Solopreneurs: Avoid These Ten Personal Branding Mistakes

Be bold! Grab attention!

Yes, that’s great advice when it comes to personal branding. The trouble arises when the advice gets implemented carelessly, thoughtlessly or inappropriately. Then there’s a lot of flash and dash, but little response. Those targeted get confused or turned off instead of attracted.

Avoid these ten mistakes I’ve repeated seen solo entrepreneurs make in their personal branding efforts.

1. Too timely. Don’t use something that seems very appropriate today but might become obsolete in a year or two. For example, being known as the “Recession Rescuer” might have worked really well in 2009. It is beginning to seem passé in 2011 and may appear totally out of step with the times in 2013. Adopt a branding element only when you have every reason to believe it can remain relevant for at least five years.

2. Obscure. A client of mine wanted to brand himself with a phrase that came from an old Sufi story that he loved. However, no non-Sufi (which included 99.9 percent of his clients) would understand the phrase without a long explanation. Effective branding makes a strong and immediate connection and doesn’t require exegesis.

3. Vague. Prospective clients don’t want to know that you’ve helped companies in “a variety of industries.” Instead, be specific. For instance, speaking expert Susan Berkley is “The Voice of AT&T.” Jay Abraham quantifies his client base: He’s worked with “clients in more than 400 industries worldwide.” Instead of saying I work with people in a huge range of professions, I say “from software publishers and ecommerce startups to media companies, associations and independent educational programs.”

4. Derivative. Some people think that if a certain phrase worked for a billion-dollar company, it can perform magic for them, also, if just tweaked a little bit. So they use a slogan like “sponsorship has its privileges” (a riff off American Express’s tag line from years ago). Unfortunately, rather than coming off as brilliant, or even a prestigious echo, it seems simply like a lazy failure of imagination. Be fresh and unique.

5. Encroaching. Much more dangerous than derivative branding is wording or visuals that are imitative to the point that another company takes legal action. For example, there are cases where a designer knowingly copied another company’s logo and the unwitting client got sued. Likewise, a little restaurant in my rural area of Massachusetts was forced to change its name because it chose a name identical to that of a well-known New York City eatery. Work with reputable consultants who help you avoid this pitfall.

6. Inadvertently negative. Always, always, always look up the dictionary meanings of unusual words used in your branding statements and go back to the drawing board if they are negative. I once thought I might call myself the “Poohbah of Publicity” because I liked the way it sounded. However, I dropped this idea when a quick check on Wikipedia revealed that “Poohbah” is a “mocking title for someone who is self-important.” Yikes!

7. Overly confessional. Today’s trend of telling all on Twitter and blogs can trip you into divulging things that others judge you harshly for. I was really taken aback, for instance, when one expert revealed that she graduated from college by cheating and another blithely discussed his own marital infidelity. Unless you’re deliberately cultivating an outlaw image, don’t talk about (much less celebrate) acts others may regard as illegal, immoral or unethical.

8. False. A client once told me that she owned the largest operation of her kind in her state, then later told me she’d simply made up that claim. Don’t allow any such lie or fabrication anywhere near your branding. You’ll inevitably be found out, sooner or later, and your reputation will slide into the gutter. It happened with a dean at MIT, the CEO of Radio Shack and many others.

9. Arbitrary. Never let someone who hasn’t gotten to know you deeply talk you into branding that seems logically, objectively to make sense. Without the personal connection to your own beliefs, values, experiences and personality, inconsistencies tend to come out and make either you or potential clients (or both) feel uncomfortable with it. It’s a recipe for disappointment. I wish I could cite examples of this kind of disaster for you, but all the ones I’ve witnessed close up are confidential.

10. Mismatched. I’ve seen people get caught up in the fun of branding possibilities and then select a characterization they like that they forget is utterly wrong for their audience. For instance, you don’t want to promise that you help people find “their inner rock star” if paying clients for this service tend to be reclusive or avoid glamour. Similarly, you shouldn’t dub yourself “the zen of” anything if customers usually are hard-driving achievers who don’t slow down for spirituality.

All in all, branding has to be taken seriously so it’s consistent with who you are, who clients want you to be and the other essential factors outlined above.

Brittney Herbert

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