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Brand Building Strategies: Secrets to Personal Branding

Unveiling the art of personal branding, Dr. Sara Kelly, a distinguished brand strategist and professor, shares her insights on the power of crafting a compelling personal brand. With her diverse educational background, Dr. Kelly demystifies the complex world of branding, blending her creative expertise from her MFA in creative writing with her strategic skills from her EDD and MBA.

Together, we explore the pivotal role of personal branding and its impact, diving into how a well-defined personal brand can set you apart in a competitive landscape. Dr. Kelly, with her astute understanding, emphasizes the importance of telling your story, playing to your strengths, and humanizing your brand. Whether you're an entrepreneur seeking to make your mark or an individual aiming to create a unique identity, Dr. Kelly’s expertise shines a new light on the process.

We also take a hard look at the current sphere of social media, discussing how it has revolutionized personal branding but also complicated it. As we navigate the world of personal branding, Dr. Kelly underscores the value of authenticity, consistency, and understanding your audience. We even touch upon the strategies used by political candidates to resonate with their audience. This insightful conversation will not only deepen your understanding of branding but also arm you with the tools to make your brand stand out. Tune in and join us on this journey to uncover the essence of successful personal branding.

Show Notes

  • (0:00:01) - Personal Branding and Its Impact
  • (0:10:25) - The Importance of Authentic Personal Branding
  • (0:28:00) - Personal Branding's Impact on Success
  • (0:36:06) - The Importance of Branding

0:00:01 - ANNOUNCER

You are listening to the National University Podcast.

0:00:10 – Kimberly King

Hello, I'm Kimberly King. Welcome to the National University Podcast, where we offer a holistic approach to student support, well-being and success- the whole human education. We put passion into practice by offering accessible, achievable higher education to lifelong learners. Today, we are discussing branding for your business and how to protect and promote your brand, and what impacts branding has. According to Forbes magazine, branding has always been a vital part of business, but it may be more important now than ever before. With social media, consumers get exposed to new brands every day. This can also be great for consumers, who have plenty of options and are able to do research to find the best one that fits. To make it better and harder for businesses Some useful tips with our guests coming up on today's episode, we're talking about branding your business, and joining us is National University's professor Sara Kelly.

Sara directs the strategic communications at National University and she's a former newspaper reporter and editor and has written books on professional communication, including personal branding for entrepreneurial journalists and creative professionals for Routledge. She has an EDD, an MBA and an MFA in creative writing, and we welcome her to the podcast. Sara, how are you?

0:01:09 - Sara Kelly

Great! How are you, Kim?

0:01:11 – Kimberly King

Great. Thank you. What an impressive background you have. Why don't you fill our audience a little bit in on your mission and your work before we get to today's show?

0:01:42 - Sara Kelly

All right. Well, like you just said, my first career was in media, specifically journalism. I was a newspaper editor for many years, back in the early print days, the late print days, as we were transitioning to online media and during a very small window of time, things started transitioning to the web and the media became a very interesting tool for self-promotion and a accessible world for people who had once relied on gatekeepers like media directors, like news directors, like editors, to get their voices out there. All of a sudden, with social media, people had access to the printing press or to their own TV stations, their own podcasts, and they could make themselves exactly what they wanted to be without having to rely on somebody else to do it. So that was fascinating to me and as I saw newspaper jobs going away, I started repositioning myself to teach journalism and write about it, so I could stay in the same world but remain employed full time.

0:03:02 - Kimberly King

Smart. Boy, what changes we've seen, haven't we? I also come from a media background in television and radio, and it's just so interesting now, so it's great that we can become our own voice. You're right about who's really regulating this, so it's kind of an interesting moment that we're in as the technology advances. Today, we're talking about protecting and promoting your brand, and so, Sara, talk to us. What is exactly? What is branding? Well?

0:03:34 - Sara Kelly

We talk about branding in terms of corporate branding, companies. For years and years and years, for over 100 years, there have been companies like Ivory Soap, Coca-Cola- all those big brands that are still with us. We've also had smaller brands that have come and gone over the years. But in the social media era, we also have that concept of personal branding, where you have to really brand yourself, and that doesn't just mean for people who are on social media, who are influencers, who are podcasters, who are in the media. This is also people who are applying for jobs.

We're now in a world where everyone's information is out there. We're all on social media. We're all competing with people around the world for similar positions. Employers can choose from a much wider variety of applicants. We all have to set ourselves apart in some way. Many, many people have a very diverse range of talents and abilities. They're intelligent, they're capable, and that doesn't necessarily cut it these days. They have to stand out in some way. So it can be concerning or disturbing to people who might have excellent experience and skills and background, but they just can't set themselves apart. So it's really important for people to understand what they can bring to the table that's unique, how they can position their own brand so that they can reach their audience with those specific skill sets and not try to beat everything to everyone.

0:05:16 - Kimberly King

So important. That's a key element. Right there you are really talking about this next question, why should we care about branding?

0:05:27 - Sara Kelly

Exactly. We live in a world of infinite choices and every day there are more and more choices. It can be paralyzing, it can be dizzying, whether we're at the supermarket looking for bread or some other staple, where we're overwhelmed by the number of choices. The same holds true for individuals, for people who are seeking to fill positions in companies. The number of resumes people get, the number of potential applicants on LinkedIn and on social media it can be really, really overwhelming. So the people who can hone their identity can develop something that's very specific for their audience. Really play upon their own strengths and not focus on those things that may not be their strengths. Really try to hone in on the needs and how they can fill those needs in a specific way. And that's really what employers are looking for. Employers these days can find people who- many qualified people to fill a position- but if somebody doesn't really work on one or two specific angles, their own story, something that is unique to them, it's very unlikely they're going to stand out.

0:06:58 - Kimberly King

I love everything you're saying and it's so true, you know, for all of us sometimes it feels like we don't know. I mean, we know genuinely what our best qualities are, but I've been seeing so much maybe on LinkedIn or whatnot, as you see people wanting to do those personality profiles and take those quizzes just to really pinpoint what is it that makes us stand out. So that's just me throwing up, you know, just an observation there. But I think it's good to know where we stand, you know, and how we can stand out differently.

0:07:30 - Sara Kelly

The story is what sets people apart. Brands, whether they're companies or individuals, need to humanize themselves with a story, and that's what really sets people apart and really makes them attractive to consumers or employers. And I remember back in the newspaper days when we wanted to cover an issue say taxes or the death penalty or gun control or something that was a really abstract concept what we always told each other was humanize it, humanize the story, find a human angle, find something that specifics that the reader or the viewer is going to be able to see themselves through. And that's something that holds true to branding. People identify with people who are similar to them and brands that they relate to. People are very vocal about being an Apple user or a Coca-Cola drinker or a Pepsi drinker. The same holds true for people as has held true for brands for 100 years.

0:08:47 - Kimberly King

And I love that that you're bringing in the stories, because it does humanize it and it's just it really kind of pulls from our own life experiences and that's what brings us together. So how does branding impact the average person?

0:09:02 - Sara Kelly

Well, even if you're not professionally in the media world, or even if you're not looking for a job, even if you're not looking to be an influencer or to gain social media followers, branding is something that every person is faced with every single day. Again, I go back to the grocery store selection. I also go back to advertising. Political parties, political candidates, ideas… Everything is a brand. Every political candidate, everyone running for office is their own brand, and that's why that relational aspect is so important. People relate to certain ideas and concepts, and politicians in particular are great at creating a story and an identity that people can identify with. That will really bring in votes. So it's often more about the image, the idea, the concept, the feel of a candidacy rather than the actual nuts and bolts policies.

0:10:15 - Kimberly King

That's interesting to think of it that way, but it's so true. They are their own brand and I guess we can learn from them good, bad and different. Right, I'm kind of right. Also, in the middle of the ground, what's the difference between a successful type of brand and unsuccessful branding?

0:10:33 - Sara Kelly

Well, unsuccessful brands don't stick around for very long. You can, as a company or as an individual, promote yourself over promote yourself. You can lie or you can exaggerate your talents as a person, but once you get that job, you're not going to last very long. If you have a bad product, you're not going to last very long. So one of the key components of successful branding is authenticity. So that's one thing that's really important to keep in mind as we talk about the way we shape our own brand, the way we put ourselves out there. It has to be true to your story and true to yourself. Otherwise it's just not going to last. It's just not going to resonate with people. So that's one of the key things that I think when people think or complain or wonder why branding is so important, because it seems like it's inauthentic. If it's inauthentic, it's not your true brand.

0:11:43 - Kimberly King

That's so you know what. This should be the headline for everything these days right, be authentic, stay genuine, and that is - We've seen some brands get into serious trouble by not staying authentic and really knowing who their audience is and just knowing what's worked in the past. This has been really relevant in the news lately.

0:12:04 - Sara Kelly

Oh, definitely. The consumer is very intelligent these days and they can see through lies and any information that's just false and misinformation. Especially in the last several years, we've all become very savvy about that.

0:12:20 - Kimberly King

Yeah, that's oh yeah, we just had another interview about AI and misinformation and fake news. So it is definitely out there and you're right, they're very savvy, I think the younger kids that have grown up with their cell phones here too, just kind of knowing the research and knowing what's right, what's wrong and what's truthful. What does personal branding mean and how does it differ from big corporate brands?

0:12:48 - Sara Kelly

I touched on this a little bit earlier, but what I think is interesting about the difference between personal branding and corporate branding is, again, that human aspect. Companies try to humanize themselves by creating that human look and feel and association. But personal brands are identified with people who are human. So it's so much easier for a human to humanize themselves than a company. So if we think of these companies that have been successful in creating brands for themselves over the years and being consistent about it, we can do even better because we are not companies trying to bring emotion, trying to bring association, trying to bring those soft feelings to the consumer, to the audience. Because we've already got those human components, we can already tell our story. It's going to seem a lot more authentic coming from an individual, a human, than a company trying to tell their story Very difficult. So it's so much easier for a person and we should all take advantage of that.

0:13:58 - Kimberly King

I know that's a really good point. We're at a good point in time for that. And again that story. I think about so many different companies, from small business-owned bakeries maybe to just like a PR firm or whatever, whatever your niche is, and then just put a tag putting a story along with that and where your passion lies, I suppose. What are the key elements of personal branding?

0:14:30 - Sara Kelly

So the key elements include, like we discussed, authenticity, being true to yourself, storytelling. One thing I think is really interesting is consistency, and another is focus. So we can be true to ourselves. But if we have multiple interests and I'm guilty of that myself somewhat it can be difficult to be consistent. You can have a lot of brand confusion if you end up having multiple products and projects that aren't well aligned. So that's something that people can get into trouble with, and I'm guilty of it myself, having done different projects.

It's very difficult for consumers to understand that a person has multiple identities or brands and to reconcile those. So when you're out there on social media and you're promoting your radio show or you're promoting your bakery or you're promoting your home cooking, do them separately. It can be very, very difficult. You have to be consistent with your brand. If you're the world's best baker and that's what you want to promote, don't confuse the messaging on social media with pictures of your family or your boyfriend or your trips, or make everything relate to your main message. If you're promoting your baking brand, show yourself, tell your own story, tell it in your own context, but make sure it's very specific to the topic. Don't stray. Focus closely, be consistent.

0:16:18 - Kimberly King

So a question for you, because that's sometimes difficult to see that as the owner. So what for you when you said you know you're guilty of that, we all are right, but what made you call attention to that, where you weren't being consistent with the same story?

0:16:37 - Sara Kelly

Well, I've done multiple projects over time. I think I mentioned before we started that I put together a documentary film years ago and I promoted that heavily on social media. I did fundraising and I had to make sure that I kept my audience in mind, who was mostly model railroaders and didn't bring into my promotion and branding too much of my other life. That didn't relate. I was also at the same time writing books about professional communication, which helped me in what I was doing to promote that. But I didn't want to, for instance, mention my books on the website or on Facebook or on social media because it wasn't relevant and it wouldn't have added anything. It might have been interesting to me or to other people, but to people who I was trying to target and focus closely on, that's what they were interested in. So I had to keep my other world separate.

0:17:42 - Kimberly King

So that's great, and almost as if you know, even when you're just starting off, that maybe there should be a list of maybe five questions that you follow to make sure it brings you back and stay focused. You know, just for the people maybe that are new in this. Yes, so how has social media impacted branding? You talked about that a little bit as well.

0:18:04 - Sara Kelly

Well, I think it's interesting. I mean, we mentioned the fact that brands have existed in corporate America and around the world for 100 years. Social media has sped up- Not only has it personalized branding, but it's sped everything up, so we can all have personal brands that spread virally very quickly. We've seen the examples of people becoming famous overnight, or virtually overnight, as influencers. Social media has allowed access to everyone to the tools of publication, and not just print, but also the, you know, through the smartphone, video, radio, things that we can all promote and publish through our smartphones that we weren't able to, so we've gotten ourselves out there more quickly through the help of others online we can promote ourselves.

Companies can promote themselves too, but individuals can skyrocket to fame overnight and then they can plummet very, very quickly. So it's sped up the cycle of brand turnover, especially for individuals, where you can really. You can really crash and burn as quickly as you rise to fame and there's always somebody else right behind you and there are multiple people. So you might have your 15 minutes, but these days your 15 minutes of fame might be your two minutes of fame, your one minute.

0:19:39 - Kimberly King

Come down and it happens really fast, doesn't it this? And it is so interesting. We live in this world and we're seeing it in real time, especially how fast it is now. How so? Another question how can a brand stay true to their audience and yet, at the same time, promote social causes that are close to their hearts?

0:20:00 - Sara Kelly

Well, that's a really interesting question. I think that a number of brands have successfully done that. We think of companies that have social justice and other agendas that are probably in agreement with most of their audience, most of their consumers. I know that a company like Target, a number of their employees do volunteer service as part of their employment. They get credit for that. There are companies like Chick-fil-A that's known for some Christian employees and missionary work that requires them to- I think they're closed on Sundays to promote some of some of the work that they do.

There are many different brands that have social causes and I think they have to know their audience too. You can't be a brand and decide that you're going to support one thing and then end up Alienating most of your customers. I think Dick's Sporting Goods had I'm not that up on the latest with Dick's Sporting Goods, but the owner of the CEO took a stand on the second amendment, which has to do with guns. They sell hunting rifles and firearms in the store. Other stores have decided not to sell certain products. So I think it has to be in alignment with the brand and there have been mistakes that have been made when companies miscalculate where they are politically and I think it's a good idea to not align with political campaigns, although some companies have done it to their detriment.

So you have to be very mindful of who your audience is and as neutral as possible, knowing that on social media in particular, you are. It's not a one-way communication. You are having a two-way conversation with everyone online and they can post whatever they want to right or wrong, malicious or not on your Facebook page. They can follow, they can do any number of things that may or may not help the brand. So that's one thing that's been interesting for companies, in particular in the social media era, as they can't completely control their branding online because it's a two-way conversation.

0:22:28 - Kimberly King

You know it's funny when you said that it you said it out loud, so you're totally 100% correct about that. But I also feel like, depending on the age of the CEO, literally, you know, the young adults coming up understand that's a two-way conversation and that's how they were raised, but there's an age drop-off and I think that there isn't a whole understanding, and especially of who's coming up underneath them, that, yeah, the branding can be tweaked because of that two-way conversation. That's really interesting. Oh, yeah, a little bit of an age gap there. But Before we take a break is how do brands work then? I mean, you kind of just talked about this too on social media, but, like, let's talk about a personal brand on social media.

0:23:13 - Sara Kelly

First of all, you'd have to make sure, if you are going to be promoting yourself as a brand, learn what you want to promote, what aspect of yourself, what is your reason for it? Why are you out there? What message, what idea Are you looking to promote? What are your values? What are you hoping to communicate? What service are you hoping to do? How are you going to reach your intended audience and who is your audience and why?

I think for the vast majority of people on social media, it's a little bit of everything. So maybe you just have a social media account for your family and friends. But if you're getting out there to brand yourself, to be an influencer, you really have to know ahead of time why you're doing it, who you're doing it for and what the net result should be at the end, once you determine those things. You should determine those things before you even make your single, your first post. You should know what you're going to be and why and how, and make decisions that align with those ideas and are consistent. It can be as simple as the first step. What is your profile image? Are you going to show a professional headshot or are you going to show a picture of you with a surfboard. What idea do you want to promote? It depends on what you're doing. If you're selling surfboards, maybe you have a picture of yourself with a surfboard. If you're selling, if you have a flower shop, probably not. If you have a bakery, maybe a chef's cap, something that very much aligns with your brand.

Think about colors, consistent colors to create a mood, consistent feel. Are you going to be? If you're creating a mood or a feel, does it have to be natural colors? Do you want to have ambient, natural light and outdoor shots with lots of grass and weather? Or are you in an office worth a very controlled lighting and white space, in a very clean sort of workspace that might convey cleanliness, might convey like hospital, hospitality, any area where you want to make sure that you're conveying this is a clean space, there's not a lot of clutter. We're talking about safety and health and welfare, so it might be that sort of thing. Think about those general ideas and how you might create that mood to begin with, before you make your first post.

0:26:03 - Kimberly King

That's great advice and again kind of goes back to business 101, but then applying that to your social media brand as well. This is great information. We have to take a quick break, so stay with us. We will be back in just a moment, don't go away. Now back to our interview with National University professor Sara Kelly. It's been so interesting. We've been discussing promoting and protecting your brand and kind of the behind the scenes of setting up that brand personal, or we've talked about the corporate branding as well. What is the difference between branding, advertising and marketing?

0:26:41 - Sara Kelly

Great question. There's a lot of confusion and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, so that doesn't help. Marketing is kind of an umbrella. It's more of a strategy for what? For determining who the audience is, what the audience wants. It's based on the past performance, predictions of future performance. It embraces all sorts of ideas regarding media, buys, advertising, which is part of marketing, and branding, which is which might be promoted as part of an advertising message. Your brand should be reflected in everything you do and formal advertising definitely includes your brand and any kind of word of mouth or other kind of advertising. So advertising is that promotional aspect. We see ads all the time for products on TV, radio, social media. The brand message should be part of that. And then marketing is the umbrella that involves all parts of the strategy for promoting the brand.

0:27:50 - Kimberly King

Wow, that was a great answer. And it's true, sometimes people do use them interchangeably and it's like wait, hold on. So, thank you, that was a great definition. What is the difference between a person's reputation and then their personal brand?

0:28:06 - Sara Kelly

Great question as well. A reputation, whether for a company or a person, is something that's unearned. It's how people feel about you. You can't control it. As an individual, I develop my own reputation through my actions and behaviors. I might have a reputation for being late to meetings, or for writing well, or for speaking too much, for not letting other people talk. That's something that's not really in your control. It should be in your control when you control it. That's your brand. So your brand is a willful determination of how people feel about you and what they think about you. So, whereas your reputation is something that is basically earned without your influence, your brand is something that you craft.

0:29:00 - Kimberly King

Wow, thank you. That's so interesting. You really put things in a great perspective and you've given great examples, so I love that, thank you. Why do entrepreneurs need brands? You kind of again, you've answered this a little bit, but let's take it to the next level.

0:29:18 - Sara Kelly

Well, I think this is an important question because it's so different. In the social media era, entrepreneurs in particular need brands because they are by themselves unknown. Back in the earlier mass media days, you could like in my experience as a reporter, I could say I'm from the Philadelphia weekly, I'm from the New York Times, I'm carrying the brand of my employer. It doesn't matter who I am, necessarily, because who I work for opens doors for me, and that made it very easy as a journalist working for a company that was known.

Working for yourself as an entrepreneur or as a social media influencer or as a blogger or as a podcaster, you have to represent yourself. So your personal brand really needs to open doors for you and if it's not strong enough, you're not going to be able to open those doors. In many cases, if you work for a big and well-known company or a politician or a political leader or a famous person, it doesn't even matter who you are. You're just somebody who represents a brand that's very well established. But if you're working for yourself, you really need to have your own brand that's strong.

0:30:42 - Kimberly King

That's a good point. So how can a brand set you apart from competitors?

0:30:48 - Sara Kelly

Well, a brand has to set you apart from competitors, because if you aren't, with all the different options out there, all the different products, all the different talented people out there, you're just going to be one of millions of other people just like you. No matter how talented you are, no matter what you can bring to the table, if you don't stand out, you don't stand a chance.

0:31:13 - Kimberly King

Right, good call. I love that because you're so direct and you say it like it is, so that's great. Can you sell or promote without a brand?

0:31:24 - Sara Kelly

You can often not very well. Yeah, an example is products that people need or products for which there's a monopoly, for instance a public utility. Do you know who picks up your trash? Maybe it's the city. Maybe it's a private contractor. Does your trash service advertise? Maybe, maybe not. They might not need to. They might not have any competition. They make the sale regardless of their branding, regardless of whether you know who they are. Maybe the company that brings natural gas to your house. Maybe that's the only game in town? Maybe you don't have any other options. They still sell, whether they're known, whether they're a known brand or not.

Your public school district may or may not be well known. If you're sending your kids to public school, they don't really need to promote themselves. Usually you know as a parent if you're going to send your kid to public school or if you're going to send them to private school, and it doesn't really matter what the brand is of the school, with the exception of if it's a really bad, notorious school district. You're probably going to avoid that. But you can sell without a brand. But if there's any kind of competition at all, you need a strong brand.

0:32:47 - Kimberly King

Right. What are the key elements of developing a brand, and are there clear do's and don'ts?

0:32:55 - Sara Kelly

Yes, I think we've touched on some of this before, but the important, the key elements are true, a true, consistent, clear message, a true, consistent, clear feel that's very human and relatable. That is something that's related to a story that your audience, your readership, your listeners can relate to, and I think that goes with pretty much any kind of entertainment media too. We like what we can relate to. If we can't relate to a person, to a brand, to a comedian, to an entertainer, we're not going to feel a connection. If we feel a connection to somebody, we're going to pay attention.

0:33:48 - Kimberly King

You know, and it's funny, I just kind of harkens back to I was a communication major many years ago. But I do remember one of my professors saying just in conversation you can tell those that are great communicators and they usually tie in a story or, as you just said, something that's going to make that relatable. So you'll remember that person by. And then they just were saying you know, this is what's if you're ever going to run for office, if you're going to be on air, you know whatever, they always tie it back to storytelling. And if you're funny, that's even better. But sometimes you can't do both. But those stories are key elements.

0:34:23 - Sara Kelly

And knowing your audience and knowing which stories are going to appeal to them. Yeah, they've done a number of studies, whether it relates to politics or comedy or any number of other things, that oftentimes it's not the line that has to be particularly funny or smart, it's the relatability of it. We laugh at a joke because it's familiar, because we've been through that, we recognize that. We find that something very relevant to our own lives. That's why we connect, not necessarily because it's smart or funny or intelligent, but because we can relate.

0:35:03 - Kimberly King

And you know who I think was one of the key people and I had the pleasure of interviewing her back in the day was Ellen DeGeneres, where she would just say funny things because it was just, you know, again, it didn't have to be funny, but it was the way she delivered it, but it was. We've all been there, so I think that that was something. Another takeaway. Definitely, what can a strong brand do for a product or a company and what can it not do?

0:35:29 - Sara Kelly

So a strong brand can create a company that's unknown. We've seen. We've seen that happen overnight on social media. We've seen brands built before social media. But what a brand can't do is save a bad product. So you can create a lot of hype, you can create a lot of recognition, name recognition, you can advertise, you can promote, but ultimately, if you don't have a good story or a good product or something that people are interested in or find worthwhile, it's not going to last. A brand can't save a bad product.

0:36:10 - Kimberly King

Boom, there you go. I love it, I love your style and thank you for explaining and really kind of giving us a window, a bird's eye view, into what branding is, and then also the difference between branding, advertising and marketing and using it in this world that we live in today. Great information, thank you for your time and we appreciate all of your knowledge, and if you want more information, you can visit National University's website at And thank you so much for your time, Sara.

0:36:40 - Sara Kelly

Thank you, I really appreciate it.

0:36:45 - Kimberly King

You've been listening to the National University podcast. For updates on future or past guests, visit us at You can also follow us on social media. Thanks for listening.

Show Quotables

"Your reputation is something that is basically earned without your influence, your brand is something that you craft. - Sara Kelly" Click to Tweet
"If you don't have a good story or a good product or something that people are interested in or find worthwhile, it's not going to last. A brand can't save a bad product. - Sara Kelly" Click to Tweet