At the recent ASA meeting in San Francisco, a handful of sessions included information on professional branding. Some of this was explicit, as in the aptly titled session "Define Yourself! Your Brand Value in the Workplace" and some was in the subtext of developing an effective CV, learning the leadership communication skill of "message mapping," and the use of digital strategies for professional advancement. The idea of professional branding is catching on, and is being met with varying degrees of receptivity.
Those who already embrace the concept are now better equipped for professional success, having attended some of those sessions. Those who find the idea of branding to be distasteful probably don't understand it for what it is. Below, I'll explain what professional branding is, and what it isn't.
Professional branding is a classic practice.
It has a new name – a sort of makeover for the modern era – but it's essentially the same communication strategy that has been used by successful professionals for decades. It's the crisp articulation of your differentiating talents, your unique value proposition, your personal elevator pitch. Put simply, it's how you present yourself at work, and how people know what you bring to the table.
It's the clear, concise, and compelling response that would come out of your mouth when you're introduced to a senior leader and are lucky enough to be asked, "So, what do you do here?". These are rare moments to impress, and they are fleeting. If you nail it, you might be remembered when a new role or promotion comes up. Flounder for words, and you haven't done your career any favors. Sound radical? Of course not. It sounds like smart networking.
If executed well, your response would most likely be something similar to the "objective statement" at the top of a CV, or the cover letter you'd write when applying for a new position. The words you choose, and your CV itself, are crafted strategically to highlight your best work, biggest accomplishments, and most relevant experience for the context. Collectively, these traditional constructs represent your professional brand.
Professional branding is a classic practice with a modern twist.
Today, we rely less on face to face introductions brokered by someone else. While those interactions are still extremely valuable, we have additional mechanisms to communicate our skills, share our work, and highlight our aspirations. Consistently communicating your brand message can be done in verbal interactions, on your CV, on your institution's faculty pages, on your own social media bios, within platforms like Doximity and ResearchGate, and even on your own website. This increases the likelihood that your work will be noticed, and if it is good, it may lead to advancement opportunities that you can cultivate independently. In my view, that's the primary difference between modern-day branding and old-fashioned networking.
Professional branding is not fake.
When people express skepticism or distaste for the concept of branding, it is often because they perceive "branding" to be synonymous with "false representation". I'm not sure why this is the case, as we all have preferences for brands of products and services that we trust. Professional branding is not putting forth a fake facade. As I presented in my lecture at ASA, branding only helps you articulate your unique value. This allows others to become aware that your skills meet their needs, and therefore they may wish to hire you (e.g. invite you to speak, give you a promotion, select you for an award, put you in a position of authority, or literally offer you a different job).
When a person actually does hire you, you'd better be able to deliver on your brand promise. Therefore, your words must reflect what you actually do. How to choose your words? In my view, professional branding has 3 elements: who you are, who you help, and how you help. For example, my professional brand in the context of my "Social Media for Physicians" lecture is along these lines: I'm a physician and digital strategist who helps other physicians understand how to safely use online platforms for professional advancement. Clearly, when I am talking about my role as a practicing anesthesiologist, or as an industry medical director, or as a medical educator, my words are different and therefore my brand is different. In a more broad set of circumstances, I might articulate a "meta-brand" which would roll the overarching skills from each of these into a single "physician leader" package. Try this yourself for each of the key professional roles you hold. It's easy! Knowing the right message for the right person at the right time is simply a matter of determining the best alignment of your professional skills and goals with someone else's needs and interests. The messaging is deliberate, but it also reflects reality. It's good communication, not fake news.
To advance your career, you need a track record of excellent work that differentiates you from others. You need other people to notice your work. And you need to come easily to others' minds when your expertise matches their needs with a new opportunity aligned with your goals. You could rely on chance meetings and rare opportunities, or you could leverage modern mechanisms to increase the visibility and understanding of what you bring to table. It's smart branding, and it's smart business.
Find Dr. Stiegler online at her website or on Twitter @drmstiegler.