Personal Branding for Solopreneurs: What it is, and what it can do for your business.
Branding has become one of the most confused and complicated topics in online business.
It has been broken down and put back together out of order. Some parts of it have been beaten half to death and some parts go unnoticed. When you’re just getting into online business, people are eeeeeeverywhere saying you need to be doing ‘branding’, and it can be overwhelming figuring out where to start.
A quick google search on branding will probably land you in places that offer super generic, way too broad definitions of branding. Like this one, from Entrepreneur.com:
The marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.
If definitions like that make you feel a little uneasy, don’t worry - they make me groan internally. Sometimes out loud. It can be hard to justify that feeling though - that definition, or fragments of it are all over the place. It’s generally accepted that marketing and branding are best pals, and that building a brand is all about symbols, recognition, and influencing people’s perception of what you do and why.
If you go on to read the article on Entrepreneur.com, it all sounds very ‘big business’. There’s a load of technical language - equity, distribution channels, and a case study about Nike trying to get their customers to transfer their emotional attachment from Athletes to shoes.
I know that doesn’t resonate with me, and it might not for you either, as a solopreneur or member of a small team. It is how I was taught to approach branding while I was still studying back in 2014. But when I started my business, and decided I wanted build brands for people like me, running their own small online businesses, it became obvious that branding doesn’t work that way across the board. Or at least, it shouldn’t.
If there are huge differences between the purpose, goals and structure of a corporate giant like Apple and your online business of one, why should you be taking the same approach branding?
How corporate branding ideas make me feel...
Forget strategy, competition or influencing perceptions for a second - it’s all about experience.
Here’s a definition of branding I can get behind, and it comes from author / genius Seth Godin:
A brand is a set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one service over another.
I love this definition because it describes real human connections, rather than some kind of artificially constructed narrative that stands as a front for a giant company. Expectations, memories, stories and relationships all come together to create an experience for your audience that they can resonate with on a human level.
When you’re running a solo business or a small business online, you’re probably not building some kind of monolith to appeal to a billion people. I mean - maybe you are, and that’s cool, but this article might not be for you. When you’re running a personal business, it should be your ultimate goal to make genuine connections with people on an individual level. So if it feels more comfortable and more approachable for you to think about it this way, let’s forget about ‘branding’ and start thinking about ‘experience building’.
If this is the first time you've thought about it like this, I hope it's blowin ya mind like it did when I figured it out.
So how do you create an experience that makes people choose your product / service over another?
It’s fairly simple - you are the experience.
I know it’s tempting to write that off as a ‘woo woo believe in yourself' concept or some kind of bullshit motivational quote that you see on Pinterest. But stay with me for a minute.
I saw someone mention a quote in a facebook group recently that really struck a chord with me about the way we sell our skills and knowledge to others. Check out this nugget of wisdom from Chris Ducker:
It’s about the P to P - the person to person relationships.
I love this statement because it humanizes the experience of doing business. We’re not robots making calculations in our computer brains to sell things either B2B or B2C. We’re people helping to solve the problems of other people and when you’re doing business online, you need to be able to break through that internet barrier and connect on a personal level.
We all have our own unique experience of life, and of our work. You have a perspective, personality and past, and a combination of those things that are completely unique to you. That’s what makes humans amazing, and sharing our stories and unique perspectives help us connect on a deeper level.
Here’s what I’m not saying:
- I’m not saying that to build a successful personal brand, you have to put your entire personal life on the internet.
- I’m not saying you have to try and share your experience if it’s not relevant to specific parts of your business. I’m certainly not sharing my past in a client’s brand design!
- I’m also not saying that you have to have some kind of higher understanding of the meaning of your life. You don’t have to be Ghandi.
What I am saying, is that the easiest way to stand out and to carve out your own unique space in business is to be yourself. You already have a unique story to tell. There’s no need to go hunting for this mysterious ‘message’ or deeper meaning to tell your story.
Most of my favourite people, and yours too - both in business and in life - are already doing this.
Think of some of the stand out people in your industry or circle, or people that you consider your favourite resources. I bet that if you really think about what it is that makes you like them or follow their work, it’s because you connect with their personality, their values and the story they have to tell. There are more than likely people out there who you could get the same information from. But you stick with your people because they resonate with you.
"I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel." - Maya Angelou.
When your tell your story through your work, people find pieces of you that they can relate to - that make them feel something. And when people feel your story, they become a part of your audience.
There are ways to share just the right amount of yourself at the right times that help people connect with you and what you do.
In fact, there are four ways. I like to think of them as the four keys or pillars of branding. Sharing an experience through your business can seem like an overwhelming concept. How do you know if you’re creating the right experience? If you’re sharing the right thing at the right time?
Vision. Values. Voice. Visuals. The four V’s are all you need to know to share your experience (build a brand). When you break it down into those fundamental keys, the how becomes much, much easier.
- Vision - Knowing your vision is having a clear understanding of the journey you’re on - why you’re on it, and the problems you’re helping people solve along the way. When you feel like your vision is solid, you can make confident decisions in your business and with your customers or clients. And when you feel confident, they see you as someone who can plan, project and lead.
- Values - Values are important to us all - they’re something we all have, even if we don’t always think about them on a conscious level. Coming up with a shortlist of your most important values can be a huge help in showing your audience who you are. If you can find ways to incorporate your values into your business in a visible way, people who resonate with those values will find and love you.
- Voice - Voice is the way you use words to communicate with your audience, and it can be verbal or written. Voice is something that we sometimes skip over, but it’s a huge part of the branding puzzle, especially for those of us doing this online where so much of our content is not necessarily face to face. It’s critical that your voice is natural and unique to you, and it takes practice to find it and use it consistently.
- Visuals - I like to leave visuals to last. That might seem crazy to you, because there are thousands of people out there (loads of them are designers!!) who seem to think designing brand visuals and branding are the same thing. But if you go back to that idea of experience, building that person to person experience of getting to know you, relying only on visuals leaves huge gaps in that overall experience with you. Plus, visuals will almost always be stronger when you have a clear understanding of all of the other keys.
I like to think of these four keys to branding like Google Translate. Ok, maybe like, a slightly better Google Translate, cause GT isn’t exactly known for its ability to translate well. Anyways, you know how it works - you pop in what you want to say, and it gives you a translation back. When you’re building a brand, all you need to do is figure out what you want to say, and use the right tools to translate that message into a format that your people can easily understand and connect with.
So why should you care about all this anyway?
If you pay attention to the four keys, and how you’re building them into the foundation of your business, there are a few cool things they can help you with. There are also things that they can’t do for you, so if you’re hoping for a quick fix to some issues, this might not be for you. Let’s take a look.
Some things that creating an experience for your audience CAN do:
Build Recognition and Trust.
When you show up every day to build that experience for your audience, and it becomes clear to them that you have faith in your plan and you know how to help them solve their problems, you build a certain level of recognition.
When you’re not afraid to use your unique voice, and use it regularly, your audience start to feel like they’re speaking or connecting with a friend, instead of just reading your email or seeing you pop up on instagram. When you make your values clear in how you run your business, your audience - who share your values - learn that they can put their trust both in you as a person, and the products or services you offer. And with that trust, comes recognition.
Not just the, ‘hey I know her!’ sort of recognition, but also the ‘she’s my go to person for this specific thing’ kind. Both are awesome! You’re connecting with that specific person on a deeper level, but she’s also likely to tell her friends when they’re in need of what you do.
Word of mouth and referrals are some of the most powerful ways to bring in customers or clients, because we trust the word of our friends and colleagues. But we don’t have direct control over what other people say. So it’s important to build that trust by using the four branding keys, with your own experiences and story in mind.
In the same way that the four branding keys can help you build recognition and trust, they also go a long way in informing people’s expectations of what it is like to be around you, or what it might be like to work with you.
People can sometimes be afraid to hire or buy from you out of fear, and that fear is usually of the unknown. They don’t know if they’re sinking their money into something or someone that can solve their problem, and leave them feeling awesome about it. So creating a consistent experience allows you to show them up front what they can expect. It also means you’re less likely to have people disappointed by your product or service because their expectations didn’t match the reality of who you are or what you do.
This is especially important if you’re in an industry with a similar reputation to mine - I’ve heard a thousand and one stories from people who are scared to hire another designer because the first one didn’t know or understand them, and they feel like they’ve been burned. If you can set expectations from the beginning, and make the experience positive, you can begin to relieve some of that fear.
The ‘proof’ concept is something I learned from the amaaaazing Regina over at byregina.com, and it revolutionised the way I look at what I create for my audience. She did a two day workshop (for free!) in her facebook group, but to quickly summarize:
If you want your business to succeed, you need to be able to prove that you can solve people’s problems. And you need to be able to tap into the right kind of proof that will convince the right people to work with you.
Regina talks about the proof concept more specifically in relation to content creation, and how different kinds of content will provide different kinds of proof to people. But I think that branding, and knowing your four keys have a big role to play in providing the right kind of proof. Because you can put the ‘right’ kind of content out there, and it will be ok.
But if you know exactly who your audience are, and your vision for helping them, you can craft that content with your values, voice and visuals in mind. You can use that content not only to prove yourself, but also your knowledge, experience and abilities. And these kinds of proof can go a long way in building connections with your audience.
So taking a personal approach to branding can help you build recognition and trust, set expectations and reinforce your content.
But there are a few things it can’t do. Branding is a huge part of your business, but it’s not everything. Your branding can be awesome, but it still can’t:
Make bad content good.
If you struggle with creating content - whether that’s blog posts, social media content, emails, podcasts, youtube videos, or whatever content you choose to create within your business - good branding won’t make that content better. When your content is strong, good branding can make it stronger by using it as a piece of the overall experience that you’re building.
But when your content is bad, it can influence the experience you’re trying to create in a negative way.
Make a client or customer happy if your product / service is bad.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that your brand is fragile. It’s only as good as the stuff you create, the service you provide, and what people think about it. Like we talked about in reference to Seth Godin’s branding definition - when you make the choice to create an experience for people, you’re also making a promise to fulfill that experience.
“If you want people to believe your promises tomorrow, it helps if you kept them yesterday.” - Seth Godin
If you drop the ball with your products or services, you open yourself up to ruining that trust you’ve worked hard to create.
Attract everybody to your business.
It’s true in life and in business - not everyone is going to like you. Equally, you probably don’t get along with certain kinds of people. Taking a personal approach to your branding will mean that some people just won’t gel with your vibe. They won’t ‘get’ your experience. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
In fact, it’s kinda awesome. It means you get to spend your days helping the people who resonate with you most. And when you allow yourself to focus in on the people who resonate most, you can tailor your experience even more to their specific needs.
So there is is - branding your online business can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be.
If there’s one takeaway from this that I want you to remember with everything that you do, it’s this:
It’s important to be selective about which branding advice makes sense for your business - both where you’re at right now, and where you’d like to take it.
In fact, it’s important to be selective about any advice you take on board regarding business stuff. There’s no point approaching your business and how you’d like to build it like a Nike or an Apple if you don’t want your business to be on that level. And there’s a lot of value in taking a more individual approach if you’re on that person to person level.
I hope this article has helped you feel like you and branding can get along a little better.