Alumni Column – In a Soft Job Market, It’s Time to Focus on Brand “You”

Julia Bergeron '75

The country is experiencing what some say is a financial panic of historic proportions. What a great time to be studying economics. In less than a month, history will also be made in the political arena when the country elects either its first African-American president or its first woman vice-president. What a great time to be studying politics. The effects of the current credit crunch and the resulting shake-up and consolidation in the financial sector are expected to reverberate throughout the economy. Is it a great time to be entering the job market? Not so much.

Talking heads dominate the media. Business gurus argue about the current financial crisis — what caused it, who to blame, and how to fix it. Political pundits argue about which candidate has a better economic plan or is more qualified to lead the country out of a recession. Perhaps you are a Keynesian who advocates deficit spending, or a supply-sider who favors tax cuts. Maybe, like many angry citizens opposed to the government bailout, you’re a fan of letting natural market forces solve the problem. It’s possible that you side with the Republicans who rail against tax-and-spend liberals, or the Democrats who say deregulation and trickle-down policies don’t work..

Whatever your economic or political proclitivities, regardless of what action the Federal Reserve and FDIC take, and regardless of who wins the election, one thing seems certain. Though neither candidate would admit it during Tuesday night’s debate, the economy will get worse before it gets better, and chances are, the recession will be long and painful. This means that Colgate grads will be entering a soft job market, and finding a summer job or internship will be challenging.

A crisis of confidence is fueling the current financial panic, and you probably sympathize with consumers who are worried about losing savings, jobs, and ultimately their homes. The fact is, your most immediate worry is more personal and has to do with finding a job next summer. Multiplied by hundreds, these fears could set off a crisis of confidence of their own, as students across college campuses panic at the thought of having to enter the job market.

What can you do to relieve the anxiety? For starters, vote next month. It’s not necessarily going to have an impact on the job market you are facing, but it will feel good to take action. Exercising your right to vote will empower you, and finding a job is all about taking action and feeling powerful.

Also, take comfort in the fact that you aren’t the first Colgate grads or students looking for work during an economic downturn. I graduated in 1975, at the tail end of a 16-month recession, caused by a four-fold increase in oil prices by OPEC, coupled with a huge increase in government spending because of the Vietnam War. Four years later, in 1979, I graduated from business school just before the country went into 6-month recession triggered by a spike in oil prices after the Iranian revolution. Despite my poor timing, I managed to survive and find jobs both times. In a way, I could attribute my first job out of business school to the economic woes of the time.

In the late 70’s, after establishing largely unsuccessful wage and price guidelines to control inflation, Jimmy Carter turned to a slightly more successful strategy of deregulating the airlines, trucking, and railroads. This created lots of jobs for newly minted MBA’s, including me, who were drawn to the challenges faced by these changing industries.

You may also be encouraged by the advice of Carter Schelling, a business strategist who believes that recessions offer employers the perfect opportunity to replace unproductive, unhappy workers with those are more motivated, eager, and willing to do whatever it takes, not to mention being cheaper. Colgate students epitomize these traits and should be in a good position to take advantage of the openings that occur even during periods of economic slowdown and company downsizing.

However, the most useful thing you can do during this worrisome and uncertain time is to shift your attention from external market factors that are uncontrollable, and look inward. Think about the product that you are offering to the job market, a product over which you have total control — yourself. Take the time to understand what that product is and then decide how to package and communicate it. Think of it as creating your own personal brand, a la Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps.

Ideas about self-promotion and techniques for marketing yourself are not new. A lot of what Dale Carnegie preached in the 1930’s is could be considered what we call branding today. But the buzz about personal branding really began in 1997, when Tom Peters, a widely acclaimed author and business consultant, wrote an article for entitled, “The Brand Called You”. He revisited the topic in 2004, noting that while the idea of personal branding was cool in 1997, it is absolutely necessary now. “The only way to protect yourself is to realize that you have to be the boss of your own show. Brand You. Me Inc. It matters.”

Products proliferate in today’s crowed marketplace and branding is everything, particularly in a world dominated by the Internet and e-mail. Anyone can have a Web site, and everyone does. How do you know which sites are worth visiting, and which are worth bookmaking? Isn’t it a trusted name that tells you that your visit will be worth it, every time? The same holds true with e-mail. When you are bombarded by messages, isn’t it the name of the sender that factors into the decision about what to read and what to send to the trash bin? Names represent brands that you trust.

Similarly, to be successful in competitive labor market, you have to develop a brand that stands out and that an employer can trust. You need to have a clear idea of what you’re all about and what you have to offer. You need to know what makes you different. Only then will your brand message be clear to prospective employers, and that’s because it is clear to you.

Think about the core values and message of the larger Colgate brand. Colgate has a reputation of being a “giant killer” in athletics. It’s location and weather result in grads “gutsy and strong”. They are perceived as smart, fun, driven, well rounded, worldly, diverse, confident, and they outperform expectations without ego. The Colgate brand is highly valued and trusted in the workplace. It offers you a great base from which to launch your own personal brand.

The first step in developing a brand is to ask yourself some basic questions. What are your values? What do love doing? What do you hate doing? What are you good at? What are you most proud of? What do you want to be known for? What defines personal success? These are difficult questions but they must be answered and they must be true.

This exercise will require reflection, something that I am told is sadly lacking in the lives of today’s college students, but it need not be solitary. Ask your friends and teachers. Find out if others see you as you see yourself.

Then discard your standard notions of a resume, with its static lists of job titles and job descriptions. Start thinking about a marketing brochure that highlights your skills and accomplishments, in and out of the classroom, in the workplace, and in your personal life. Don’t look at it as describing your job experience. After all, college students are often short on job experience. Instead think of it as describing your project experience. We live in a project-based world that revolves around delivering and measuring results. This will make it easier for you to develop and promote Brand You.

Ask yourself the following questions: Do you consistently deliver your work, on time? Do you anticipate and solve problems before they become crises? Do you complete projects without going over budget? What role on a team are you best at playing? Are you good at organizing a project, figuring who and what you need, and putting a team together to accomplish a task? Are you a big- picture person or do you prefer to fill in the details? Put together a feature-benefit analysis that shows how every feature provides benefits to a potential employer, and don’t underestimate the importance of trust. You must send the message to employers that you are honest, reliable and trustworthy.

Also recognize that packaging makes a difference. Right or wrong, people judge brands, and people, based on appearances. Because first impressions are important, you need to manage every aspect of your professional image, from your online presence, to how you handle e-mail and telephone communications, and including how you dress and conduct yourself in a face-to-face meeting or interview. There are many guides available addressing each of these areas.

In addition to presenting a consistent image, the key to communicating your brand is getting the word out about how great you are and what you have to offer. Mount a “word of mouth” marketing campaign using your network of friends, family, teachers, and whoever can talk about the wonderful things you’ve accomplished. The success of your personal branding strategy will depend on what they say. Piggyback on the value and reach of the Colgate brand to its maximum potential.

A lot of people think that branding is all about image — flashy logos and catchy taglines. Image is just the reflection of a brand’s core values. In his book DotZen, Dr.Seamus Phan echoes this sentiment, saying that “… the core of branding, beyond telling the truth, is to be true to yourself.”

Keep this in mind as you dig deep and work on developing Brand You, and remember the goals of personal branding as outlined by branding expert, Garr Reynolds: differentiate yourself from others, position yourself clearly in the minds of others, focus your message and mission, project credibility, and make emotional connections.