Thursday, September 17, 2009

The brand called Sue

Yesterday I had my first "official" networking get-together, grabbing coffee with a photographer who's shot executive portraits for me several times over the past decade. Among many valuable insights, the contact brought to mind the concept of personal brand.

He made a decision long ago to be the 'expensive' photographer, capitalizing on the fact that people tend to equate price with value in the more artistic fields. That can be an advantage in flush times, but not so great when clients' budgets are slashed and they feel they can settle for an 'okay' photographer. He came to realize that in a lot of cases, what he was selling wasn't necessarily his skill as it was the other intangibles he brings to the table.

From my own experiences, I can see what he means. When I've hired consultants or freelancers, I did so with the assumption that they're good at their craft. The differentiation comes in how they work. For example, when I bring them into a meeting with executives I support, I need the consultant to treat the exec's limited time and attention as a rare and valuable commodity. Usually, it's not easy to get on execs' calendars, so you have to make it worth their time, or you lose credibility. Unfortunately, a lot of consultants see it the other way around -- that somehow, the client is there to serve them. It all boils down to respect. It's simple things like being on time, if not early; making sure you're ready to start as soon as the exec comes into the room; testing any equipment to make sure it's working smoothly; and taking the exec's cues on when to stop the small talk and get down to business. Consultants who have the maturity to take those needs seriously are worth their weight in gold. Paying a few hundred dollars less is no bargain if you have to babysit the consultant and sweat every time they open their mouths.

Other situations will call for other intangibles. A good reporter can quickly establish a strong connection with an interview subject and get them to open up. A savvy travel agent will be able to size up a client to know whether "roughing it" means Outward Bound or is just code for a hotel with generic soaps. And hopefully we've all benefited from teachers who understood our learning styles and worked with us accordingly.

Among the other things I learned from the chat, I realized that regardless of what I end up doing, it's worth spending time now to map out the unique qualities that make me valuable as a professional. When my target market sees my name, what do I want them to think? What do I want them to do? (Hopefully they'll be compelled to buy whatever it is I'm selling, but what else?) And all of that has to feel true to who I am, not just a wishful persona of what I think will sell. Part of the reason I embarked on the reboot was because my job didn't feel like me anymore, and it's too tiring to keep pretending. When I'm doing what feels right and authentic for me, good things can't help but follow.

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