Why leaders shouldn’t neglect personal branding

16 Apr 2021 | Author:

It enhances your business brand and can be a ‘vaccination against crises’.

Everyone’s familiar with corporate branding. Thanks to well-crafted branding campaigns, we now see Volvos as being synonymous with safety; Apple products remind us of innovation; and Nike evokes action and perseverance.

The basics of branding apply to individuals too. Luminaries like Oprah Winfrey, the late Steve Jobs and Queen Elizabeth exemplify strong personal brands. Over time, people have come to associate them with certain values and ideals, which becomes the source of their influence and is directly attributable to the strength of their personal brand.

We all already have our own brand. People already remember us for certain traits, skills and experience, characterised by the things we say and do. Taking charge of shaping that image can yield positive benefits for yourself and your business — and that’s where personal branding steps in.

What is personal branding?

Personal branding is all about storytelling, but in a way that highlights your unique combination of skills, experience and personality to your audience. Through it, you show the world your strengths, vision, mission and beliefs, and what sets you apart from others.

Tavy Cussinel, Managing Director at Redhill, notes that it can be hard for founders and leaders to talk about themselves without feeling like a braggart. While being humble is admirable, it shouldn’t detract from acknowledging your achievements.

“Founders often have imposter syndrome. Put it away. By celebrating your successes, you self-endorse and underline why you’ve earned your position. It validates your leadership and the trust that your followers have put in you”

Tavy Cussinel

It’s important not to confuse personal branding with narcissism. “A well-regarded leader generates positive public sentiment towards their business and will enhance their business brand. Your personal brand determines what you will be known for and is more than a reflection of who you are today — it’s the roadmap for where you want to be. It’s not just a vanity project,” she says.

Establishing authenticity

Authenticity is key to a personal brand; fakes are easy to spot and repercussions can be dire. “You don’t want to be caught in the messy web of cancel culture because you were trying to be someone you weren’t. Be genuine and let your personal branding journey be an amplification of who you really are,” says Natalie Chua, Deputy Managing Director at Redhill.

The first step is really understanding yourself. Identify your values, beliefs and skills. Write down your passions and your motivations. Be honest about who you are. Then once you’ve taken that good hard look in the mirror, think about who you want to be and what you want to say.

After that, walk your talk — every day. Authenticity is built through consistency. “You want your audience and your stakeholders to perceive you as someone who is consistent. People will start to trust what you stand for and understand the intrinsic value that you bring if they do business with you or have you in their circles,” says Jacob Puthenparambil, Founder and CEO at Redhill.

Practicing personal branding

The next step of your personal branding journey is refinement. Start paying attention to how you present yourself — from the way you write your emails to how you express views in meetings. One good exercise to stay focused, says Jacob, is to create different versions of a concise elevator pitch with proof points.

“When I tell Redhill’s story, I talk about constant growth. Our underdog story resonates with everyone, but I validate it with points such as being on the Enterprise 50 or The Straits Times’ list of Singapore’s fastest-growing companies,” he says. “Make a 15-second, 2-minute and 5-minute version. Once you have the story right, it’ll help you stand out.”

Take a leaf from the books of personalities like Tony Fernandes, AirAsia CEO. Jacob notes that he consistently references AirAsia’s origin story and weaves in memorable personal examples, local angles and anecdotes in all his communications.

“Quotes like ‘I knew Malaysians very well. If you put in a good deal, they’ll find a way to buy it. They’ll use their grandmother’s card in America, right?’ are catchy and keep people hooked onto the master narrative, as well as the messages he’s trying to convey,” he says.

According to Jacob, it’s also important not to neglect metacommunication as it can influence how others interpret your messages.

“Your actions, the way you dress, where you’re seen and who you spend time with — these are all metacommunication signals. Be aware of these aspects and make sure you stay consistent to strengthen them.”

Jacob Puthenparambil

Social media amplification

Social media is the obvious place to start amplifying your personal brand because it’s free and has a low entry barrier. But while some 82 percent of buyers are more trusting of a company whose leaders are on social media, many C-suite executives still don’t use it well. “Half-done profile, no photo, connected to the wrong company page — I’ve seen it all,” says Natalie.

First, choose your platform strategically. Know your audience and where they are. “Taking a spray-and-pray approach will only end up with sporadic, varied and ineffective results. Focus on a few appropriate platforms and keep your messaging on point. This will help you conserve your resources and produce more targeted results,” says Tavy.

LinkedIn and Twitter are currently the strongest and most popular platforms for professionals. Facebook is good at driving engagement and shares a backend with Instagram, which simplifies cross-platform management. Up-and-coming platforms like TikTok and Clubhouse are also seeing increased interest as a more intimate engagement channel.

Next, use social media actively. Natalie stresses that it’s not enough to just have a social media footprint — you have to invest time and effort into building your profile. Only then will you be able to grow your follower base over time.

“It’s not just about being present and accepting connections. Share your challenges as a startup founder and engage with other content that interests you. Don’t just use social media when you’re about to launch your company or product.”

Natalie Chua

Finally, make your opinions known. In a purpose-driven era, says Natalie, people want to know the public stance of brands and their leaders on important issues. This influences their decisions on whether or not to support them. “Think about 3–5 content pillars and narrow down your areas of interest besides your company. Consider what you stand for and what you want to say, then use social media as a platform to speak.”

Leveraging public relations

The likes and followers are growing. You’ve gotten off to a good start, but now it’s time to think about doing more. Public relations (PR) efforts can help maximise the reach and value of your personal brand, and PR can be more effective for branding than marketing as it’s inherently more authentic and holistic.

“Advertising is a booster shot of awareness and can be costly. But PR is a long-term play. It’s something that is deeply personal to a company and affects how they are perceived. In fact, Bill Gates once said, ‘If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on PR.’ That’s how much value it can create,” says Jacob.

Doing interviews, opinion pieces and conferences will help build thought leadership to place you top-of-mind in your chosen fields. This continuous narrative also creates organic, sustainable reputation growth that provides what Jacob calls “a good vaccination against crises”.

“Once you’ve built a relationship with your stakeholders, it will go a long way. You can fall back on those relationships in times of crisis to help you bounce back,” he says.

Ultimately, personal branding is about differentiating yourself and providing clarity and purpose for both you and your brand. Be authentic, consistent, narrative-driven and visible to establish yourself and get buy-in from your audience.

People do business with people. If done right, a strong personal brand can be a powerful force multiplier for your professional or entrepreneurial journey. In fact, we’d even go so far as to say that today, personal branding isn’t an option — it’s an expectation.