How to Make Your Personal Brand World-Class

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Last week I gave a talk at the Las Vegas gathering of executives of the National Basketball Association. My topic: “Leading High-Performing Organizations.” As I spent the day with team and league management, and particularly NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, I began to reflect on brands – both business and personal. Listening to Silver—and remembering that under the 30-year stewardship of his predecessor, David Stern, the league had already blossomed into a leader in the sports business—I had the sense the NBA may be well on its way to becoming one of the world’s great brands.

When we imagine iconic brands, we think of ubiquitous consumer companies such asAppleCoca-Cola and Starbucks. Besides having recognizable names, these brands all have a “relevant promise.” The world-class brands also tend to have a promise that generates an emotional connection – and with it, lifetime customers. Because consumers find something so unique or even meaningful in that bond, they integrate the brand into their lives.

Even so, the most important brand is your own. Individuals have a personal brand. One need only talk to neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, spouses, and children to discover one’s personal brand. The same adjectives will appear over and over.

When my youngest daughter was applying to college, one application form asked for the five words she thought best described her. I remember we had a rich discussion about the nuances between “hard-working” and “reliable,” and between “spontaneous” and “unpredictable.” She learned that words matter, and that her own brand would evolve as she went through college and her “promise” to others became more refined. What started as a list of aspirations became the beginnings of a personal brand.

Personal brands are more than just assigning words or picking phrases. While they may start with intention, over time they’re tested by experience. It is how we react to reversals, how we approach uncertainty, and how we manage awkward situations that defines our brand. It is in such moments of truth that we reveal the character of our DNA. In the end, despite the vicissitudes of life, we become predictable – in good, and bad, ways.

Those who attempt to defy the law of brands get another brand attribute – that of “inauthenticity.” This label is the opposite of a great brand. It has been earned by some professions – think used-car salesmenlawyers and politicians – and can be hard to overcome.

“After 40, every man gets the face he deserves,” Abraham Lincoln said. So it is with brands. People and enterprises behave their way into whatever brand they deserve. In thinking about how the NBA has behaved its way into its current brand – and the league’s differences from, say, the NFL – I believe there are useful lessons for each of us on how to craft our own personal brand.

By Joel Peterson