – that despite my “casual” appearance – I wasn’t starving in the streets or ready to rob the coffee shop. Quite the contrary, business was, in fact, going quite well. But how do you convey that information without sounding defensive? So the Brand of Me took a hit last week.

We live in strange times when you have to worry about your own personal brand. But as Fast Company reported nearly three years ago: “Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”

BusinessWeek adds: “Marketers brand you. Politicians brand you. Colleagues brand you, and so does your boss.” And even worse, as the branding expert told the New York Times: “If you don’t brand yourself, Google will brand you.”

We’re all guilty of “Googling” people we know – or just met. We look them up on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. And from those virtual bread crumbs, we create a composite – an impression – of the person. We immediately categorize them and put them in a box. And its not just people doing this: it’s employers and potential clients and customers. We are all being judged on the “brand” we create for ourselves online – just like companies and products are.

Sounds daunting doesn’t it? Even, dare we say it, narcissistic?

But who wants to lose a great job opportunity because the HR Director at the hiring company found an old photograph of you doing beer funnels at the Metallic concert in 1999? Or you meet a great guy and date a few times and then he breaks up with you after stumbling upon that profane blog post you penned about Republicans back in 1992. And, well, he’s firmly entrenched in the GOP.

Seth Godin has been promoting personal branding for a long time. He says: “They judge you especially harshly online.” And he’s right. But fortunately, we don’t all have to become relentless self-promoters and braggarts to manage our online “brands.” As Seth notes: “This isn’t about ignorance as much as it involves effort. Once you pay attention to this, it’ll get better.”

The first step is realize that you have an online image – whether you’d like one or not. The second step is to do an audit. Google yourself. Check your profiles at social media sites. What do you find? How would you judge yourself if you were reading about a stranger? Then tap into your closest friends and advisers and ask them for suggestions. What do they think of your online brand? What suggestions do they have to improve?

If there are negatives out there – how can you make them positives? While Google never forgets, can you remove objectionable photos or ask friends to take down old unfaltering pictures? Can you polish and professionalize your LinkedIn profile (or if you don’t have one – sign up now – and be sure to get trusted friends and colleagues to write positive endorsements)? Isn’t it time to clean out your Facebook account and get rid of those old photographs and the membership to the Anarchy Now Social Club?

And maybe its time to turn in the or email addresses for something a bit less flamboyant.

It’s uncomfortable feeling to know you are being watched – but you are. All of us have made mistakes or done stupid things. While it might not be possible to fix all of those mistakes – at least know they are out there and have an explanation ready. Start now to improve your personal brand – begin laying the groundwork for who you want to be.

Because if you don’t – Google will.

5 Responses to “Me, Inc.”

  1. I agree that you have to be careful about the pics you have posted online… Its always a good idea to be aware of what your image is online. I’d be careful about going to the other extreme and making yourself look like a bland, sterile, toolbag. I’m not going to worry about editing my blog posts… because I stand behind and believe in what I post.

  2. Hi Phil:
    Good use of the word “toolbag.”

    I don’t think its necessary to delete provocative blog posts that you believe in (obviously, or I’d be in BIG trouble). But I do think it is important to be polite and respectful of other people’s opinions even when you disagree.

    Vigorous debate is good for everyone – but being rude and insulting isn’t.

    I’d also agree that bland and sterile isn’t a brand image many people strive for.

  3. I agree that presenting yourself publicly as a professional is important to maintaining a good reputation for your personal brand…but the real mark of a professional is when you can carry yourself in a manner that conveys your competence and qualifications EVEN if you are dressed in jeans and a holey shirt!
    I think people can appreciate a casual dress-code away from the office if they can see that you are capable of quickly switching gears into business mode.

    Thanks for the post, good tips on branding.

  4. Hi Analisa:
    Great point – clearly I need to work on my jeans and t-shirt competence!

  5. Hey, Phil. Loved your reference to my quotes in the NYTimes piece. I’ve sent my daughter this link. She’s a recent college grad who appreciates my philosophy on the coffee shop dress.

    And, she’ll need a job fairly soon…

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