How to Build a Personal Brand: The Creative’s Guide
Building a personal brand can elevate your business in a big way. What steps do you need to get there, though? We've collaborated with brand coach and strategist Hollie Arnett of Maker & Moxie to deliver some expert advice in a three-part series on all things personal branding. This week, Hollie takes you through all the things you can do to start building your brand! Notebook at the ready...
Building your personal brand is a bit like Marie Kondo-ing your house.
If you've ever seen Tidying Up with Marie Kondo or read the book, you will know how the process goes.
One category at a time, you gather everything and empty it out. Picking up each item, you decide whether it sparks joy or not. If it does, you keep it, and if not, you thank it for its service and let it go. Everything you choose to keep then gets a home that works with your life so that you can easily use, enjoy, and look after it. When you’re done, you should hopefully feel a sense of clarity, confidence, and calm.
Building your brand is a similar experience.
In the branding process, you take everything out of your drawers, go deep into the very back of the closet, empty it all out, and take it all in. You have to go all the way back to the foundations and look at why you built this house (or brand in this case) in the first place and what you love about it. You think about what you need from it and how it needs to function to work with your life. You find the things that spark joy and move forward with them, and for the things that don't, you thank them for all that they've given you, and move on.
With branding, just like Marie Kondo-ing your house, it can feel like it gets messier before things become clear. But when you’ve found those things that really spark joy and put them in the perfect places that work for you, your life, and your future, you'll have more clarity than ever before.
You know at the end of the episode when everyone is crying, they love their house more than ever, and they can't wait to invite everyone over to see how fab it is? That is how you should feel about your brand afterwards!
And it starts with the first category: your goals.
Personal branding boils down to one question...
What do you want to be known for?
The work you do?
The clients you work with?
The style you work in?
The person you are?
What do you want people to think of when they hear your name?
This question is all about knowing your goals so that you can craft a brand strategy that will help you achieve them. A brand strategy is a roadmap for getting from point A to point B. It shows you the steps to take to achieve your goals, and gives you all the tools you need to make it happen.
That’s what we’re going to start crafting today.
Keep the person in personal branding
Before we dive into the actionable steps for building your brand, I want to remind you of something important.
People connect with people.
Whatever your goals are, you’re going to be working with people, whether they’re your clients, coworkers, collaborators, or creative directors.
Whether they’re hiring you as an employee, booking your services, or purchasing your work, these people want to know that you’re the right person for them first. And that’s not just about your technical skills and creative abilities, it’s about your personality too.
Clients and employers both want to know the person they’ll be working with, so embrace your personality and put that into your personal brand.
Are you quiet, introverted, and sensitive? Embrace it and build a brand that serves that with content and services that suit your personality. You’ll find your fellow empaths who value a quieter, more feelings-driven approach.
If you’re loud, extroverted, and love all things colourful, raise your voice and share your passions! You’ll bring in people who are all about that energy.
Mia Saine is an illustrator and designer who infuses their personality, passions, and purpose throughout their personal brand. Their work is bold and colourful and speaks about topics Mia is passionate about, their social media features posts and stories about Mia as well as their work, and Mia’s personality shines through everything they do. This is what draws clients and customers like AllBirds, Google, and Vans to Mia – their personality, passions, and purpose.
It can be tempting to try and fit what you think other people want to see, to hide your personality to appear more “professional,” or to dampen your uniqueness to fit in. But the goal of branding is to stand out.
Who you are and what makes you unique is what people love about you. It’s what makes you stand out, and what makes you you.
So the biggest key to personal branding is to embrace your personality, honour your passions, and build a brand that works for you.
Putting your whole personality into your personal brand in this way will mean two things:
The people who you’ll be working with know that you’re someone they want to hire. They’ll be confident in the culture-fit, excited to get to know you, and passionate about supporting you and your passions.
You know that the people you’ll be working with accept, admire, and appreciate you for who you are, so you can confidently and comfortably be yourself while you work together. That’s gonna make you generally happier, more satisfied with your job, and ultimately lead to better work all around.
So when it comes to your personal brand, ask yourself questions like:
What am I passionate about? If you’re someone who loves seeing and helping ethical businesses make a difference in the world, you could include this in your Twitter and Instagram bios. Or if you love advocating for accessible design, you might create content about this that you share regularly on LinkedIn or your email newsletter.
What drives me? This is a big question, but why do you do what you do? Is it so that you can be creative every day? Because you want to change the world? However big or small your motivation is, it’s important to know what drives you, and be open to sharing that. As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t care what you do, they care about why you do it,” and your “why” will often be the reason that people connect with and want to work with you. You could share this on social media, in your bios, or include it on your website home and about pages.
What’s my story? Your journey is something completely unique to you so it makes you stand out and humans are hard-wired to engage with stories. If your background in user experience design gives you a different perspective on branding, then share that! Or if your experience as an artist helps you create unique designs, then share that. Your story is your superpower, so pop it on your website’s about page, or tell tiny snippets of it throughout your content.
What’s my personality like? Are you loud, bold, and energetic? You might rock a colorful brand identity and create tonnes of video content that shows off thatyour bubbly energy. Whereas if you’re more quiet, calm, and chill, you could use softer colors and craft long-form written content where you can take the time to process your thoughts internally before sharing them with the world. Lean into your personality, and create a brand that works with who you are.
What makes me different? What is it that sets you apart from everyone else doing what you do? For me, that’s mostly in my approach to branding being fun, human-centered, and specifically designed for creatives. Yours might be in the tools you use, the style you have, the topics you create around, or a combination of things that make you unique. These differentiators can be communicated on your website, in proposals, or through your content.
What do I love about what I do? If you’re a developer, what do you love about coding? As a web designer, what’s your favourite thing about creating websites? What lights you up as an illustrator every time you sit down to draw? Seeing you passionate and excited about what you do will make people passionate and excited about working with you – they’ll be drawn to your energy and eager to get in on the magic you make!
What do I do for fun? Do you love running, doing cross-stitch, volunteering at a local dog-shelter, or other fun things in your spare time? Those things make you human, and they connect you with other humans who enjoy them too. You could meet your next client or employer in a Facebook group for local runners! Embrace the things you love, engage in those communities, and include them in your content.
The answers to these questions are things you can talk about in social media content, themes you can infuse into your work, industries you can niche into, and so much more!
Dann Petty’s brand, for example, isn’t just about web design. His visual identity shows his personality and includes references to the things he loves, like skating and surfing. His content is about things he’s interested in and passionate about. Dann’s personality and passion are what people connect with, not just that he’s a great designer, which makes them want to buy his products and support his work.
What do I need to build my personal brand?
When you’re ready to build your personal brand, there are a few key things you need to work towards getting clear on (aka the categories of your brand’s Marie Kondo experience):
Firstly, you want to know what you’re working towards. Do you want to be working full-time as a senior product designer at a tech company in the next 5 years? Or maybe you’d love to be a freelance illustrator for children’s books? Understanding your goals is the first step of building your brand, so get clear on this first.
Your vision is your why, your purpose, your north star. It’s the thing you’re working towards that gets you out of bed every day. It will drive you in all that you do, and motivate you when things are hard or you’re feeling stuck. This might be a vision for you, your clients, your industry, or maybe even the world.
For me, my vision is to make the world a more creative place, one brand at a time. I believe in the power of creativity, and I want to help bring more of it into the world. Making that happen helps me put things in perspective and push through, no matter what’s happening, because my vision is bigger than anything else that’s in front of me.
Your mission is the practical, tangible thing that you do on a daily basis that is working towards your vision. It’s all about what you do, who you do it for, how you do it, and the value you add.
Again, for me, my mission is to empower creatives to build their brand, share their work, and own their moxie, with brand strategy and coaching. This mission keeps me focused, helps me prioritize projects and ideas, and ultimately makes my vision happen. It also makes it clear to others what I do, how I do it, and who I do it for.
My mission and USP front and center on my website, alongside elements of my visual identity such as colors, typography, photography, patterns, and more.
Your values are all about how you conduct your work. These are the rules, guidelines, or beliefs that you follow because they’re important to you and they make your work fulfilling. These should always be unique, actionable, and measurable.
A value like “creativity” isn’t unique to you, doesn’t communicate what it means to you or looks like in action, and is hard to measure. Instead, try a statement like, “Be creative, live creatively, practice creativity.” This is one of my values that also includes a quick description: “I'm a coach, a teacher, and a cheerleader, but at the heart of it all, I'm a creative just like the amazing people I work with. I'm alive to create, and I create to feel alive. I will always be creative, live creatively, and practice creativity.”
See how much more unique, actionable, and measurable that is than “creativity”?
Unique Selling Proposition
Your USP is all about what makes you unique. It’s what would make someone choose you over someone else. This could be related to your niche, audience, experience, or anything else that makes you different from the rest.
Mine is that I’m the brand strategist and coach for creatives. What makes me different from other brand strategists is that everything I do is specifically designed for creatives, from the perspective of a creative.
Zone/s of genius
According to Gay Hendricks’ book, The Big Leap, there are four zones that we can operate in – incompetence, competence, excellence, and genius. Incompetence is something you’re generally bad at, competence is something you’re efficient enough at, excellence is something you’re really skilled at, and genius is something you’re innately talented at.
Your goal is to find, operate in, and build your brand around your zone/s of genius. My zone of excellence was brand design – I was really good at it, and I liked it. But my zone of genius is the strategic thinking and creative direction that came with brand design – now that’s what I do, what my brand is all about, and what I book clients for!
To find your zone of genius, think about these questions that Hendricks asks:
What work do you do that doesn't seem like work?
In your work, what produces the highest ratio of abundance and satisfaction to the amount of time spent?
What is your unique ability?
Voice and Tone
Your brand voice is essentially all about your personality. Are you bright and bubbly, or sarcastic and sassy, or maybe soft and soothing? I recommend choosing five words that describe what your brand voice is and five that describe what it definitely is not. You can then use these words to guide content you create, copy you write, and other expressions of your brand voice.
Your voice is your personality – everyone has a unique one, but it stays consistent. Your tone, however, might change depending on the person you’re speaking to, or where you’re speaking. For example, you might be much more professional and prescriptive on your portfolio as you present case studies, while on Twitter you’re much more relaxed and relational. It’s all about the experience you want people to have when they interact with your brand in those places.
As well as understanding yourself, building your brand is also about understanding your audience. You first need to identify who your ideal audience is, whether it’s customers, clients, colleagues, recruiters, or someone else. Get as specific as possible!
Once you know who you want to reach, you can ask questions like:
Where do they spend their time online?
What are their needs?
What are their challenges?
What are they looking for?
What are their values?
What are they passionate about?
For example, if you’re a marketing designer looking for a role at a tech company, you might want to think about who does the hiring at those companies. Is the marketing lead on Twitter, needing to bring in more customers, so they’re needing a designer who understands the goals of a tech company and is passionate about storytelling through design? If so, you could talk about relevant topics on Twitter, show how you’ve solved problems like theirs before on your portfolio, and connect with other marketing designers.
Likewise, if you’re an illustrator who wants to design children’s books, your ideal clients would likely be authors or publishers who are looking for an artist who understands the publishing process, can bring a story to life, and who will help them sell their book. To show that you’re the illustrator for them, you could share your approach to illustrating a picture book, talk about your favorite authors, show work you’ve done for similar projects, or talk about topics relevant to the publishing industry.
Understanding your audience is an important step in reaching that audience!
Last but not least, your visual direction is all about what your brand looks like. As you’ve probably heard, a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s particularly true when it comes to branding. It takes milliseconds for someone to get a first impression from you when they land on your website or social media, and it takes seven times for them to see your brand for them to remember it. That means your visual identity needs to be clear, compelling, and memorable.
When you’ve clarified the elements of your personal brand mentioned above, you can use these to choose colors, fonts, imagery, patterns, and other visual elements that communicate your brand to your audience.
For example, if your voice is soft and soothing, you could choose muted, neutral colours that evoke a sense of calm. Or if you’re a concept artist who’s passionate about 90s arcade video games, your logo might be inspired by game design.
Studio True is a small, boutique design studio whose audience is busy small business owners looking for a small design studio they can trust with their brand again and again.
Their personality is honest, dependable, youthful, fun, caring, warm, and clever. They use colors, fonts, imagery, and other visual elements to communicate their personality and appeal to their ideal audience.
As a creative, I’m sure you know how much meaning is infused into visuals. So when it comes to your brand, think about what you want it to say, and communicate that through your identity.
I recommend listing key words about your brand in your design tool of choice, gathering visual inspiration into a moodboard, and checking it against your keyword list as you go, narrowing it down to around 10 images to create a visual direction that aligns with your brand.
Then you can build your identity by choosing:
Where should I start?
This might seem like a lot, but don’t panic! Remember, the main thing you’re trying to clarify is what you want to be known for and how to communicate that.
And I believe that branding isn’t a one-and-done thing that you do all at once and never think about again. It’s an iterative process that you can implement one step at a time.
To get started, take stock of where your brand is at right now. What does your Twitter bio say about you at the moment? What kind of work do people recommend you for at the moment? What content have you been creating? What do your friends and colleagues think you do?
Then think about your goals, as I mentioned earlier. If right now your social media profiles, portfolio, and pals all say that you’re a graphic designer, but your goal is to be a remote product designer with a focus on design systems who’s known for their upbeat bubbly personality, then start outlining the other elements of your brand that will help you get from point A (where you are now) to point B (where you want to be!).
You can then start incrementally making changes that will achieve that goal. Changing your bio, creating content, collaborating with other product designers, commenting on relevant topics and news, creating product design work, sharing your personality, are just some of the ways you could start making that move.
How can I put it all into action?
Once you know what your personal brand is all about, you can start applying it across your online and offline presence.
When your brand identity is all ready to go, you can use your design elements to create:
Social media profile graphics
Social media posts
Using your mission, vision, USP, and brand voice, you can craft your:
Social media bio
With your understanding of your goals, audience, and zones of genius, you can choose 3–5 content pillars (themes or topics) and create consistent content for:
So now you know how to Marie Kondo your brand by finding the things that spark joy and bringing them all together in an organised, consistent way that feels fab to you and works for your life.
You’ve got a step-by-step process to follow that will uncover your identity one category at a time, and can work your way through the checklist of places to apply it all once you’re done!
But maybe, like the people on the show, you need your own Marie to guide you through the process and see solutions where you can’t. In that case, you might think about working with a brand strategist or designer to help you make it happen.
Either way, once you’ve built your brand and are starting to become known for what you want to do, it’s time to think about growing your brand! Stay tuned for the next article where we’ll talk all about just that.
Hollie is the founder of Maker & Moxie, a business on a mission to help creators build their brand, share their work, and own their moxie. With a background in graphic design and typography, Hollie offers brand coaching, strategy, resources, and events that help creatives find clarity and build a business they're proud of.