When I was a teenager, my mother urged me to dress nicely because, “you do want to make a good impression, don’t you?” She even taught me how to iron my clothes so I could make a neatly pressed impression. (In fact, “pressing” clothes and making an “impression” derive from the same root). I remember asking her, “If it’s so important to make a good impression, why don’t you iron my clothes?” She answered with a smile: “It’s not that important”.
Mom also told me (repeatedly) that “you have only one chance to make a first impression.” She didn’t know it but she was speaking the language of personal branding. I’m often asked what personal branding means and I simply shrug and say, “it’s the impression you make”. We all make an impression on others, whether we intend to or not, and that impression is essentially our brand.
Another popular definition is that your personal brand is what other people say about you when you’re not around. Actually, I would distinguish between two different commentaries. When you’re not around, people can talk about what you do or who you are. The what-you-do stories are often interesting (“Did you hear what Travis did?”) but they’re not really your brand. Your brand consists of the who-you-are comments.
While the what-you-do stories can be lengthy, the who-you-are commentaries are usually quite brief – typically, 25 words or less. So your brand consists of the roughly 25 words that people speak about you when you’re not around. (This is a pretty good definition of a corporate brand as well).
If you care about your brand (some people don’t), you need to think about how to get the right words in place. My mother called it making an impression; today we call it managing your brand. But, really it’s the same thing. How do you get people to think of you in the way you want to be thought of?
One big difference between my mom’s era and today is the arrival of social media. In my mom’s day, making an impression typically meant meeting somebody face-to-face. Or it might have meant a good cover letter and resumé. (Mom was a great copy editor). Either way, it was personal.
Today, it’s not so personal. I can make a first impression on someone I’ve never met and never even heard of. Recruiters might look me up on LinkedIn. Friends of friends might see my Facebook page. Indeed, I hope that lots of people I don’t know will come to my website.
The other big difference from my mom’s era is the economy. My mother grew up in a manufacturing economy, where your skills were important. We’re now in a service economy, where your personality is important. As Tony Tulathimutte points out in The New Yorker, “Success in a service job … often involves getting people to see you as competent and likeable. … Now that what we have to offer in the service economy is ourselves, the rules of branding apply to us.”
So how do you make a good first impression these days? Think about the 25 words you want people to say about you and then work backwards. If you want people to say you’re intelligent, you better learn to write (and spell) well. If you want people to say you’re a good manager, then highlight your management expertise. As my mother used to say, “just remember to put your best foot forward”. Oh, and learn how to iron
Once upon a time, General Motors had five major brands. Why five? Because there were five decades in the car buying experience. GM had a car for every need and every age.
Back in the day (my Dad’s day), everyone understood how to buy GM brands. Chevrolet was for young couples in their twenties, just starting out in life. In your thirties, you traded up to a Pontiac — a little nicer, not quite so bare bones. Oldsmobile was the choice for forty-somethings — a good middle of the road brand. In your fifties, you opted for a Buick — more luxury, near top-of-the-line. When you reached your sixties (and beyond), you wanted to signal that you had made it — so you bought a Cadillac.
In the late 80s, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities had a good line comparing a European brand with GM. One of Wolfe’s characters talks about getting rich and buying a Mercedes. Another character responds, “Oh, a Mercedes is just what a Buick used to be.” I recently bought a large Volvo sedan. I like it a lot but I also think, “Oh, it’s just a Swedish Cadillac”.
So, what happened to GM? They stopped building brands and started building cars. Instead of clearly differentiating their brands, they decided to aim for manufacturing efficiency by consolidating platforms, parts, and styling. They may have saved some money on the manufacturing line but they wound up producing indistinguishable cars. Whey would I pay more for a Buick when it looks just like a Chevy? GM reached the nadir with the Cadillac Cimarron — a re-badged Chevy Citation. A GM engineer was asked, “What’s the difference between a Citation and a Cimarron?” He famously replied, “About $5,000”.
What’s the lesson here? Brands belong to buyers, not sellers. GM thought they owned the brands and could treat them to a dose of industrial efficiency. The move made sense from a manufacturing perspective but not from a brand perspective. Once the brands lost their distinction, they also lost their markets.
It’s probably time to review your brands. Don’t review them based on features or functions — that’s the way sellers think. Rather, review your brands based on which markets they appeal to. Are those markets really different from each other? If they are, then keep accentuating the brand differences. If they all appeal to essentially the same market, however, you may want to consolidate your brands. There’s no point keeping five brands around if potential buyers can’t tell them apart.
The first thing I know about a person is often their e-mail address. From that small scrap of information, I start building an image of what the person is like. If you think first impressions are important, think about what your e-mail address says about you. Your e-mail address is often the first element of your personal brand.
Some people use their e-mail addresses to identify their hobbies or interests, like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. But I’m usually more interested in the information after the @ sign. If I receive an e-mail from an @aol.com address, I think the sender is over the hill and out of date. If it comes from a cable company (e.g. @comcast.net), I think they’re not very technically astute. If they change cable companies, they’ll have to change their e-mail address as well. How boring!
I thought I might be alone in these perceptions so I was interested to learn that no less an authority than the New York Times‘ David Pogue has similar biases. In an article in yesterday’s Times, Pogue introduced Microsoft’s new e-mail service. In passing, Pogue referred back to Microsoft’s previous service, Hotmail. Pogue writes that, “Even today, a Hotmail address still says ‘unsophisticated loser’ in some circles.”
For these reasons, I was deeply disappointed when Apple tried to shift its e-mail service from @mac.com to @me.com. My e-mail address has long been a variant of email@example.com. Part of my personal brand is that I use a Mac. It’s OK with me if people know that. Maybe they’ll think that I “think different”. When Apple changed it to me.com, I was horrified. In my humble opinion, anyone who uses an e-mail address of firstname.lastname@example.org is self-centered at best or a psychopath at worst. Even if I think “it’s all about me” (and I do sometimes), I don’t want to project it in my personal brand. Thankfully, I can still use @mac.com designation and I hope I always will.
I teach my students that they need to think about their personal brand. It’s important for getting a job or a promotion. Your brand is a combination of how you behave, how you speak, how you dress, and so on. Each of those sends clues about who you are and whether you’d be good teammate or not. When you think about your brand, begin at the beginning — your e-mail address.
What’s a brand? In essence, it’s a promise that’s been consistently fulfilled. The promise has been kept in the past and we’ve come to trust that it will be fulfilled in the future. Coca Cola, for instance, has always tasted the same — no matter where or when the product is purchased. We’re confident that the same taste will be delivered in the future. In other words, we trust Coca Cola will keep its promise and we feel safe in buying the product. The brand has reduced risk and uncertainty in our lives.
What’s the essence of brand building? Consistently fulfilling the same promise. If the company behind the brand has many employees who deliver customer services, then they all must understand the brand promise and fulfill it in their daily activities. If they do, trust will be enhanced and the brand will grow. If they don’t, the lack of consistency undermines trust and customers lose confidence in the business. Customers will start to wonder whether they can trust that the brand will fulfill its promises in the future.
Learn more in the video.