If you think you’ve heard more buzz about the need to build a “personal brand” recently, you’re not imagining it: Google
It would be hard to speak with Licht about the influence of her fashion background on this book without acknowledging the new standard she set for brands using – or not yet using – social media when she created the now-famous DKNY PR GIRL persona on Twitter in 2009. Indeed, when I interviewed her this month, Licht laid out how much of what she’s learned about building brands came from her time at Donna Karan and as the voice of DKNY PR GIRL.
But, she points out, the DKNY PR GIRL story is no longer a success she proactively promotes. While others, including myself, still very much associate the persona with its creator, Licht has successfully grown into a multimedia personal brand that includes two books, a podcast, speaking engagements, newsletters, a private online community, and a creative brand marketing and digital strategy consultancy. This was a conscious decision: Licht told me that after 17 years as a corporate public relations executive, she knew that was no longer the role she wanted to hold and that she needed to rebrand herself. As she says, one reason for owning your personal brand is that, “What you do today may not be what you do tomorrow.”
I wanted to know how Licht recommends professionals balance representing their employers’ brands, as she did for so long, while simultaneously investing in building their own. First, she says, “Do your homework and know what the rules of engagement are.” And while she believes everyone should build a personal brand, she cautions us first to solidify the support of our internal stakeholders and then to share thoughts that actually are valuable if trying to develop a reputation as a thought leader.
Specifically, given Licht’s fashion experience and my own, I was eager to hear how she thinks about building a personal brand if someone is working for a consumer brand that has its own big personality at the top (perhaps a high-profile designer or celebrity creative director). I also asked her what she’d say to leaders who don’t like to see their employees building their own brands because they think it signals a distraction or a lack of loyalty. “Employers benefit when they have employees with strong personal brands,” Licht said, adding, “It’s a symbiotic relationship, or it can be.”
She went on to urge leaders to be mindful of the era we’re in and not to try to control what employees do in their personal lives. But in our conversation, she balanced this sentiment with a warning about the tension that can arise when a personal brand becomes too big for a company. While Licht did tell me that employees whose managers ask them not to use social media or build a personal brand should look for a new job, she’s not all about bucking the system: Instead, she devotes a chapter in her book to explaining the risk of irreverent brands and an entire section to what it takes to sustain a brand.
The first part of ON BRAND walks readers through laying the framework for a personal brand and sharing wins strategically. Licht begins by quoting Dorie Clark, bestselling author of The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World: “The biggest mistake people make in trying to tell their story is that they don’t… They think, ‘People know me; they’ll get it!’ The answer is no, they absolutely won’t.”
Licht responds with one of the accessible “Pro Tips” sprinkled throughout the book, advising readers, “Don’t wait for someone to shine a light on you. Make your own spotlight… strategically.” This is where Licht acknowledges the importance of humility but admits that even she falls victim to downplaying her achievements too much. Instead, she recommends tracking and sharing wins, without overstepping into bragging territory. What follows is a list of questions to help readers know whether they’re guilty of bragging and another Pro Tip about the right balance of sharing personal wins and amplifying the voices of others.
When it comes to promoting your accomplishments at work, Licht draws on the insights of Meredith Fineman, author of Brag Better: Master the Art of Fearless Self-Promotion. Both authors empathize with aspiring brand-builders who may be reticent to communicate their achievements. Beyond experimenting with medium and tone, Fineman suggests thinking about the adjectives one wants listeners or readers to feel when learning of the accomplishment. At this point in the book, I found it helpful to flip back to an early chapter, where Licht also uses adjectives to drive brand definition and provides prompts for readers to do the same “Mental Gymnastics” — another recurring, and helpfully interactive and provocative, module in the book.
To corporate employees who are worried about the perception, among your peers or bosses, that you’re too focused on yourself, ON BRAND provides no shortage of rationale for why it’s critical to build your own brand and how to do it in acceptable ways. But unlike much other talk today, Licht cautions against bringing your whole self to work and, in chapter six, instead extols the virtues of strategically sharing parts of yourself that support your goals. She also is realistic about the liability that any employee can create for the company where he or she works and the risk that your co-workers can tarnish your brand if you don’t work well with others.
Coming full circle, at the end of our conversation, Licht explained how the same influencer marketing principles she used to build DKNY PR GIRL and then deployed in other executive roles, can be applied to personal branding. She underscored the need to identify what you want to be known for and then keep saying it – “Repetition is reputation,” she reminds us – in ways that fill in your content strategy using your brand’s pre-determined voice and with respect for the guardrails you set upfront.
ON BRAND effectively covers everything from getting started to how and when to refer to your employer in your online bios to the use of your own brand filters in platform-specific ways. But Licht delivers much more than an online strategy by equally diving into the importance of your personal brand offline. From earning social capital and executive presence to establishing your personal brand at work, Licht shares a comprehensive guide to help you discover who you already are, who you want to be, and how to ensure others see you that way. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Licht about the importance of owning your audience, as this can be challenging. But she reinforced her belief in its necessity, analogizing any given social platform to an apartment that you lease and don’t own and where the rent can increase at any time. That said, she told me, “Good content always finds its audience.” This book surely will.