Building Your Personal Brand

Posted: 7/31/2011

In the movie "Ray", there is a powerful scene where musician Ray Charles and his future spouse are having brunch and he innocently asks her if she likes his most recent record.

Ray: Did you like my new record; the one King Bee was playing?

Bea: It's not that I don't enjoy your music; it's just that I feel I heard it before. I keep wondering what the real Ray Charles sounds like.

Ray: The real Ray Charles? Who's he?

Bea: Nobody, if you don't know.

This small vignette offers a powerful lesson for any supply chain leader. Highlighting a pivotal moment in Ray Charles' career-a moment when he sees what else he must do besides being a gifted musician, when he needs to establish his own Brand-it reminds us that you must know who you are if you are to become a truly exceptional leader. This is more than simply being genuine or looking to stand out in a crowd. It is about establishing your own unique voice-a voice that encompasses your values, beliefs, expectations, motivations, and other intangibles and that touches those around you in profound ways. Simply put, it is about establishing your professional brand.

In addition to being a talented and innovative musician, Ray Charles understood brand marketing. In fact, the record deal he personally cut with ABC Records after he firmly established his "brand" about five years later was the most lucrative ever signed up to that date (November 1959) i n the recording industry. It even eclipsed the contracts signed by another musical titan of that era: Frank Sinatra. Great talent leveraged by exceptional marketing launched Ray's career into the stratosphere. He became a sensation.

Marketing has been described as the "art and science of creating and managing successful exchanges of value." Strong brands fuel these exchanges. When a brand is strong, we say it has "pull"; it creates positive associations in the consumer's mind that ignite action. Great brands also create high expectations. When you went to a Ray Charles concert, you expected to be blown away by his performance.

Supply chain executives can benefit greatly by following in Ray's footsteps. Skilled practitioners though they may be, most have the potential to significantly expand their influence and achieve greater success. They can realize more of their potential by deliberately building and marketing their personal brands. In doing so, they can elevate the status of their profession as a whole.

Brand Marketing Fundamentals

Like supply chain management, brand marketing embodies some fundamental principles. (See Exhibit 1.) Those principles apply whether we're talking about breakfast cereals or cars or individuals.

Exhibit 1: The fundamentals of brand marketing

Exhibit 1: The fundamentals of brand marketing

First and foremost, a brand must deliver a distinctive and compelling value proposition: It must provide significant benefits that aren't easily obtained elsewhere. Think about a retail establishment that you visit regularly-a clothing store or a restaurant, perhaps-or a product for which you paid significantly more than usual because there is "nothing else like it and it's worth every penny." Those are strong brands!

Great brands also create highly relevant associations in consumers' minds. It is easy to relate to brand's benefits, whether tangible (for example, product quality) or intangible (such as the status it confers on you, the purchaser). Luxury car makers regularly tout their quality and cachet in their advertisements. Many of their customers actually feel good about paying a high price!

Marketers often talk about "positioning a brand." When brands are well positioned, they occupy a unique niche in your mind. Knowing how much information we have to deal with and how much we actually can recall, marketers know their brands must be unique and easily identifiable if they are not to get lost in the clutter. The Internet age has made product positioning that much more challenging.

Consistency is another fundamental. It's hard to overstate the importance of brand consistency. Consistent brands allow marketers to create tremendous scale by ensuring that regardless of where the brand is experienced, the feeling and associations that it creates are the same. Whether a brand is communicated in writing, on TV, in one-on-one discussions, or via other channels, the image and associations must have continuity. Consider McDonald's. Regardless of whether you eat in a McDonald's restaurant or read one of the fast-food franchise's roadside billboards, the company's image is consistent. The same applies across geographies as far apart as Chicago and Shanghai. Even as McDonald's has changed its menu, its image has been remarkably consistent.

The final fundamental is support-investments in time and energy, to be sure, and in the case of many products and services, significant financial spend too. If you work for a consumer products company, you know how much investment goes into growing great brands. Like any assets, brands suffer greatly if they don't receive reinvestment. Supporting a brand is not a one-time thing: It calls for constant, unwavering attention. Indeed, it requires intense focus and passion. Brand marketers love their brands.

Defining and Developing a Personal Brand

Those fundamentals apply equally to individuals' brands. Does Donald Trump have a consistent brand? What about Martha Stewart or Kobe Bryant or Apple CEO Steve Jobs? What about your company's CEO? What about you?

Individuals' brands have the ability to create pull as powerful as that of any product or company brand. Your professional brand is your most important asset; nothing else on your personal balance sheet trumps its value. Your brand represents your essence as a business executive.

You may wonder how you go about building a brand from scratch. For better or worse, that question is irrelevant. You already have a brand. We all do. Your current brand is comprised of all the associations that other people have when they hear your name or interact with you. The right question to ask is: "Does my current brand create the associations I desire? How well does it align with my professional goals and aspirations?

To answer those questions, you need to become a brand marketer, passionately focused on the brand of you. Think of yourself as "You, Inc." In many respects you are like a publicly traded corporation. Your "stock" will be rated based on current performance and future expectations. A compelling professional brand will raise your stock price today and ensure that it appreciates far into the future.

Professional branding begins by determining objectively what your brand is today. Since all good marketing is derived by data-based research, you need to field a survey. Optimally, you should commission the survey to someone whom you trust to be objective and thorough. We can't always trust ourselves to be totally objective. Self-perceptions are often way off the mark.

Most of us hear hundreds of names very day. We know some of these individuals personally; others we have only heard of, and the remainder we don't know at all. Hearing names triggers thousands of associations, both positive and negative. I often ask business leaders: "When someone in business hears your name, what do you want them to imagine, think, and feel?"

One Supply Chain Chief's Discoveries-and Responses

As part of my firm's work with a senior vice president of supply chain, we conducted qualitative and quantitative research to determine his current brand. First, we co-developed a one-page survey which was sent to more than 25 individuals who knew him well: direct reports, bosses, board members, personal friends, and peers within his company. (From a marketing perspective, these constituted "market segments.") The anonymous survey questions were straightforward; they covered personal attributes such as strategic thinking, vision, operating style, values, personality, etc. We also conducted one-on-one interviews with six individuals who provided extensive qualitative feedback on these same dimensions. Finally, we set up a focus group with five of the SVP's closest associates that allowed us to see how each participant's associations differed or aligned; the group interaction was highly revealing.

The brand image that emerged was a surprise. At the outset, this supply chain chief felt that his brand was likely to be associated to words like "strategic," "approachable," and "hands-on." So he was taken aback when the research painted a different picture. It revealed a personal brand characterized by terms such as "tactical," "intense," "private," and "introverted."

The SVP spent time alone and in coaching sessions considering the difference between his self-identification and the research findings. He also asked some important questions: "Is it possible to reposition my brand to convey more balance between strategic and tactical orientations? What about my tendency to be private and introverted? Should I try to become more outgoing and approachable?"

He decided it was indeed worth the effort to develop a brand that identified more strongly with strategic leadership. In fact, based on his aspiration to become a general manager at some point, this brand shift was essential. The SVP was also aware that in some ways, he was working against a widely held stereotype of supply chain executives: that they are primarily tactical leaders focused on squeezing efficiency out of the value chain. He needed to reposition his brand so that people would associate him with the ability to "see around corners" and with setting a compelling vision of future supply chain operations.

The personality dimensions uncovered in the research-"private," "introverted"-presented more of a challenge. Should he try to become more outgoing? Is being an introverted leader a bad thing? How does one go about changing the core of who they are? The answer is simple: it shouldn't even be attempted.

Although there are schools of thought that promote the ability to bring about radical personality change, we believe that attempting this "transformation" is futile and unhealthy. Rather, you should aim to develop a brand that more effectively leverages your core, authentic personality. History is flush with examples of great leaders that were well know to be "quiet", "private" and "low-key", yet strategic, bold and thoughtful in their actions. Examples include Ulysses S. Grant in the military, Mohandas Gandhi in civil justice and James Kilts, the former CEO of Gillett, in business. The SVP embraced these characteristics and incorporated them into his brand by focusing on active listening, thoughtful questioning and deliberate action.

It is important to note that there is no "right" brand. What matters is that your brand feels distinctive, compelling, and authentic to you and your "market." It is equally important that your brand should build upon your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses.

Building A Brand Marketing Plan

Bridging the gap between your current brand and your desired future brand is where your personal brand marketing plan comes in. This plan is comprised of strategies and tactics that address the key brand principles of value, relevance, consistency, positioning, and support. (See Exhibit 2.)

Exhibit 2: Personal Brand Marketing Plan

Another supply chain leader recently developed a brand marketing plan that would enable her to demonstrate the characteristics she wished to be known for. She called the desired state her "turnaround brand." She put it this way: "I want people to see me as a turnaround expert, someone who really knows how to pull supply chain organizations out of the mud and is capable of doing the same for any business. I want them to feel highly motivated to meet me and ask for my help."

Turnarounds, whether they involve fixing a broken supply chain organization or saving a company, require battle-hardened leaders who thrive on high stress, fast pace, transformational environments. This woman had succeeded in these kinds of conditions, turning around the supply chain organizations at two different companies. One of her heroes was Jim Kilts, who led several impressive turnarounds, first at Nabisco and later at Gillette. Kilts' no-nonsense focus on fundamentals aligned well with her leadership philosophy.

We helped the business leader build a comprehensive personal brand marketing plan that would enable her to achieve the same kinds of turnaround successes that Jim Kilts had achieved. The good news was that her current brand was relatively aligned; in other words, people associated her with many of the attributes that she desired. However, in our research, we learned that while she was viewed as a no-nonsense, effective leader, the brand associations with "turnaround expert" were much more subdued. This was surprising given her successful track record. But it highlighted a branding reality: "If they don't know what you've done, they won't see who you are."

Mining History to Enrich Identity

To help the manager to develop a "turnaround brand" and to position her accordingly with her "target markets," we explored her history in detail. We wanted to turn over as many stones as possible, looking for nuggets that would support and enrich her desired brand-and do so authentically, without distorting the truth about her attributes.

All of us have experiences that shape our lives; they become part of us. The objective of mining those experiences is simple. We want to explore actual experiences and accomplishments-effectively asking business leaders to live those experiences again-so we can excavate authentic, powerful brand associations. The actual process of "mining reality" involves interviewing the business leader as if we are writing a human interest story. The process is organic, taking any twists or turns required to uncover important associations.

Fortunately, the aspiring turnaround leader had a rich history to excavate. She explained that when hired by her previous company, she had been told that the supply chain organization was in decent shape even though the overall business was underperforming. However, after one week in her new position, the executive realized that the supply chain organization was anything but the "bright spot" it had been described as. Good people were leaving, morale was poor, and she could see no evidence of a guiding vision and strategy that was steering the teams' actions. More importantly, inspirational leadership was nowhere to be seen. As she described it, "it was like the electricity had been turned off."

"It was a real mess," she said. "I realized immediately that the lack of positive energy was a fundamental problem. Meetings were more like gripe sessions. No-one could identify any reasons for optimism. Managers didn't seem to connect the dots that their attitudes were impacting their people. The good leaders left and with a few exceptions, the ones who remained were C players at best."

Her first action was to attack the negative energy. She had direct, honest discussions with each of her managers in which she explained that their role was to produce energy, not to consume it. "I let each of them know we had a tough road ahead, but my commitment was unwavering," she recalled. "They each needed to take 48 hours to decide whether they wanted the opportunity to interview for several new management positions. If they wanted out, I offered them the softest landing I could." Several managers opted out. Two remained; both did very well in their new assignments.

Several months into the turnaround, she asked one of the managers how he was feeling. His response was that he felt like coming into work again. "When you first showed up and started talking about energy levels, I thought you were some crazy new-age guru," he told the supply chain leader. "Now I see what you meant. You injected a lot of energy into the group when you arrived and now more of us are generating it too. Most of us now believe that we are not only going to survive-we're going to achieve big things."

By discussing this experience with her in such detail, we uncovered a potent brand association: energy. This business leader had an uncanny ability to energize failing organizations. Through a mixture of inspiration and straight talk, she literally taught managers how to produce energy for their teams. As she says, "If you are going to pick yourself up, you need to have at least enough energy to get on your feet. In order to win, you need even more. Without energy, nothing good can happen."

After a rich mining session, we uncovered these additional brand associations: inspirational, fast, practical, prudent, driven, and thoughtful. We then developed several brand identity descriptions and began "field testing" them with confidants who knew her well. Ultimately, the executive landed on this brand identity: "I'm a passionate leader who leverages positive energy and business fundamentals to rapidly turn around failing organizations."

Elements of a Good Brand Description

This declaration formed the core of her brand marketing plan. It had all the elements of a good brand description: It concisely described who she was, what she did, and how she would benefit her "market." A brand description should create feelings and thoughts that position you effectively in the minds of your "customers." In this case, the executive decided that her "customer" was anyone who needed inspiration and swift action to fix a troubled business.

As an outcome, she developed a communication strategy founded on the principle that she would emphasize her brand identity in all of her internal and external statements. She placed "energy" posters in high traffic areas that had slogans like, "focus on the solution, not the problem", and "produce it, don't consume it". She also displayed real-time scorecards that called out team progress regarding key performance indicators such as inventory levels and cycle-time reduction. She also agreed to any public speaking engagement that could directly or indirectly help her organization. In every speech, she would pound home her brand identity themes.

Finally, she realized that to grow and prosper, her brand needed investment. What did she want to learn and experience that would grow her brand equity? She committed to a development plan with her CEO that provided her with ongoing leadership coaching and learning opportunities outside of the company. These opportunities included receiving an executive MBA at a highly regarded university.

Her personal brand marketing plan paid off; her CEO promoted her to general manager of one of the company's most troubled businesses. She is well on her way to turning it around. And she's having the time of her life.

Helping To Elevate the Whole Profession

In a previous issue of this publication, we argued that supply chain executives are leading one of the most comprehensive and impactful functions in any company. In that article, we posited that by intentionally building their brands, supply chain leaders would enhance their ability to reach the CEO suite. ("A Supply Chain Leader's Path to the Top Office," Nov-Dec 2010.) Other than the chairman, CEO, and perhaps chief operating officer positions, no other role encompasses the entire business system and relies so heavily on wielding influence to capture hearts and minds. For these reasons, we believe that supply chain management is an exceptional training ground for senior leaders, general managers, and CEOs.

Setting aside those aspirations for a moment, there is much that individual branding initiatives can do, over time, to elevate the status of the entire supply chain profession. Like it or not, most supply chain leaders still confront brand perceptions that are not the most flattering when compared with those associated with other top executive positions. They continue to be perceived as primarily tactical and operationally oriented, and thus less strategic than other leaders. Peers (and board members) often think of supply chain chiefs as cost containment specialists who don't necessarily "get" the revenue side of the business. And in spite of the enormous spans of control now wielded by many, many supply chain executives, they still tend to be seen as functional specialists in areas such as logistics or sourcing.

Developing a strong professional brand to counter these perceptions is one important way to neutralize them. When enough supply chain leaders have worked on their personal brands, they will have helped to change overall perceptions of their profession. And that will benefit all those who follow in their footsteps.

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Developing a strong professional brand is well worth the effort. Of course, there are the doubters-the executives who associate personal brand-building with terms like "narcissistic," "selfish," "arrogant," and similar pejoratives. These judgments are unfortunate and are likely driven by fear; they confuse narcissism with the honest pursuit of one's full potential. Development of a professional brand requires introspection, and introspection takes courage.

In a sense, personal brand development can be considered a key mechanism for adding value to the organization. In essence, the supply chain leaders we described earlier made it easier for important constituents in their companies to access their previously latent gifts and abilities. Powerful personal brands help executives become more focused and effective. We have found that executives with high aspirations tend to recognize the power of personal brand building. They realize that success doesn't just happen by "keeping their head down and doing their job." It takes a plan. It also takes commitment-and authenticity. Brand is not something that can be faked: If you need to develop stronger strategic skills, customer/market knowledge, and general business acumen, be prepared to do everything that it takes to build those credentials.

If you have yet to build a professional brand, you should not let another month pass without enlisting colleagues, friends, or a coach to help you research your current brand, mine your personal history, and commit to developing a 10-15-word brand identity statement that creates the associations you desire.
Brand building is a process that gets refined over time. The key is to begin that process today; it will pay huge dividends quite quickly, and over the course of your entire career. ■

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