Patrick Mackaronis on Personal Branding: It Doesn’t Have to Be Cheesy

They used to say that a proper lady has her name in the papers three times over her lifetime: once when she’s born; again, when she’s married (in church, needless to say); and finally when she dies. Many of us are taught as kids that it’s in poor taste to be too much in the public eye. Some of us equate salespeople, especially if they’re glib, with untrustworthy hucksterism. We teach our kids that TV commercials are designed and produced at great expense to separate people from their money. We are wary of ads and advertisers, and I think that’s generally a good thing. As large as P.T. Barnum and other showmen and self-promoters loom in the American cultural consciousness, we still have a love-hate relationship with notoriety and promotion.

It shouldn’t be surprising that most of us get tripped up when a job search or entrepreneurial adventure forces us to think about getting out among the populace and letting people know what we can do. We feel squeamish about self-promotion. I applaud that squeamishness, because that aversion to self-promotion is the built-in brake that will keep us from annoying our friends and turning off new acquaintances as we go forth to build our business or find a new job. There are few things more tedious than a tone-deaf, me-first networker, so an innate bias against self-promotion is a healthy thing for a job-seeker or business-developer to possess. Still, we’ve got to find a way to make some contacts and get our message out, if we’re going to work, to build our client base, or to find the connections (clients, funders, vendors, channel partners) that we’ll need to be successful professionally, whether we’re planning to work for someone else or do our own entrepreneurial thing.

Luckily, we can market ourselves without trashing our dignity or turning into Madison Avenue pitchmen. We don’t have to morph into mini-Donald Trumps to make our way professionally. We don’t have to be slick, we don’t have to trumpet our accomplishments, and we don’t have to praise ourselves in order to thrive. I don’t want you to praise yourself, in fact – it’s beneath you. People who are comfortable in their skin never praise themselves. If we can understand what marketing is and what it isn’t, we’ll have a much easier time marketing ourselves and our businesses without trampling on other people, abusing their time and attention, or (worst of all!) tarnishing our own reputations.

So what is marketing? Marketing is just the process by which people figure out what products and services might be useful to other people, and then design those products and services and make them available. If we were starting from scratch, with a white sheet of paper and the ability to design any product the public might find useful, we’d have a very complicated job to do. But we’re not starting from scratch, when we’re marketing our own products and services (or marketing our resumes and backgrounds to employers). The product is already reasonably well defined, because the product is us and our portfolio. That’s good, because it means that we don’t have to start our marketing exercise with a white sheet of paper. The product cannot be anything at all; it already has attributes. We have an engineering degree or a physical therapy certification or a gazillion years of experience in and a love for supply-chain management. We know a lot about the product, as we begin our marketing exercise.

When we have a product to bring to market, our first question is “Who can use this product?” That’s our task when we’re marketing ourselves, too. We don’t want to read job ads and say “I could do this job – I could do that one” and blast resumes and applications into the void. That’s a reactive approach. We need to look at the landscape of potential customers and employers and ask “Which ones could use this product?” We need to think about our offering from the standpoint of the buyer’s need, not our own needs.. Instead of asking “Which employers or clients could use someone with a background like mine?” we can ask “What business pain do I most love to solve? Which employers or clients are likely to have that pain?”

Pain-spotting, in fact, is a critical business skill that most working people have never cultivated – and they must. We need to tie our pain-solving ability to an employer or client’s business problems. We need to connect the dots. All attributes of a product are not relevant to the buyer. As job-seekers and entrepreneurs, we need to take the buyer’s point of view and ask ourselves “Why would the buyer/employer care about a person like me, or a service like mine?” That’s a marketing exercise most job-seekers skip. They push their resumes out in front of them, in effect saying “Here is this degree! Here is a certification, a title and a role that I held – cool, right?” It might be cool to the client or employer. It might be totally irrelevant. We can figure out how our resume or pitch is likely to hit a buyer’s ear if we take the buyer’s perspective, and ask “What is this person’s life at work, like? What is on his or her mind, and what are his or her biggest problems?”

Marketing is not a dirty word. Personal branding is not some pasted-on, phony thing, or at least it doesn’t need to be. We distrust personal branding because we’ve seen so many awful examples of it. But our brand doesn’t need to say “Look how amazing I am!” That’s groveling. We can say “Here’s how I look at the landscape and how I tackle my clients’ or employers’ issues. Here’s why I love what I do.”

Let’s take an example. Marty is an Operations guy who worked in manufacturing firms for twenty-some years. His employers have moved their manufacturing operations offshore, and he’s looking for work. There aren’t enough jobs in manufacturing companies in his area, so he’s not focusing his energy on those firms. Marty sees that nearly every employer has back-office, operational needs. Marty understands process, and how to get people to use processes to save time and energy. He has a logistical mind, and tons of experience moving objects and information from Point A to Point Z. He can use that background in a million different ways.

Marty’s focusing his job search on Purchasing and Operations Manager jobs with all sorts of different businesses, from medical practices to retail stores that do their own shipping. He’s thought about the business pain that these companies experience. He knows that every Tom, Dick and Sally on the job market doesn’t have experience in negotiating deals with carriers, figuring out the best way to ship things cross-country or abroad, and purchasing things that businesses need, from office supplies to marketing services, intelligently and cost-effectively.

So how is Marty managing his job search? Here’s how:

First, he identifies the business pain he can solve for his target group of employers. Here’s Marty’s statement about that pain: “Businesses know that they’re spending time and money they don’t have on the operations side of their businesses. If I could show them how I could save them double or triple my salary, they might see the benefit in talking with me, whether they’ve got a posted job opening, or not.”

Next, Marty creates a few resumes, one for each slice of the market he’s pursuing. He’s got one resume for his Purchasing job-search ‘prong.’ He’s got another version of his resume for retail businesses, and another one for small employers who might be able to use his services in an Operations Manager role. How do Marty’s various resumes differ? They emphasize different things. They show different sides of Marty. After all, who could expect an accomplished person like you to get all of your relevant information over a whole career onto two pages?

Now, Marty starts to zero in on specific target employers. He never sends off a resume to the website or email address specified in a job ad. Marty may look at the job ads, but if he does, he’ll still contact the hiring manager directly every time. How does he find his hiring manager? He uses LinkedIn as a first stop, then Google (conducting a search on the company name plus the title of the person most likely to be in need of someone like Marty). Marty writes to these hiring managers with a statement about the business pain they’re most likely to be experiencing. He encloses his resume with the letter. We call these Pain Letters (TM).

Marty sends off the Pain Letter (TM) – resume packet and starts researching another firm. He can send out two or three of them a day. Marty’s job search is not going to last long! So where’s the marketing? Where’s the personal branding in Marty’s approach? He never boasts, he doesn’t use a clever handle like “the Operations guru,” and he doesn’t use any ‘praising adjectives’ anywhere in his materials. He knows what he’s good at, and he looks for people who might be able to use his talents. When he finds those people, he talks to them in a letter about what he imagines they’re up against, and how he’s slain the very same dragons his target managers are facing right now.

There’s nothing cheesy or artificial in Marty’s approach — just one human being talking to another one. We don’t need to drink the bad marketing Kool-Aid that tells us to ladle on the superlatives. We can be ourselves in a job search, or in our business development campaigns — thank goodness!