The Keys to Good Personal Branding

Consultant Dorie Clark explains why having a personal brand is so important.

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Dorie Clark is a former presidential campaign spokeswoman and a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Recognized as a "branding expert" by the Associated Press, she is the author of "Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future" and a marketing strategy consultant and speaker for clients including Google, Fidelity, Microsoft, Yale University, Morgan Stanley and the World Bank.

Clark is an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and has taught executive education at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler School of Business as well as HEC-Paris. She has guest lectured at Harvard Business School, the Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and more. Her work has been published in the Harvard Business Review Guide to Getting the Right Job and the Harvard Business Review Guide to Networking, and she frequently appears in worldwide media including NPR, the BBC and MSNBC. (Learn more at and follow her on Twitter @dorieclark.)

I had the opportunity to interview Clark.

Please tell us about being shortlisted for Thinkers50, the premier global ranking of management thinkers.

I'm honored to be shortlisted for Thinkers50. It's an amazing group of people and especially meaningful for me because my background is so nontraditional compared to most business thinkers or strategists. My master's degree is in theology, not business, and I was a journalist, a presidential campaign spokesperson, a nonprofit executive director and a documentary filmmaker before entering the business world. In many ways, being shortlisted is a validation of the themes I discuss in my book, "Reinventing You," we can all reinvent ourselves and our careers if we work hard and are strategic about the process.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Should personal branding be taught in schools? When and how?

It would be fantastic if every student learned about personal branding (or leadership, or other real world business skills) in school. But they're competing for classroom time with math, reading, science and other foundational skills, so it's probably a hard sell. However, I think personal branding is a perfect topic for guest lectures in schools (in fact, I recently gave a talk to the Stanford Online High School), and students are incredibly responsive – after all, teenagers are probably more cognizant of their brands and how they're perceived by others than any adult. I also think the cream often rises to the top, and with the amazing resources available for free online, motivated students – or executives – can now give themselves a great education in personal branding or almost any other topic by watching videos, reading blogs and accessing the cornucopia of free information that exists.

Please tell us about the work you are currently doing with Harvard students.

I often guest lecture at Harvard, as I'm based in Boston and am an alumna of Harvard Divinity School. (I recently did a sold out talk for the Harvard Alumni Association, and I was thrilled that a webinar I did earlier this month for the Harvard Business School Alumni Association attracted nearly 300 participants.) But my primary teaching affiliation is with Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. I recently taught a class there on Marketing Strategy, focused on how marketing is changing and adapting in a social world. I also teach executive communication, media interview skills, personal branding and social  media to students in the Global Executive MBA program.

How does one avoid over-promotion of oneself? Where does that line exist?

One of the reasons many people shy away from personal branding is that they fear any efforts in that direction will be perceived as bragging, and will end up turning people off. One of the strategies I discuss in my book, "Reinventing You," comes from a great academic, Professor Robert Cialdini, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University. He discovered that – as we know – people who talk about how great they are do alienate people. But there's an important exception to that rule: we can get away with writing things that we can't get away with saying. Thus, if we're meeting someone for the first time, Cialdini suggests sending an introductory email in advance that mentions our background and experience "as a way of making the meeting more productive." That way, the person hears about how great we are – but we don't have to say a word once we enter the room. The information is received very differently if it's written, and people are far more likely to recognize your authority on a subject.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are College Rankings a Good Thing?]

What are some of the mistakes people commit in reinventing themselves?

The biggest mistake people make when reinventing themselves is not creating a narrative. Often, people will assume others understand why they're making a transition, or they think others will immediately grasp how their skills are transferable. Often, that's not the case: they simply aren't paying that close attention to us. It's our responsibility to create a clear, coherent narrative that explains why we're moving from Point A to Point B, and how our past experience adds value to the new venture. Without that, other people will come up with their own explanations, and they may be random, inaccurate or unflattering.

Are there differences, and should there be, between the way millennials v. baby boomers brand themselves?

I actually think baby boomers should work harder on social media than millennials. If you're 50+, you're likely to face bias in the workplace – an assumption that you're less familiar with social media and today's technology. To combat those notions, you need to work even more diligently familiarizing yourself with the tools, and establishing a presence for yourself on key social networks. If you have a Klout score that's higher than the person evaluating you, it'll shut them up fast.

How can people overcome mistakes immortalized on the internet?

The only sure way to overcome negative information about you online is to drown it out. That's why it's so important for every professional to create content: you want to "own your SEO results." In other words, when someone searches for your name, the ideal situation is that all the top entries that come up should be content that you've created. So create a LinkedIn profile (the bare minimum for every professional), and if you're motivated, a Twitter account, a blog, or a podcast interview series – these days, the tools are free and easy to use without any technical knowledge. It's simply a matter of commitment and a willingness to put in the time.

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Thoughts on the Kardashian brand?

The Kardashians have succeeded in becoming widely known, and they're well compensated as a result of that celebrity. The challenge in personal branding is to understand what your ultimate goal is and to act accordingly. You can gain fame through courting controversy or sharing very personal information, and it might get you short-term money or exposure. But if you'd like a brand that pays dividends in the long-term and earns the respect of your peers, you may choose to behave differently.

Does meritocracy exist in corporate America?

The quality of your work certainly matters – but it is not, and never has been, enough to guarantee you a good career and professional advancement. After all, would you want to work for someone who is "good at his job" but is so negative and bitter, no one can stand to be around him? Your personal brand – in other words, your reputation – has always been extremely important. You need to understand how you're perceived by others, and if that doesn't line up with how you'd like to be seen, you have to work assiduously to close the gap.

How much do top tier educations and experience at established companies count on a resume?

We face an onslaught of so many branding messages; people are always looking for shortcuts. ("If you went to Harvard, you must be smart.") Indeed, they're often helpful; Harvard graduates aren't always brilliant, but they've at least been pre-screened. If you do have "blue chip" affiliations – whether it's the college you went to, the firm you worked for, the gallery you show at or the like – it's a smart move to leverage them and make sure they're prominently mentioned in your bio. But even if you don't have those assets, there are many options these days for building your personal brand. Having a highly trafficked, highly respected blog in your field is actually far more meaningful than where you went to school.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

Please describe some of the stumbles you encountered in your career.

Persistence is key – for any of us. It took me most of my 20s to find my professional footing. I knew I was interested in business, and writing, and politics, and culture, but after a year as a newspaper reporter, I got laid off; I worked on two very prominent gubernatorial and presidential races, and we lost both of those. I had to keep iterating until I eventually started my own consulting business, which has allowed me to write, and speak and teach, in addition to my client work. For most of us these days, our career path is not going to be linear: the world is changing too fast for that. Instead, we need to be flexible and adapt until we find the place (or places) where we can make a lasting contribution.

Who are three of the most innovative personal brands today?

Three of my favorites are Tim Ferriss, Gary Vaynerchuk and Rachel Maddow.

Tim Ferriss gets my nod because he's completely unafraid to jump traditional barriers and take his brand with him: he started out with a bestselling business book (The 4 Hour Workweek) and then moved into fitness and cooking (with his sequels, The 4 Hour Body and The 4 Hour Chef). He's managed those transitions quite seamlessly.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

I admire Gary Vaynerchuk because he so perfectly embodies the "inbound marketing" ethos that many of us talk about these days. That guy works it, and he became an extremely famous social media consultant and business personality by creating massive amounts of online content and doing it with flair and authenticity.

Finally, Rachel Maddow gets a special shout-out because she's a talented out butch lesbian on television – something I never imagined I'd see. The path to the future is about breaking down artificial barriers and the way things have always been done; it surely wasn't easy convincing network execs that she could carry a show as a smart woman who didn't confirm to gender norms, but she's broken down the doors with grace.

Lisa Chau is a private consultant focused on social media and cross–platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business. She has also taught at MIT, and guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business Strategy at Baruch College and The New School

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