A Marketing Professor and a Matchmaker Talk Personal Branding (2024)

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Unless you’re famous or want to be, you probably don’t often think of yourself as a brand. But whether you’re in a meeting or on social media, interviewing for a job or asking for a promotion, the way you carry yourself conveys a certain image to the people around you. It shows them the value you want to and do bring to the world, and it determines how they respond to you.

So without getting too self-absorbed or showy, shouldn’t you spend a little more time thinking about and selling the brand that is you? That’s what today’s guests would like all of us, college students to CEOs, to work on.

Jill Avery is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who studies corporate marketing. Rachel Greenwald is a professional matchmaker and dating coach and an executive fellow at HBS. And they’re coauthors of the HBR article, “A New Approach to Building Your Personal Brand.” Hi, Rachel.


ALISON BEARD: And hi, Jill. Welcome to the show.

JILL AVERY: Hello. Thanks for having us.

ALISON BEARD: So an academic and a matchmaker. How did you two come together around this idea of personal branding?

JILL AVERY: So I teach a course called Creating Brand Value, and at the end of every semester my MBA students ask me, “Professor Avery, do you have any material on personal branding?” And I always say, “Ah, I don’t.” And that’s because I’m uncomfortable with personal branding. I’m notoriously bad at it myself, which is very counterintuitive because I pride myself on being able to sell almost anything to anybody.

I’ve spent 30 years in the field of marketing, but for some reason I have trouble transferring that knowledge to help myself and other people express their personal brands. So I knew I needed to call in an expert, someone who could help people express who they are and what value they have to provide to the world.

RACHEL GREENWALD: So Jill and I met at a conference in Arizona and we started talking about this topic of personal branding and we really wanted to give it a makeover. There’s a fair number of books or articles out there about personal branding, but we really wanted to create a resource that MBA students would be able to relate to through the analogy of something they face every day in their lives like dating.

So we concocted this idea that we would approach it from the academic and the social avenues and try to make it as relevant as possible, especially in an updated way that is relevant to social media and all the different ways that personal branding has changed in academic research over the years.

ALISON BEARD: And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some MBA students at HBS were totally comfortable with the idea of personal branding when I suggested in the intro that a lot of people aren’t, like you, Jill. So do you find that this idea of developing one’s personal brand resonates more with certain groups like MBA students, like marketing people, like millennials, maybe Americans more than others? I’m thinking like an engineer or an accountant or older people, gen X, baby boomers, or even people from cultures that aren’t as individualistic and put more value on modesty. Do you find that some people totally get this and want to jump right in and others are a little bit more wary as you are, Jill?

JILL AVERY: I think most people are hesitant about personal branding. It feels uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels very difficult to many people. People often feel overwhelmed by the need to have a personal brand that’s carefully and intentionally shepherded.

I think in today’s world, the reality is that personal branding is more important than ever for anyone, but it tends to rise to the top when people have a direct need for it. When I’m applying for a job, when I’m vying for a promotion, when I’m trying to land a new client, personal branding becomes front and center and people start to realize that they may need to be more intentional and strategic about how they present themselves to others.

RACHEL GREENWALD: And I think there’s also a misperception out there that personal branding is associated with arrogance or self-importance. And I think we really wanted to debunk that myth. Personal branding is about showing your authentic self, and it’s not about promoting how great you are. It’s about sharing how you’re different and unique. And in today’s world, the reality is everybody makes very quick judgments about everyone, whether you’re in the dating world or the workplace or anywhere else.

So we really wanted to help students and people in the workplace feel empowered to be able to display who they are, not to make it feel overwhelming, not to make it feel like it’s arrogant or negative in some way to help people see who you really are, but to help them create their personal brand. Because if you don’t create your own personal brand, someone else is going to do it for you and you may not like it. And in fact, having no brand as a default can be just as damaging as having a bad brand because then you probably seem boring and forgettable. So whether or not someone feels overwhelmed with creating that personal brand for themselves, they really don’t have a choice.

ALISON BEARD: So how do you get people over that hump to understand that it’s strategic and you can do it in a way that doesn’t seem overly self-promotional or salesy?

RACHEL GREENWALD: Well, I think just renaming it. I think if people are uncomfortable with it and they think about it through a lens of this is your reputation. If you really just relabel it and refer to it as your reputation, that sometimes feels okay. Most people would say like, “Oh yeah, it’s great to build my reputation. That’s about my values, my skills or my sense of humor, whatever.” That may be the entry point into this whole topic for someone.

ALISON BEARD: So you two obviously see similarities between what it takes to build a brand on something that’s more personal, like a dating app and a professional venue like LinkedIn. So talk a little bit about the similarities and then also the differences because there must be some differences, right?

RACHEL GREENWALD: There are absolutely a lot of similarities between developing your personal brand in your social life and your professional life. For example, first impressions always matter. It’s human nature to jump to conclusions. In fact, there’s a psychological term called the primacy effect where it’s a cognitive bias in which the information we get about somebody early on, even in form of minor comments or small behaviors, heavily influences how we interpret information about them later on.

So if we know first impressions matter, then it’s really important to consciously think about how you’re coming across and evaluate how little things that you’re doing and saying can be viewed by your different audiences. And that is the same whether it’s in your personal life or your work life where likability, for example, is really key.

I mean, of course we know that in the dating world, but also in the professional world. Who wants to work on a team or in an office with somebody they don’t like? People are always subconsciously evaluating the opportunity cost of spending their valuable time with you versus somebody else. So showing somebody how you’re unique and getting them to lean in is true in all different contexts.

JILL AVERY: So what we tried to do with this work is leverage those similarities and develop a process that could work for different situations. On the professional side, we use different tools than we might use on the personal side. So instead of presenting our brand on a dating app in the personal world, we present our brand primarily through more professional social media sites like LinkedIn. But the basic premise of personal branding holds across both personal and professional settings.

RACHEL GREENWALD: I would also add to that that there is a belief out there that being professional or looking professional is some sort of act that we put on, or facade, from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM where we’re only supposed to show our confidence and our strength. But in fact, even in professional settings, I find that someone is more appreciated and respected if they can also show their personal and vulnerable side. So I think it’s important to realize that there doesn’t have to be a wall between who you are at work versus outside work, that those two images of yourself are more powerful when they’re merged.

JILL AVERY: Yeah, Rachel, I totally agree. I think in the new hybrid world, the line between our professional and our personal lives is blending. If you think about working from home, our personal life intrudes into our professional life. There’s really not a clean line of demarcation anymore, and so part of what we want people to understand is your personal brand encompasses both your professional and personal identities and managing it requires managing across all of those different realms.

ALISON BEARD: So it seems like the goal is to create a unified brand message or image much in the way that companies do, whether it’s co*ke or Lululemon or any other consumer-facing entity. But what happens if there is distance between those two things? If you want to have a personal life, an image that is very different than the one you want to present at work?

RACHEL GREENWALD: Well, I think authenticity is really the goal. And so if we’re striving for authenticity and there are two different versions of how we present ourselves and what our goals are, then really what you would look for when developing your personal brand is the intersection between those two.

So for example, if you are a partner in a investment banking firm by day and you’re an edgy hip hop DJ by night or on the weekends, maybe look at what those two versions of yourself have in common. So maybe what they have in common is that you’re creative. And so creativity would be one element of your personal brand because it really functions on both sides of those entities.

ALISON BEARD: Okay, so let’s dig into how to do this. I’ve bought into the idea of building my personal brand, how do I start? What’s my first step?

JILL AVERY: So the first step in a personal branding process always starts with self-reflection. We have to know ourselves and what we hope to be perceived as before we can start to enact a personal brand. So we talk about this as step one being visioning. It’s about uncovering and celebrating the difference that you wish to make in the world and how you are uniquely equipped to create value for others.

What you’re trying to do is find out and create a long-term vision and mission for your branding work. And this will help you identify your personal purpose, the values that you’d like to embody as you pursue it, and set some goals for what you’d like your personal brand to achieve. Once you do that, once you identify your purpose and your goals, everything else in personal branding gets a little easier because that becomes the north star or a compass for all of your personal branding efforts.

ALISON BEARD: And how have you seen people define their purpose? How do you go about doing that?

JILL AVERY: So defining your purpose involves a lot of self-reflection. It involves looking backwards into your life to try to uncover that connective tissue, what we call the through lines of your life. As you look through the major decisions that you’ve made and the major pivot points of your life, what drove you? What motivated you to make those decisions? That’s helping you uncover what’s important to you. What is the value that you want to create for other people? What are the unique things about your life that have shaped you and created you to date?

And then it’s about looking ahead. What do you want to achieve in the world? Personal branding is not really about you, it’s about the value that you’d like to bring to other people. So having that perspective on what your contributions could be and what your potential is for making the world a better place for other people is part of that forward-looking activity.

RACHEL GREENWALD: When I was trying to identify my through line, I realized that I had always been focused on understanding people and wanting to help them build meaningful and lasting relationships. I just didn’t know how it all played out at the time. But looking back on how I became a matchmaker, I realized that it started with understanding a child development focus I had, undergrad, and realizing that that led me to a teaching career. And then eventually I wanted to use how someone’s early life influenced their romantic choices and how they used those psychological factors to date. So that’s an example of how I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people tick. Even something as simple as thinking back to what are the kinds of books and films I always liked, they were memoirs and documentaries. And so that helped shape my through line to lead me to create my personal brand.

ALISON BEARD: Have you ever run across someone who in doing this self-reflection has realized that that through line or what energizes them or what they care about isn’t really reflected in their current, personal or professional life that they need to change their brand?

JILL AVERY: I think that’s very common actually, and that’s why the visioning exercise is so important because it makes you spend the time reflecting on the decisions that you’ve made and the current state of what you’re doing with your life and being more intentional and strategic about what the future holds for you.

So that luxury of giving yourself the room to have that reflection and to think about what your values are, to think about what your passions are, what motivates you, what gets you energized in your work, and what’s going to be the motivation to propel you forward is a gift to ourselves to be able to help us define or redefine if we need a pivot in our professional career.

RACHEL GREENWALD: There’s also a warning sign about that disconnect you mentioned, because if your personal brand that you’re projecting is, for example, something about how hardworking you are, but you’re not accomplishing the goals that you want, you’re not getting promoted or you’re not getting the jobs you want, maybe there’s a disconnect between how you are perceiving your main value, like hardworking, but it’s a mismatch with what others are looking for in giving promotions or job offers. Maybe what they’re really looking for is somebody who’s smart and creative and you have those skills and interests and talents, but you think that the ticket for success is just logging the hours and working more and harder than anybody else. So this process gives you a chance to reevaluate, aligning your authentic traits with what the metrics are for success in the audiences that you’re trying to impress.

ALISON BEARD: Rachel, you made the point earlier that your brand really is how other people perceive you. So a big part of this process is not just understanding the values that you want to embody, but ensuring that when you do, you’re doing it in a way that other people recognize and see too. So how do you get that feedback from other people? How do you get that alignment that you just mentioned?

RACHEL GREENWALD: Well, feedback is essential, I mean, because really another way to look at personal branding is it’s what people are saying behind your back when you’re not in the room. So you can be in your head all you want about what you want to project and what you think is unique about yourself, but if it’s not landing with other people, then it’s a moot point.

So feedback is a very big part of our seven step process to create your personal brand. I think it’s important to get feedback from people who don’t know you and look at those photos before you actually post them to make sure that the impression you’re trying to give is actually what others are experiencing.

I see this a lot with people who put unsmiling photos of themselves on a platform like LinkedIn where they think that looking serious or stern is really signaling how confident or professional or strong they are, but in fact it really just makes them look mean and unapproachable. And who wants to have that person in their company or on their team? We all are human and want to connect with people that we think we’re going to like.

JILL AVERY: The importance of feedback can’t be understated here. It’s a really important part of the process. Personal branding is always reliant on other people’s responses to you. If you think about a personal brand as being the amalgamation of the associations and beliefs and emotions and attitudes and expectations that other people hold about you, you have to query that. You have to understand what is it that exists in the minds of other people when they think about me. How do they assess the value that I can provide? And make sure that the reflection that you’re doing for yourself and the goals that you’re setting from yourself are actually being realized through how other people perceive you.

So doing your market research, the part of the process that we call auditing is about understanding how the people who are important to your success perceive you. If that perception is not aligning with your desired personal brand, then it’s time to think about renegotiating that personal brand with those people.

ALISON BEARD: This does seem to contradict though a little bit of what you said about authenticity. So if I’m doing the self-reflection, deciding who I want to be, but then I’m consulting with a bunch of different people who’ll have different opinions about what I should be or what I should do to convey the brand image that I’ve settled upon, I feel like it’s having other people manage your brand rather than you just doing what feels right to you.

RACHEL GREENWALD: That’s a great question, but I wouldn’t actually say that it’s a disconnect with authenticity. I think it’s really about making sure that your authentic self is being displayed correctly. And so let’s say you are a smart person and that is authentically true about you, and it is key to a part of yourself that you want to project to accomplish whatever goals you have in your life, but then you are posting a photo that doesn’t make you look smart for whatever reason.

Maybe you’re wearing a T-shirt with a graphic on it that is the opposite of smart. Or maybe you’re in a conversation with someone at a networking event and you have a way of speaking that is just too casual, or you have a way of interrupting people that’s grating and you’re just coming across in a way that isn’t aligned with this brand quality of smart. It’s important that other people tell you that so that you can align who you really are authentically with how it’s landing with other people.

JILL AVERY: So one important concept in personal branding is to identify those people who are important to your future goals. If you think about your personal brand as a value proposition, about the value that you’d like to provide to others, there are certain others who are going to allow you to be successful in that goal.

So you can think about your peers at work, you can think about your supervisor or your direct reports and their influence on your future success. Those are going to become your important audiences for your personal branding work. Those are going to be the people that you’d like to influence and communicate your personal brand.

ALISON BEARD: And so how do you solicit that feedback?

RACHEL GREENWALD: Getting accurate feedback is really a skill. I think most people default to leading the witness. They will ask a question in a way that doesn’t open up candid responses for fear of somebody else hurting your feelings. So for example, if you have created a resume and you’re showing it around to some friends or family and asking for feedback, you don’t want to make the mistake of saying, “How does this resume look? I worked really hard on it. Do I look experienced?” Somebody who is afraid of hurting your feelings might say, “Oh, it looks fantastic. Yeah, it looks great. You’re definitely going to get the job.”

What you really want to do is in that case, hand them the resume and say, “I’m really looking for candid feedback here, and you’re somebody who I know to be a real truth teller. So what I’d like you to do is look at this resume and give me the first three adjectives that pop into your mind as if you didn’t know me. How would you describe the person behind this piece of paper on the resume?” You want to ask it in more of a neutral way so that people feel comfortable disconnecting between how they perceive it and how a stranger who doesn’t know you might perceive it.

JILL AVERY: Another thing to think about is how do you benchmark yourself versus others who might be competing for the same goals that you’re going against? And so understanding the competition becomes important. What are your points of advantage or differentiation? What are your points of disadvantage? What skills and competencies do you have that are better than or different than others who are competing for those goals? And what skills or competencies might you be lacking? Those are going to be areas of personal branding development work for you in the future.

ALISON BEARD: So as you’re working to embody your brand, you’ve done the self-reflection, you’ve gotten the feedback, how do you make sure you don’t become like a robot who’s just constantly thinking about the image you’re putting forward and not relaxing into yourself?

JILL AVERY: This is where building a personal brand that is authentically you is so important. You have to be you, otherwise it’s exhausting to enact a personal brand. So what you’re striving for in that self-reflection and that visioning process is to create a personal brand that you can comfortably enact in everyday interactions without feeling like an actor on a stage, wearing a costume and delivering rehearsed lines.

You have to dig into what makes you uniquely you and bring that to the forefront. It’s exhausting to cover parts of yourself or to try to be someone that you’re not. And so the most important rule of personal branding is to celebrate what you are and to help people recognize the value in everything that makes you unique.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Still for me though, that stretches a little into the self-promotional, salesy, show off territory. So how do you walk that line, find stories that are authentic, but again, without feeling like you’re bragging about yourself?

JILL AVERY: I think there’s a social taboo that we’ve all grown up with about self-promotion that it’s something negative or it will be perceived as a braggart. I think if you shift your perspective from something like, “I’m trying to sell myself to you,” to, “I’m trying to help you understand the value that I can deliver to you,” it changes the perception. You’re not bragging if you’re offering something of value to the other person.

RACHEL GREENWALD: Think about the famous basketball coach, Phil Jackson. He is from North Dakota, and so if someone asked him in an interview or just when he was introducing himself at a business networking conference to tell a little bit about himself, he might use the fact that he was from North Dakota as a proxy for describing that he’s tough and he overcame harsh conditions by living in a cold winter climate.

It’s not that he’s bragging that he’s from North Dakota, he’s really identifying something true about himself, maybe sharing a story about what it was like to grow up in North Dakota, and that becomes a proxy for how he is unique and also displaying a trait that may make him different and valuable to other people in the room.

JILL AVERY: I think that’s the key. It’s turning away from yourself and towards the other person and their needs. So you’re not just communicating facts or credentials about yourself, but you’re connecting those facts and credentials to the value that the other person can expect from you, because when you’re personal branding, you’re setting expectations in the mind of the other person about what you have to offer. So it’s about celebrating the real you in a way that communicates that value.

ALISON BEARD: And so if I’m a manager, should I be encouraging my team members to think about this and engage in their own personal branding efforts? How do I do that in a way that benefits the team, not just the individuals?

RACHEL GREENWALD: Absolutely. I mean, as a manager, your job description is to develop your people and make sure that they can excel and accomplish their goals. So to the extent that you can educate them about how valuable the personal branding process is, that it is not about being arrogant, it is just about this unique difference and displaying that as we’ve talked about, you’re doing your employees a favor.

So maybe in performance reviews with your team, you could say something like, “Tell me something that people at work misunderstand about you.” And that might help shed light on the gap between what their desired impact is and what the reality is about how the team is experiencing them. So that might open up a conversation where you can help them better display traits that would be valuable to others and help them progress with promotions.

Managers can do all sorts of things to help people at the company succeed in their goals. They can offer workshops on how to elevate your professional image with workshops on improving your small talk abilities, improving your body language, practice sessions on introducing yourself at industry events, even workshops on LinkedIn makeovers and likability exercises. These are all things that would be helpful to your employees.

JILL AVERY: There’s two things that are really important for managers to understand about personal branding. One is the value of being your authentic self at work and allowing people that work with you to see the real you and to reveal parts of yourself that he lp them understand the full person. So how do you bring your personal brand to work? And then secondly, as a manager, what do we do and how do we build the culture and conditions to allow everyone to bring their authentic selves to work? What are the barriers that are in place today that is causing employees to either be shy or hesitant or to cover parts of who they are? And how can we work to change that culture so that everybody feels comfortable celebrating their differences and accentuating the things that make them unique in them, and bringing that passion to work every day?

ALISON BEARD: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for bringing your different perspectives on the whole branding exercise. I think our audience will really benefit.

RACHEL GREENWALD: Thanks for having us.

JILL AVERY: Thank you, Alison.

ALISON BEARD: That’s HBS lecturer and researcher, Jill Avery, and professional matchmaker, Rachel Greenwald. They wrote the HBR article, “A New Approach to Building Your Personal Brand.”

And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.

A Marketing Professor and a Matchmaker Talk Personal Branding (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rob Wisoky

Last Updated:

Views: 6411

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (48 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rob Wisoky

Birthday: 1994-09-30

Address: 5789 Michel Vista, West Domenic, OR 80464-9452

Phone: +97313824072371

Job: Education Orchestrator

Hobby: Lockpicking, Crocheting, Baton twirling, Video gaming, Jogging, Whittling, Model building

Introduction: My name is Rob Wisoky, I am a smiling, helpful, encouraging, zealous, energetic, faithful, fantastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.