Amber Cabral realized the importance of creating a professional brand when she was working for Walmart, one of the world’s largest employers.
“Without something that felt uniquely mine or that gave you some idea of what kind of value I bring to a room, it would have been very easy to just get lost at an organization that big,” she says. “It was one of the easy ways you could take control of how people see you and how often they might invite you into a space you otherwise might not have access to.”
Over six years at the company in roles where she contributed to strategies around mentoring and diversity, Cabral, 38, honed her brand and eventually harnessed it to start Cabral Co., an inclusion- and diversity-focused consulting firm based in the D.C. area.
“I’ve been able to take the uniqueness I identified as a part of branding myself and transition to nontraditional employment,” Cabral says. “My brand is what [my company] was built upon.”
A professional brand isn’t just for wannabe Instagram influencers or YouTube stars. Anyone in any career can benefit from taking the time to be deliberate about how they want to be known professionally.
“A professional brand is understanding the value you provide and being able to authentically communicate that in a way that allows people to understand the strengths you have and when they should reach out to you to be on a project or join a team,” says Jen Dalton, CEO and founder of BrandMirror, a Northern Virginia-based brand-strategy firm. “It allows people to decide who they want to work for based on what’s important to them and, if you’re really clear on your brand, it makes it much easier for people to reach out to you with opportunities.”
You probably already have something of a professional brand, without actively working on it.
“Sometimes we do things very well or naturally and we don’t realize people are coming to us for that because it just feels like who we are,” Cabral says. “If you can identify something you do well and that people come to you for, you can amplify that.”
One way to do that is by harnessing the power of social media. After making sure all of your accounts are giving everyone the right professional impression of you (e.g., no boozy party pictures), see where you can strengthen your brand. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is filled out completely and find ways to thoughtfully add to the conversation in the professional space you already inhabit or want to be in.
“There is a lot of noise out there in the professional world,” says Jason Patel, founder of D.C.-based college and career consulting firm Transizion. “There are so many ways for someone to research you or get to know you that you need to take control of that narrative no matter how large or small it is. If you are actively trying to build it, only good things can come from it.”
Ask for feedback to learn how your managers and colleagues would describe you and what they consider your strengths. Assessment tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and StrengthsFinder can provide additional insight. Then start weaving those descriptors you want associated with your work into your professional brand.
“Your brand is 90 percent perception — it’s what everyone else around you sees,” Dalton says. “If you’re not mindful of the words you use, other people may describe you with words you don’t want or aren’t right. Be clear on how you want people to describe you, and then speak up and use those words.”
Get comfortable talking about yourself in a strategic way. You’re not bragging when you develop a strong professional brand; you’re showing the value you can bring to a team, project or workplace.
“Most people err on the side of humility, which is not a good thing,” says D.C.-based branding coach Amanda Miller Littlejohn. “There’s a whole lot of stage between sharing and obnoxiously sharing, but most people don’t even step onto it. They just stay quiet in fear that saying anything makes them seem obnoxious, and then they wonder if people are perceiving them a certain way. But how could people perceive you as anything if you’re a completely closed book?”
Authenticity is important when crafting and sharing your brand.
“Don’t come off as someone trying to elevate themselves by using buzzwords that ultimately communicate nothing,” Patel says. “Stick to simple, real terms; stay away from things that make people roll their eyes.”
Don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd. Maybe you do that by leveraging a particular quality or trait you have. Or maybe you adopt a signature color or some other fashion statement that people associate with you.
“I looked for ways that I could safely not conform,” Cabral says. “It makes you a little remarkable, and people will remember you.”
Being unique is a good thing when it comes to your professional brand.
“People try to hide the thing that makes them a little different because they want to fit in,” Miller Littlejohn says. “Don’t be afraid to lean into that. Personality a big differentiator.”
It all comes down to putting your best foot forward in an accessible way and making it easy for people to understand what you stand for, and why they should want to work with you.
“You want to make sure you’ve done all the right things when someone comes looking for you,” Patel says. “And if people can find you easily, you are naturally opening up that bottleneck that might be slowing down the recruitment process for you.”