Among those most helpfully making sense of the practicalities of personal branding is Dorie Clark, an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Clark is a former presidential campaign spokeswoman and author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (2013).
One of the most intriguing aspects in your career was your time working with Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004.
It was a great ride. When I started with the campaign it was quite small. We were all in a tiny office in Vermont. There was about 20 staff nationally, and by the end of it Howard Dean had gone from an obscure footnote of a candidate to being the front runner to then once again ending up as an also-ran and having to drop out. So it was a tremendous whirlwind, and a very big learning opportunity.
What did you learn from the experience?
The basic thing that I learned, which I think remains quite valuable, is that 2004 was really a tipping point in terms of the world of media and communications. We were literally the first presidential campaign that had a blog. So number one was the ever increasing pace of the media cycle. Number two was how to deal with a media and communications landscape where reporters are not the only players. You have bloggers, you have citizen journalists, there’s a whole raft of ways to get your message across, and in fact our campaign became a content producer. That was a new way of thinking about things. As the media landscape gets more and more crowded, you have to find new ways to get your message out.
In politics you have to do that while people are constantly trying to throw you off message, trying to attack you, to get others to misinterpret what you’re doing. It gave me a really good sense of what can go wrong, how to mitigate problems and how to play both good defence and offence in terms of messaging and communications.
And the other interesting thing about your background is your spell at Harvard Divinity School. Does that still influence your thinking now?
Yes. I loved my time there. I went straight after being an undergraduate and I was still very much enmeshed in a lot of philosophical questions. I’m really interested in how people make meaning of their world and their lives, so that was something that I wanted to study and wanted to learn more about.
The other motivating factor, which actually ties in more to the political work that I did, was that at the time there was a lot of energy in the US around the religious right getting active in politics, and as someone who cared about politics and cared about the direction of the country, I wanted to understand that phenomenon, to understand where they were coming from.
And then after that you were involved in making films and worked as a journalist.
I consider myself as sort of an accident of history, at the vanguard of discovering some of the truths of the modern economy! Not necessarily because I wanted to, or because I was so smart, but because I was 22-years old at the right time and I kept losing my job and had to find out why. And that quest, fortunately I think, has led me to understand some things about how people can construct a future for themselves that, hopefully, is more satisfying and enables them to make a bigger contribution. And that’s what I try to share.
In many ways what you’re doing now is to some extent journalistic. You’re asking questions, distilling down lots of information and turning it into something that resonates with as big an audience as possible.
Absolutely. It’s journalism untethered to a particular institution or organization, but yes, it comes from a very journalistic place.
What do you describe yourself as? On your website it says Marketing Strategy Consultant, but that doesn’t quite seem right.
Yes, for me that’s kind of a blanket term that I can insert a whole lot of other meanings into. There are four principle ways that I spend my time and make money. Consulting is one, speaking, teaching for business schools and then writing. I feel like Marketing Strategy Consultant is sort of broad enough and nondescript enough that it encompasses all of those things.
There’s an increasing number of people we talk to who are thought leaders and agenda setters who are independent.
Yes. I’m an autonomy junkie! I do love having relationships with lots of people and entities, but it’s nice to be able to set your own agenda running your own business.
How do you explain your personal brand?
When I’m talking about my own personal brand, I think of myself as someone who is hopefully insightful, fun and funny, and really committed to trying to find ways to increase access to opportunity. What’s really exciting for me about personal branding and the whole ethos of it, is the fact that it really is an egalitarian force in the world — when it’s done right.
Obviously you have all kinds of people who make fun of the concept of personal branding. They think that it’s egotism run rampant or some kind of manipulation or fakery. I actually think it’s far from that. It is a way that people can really express their value. It’s a way that people can really express who they are, and make sure that people understand that and grasp what kind of contribution they can make.
And in a world where you can do that, where people are really appreciated for who they are, that’s tremendously powerful. It’s no longer about credentials or connections. It’s about merit. And that’s what I think is pretty cool.
An egalitarian force is a great phrase, isn’t it? Because it always seems that personal branding is the preserve of the few, rather than the opportunity for the many.
Yes. In some ways it has been like that. That’s why I like to evangelize for it. Because everyone has a personal brand, i.e. their reputation. It’s just a question of whether you want to think about it and acknowledge it and actively try to take control of it, or if you want to just leave it to the fates. But if you are willing to take control of it, it can do really powerful things for your career and for your life.
Isn’t there a danger that you become overly worried about what other people think?
There’s always that danger. You want to be mindful of it, but I don’t think that it inherently puts you in that position. Actually, on the contrary, it’s really about elucidating who you are; understanding that and communicating that effectively.
Personal branding is not an outside-in phenomenon, where you say: What does the world want? How can I be more like that? How can I look like that or pretend to be like that? Instead it’s an inside-out phenomenon, where you really dig down and figure out who you are, what you care about, what you want to do, what you can contribute to the world. And then get the rest of the world to see that.
Historically the reverse has happened in organizations. You fitted your personal brand to the organization.
Yes. I mean, that’s the story of the 20th century. I think the story of the 21st century is overturning that completely, because we know that organizations don’t need any more yes men. In fact, even organizations themselves are picking up on that fact. They need creative, entrepreneurial thinkers who are willing to say: Wait a minute, let’s do something differently. Let’s try it differently. We need a new perspective.
What’s the most common thing people get wrong or just simply don’t understand about personal branding?
The most common thing that people get wrong is that they make the assumption that other people are following their career arc more closely than they are, and so consequently they don’t take the time to create a real, coherent, crisp, narrative, that explains who they are, where they’ve been, and how that adds value to where they’re going.
People assume that other people will just intuit that, or grasp it, and most people aren’t paying that close attention to you. So you need to be very deliberate in thinking about it and articulating it to others, otherwise they will simply guess, and they will probably guess wrong. And that means you will miss out on opportunities.
So it’s about having a clear idea what your story is, and then articulating it?
Yes. And thinking of my own story, there’s a reason that this is interesting to me. I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate. My graduate degree is in theology, which on the surface might be a weird background for someone who is writing business books and is a marketing strategist. In my mind it makes a lot of sense, and I try to articulate that to others. You hear it almost so much it’s a cliché, but they say: ‘Personal branding’s about authenticity’. Well, I think that’s really true, in a literal sense. For me, the same thing that drove me to study philosophy and religion, drives me to study personal branding.
It’s about who are people fundamentally? What is their role in the world? What can they contribute? What are we here for? And if you know that, that is an almost unstoppable force. But, you’re right. Most people don’t know that. They don’t go that deep. They don’t think about it. And it means that their opportunities are limited and their satisfaction with their professional life is often limited.
Isn’t it true that only a few people actually have a clear idea of what their role in the universe is? And it’s a lot easier said than done, isn’t it?
Absolutely, and that’s why one of the things that I talk about, in the process of trying to discover your narrative and figure out where you want to be and what you want to be doing, is the role of war stories.
We know far too much about ourselves. So, it’s really hard to drill down to that level of clarity, because we have way too many inputs. We cannot see the trees because we have this massive forest in front of us. What I suggest to people is to really start at the granular level and work their way up. You can’t do it top down. It’s too confusing.
Start by thinking about or writing down some of the war stories that matter most to you; the times in your life when you really felt something click or where you learned something; the moment in your professional life where you said: ‘This is really interesting’. And it’s a story that you think about enough to repeat to others.
If you set enough of those down on paper, you can actually begin to extrapolate what you care about and what you want your brand to be. It’s really hard to do it in the reverse, but if you work your way up from the stories it can help you see what resonates.
It must be a function of age as well. A 55-year old white Anglo-Saxon senior executive must find this a difficult message? Although perhaps the ones who’ve succeeded are the ones who actually have done the personal branding.
Age is a really interesting question. I wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review, called: “How To Reinvent Yourself After 50” and that got a lot of pick up. A common objection that I hear from people is: ‘Oh, this is nice if you’re 20. It’s nice if you’re 40. It’s not so helpful if you’re 55. What can I do? I’m stuck. I’ve got my brand, I don’t have time to go back to school. Am I doomed, as it were?’
There are things that people can absolutely do at every age. Most of the things that I suggest in Reinventing You are things that people can do regardless of age, regardless of income. I’m trying to suggest things like: Well, if you are missing some skills, think about taking a class. Don’t commit yourself to something that takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Try the minimum viable solution, and then try other things. Try volunteering. Try blogging. Try job shadowing. These are all things that anyone can do as long as they are willing to try it.
And where does the work go next?
The next thing that I’m working on is a about thought leadership and how to become a recognized expert in one’s field. For me, I view it as a continuation of the work that I did in Reinventing You. That book is for people who have big goals, they want something more in their career. Maybe they want to change jobs. Maybe they want to move up in their company but feel they are somehow stymied because people do not perceive the full value they can contribute. And so they need to somehow reshape that to get to the place they want to go.
This next piece of work is for people who are already in the place where they want to be. They know where they want to make their mark. But the question is: How do you get the maximum impact from your ideas? How do you really get recognized for what you want to say? Because more and more this is becoming a really fragmented marketplace.
It’s hard, even if you have good ideas and bold thinking, to get attention for it. So how do you do it? And so I have interviewed a lot of cool thought leaders, many of whom are in the Thinkers 50 orbit – Seth Godin, Tom Peters, Rita McGrath, Dan Pink and people like that — and I have tried in many ways to reverse engineer what has made them successful, to begin to think about how regular people could apply those principles in their own lives. My goal is essentially to reach the kind of people who are really excited about making their mark in the world. Entrepreneurs or executives who really want to make a difference and want to be known for their ideas.