Your personal brand comes to life in how you consistently behave, promote yourself and present yourself to others. When you show up in person, others judge you by your non-verbal attributes, and the way you communicate creates an impression of who you are and what you value. It may not feel fair, to be judged based on how you look, but it is real to others.
Think about it. If you’re walking down a dark alley at night and someone is walking towards you, you immediately and instinctively begin formulating opinions and judgements about the person coming at you: Is this person to be trusted? Should I run? Is this someone I can feel safe with? Do they look friendly? These are not logical progressions of thought; they’re more like quick judgements based on the situation (environment) and image of the person you’re meeting.
Similarly, in a job interview, business meeting or networking situation, others judge you first based on how you present yourself. They might ask themselves, “Does he take care of himself, and will he take care of my project? Does he look the part of an executive at our company? What is she trying to communicate with that outrageous outfit?”
Your Personal Brand Image
In my book Reputation 360: Creating Power Through Personal Branding, I pointed out the importance of that first impression:
Have you ever heard, “You have one chance to make a good first impression?” Studies have shown that non-verbal communication accounts for 80-90% of the information we receive. In the first five seconds after meeting you, someone has judged you, possibly as credible, confident and professional; or as interesting, valuable and trustworthy; or as lazy, disorganized and insecure. Do you see why that first impression has so much impact on how you will be perceived?
If I perceive you as arrogant and unapproachable, I’m less likely to want to get to know you, to learn what you do and what you need. You miss an opportunity to have me help you meet your goals. Perception and judgment aren’t fair. But other people’s perception of us is their reality, and they will give us opportunity, assign us value and create visibility for us based on what they believe to be real. (Click here to tweet this thought.)
Have you ever changed the way you naturally dress to fit in with a group? Over my career, I’ve dressed down to make myself blend in or worn conservative, constrictive outfits so I looked more like my peers. This usually resulted in my feeling stifled. When I learned how to express myself and highlight my passion and energy — with a bold necklace or brooch, for example — I felt more comfortable in my attire and the personality it reflected.
How Do You Want People to Feel About You and Your Image?
In determining the image you’d like to project, consider these steps:
1. Write down the image that you think you currently have and what you think your style says about you
Do you put effort into how you look? Are you trying to set yourself apart in your choice of wardrobe, or are you focused on dressing like everyone else at work?
2. Look at photographs of yourself in your wardrobe
Analyze whether you’re sending the right message with the way you’re dressing and presenting yourself. Does your clothing look outdated though your business is very cool and modern? Does your clothing make you look old, while you’re trying to network with a younger target market? Is your clothing oversized and sloppy, so that you appear larger than you are?
Be discerning and remove anything from your wardrobe that says something about you that isn’t in line with your desired image and personal brand.
3. Write down the image you’d like to have and how you would like to be perceived by the world
When you look at magazines or Pinterest and see outfits you like or feel would look good on you, consider what you believe those outfits would say about you. Could a new suit make you feel more confident? Would high heels make you feel in control? If you switched out jeans for khaki slacks, would you feel more present at work?
4. Take control of your image and wardrobe
If you decide you need to purge your wardrobe, eliminate items which really don’t “feel like you.” Maybe you bought them because they were on sale or someone else told you you look great wearing them, but you feel like someone else when you wear them. By donating the item or selling it (on consignment), you’re giving someone else the opportunity to love it.
Choose to wear clothing and accessories that make you feel confident, authentic and consistent with the image you want to project to others.
5. Shop for updated, quality clothes that are appropriate for your figure and your lifestyle
(Professional, casual days, networking events, etc.) My advice is to always buy the best quality you can afford. Look for sales and promotions at various stores in your local mall or online. Purchasing proper attire is an investment that will go far if you spend wisely. Your personal style should shine through and be consistent with your personal brand as much as possible.
What If You Wear a Uniform?
But what if your job requires you to wear a uniform? Can you build a compelling and relevant personal brand if you don’t have control over your wardrobe?
Absolutely! Your personal brand comes to life in the way you interact with others, the tone of your behavior and, most importantly, the way you fulfill the promises you set forth, tied to your values.
I recently encountered such an example. During a recent stay at a hotel on a business trip, I realized some things were missing from the hotel room. That’s when I met Sara, a stellar employee who embodied all the brand values the CEO likely strives for. Sara was attentive, caring, helpful and had terrific follow-up.
I looked into whether her skills and disposition were part of the corporate training and were expected of all hotel employees. Not exactly. I learned that Sara was known for “going above and beyond” — she was respected by her colleagues on the front line staff, hotel customers adored her attentiveness and cheery disposition, and her supervisor considered Sara a “go-to” person for tending to business travelers who appreciated her care.
Sara had built a powerful personal brand, despite the standard-issue uniform she was required to wear. If you just looked at her, she looked like any other staff member. But when you learned of her reputation and you experienced her work, you quickly felt the power of her promise. Sara made sure you knew that she valued the customer experience, and she behaved accordingly.
Whether you choose your own wardrobe, have flexibility in accessorizing or adding “flare” to your uniform, or wear strict corporate attire dictated by someone else, your personal brand can still flourish in how you act, behave and interact and can set the expectation of the experience of working with you.
Next time you approach a job interview, business meeting or networking event, look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “Does my image match the way I want people to perceive me?” When your image matches your desired brand, you will enter the world with confidence and enthusiasm.
What does your image currently say about you? How can you make it fit your desired personal brand?
Principal and founder of LIDA360, LLC, Lida Citroen is the author of Reputation 360: Creating Power Through Personal Branding, which guides readers through the entire personal branding process with easy-to-understand action items for making their brand known. An accomplished speaker, Lida presents her programs to corporations, nonprofits and conferences internationally, and her career advice and reputation strategies have been featured in Fortune Magazine, Forbes.com, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Harvard Business Review and numerous radio programs.