The Three C's of Personal Branding: Communication, Competencies and Character

David Hagenbuch
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

​What? Personal branding is not just about using the right words to describe yourself.

So what? Your brand should be rounded out by useful skills and professional integrity.

Now what? Use a compelling story to illustrate the competencies and character traits compose your brand.

​May 23, 2017

Just as in product marketing, flashy language can't sell an incomplete package. Make sure your brand includes competencies and character

A former student recently e-mailed me, asking if I would write a letter of recommendation for his application to graduate school. I’m usually eager to honor such requests, but unfortunately I needed to tell this young man “No.”

Only a few months earlier he was in one of my classes, where his work habits underwhelmed not just me, but his client for a major course project. Even more troubling was the fact that he had misrepresented his completion of an important course assignment—an incident that we debriefed in detail.

After these significant strikes, I was astounded that he thought I could truthfully tell graduate schools he would be a good fit for their programs, i.e., that I could honestly ‘recommend his brand.’ Although his request was unusual, I believe it reflects a broader, potentially dangerous misconception about personal branding: that branding is all about compelling communication that can somehow overcome fundamental product flaws.

1. Communication

There’s a popular personal branding paradigm that suggests a strong brand has three characteristics: clarity, consistency and constancy. While this model is a helpful reminder, mainly of how brands must present themselves, communication represents a third or less of what really comprises a successful brand. As the young man I mentioned above regrettably now realizes, people are reluctant to recommend brands that don’t embody a true value proposition. 

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Yes, brand communication is important, and it sometimes offers its own value, such as, helping people feel informed and connected. Ultimately, though, that communication is just talk, unless it’s based on brand attributes that actually exist and matter to consumers. Like icing, brand communication is most satisfying when spread atop two layers of “cake”—two other C’s that are vital for any leader and that form the critical foundation of a brand: competencies and character.

2. Competencies

“What can you do well?” That question is at the heart of every job interview, which reflects the fact that organizations want employees/personal brands who can do something of value for them. Individuals offer value through the unique abilities they’ve developed from experience, study, training, etc. As evidence, we often identify others by describing the things at which they excel, e.g., she’s a great accountant, or he’s an outstanding artist. Like a company’s competitive advantage, what we do well acts as a cornerstone of our personal brand.

3. Character

Most of us can think of times we’ve declined to work with someone not because they were unqualified, but because they possessed some undesirable qualities. That’s why competencies alone don’t make for a strong personal brand. We also want people, including our leaders, to be trustworthy. Individuals inspire such confidence by exhibiting qualities like honesty, fairness, decency, humility and empathy. Ethical lapses, such as those of employees at Volkswagen and Wells Fargo, remind us how important it is to partner with others who don’t just do well, but also do good.

Fortunately, I’ve also been privileged to work with many people who I’ve been very eager to endorse. In each of those instances, my willingness to communicate positive things about their personal brands has flowed from my conviction that they possessed both valuable competencies and solid character.

For instance, I enthusiastically recommended another former student to several top MBA programs. This young man demonstrated to me and many others important abilities such as critical thinking, persuasive communication and leadership while also being a person of tremendous character, including integrity, resilience and compassion. Having recently completed his master’s degree at one of those top schools, a Fortune 100 Company quickly hired him for its accelerated leadership program.

Yes, brands need to communicate, but for that communication to be meaningful, there first must be a real and compelling story to tell. For a personal brand, that story stems from what an individual does well and the core qualities he/she possesses. In short, competencies, character and communication comprise the three critical C’s of personal branding.

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Author Bio:

David Hagenbuch
David Hagenbuch is a professor of marketing at Messiah College, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.
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January 18, 2018


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