Personal branding part two: what a personal brand is, and how to do it right

In part one, we talked about the misunderstandings around personal branding, and how the marketing rhetoric used to describe it doesn’t match the way writers think about themselves. In this post, we’ll try to get to a definition of personal branding that we can use and talk about how some writers are doing it well.

Because personal branding is based on the way products and companies brand themselves, let’s ditch the “personal” for now and just talk about “branding.” We’re going to get deep into businessy marketing talk for a second—just bear with me. Writing for Forbes, Jerry McLaughlin gives a good rundown of how the term “brand” is used in marketing today:

Beginning in the later part of the 20th century, marketers began to grasp there was more to the perception of distinctive products and services than their names—something David Ogilvy described as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” Marketers realized that they could create a specific perception in customers’ minds concerning the qualities and attributes of each non-generic product or service. They took to calling this perception “the brand.”

Put simply, your “brand” is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name. It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your name brand offering—both factual (e.g. It comes in a robin’s-egg-blue box), and emotional (e.g. It’s romantic). Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it. It’s fixed. But your brand exists only in someone’s mind.

Extending this to personal branding makes you the product and people’s perception of you the brand, but that feels a little gross, doesn’t it? Who wants to be a product? Enter Thomas Smale, writing for Entrepreneur, who gives the best and simplest definition of a personal brand that I’ve seen: “Your personal brand is how you appear to the world.”


The more you get your marketing fundamentals in order early on, the more control you’ll have over that brand.
— Arielle Jackson


Your personal brand is how the world sees you

What I like about Smale’s definition is that acknowledges that you have a personal brand whether you like it or not. Everything you do contributes to the way the world sees you. Your publications, your tweets, the way you present yourself at readings or events, the classes you teach—it’s all creating an impression.

This is great for writers, for two reasons:

  1. You don’t have to be fake. Smale’s first piece of advice in Entrepreneur is “Understand and be your authentic self.” He may be understating the difficulty involved in that, but his point is a good one. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, talk about what you want to talk about, and do it in your own voice.

  2. You don’t have to limit yourself. Personal branding shouldn’t be an exercise in whittling everything about you down into a single marketing message. Roxane Gay has an incredible personal brand, much of which is expressed through Twitter. I’m scrolling through her last 100 tweets, where she’s written funny and thoughtful stuff about race, James Patterson, International Trans Visibility Day, and Channing Tatum. (Between all that there’s a few tweets about her upcoming tour, most of them responding to people asking if she’s coming to their city—Roxane nailing her jabs and right hooks)

Brad Listi, who I talked about in part one of this post, is another great example of personal branding, despite his distrust of the concept. If you listen to his interviews or follow his Twitter (or Otherppl’s Twitter, which he uses as a personal account), you’ll see his personal obsessions surface again and again—politics, psychedelic drugs and their link to spirituality, technology, a curiosity of how writers are formed, etc.

Brad Listi and Roxane Gay are both doing the three things required to build a personal brand:

  • Be active

  • Be yourself

  • Be aware of who’s seeing you

Your online presence is the #1 way people are likely to find you, especially if you don’t have a book out.


It’s important to do this early on. Arielle Jackson, formerly a marketer at Google, is famously obsessive about the details and practices. “There’s a healthy contingent of entrepreneurs out there who think anything involving brand or marketing is complete fluff and a waste of time,” she told First Round Review. “I’ve found that this belief often springs from a misconception: that a brand is equivalent to a logo. It’s not true. A brand is who people think you are. The more you get your marketing fundamentals in order early on, the more control you’ll have over that brand.

But how do literary writers do that? How do we exert control over how readers see us?


Nailing the fundamentals

It might be helpful to think in terms of “marketing channels.” In startup marketing, a channel is a medium on which a consumer is likely to encounter your brand. Twitter is a channel. So is a company’s blog, their email marketing, display advertising, etc. Writers have their own sets of channels where a reader is likely to encounter their personal brand.

Non-fiction and criticism is a big one. Seattle writer Paulette Perhach has built a hugely successful personal brand, primarily off the success of her Medium piece “The Story of a Fuck Off Fund” (republished in Huffington Post and rethought and expanded upon in some of her later essays).

Twitter and social media are another huge channel. Melissa Broder is widely known outside of writer circles for her crazy popular Twitter account @sosadtoday, which has its own distinct sense of humor and pathos. Willie Fitzgerald, a Seattle writer, has a Twitter feed that feels like Seinfeld run through a meat grinder with the weirder parts of the internet.

Websites can be an expression of a writer’s brand or aesthetic. I love Megan Giddings’s website for the contrast of hot pink and stark black and white excerpts. The aforementioned Paulette Perhach has a nice one, too.

Your online presence is the #1 way people are likely to find you, especially if you don’t have a book out. They’re the “marketing fundamentals” Arielle Jackson mentions, and you can’t afford to half-ass them. Over the next few months, we’ll take a look at fine-tuning the different channels you use to connect with your readers, with our marketing fundamentals series.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of website design and social media marketing and whatnot, we’ll start with the process a lot of marketing departments use to jumpstart their marketing: the competitive analysis.*

Until then, get off Twitter and get some writing done!




* Disclaimer: I don’t think writing is a competition, and anyone who does is an asshole. A competitive analysis is just a useful metaphor. You’re not trying to put anyone out of business or anything. More on this in the post.