What’s a personal brand and do I need one?

Date
Written by
Sarah Trounce

This month at If You Could we’re exploring the theme of self-promotion, personal branding, profile-building — or whatever you prefer to call it.

We asked you, our readers, to tell us what you think about the term ‘personal branding’. Does it feel empowering or cringeworthy? What approach do you take to self-promotion? What opportunities has it unlocked in your career? What challenges or barriers have you encountered in building your personal or professional profile?

Below is a summary of your responses, as well as some reflections and tips from Claude d’Avoine, Head of Design at Frieze; and Haja Fanta, a freelance curator.

The response to ‘personal branding’ is deeply divided

Some of you told us you feel comfortable with the term ‘personal branding’, seeing it as a necessary part of your career progression and something to be explored and learned. Others regard personal branding as a great opportunity to demonstrate your unique interests and skills. But some readers find the concept embarrassing or even scary. Others go further, dismissing it as meaningless, or are totally put off by the idea of commodifying an individual’s personality.

Building a profile can be challenging

Our readers encounter a range of challenges when it comes to honing their voice and finding an audience. Some readers struggle to portray the variety of work that they do. Others find it difficult to come up with new content to share for the sake of self-promotion, or to translate what they’re doing professionally into engaging social media content for wider consumption. Some members of our community are facing feelings of Imposter Syndrome, while others are tackling the constraints of time — having so much client work that they never have a moment to focus on personal promotion. One reader feels they have to neglect their self-expression in favour of a more palatable portfolio for commercial purposes. Others find it hard to reach people that believe in their talent, or struggle with consistency of posting. Our readers also cite the lack of representation of Queer and POC designers in their industry and the intimidating prevalence of ‘click culture’ as being barriers to their confidence when it comes to self-promotion. One reader notes that engagement can be highly unpredictable, so it’s an endless guessing game.

Self-promotion can unlock fantastic opportunities

Sometimes the rewards are worth the struggle. From working in new areas such as Web3 to securing personal speaking gigs — self-promotion has offered our readers a range of exciting new experiences. Some members of our community gained new clients or became part of a paid talent scheme. Freelancers particularly value the exposure gained from possessing a strong personal profile.

Claude d’Avoine, Head of Design at Frieze

How do you feel about the term ‘personal branding’?

I’ve not necessarily branded myself. I think for me as a creative I’ve worked with a variety of clients and across different fields so it’s slightly tricky for me to brand myself as one thing. As my career has evolved, I’ve found a clearer path into what I believe my strengths are, but in terms of defining myself as something branded, I would rather focus on doing a good job, working hard, and being someone people enjoy working with, as opposed to having something that defines me as one thing. I think in other fields, where the work is more personal to you, it makes sense to have that focus on personal branding and showing what your USP is, but because my work is so varied I have to become a jack of all trades.

As my career has evolved, I’ve found a clearer path into what I believe my strengths are, but in terms of defining myself as something branded, I would rather focus on doing a good job, working hard, and being someone people enjoy working with
Claude d’Avoine, Head of Design at Frieze

What approach do you take to self-promotion? How often do you do it? What tools do you use?

I go through waves of self-promotion. Throughout my career I’ve dipped in and out of freelance and permanent roles. I found that when I was just about to leave a permanent role I would amp up the self promotion, showcase a few projects to let people know what I can do. That said, it was always just done through Instagram, so it wasn’t necessarily reaching a particularly new audience as my followers are mainly my peers.

I worked in fashion for a long time, and at one company I wasn’t allowed to share any of the work I created. So for a period of time I could only share work that I was doing outside of that company. In my current role I share the projects I work on. I think partly as I have pride in what I am doing, and I am fortunate enough to work with some incredible people, so part of it for me is being able to hype them up when I post. The creative industry can sometimes be quite thankless, and companies, brands or clients you work with may not credit you. For me, being able to show this work allows me to champion the people who have helped make it.

I have a holding page on my website which doesn’t really say much. It’s not that I’m trying to be elusive or cool. I was just too lazy to keep the website updated, and limitations of what can be publicly shared meant a load of projects couldn’t be credited to me. What I spend time on instead is making my PDF portfolio. I have different ones depending on projects. One for art direction, one for branding, one for editorial, etc. For me, this is the most effective way of promoting my work as I can tailor it depending on who I want to reach out to. That said, I think having a website presence is very useful, I just haven’t ever taken the time to fully invest in making one that I feel works for me.

What opportunities has self-promotion unlocked in your own career?

I have definitely benefited from self-promotion. In the early stages of my career when working in magazines, I was approached to redesign a publication as the editors had seen my work for Dazed that I shared on Twitter. As I’ve got older, I’m now approached for work predominantly based on recommendations from clients or peers. The landscape has changed drastically in terms of how you can promote yourself through so many different channels. Not to sound like an old man but when I was starting out in industry, Instagram was pretty fresh and Twitter was exciting so these platforms were a new way to showcase your work, but a good old fashioned PDF was still my promotion of choice!

Be authentic to you. Show some personality. Don’t put work in that you don’t feel comfortable talking about. If you don’t believe in the project, no one else will.
Claude d’Avoine, Head of Design at Frieze

What challenges or barriers have you encountered in building your personal or professional profile?

When I was studying, we had design superstars: Alan Fletcher, David Carson, Paula Scher, Vaughan Oliver, etc. These mythical creatures whose work you knew from reading library books, or seeing at an exhibition. The introduction of social media certainly allowed more people to view work and with that, took away some of the mystique of practitioners. Do we have design superstars nowadays? Perhaps, because I'm now in the industry, I’m not trying to seek them out in the same way. For me, I have never wanted to be known as the best. I know I’m not. What I have focused on is working on projects I’m proud of. Trying to showcase the work of creatives who may not be the natural go-to for commissions. As a queer man of colour, what I want is for people to see that representation. I work with initiatives such as Mentoring Matters and the Paul Smith Foundation which are incredibly close to my heart and initiatives I wish I had had when I was studying. I want the younger generation to see that it’s possible to thrive in the industry despite not fitting into the same mould as others.

I could definitely amp up how much work I show on my Instagram. I’ve had some wonderful projects. But you have to ask yourself who you’re doing it for. Am I doing it for myself, to show off, or do I think it’ll be helpful or beneficial to those viewing it? Is showing a cool project the equivalent of a professional thirst trap? My Instagram is a mix of stupid memes and work. For me it’s all tied in together. I want people to see the sense of humour and understand that it’s not that deep. I do also think that it’s subtly linked to my practice. Finding the perfect image of some celeb is no different from me researching to find the perfect reference for a pitch. Or going through an edit of a shoot to get the hero image. My personal and professional profile are extremely interlinked.

Any advice for emerging talent looking to gain visibility in the creative industries?

Be authentic to you. Show some personality. For me, I don’t want to see what’s expected. We can all create a nice comp of a project, perfectly executed to look like a tube poster. I want to see your personality in it.

Make a solid PDF of work, email it out to people you want to collaborate and work with. Don’t put work in that you don’t feel comfortable talking about. If you don’t believe in the project, no one else will.

Haja Fanta, Freelance Curator

How do you feel about the term ‘personal branding’?

I used to feel very uncomfortable with the term ‘personal branding’ but as I understood my career path, I recognised the importance of it. To me, personal branding just means marketing, and when you freelance you’re essentially a micro business / entity and personal branding helps facilitate the success of what you are doing.

I used to feel very uncomfortable with the term ‘personal branding’ but as I understood my career path, I recognised the importance of it.
Haja Fanta, Freelance Curator

What approach do you take to self-promotion? How often do you do it? What tools do you use?

Social media is probably where I promote my work the most. I use The Dots, LinkedIn, Medium and Instagram as they are most effective and appropriate for the work that I do. I use LinkedIn, Instagram and The Dots as portfolios since I am still working on my website. On these platforms I post projects I have worked on that I feel encapsulate what I do and have enjoyed. Not every project makes it to these platforms. Writing is an important part of my practice so I use Medium to share that. Word of mouth has also worked fairly well for me. Often things come about through conversations I have had with people when we have happened to talk about what we do for work.

What opportunities has self-promotion unlocked in your own career?

The best ever opportunity self-promotion has unlocked was the chance to work with Neil Kenlock on his National Lottery Heritage project ‘Expectations Project’. It meant a lot to work with an older Black photographer who had documented Black Britain in the late 60s, 70s, 80s.

This opportunity came about through me attending a Black In The Day event and I just happened to mention that I was interested in curation and someone introduced me to Neil Kenlock’s daughter who was managing the project.

I don’t have a traditional arts background so it was difficult to build up my CV whilst working full-time. It took a lot longer for me to make the transition into a creative role but this allowed me to try a lot of things.
Haja Fanta, Freelance Curator

What challenges or barriers have you encountered in building your personal or professional profile?

I don’t have a traditional arts background so it was difficult to build up my CV whilst working full-time. It took a lot longer for me to make the transition into a creative role but this allowed me to try a lot of things.

Any advice for emerging talent looking to gain visibility in the creative industries?

Share your work, attend events that are relevant to your field and meet other creatives who are also emerging!


On our radar

Some further reading on the themes explored in this article:

What A Personal Brand Is (And Why You Need One): Annette Richmond explains what even is a personal brand and why it is increasingly becoming more important in interconnected online world.


Finding your creative voice: An essential guide for building your personal brand: Katy Cowan explores ways of discovering what makes you unique as a creative and finding your own creative voice for Creative Boom.


How to nail your creative identity, from personal branding to ‘About Me’ texts: Creative Lives in Progress guides you through personal branding and ‘About Me’ pages to self-promotion.


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