I recently went to a conference where attendees’ name tags included the phrase, “Ask me about… [then an answer we provided when registering].” What a cool idea, I thought. I’m going to use that at my conference!
While I initially just admired their clever way of giving attendees a way to break the ice when networking, my admiration soon shifted to a major career realization:
The whole concept of personal branding can be summarized by that simple phrase, “Ask me about…”
Before we look at some examples, let’s define some terms.
Branding vs. Positioning
According to BusinessDictionary.com, a brand is, “a unique design, sign, symbol, words, or a combination of these, employed in creating an image that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors.”
Think of Kleenex brand facial tissue, Tide brand detergent.
Companies spend billions of dollars a year advertising and building brand recognition. Why? So people will remember and buy their products.
It is interesting to note that in many cases a name-brand product and a no-name generic product are the same product produced by the same manufacture. What matters is that consumers perceive that a brand is better and therefore buy it, usually at a higher price than a non-branded generic equivalent.
Which brings us to the next key concept, positioning. One way to communicate to potential customers about a product or service is to compare it to a well-known product or service. “Stronger than steel,” “Faster than FedEx,” “Cheaper than Walmart” would be examples of positioning.
Notice that in each example, the phase identifies what makes the product different (quality, speed, price) and then a well-know product or company against which the product is positioned.
Sidebar: The Power of Branding and Positioning
Philip Morris originally launched the Marlboro brand in 1924 as a woman’s cigarette, and advertising was based around how ladylike the cigarette was. When smoking was linked to lung cancer in the 1950s, Philip Morris repositioned Marlboro as a man’s cigarette. Men at the time indicated that while they would consider switching to a filtered cigarette, they were concerned about being seen smoking a cigarette marketed to women. So Philip Morris’s advertising agency decided to use a lineup of manly figures in the ads, starting with a cowboy.
Within a year, Marlboro's market share rose from less than one percent to the fourth best-selling brand. This prompted Philip Morris to drop the lineup of manly figures and stick with the cowboy. 
OK, so far we have covered branding and positioning. One might say those obviously apply to selling shoes or laundry soap, but what do they have to do with me, the technical communicator?
That’s where personal branding comes in. Just as a company creates a brand and promotes why people should buy the product or service, so should you create a personal brand and promote why people should buy your product or service.
In Tech Comm 2.0: Reinventing Our Relevance in the 2000s (Intercom, Feb 2012) Scott Abel and I asserted that technical communicators are in danger of becoming a commodity, a product or service to be acquired for the lowest possible price given an acceptable level of quality. Why? Because many companies do not perceive the value that individual technical communicators bring to their organizations.
And why not? Lack of personal branding!
Personal branding and proper positioning communicate why companies should buy your services and pay the rate or salary you want to be paid.
STC fellow Andrea Ames, when asked what she does for a living, answers, “I solve business problems.” Not “I’m a technical writer.” Not “I write user manuals.”
While she may actually do those things as part of her job, they’re not the way she approaches her job. And certainly that’s not how she self-identifies or defines her corporate mission.
“I solve business problems.” What a great personal brand! It instantly communicates what she does and why she is valuable.
Responding to Market Changes
In their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, James Collins and Jerry Porras state of the visionary companies they studied, all had a history of responding to market changes while staying true to their core values.
Content Strategist Sharon Burton’s rebranding story illustrates this beautifully:
“The whole reason I got into tech comm was not because I loved to write, it was because I loved being at the crossroads of people and technology and I could make a difference. That’s why I do what I do. When the recession hit and I got laid off, it forced me to reexamine what drives me in this field, what excites me. I realized what was true when I started is just as true today: I love being at the intersection of people and technology.
Unfortunately, writing online help topics just doesn’t excite me anymore. But helping companies adopt a content strategy that gives people the information they need so they can go out and change the world? That excites me!
Our industry is changing. We’re in a content development revolution. Companies don’t need just user manuals anymore, they need social media and webinars, YouTube videos and multi-channel publishing. These are the areas on which companies are spending money, and they need help to do it right.
So the process of me rebranding wasn’t just calling myself by a new title, it included reeducating myself and repositioning myself so I could effectively offer the services that companies need as the very ground beneath them changes.”
Alvin Toffler, an American writer known for his works discussing the digital revolution, takes the concept of reeducation a step further: “The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
“The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
Ask Me About…
How can you respond to market changes while staying true to your core values?
What can you do well that you can promote as a specialized service for which you should be handsomely paid?
Are you expert in content management systems? A specialist in Simplified English? A wiz at creating cascading style sheets?
Or perhaps you make software easier to use through embedded user assistance, or increase sales though better marketing collateral?
What should people ask you about?”
About the Author
Jack Molisani is an STC Fellow and the president of ProSpring Technical Staffing, an agency specializing in staff and contract technical writers: ProspringStaffing.com He also produces the LavaCon Conference on Digital Media and Content Strategies: Lavacon.org You can reach Jack at JackMolisani@ProspringStaffing.com Follow Jack on Twitter: @JackMolisani
 Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, ed. (2003). W.C. Privy's Original Bathroom Companion. St. Martin's Press. pp. 407–410. ISBN 0-312-28750-X.