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You're a Marketer. So Why Isn't Your Own Brand Distinctive?

Why do people buy Axe instead of Old Spice? Or – perhaps more timely – Purell over any number of hand sanitizers? If you’ve been a marketer for long enough, you’re probably familiar with the work of Byron Sharp, who elegantly illustrates that brand distinctiveness – rather than some mysterious unique selling proposition – is what drives brand growth. In other words, it’s the distinct set of assets, used consistently, that make a brand successful. To wit: The Energizer bunny’s drumbeat. The Geico Gecko. Godiva gold. Batteries, insurance and chocolate are not exactly easy categories in which to deliver a truly unique and differentiated product. But being different isn’t the point – being distinct is what leads to results.

Many top marketers take this as a given. Take Leslie Miller, who leads marketing for Unilever’s ice cream portfolio in the U.S. “Sharp’s fundamentals have been some of the most strong and consistent pillars of my career in brand marketing, particularly at Unilever. When working on some of the best and biggest ice cream brands in the world – Magnum, Talenti – those same principles ring true. Be distinct and consistent. That’s it. Over and over.” There’s a reason Sharp’s work is sponsored by the likes of not only Unilever, but also P&G, Diageo, and Google: it’s proven.

Which brings me to the topic at hand: What about your own brand? And I don’t mean the brand you’re working on. I’m referring to your own personal brand – the one that guides who you are and what you do. I think most of you would agree that any brand worth its salt starts with its reason for being – its purpose, if you will. So the first question to start with when thinking about your own brand is a simple one: What do you want to do with your professional life?

I went through this exercise when I was a marketer, and thought I had my purpose nailed down. The phrase that captured it for me followed the marketing best practice of being simple: “I want to make an impact and work with great people.” I was pretty proud of myself. After all, it’s true. And meaningful to me. But to the outside world, it is – for all intents and purposes – meaningless. Because it is in no way distinct.

Now that I’ve switched to the recruiting side of the table, I’ve found that one of the best parts about my job is that I get to spend most of my days talking to truly incredible people. In conversation after conversation, I have the privilege of hearing the fascinating ”stories behind the stories” told by the people who made them happen. And, when the topic comes to their career choices, I always like to ask these leaders a question that speaks to their purpose: if you were to design your ideal role, what would it look like?

Over time, I noticed something in their answers: the purpose I was so proud of was not exactly original. In fact, it seemed to exactly match that of almost every marketer I spoke with. Time and again I would ask the question, and time and again I’d hear “I want to make an impact and work with great people.” Once I stopped patting myself on the back for being in such good company, I realized that this might not be such a good thing after all.

And there’s the rub: If your professional purpose isn’t distinct, how can you stand out in a crowded field of elite executives? To be clear, relevancy is not the issue here. Almost every company is also looking for leaders who like to make an impact and work with great people. But there’s a definition for something that everyone is looking for: tablestakes.

Does this mean you should find a new purpose? Quite the opposite. It means you should double down on defining it more clearly – find your Godiva gold if you will. If you like working with great people – what is your definition of great? Are they collegial? Intellectual? Work hard, play hard? Do they bring their whole selves to work? The crisper you are, the easier it is to picture which opportunities might be the right fit for you. The same goes for impact. Impact on the planet? On people? On teams? On the organization? On your industry? Here too, sharing what you are all about makes it easier to see where you might thrive.

As with any brand, though, purpose alone is not enough. Say you find a company whose people you get on with famously and whose reason for being fits exactly with yours. Yet the opportunity you have is to run an end-to-end P&L, while what you really enjoy doing is bringing creative to life. Does that sound like the perfect opportunity? Probably not.

Another question I love to ask : “Where do you get your energy?” All of a sudden, the answers grow more interesting. “I love the constant learning you get with marketing, and the competitive nature of the work. You can always check your score and it’s addicting putting points on the board.” “For me it’s about taking a business problem and finding a solution driven by human insights – in the end you can solve for both.” “Honestly, I’m not the one that’s going to come up with the big idea. But I thrive in bringing out the creativity of others. That’s my super-power.” As a marketer, ask yourself the energy question and answer it truthfully. Do you enjoy P&L leadership roles or prefer the creative side of the world – or both? Is your towering strength on brand or performance or user experience? Do you thrive with structure or prefer a more nimble organization?

When you combine purpose and energy, the unlock is powerful. If you can put yourself in a position to understand both what you are meant to do and what you enjoy doing, you can unearth something truly special that goes beyond establishing a distinct personal brand: You can find professional fulfillment. For Rishi Dhingra, who leads marketing for Purell as CMO and GM of Consumer for GOJO Industries, a conversation 20 years ago led to an idea that has been re-affirmed while living and working across three continents.  “I enjoy leading strong purpose-driven brands,” says Dhingra, “as a platform for finding what motivates others to do their best and creating the enabling conditions to ultimately improve everyday living.” For Jackson Jeyanayagam, the VP/GM of Clorox’s DTC business and a 2018 Forbes nominee as one of the 50 CMOs redefining the role and shaping the future, “My purpose is helping people. Period. It's taken me 20 years and a pandemic to realize that I get the most joy and fulfillment from seeing people grow and evolve; my goal is simple - help you be better today than you were yesterday - and if we can do that together to achieve a common goal(s), nothing is more rewarding and nothing energizes me more."

And as for myself? I’ve recalibrated my purpose and added the energy dynamic. The short form version: “lift, learn, and live” corresponds to the joy I get in helping others succeed (lift), while aiming to get better each and every day (learn), and have a lot of fun while doing it (live).

It may not be perfect, but I’ll keep working on it. And more importantly – the professional fulfillment? That I do have now in ways I never had before.

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