Don’t build a brand, build a business

The other day my friend Veronica Arreola of Viva La Feminista asked this on Facebook:

Hive mind….Instead of talking about “building a brand,” we should say [fill in the blank]. 

I’ve heard people say “reputation.” Any other phrases? Working on something for my students and I don’t want to use “brand.” Thanks!

I said “Business.” She asked me for an explanation and I said that being known for something (building your brand) isn’t enough. This is action, not reaction; strategy not execution. You should have a mission statement and a vision for what your career is going to be.

It’s like being known as a personality instead of an actress, less Kim Kardashian and more Kate Winslet. Sure, Kim Kardashian has made a bunch of money for herself. But the number of people who can replicate her success over a long period of time is minimal. The associations attached to her are as problematic as they are positive, she’s of-the-moment and she can only work in a proscribed space (reality show character and product spokesperson). Whereas Kate Winslet has built up a solid reputation as someone who can work in a variety of films with a career that has longevity and a bankable, consistent value for someone other than herself.  You know what you’re getting with Kate Winslet. With Kim Kardashian, the wind could change quickly.

Metaphors aside, students need to be taught how to put notoriety in terms of hiring or intellectual property they offer that no one else can: a viewpoint, a process, a track record of building or creating new things. That’s where the real value is for them and someone that might hire them.

If they can’t make an employer or the public see how their skills and notoriety translate into a business environment then it will be difficult for them to make a living doing what they love.

This is similar to something I’ve told college students and others trying to develop writing careers. Businesses pivot from time to time, but they have a sense of what they do and what they don’t do. If you’re going to be a writer or other type of freelancer, you’re essentially a one-person business. What spaces will you own? Keep in mind this is also about learning what you are going to say no to or avoiding a too-crowded field. It sounds really awesome to be a food writer. But if you don’t know the difference between small plates and tapas, you have no business reviewing food. (Also, in 2013 it’s a too-narrowly defined space with fewer opportunities. )

You will probably do a lot of freelancing; you’re going to have assignments that don’t always hew to your mission but everything you do should somehow support that mission (even if it’s only monetarily) because once you’re known for doing certain things people will look to you more often to do them. When I was at magazines, we’d always be looking for a writer who can handle a specific topic. It was rare that we said “Well who’s a good writer in general who might be able to handle this?” Specificity helps.

Now, figuring out what you’re worth and what to charge people for it? That’s a post for another day.

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