THE FUNDAMENTAL RULES OF PERSONAL BRANDING
Rule #1: Be focused.
Rule #2: Be an expert.
Rule #3: Be a leader.
Rule #4: Excel and deliver results.
Rule #1: Be Focused (Companies as Brands)
Let’s look at the case of the two companies and the effect the rule of focus has had on them.
Branded companies know a secret: branding requires focus. Take the Volvo Group.
Although it is a company that specializes in commercial transportation, it has successfully positioned its car in the marketplace. Today, one can’t think of a Volvo without thinking of security and safety. You won’t associate “the ultimate driving machine” with a Volvo. Someone who is looking for speed or the flashiness of a sports car will opt for the BMW over a Volvo any day. But Volvo has done a great job of developing a car that consumers expect will not only last but will protect their greatest possession, their family. It is no surprise that Volvo’s 2019 annual report shows a 37 percent increase in earnings per share.
Now let’s look at General Motors (GM). If I asked you to tell me what type of car GM specializes in, you may be hard pressed to come up with a quick phrase that captures its essence.
If you said “sporty, all-terrain, average all-American car” you would be right—this statement describes the Corvette, Hummer (H2 SUT), and Saturn, all GM cars. But one of GM’s biggest problems is that it doesn’t own a message in the consumer’s mind. By diversifying so much and offering products that appeal to the widest customer base, the brand of the company has been diluted in the process. It is no wonder GM reported a third quarter earnings loss in 2019 of $115 million. Companies that try to be all things to all people are very quick to lose the attention of the consumer.
The rule of focus applies to applicants to business schools in a similar way. You should identify one or two things that you are brilliant at and focus on using them to create value at your firm.
By focusing on these core elements, you will be able to build a reputation and develop a track record that establishes your brand. Avoid spreading yourself too thin because it only creates confusion about what you stand for. Applicants who try to be different things at the same time (innovator, change manager, operations guru, accounting whiz, and human capital champion) run the risk of creating confusion about their brand and ultimately raise red flags for the Admissions Board. Pick the few themes that are core to your value, skill, and goals and build your brand on them. As an MBA applicant, you will increase your chances of success if you can identify key attributes or brand elements that differentiate you from your competition. I go into more detail on brand attributes in the chapter on building and selling your personal brand.
Rule #2: Be an Expert (Companies as Brands)
Microsoft is a company that has leveraged its expertise— software—to become a multibillion-dollar company. With few exceptions, one can’t turn on any personal computer worldwide without having to rely on a Microsoft Office product to perform basic functions. Microsoft’s expertise developing “easier, faster, smarter” software has enabled it to capture significant market share, which translates to billions of dollars in revenue.
More recently, YouTube, a company started by three young, former PayPal employees has revolutionized the way information is transmitted around the world. Their tagline, “Broadcast Yourself,” is at the heart of their brand, providing a vehicle for anyone to get their message out to a global audience. In the space of a few years they have transformed the way video files are shared. The recent purchase of YouTube by Google for more than $1 billion is evidence of the power a brand can have when it focuses on its expertise and uses it to meet a need in the marketplace.
Applicants to business school must identify an area that they are brilliant at and use it to create value for their firm, team, or clients. What is a need that is not being met at your firm? Is there a new product that can improve the revenue stream at your company? Do you have knowledge that can help facilitate that? Are you an athlete who has a special understanding of the sports product business? For instance, you may be a marketing
associate at Nike and can draw from your experiences as an athlete to shape the development of the latest sneakers design that is being introduced in the market. As a minority, you may be able to offer unique insights into how your company should position itself when marketing to minority communities. A Chinese national with experience working on the mainland can help her company navigate its expansion into China given her geopolitical awareness of the region.
Even personal experiences can influence the development of a candidate’s expertise. For example, you may develop an interest in pharmaceutical products because of health issues. Your own self-study and research can position you as a resident expert in the area of health care and pharmaceutical topics at your firm. Your knowledge could become valuable to help your firm expand its knowledge base in health care/drug industry deals.
International experience can also be an option. European applicants have an edge in language ability compared with their U.S. counterparts. Leveraging strong language ability, many candidates opt for international deals where they are able to use their linguistic expertise when working with clients. This is the case for a Turkish woman who works in M&A in London and because she speaks fluent German is able to work on many prominent German deals at her firm. The insights she gleaned working in the United Kingdom and Germany, combined with her awareness of her home country, Turkey, bring a meaningful understanding of what is required to work in international settings. Regardless of your specific experience, as an applicant, it is important to figure out where you have unique, value- added expertise, which you should begin to use immediately to differentiate yourself from your peers.
Rule #3: Be a Leader (People as Brands)
Branding requires a commitment to step up and stand for what
you believe. Taking action and leading is another key to
branding. The power of branding goes beyond companies and
products and applies to people as well. Two great examples of
individuals who demonstrate the rule of leadership in culti-
vating their brands are Bono and Wangari Maathai.
Bono of the rock group U2 has been a leader in addressing
humanitarian problems and alleviating poverty, disease, and
hunger in the poorest areas of the world. His steadfast commit-
ment to social justice has led to his brand as an activist rocker.
By raising funds, investing his own resources and money, and
bringing to the attention of the world many of the issues
plaguing Africa, his brand as an activist was born. Bono clearly
represents an example of someone with an authentic brand who
is living his passion and creating change and impact in the lives
of millions. Today, Bono is viewed as the preeminent leader in
advocating for the poor.
Wangari Maathai is another great example of an individual with a powerful brand built upon the rule of leadership. Known as the “Tree Lady,” Wangari Maathai has had a distinct brand as a fearless conservationist who has refused to be cowed by Kenya’s former dictatorial government despite death threats and imprisonments. To the majority of the world, she is known as Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She founded a grassroots environmental organization called The Green Belt Movement, which introduced a vision of empowerment for women and conservation through the planting of trees. Maathai is clearly living her passion of improving the environment. Pursuing this vision has led to an environmental revolution the
likes of which had never been seen in Africa. In 2004, she received
a Nobel Prize, but before this honor was bestowed on her, she
had already established an enduring brand as an eco-activist.
I’m not suggesting that all applicants to business school
should become activists tomorrow. Leadership does not always
require activism. Rather, it requires commitment and a will-
ingness to take a risk to pursue your passion.
You may be passionate about education and may want to
consider taking on leadership roles in a nonprofit educational
organization. Denise is an applicant who had the guts to pursue
her passion by changing her career before business school. An
analyst in a Wall Street firm who was doing very well, Denise
chose to turn down her third-year analyst offer to join a rela-
tively young educational organization. Her two years at this
organization enabled her to build credibility as an education
advocate and future leader and gave her ample opportunity to
tackle significant leadership challenges. Shortly after, she was
admitted to a top business school, where she plans to establish
a strong network and broaden her skill set before running
Many of you may not be interested in changing your career
as Denise did. You can still demonstrate leadership in a prac-
tical and tangible way within your firm. For instance,
parlaying your analytics expertise to overhaul and lead the new
training program at your firm may be the exact leadership role
that works for your brand. Some of you may be like Fred, a
pharmaceutical engineer from an emerging market country
whose leadership impact is shown through working within the
established system in his firm. Fred’s impact was to seize the
opportunity to partner with his firm to distribute pharmaceu-
tical drugs that his firm did not want to use in hospitals and
clinics in his home country. Or you may be like John, who
started a small tutoring program in New York to empower
inner-city kids whose grades suffered as a result of the dismal
education they were exposed to in their public schools. What
is important is that whatever leadership role you choose to
cultivate, pick one that reinforces your brand and make sure
you deliver impact with it. Authenticity is critical to the
branding process, so focus only on the things that you are
truly committed to.
Rule #4: Excel and Deliver Results (People/Company as Brands)
Like her or not, Martha Stewart has established a brand as the great dame of home improvement. She is known for scrutinizing every item or product associated with her brand before putting her seal of approval on it. Some may see this as overkill; the reality, however, is that because she has been this closely involved with her products and has maintained a judicious vigilance in the quality associated with her brand, she has been able to build a multimillion-dollar business. Although the majority of the applicants to business school have not started multimillion-dollar companies, adopting a Martha Stewart-like scrutiny to the product or service you deliver can pay dividends in the application process.
Delivering excellence in everything you do—including the services you provide to clients, the products you develop, or the teams you manage—will ensure that you have a track record that will stand out when you apply to business school.
Although Martha Stewart has been successful in building a strong firm, she also represents a cautionary story of what happens when your personal actions are negative. Because Martha Stewart, the person, is intimately connected to her eponymous company, her conviction of perjury during her insider trading trial had an enormous impact on her company, with stock prices plummeting. Martha Stewart’s example shows how one negative action can unravel years of establishing an excellent reputation. Applicants to business school must be careful not to make a mistake that can derail the reputation they have earned at their jobs. Consistently delivering quality results will enable you to firmly own a positive reputation/brand among your colleagues, superiors, and clients. After all, it is precisely this track record of excellence that your brand champions will rely on to support your application. Applicants who show commitment to excellence and high-caliber work have an edge over their competition.