November 21, 2017

The WHY of Your Brand | From the Bell Tower

When it comes to branding yourself or your library, consider starting with the WHY

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This was a rather different ALA conference for me. I typically attend a few committee/business meetings, but the bulk of my activity consists of discussion and interest group sessions, a few of the more formal programs featuring invited speakers, and at least four hours set aside for the exhibits-and schmoozing. This year I am running for vice-president/president-elect of ACRL. This shifted the balance of my time from programs to committee meetings-and even more schmoozing.

Of the few programs I did get to one in particular that got me thinking was the ACRL New Member Discussion Group session on personal branding. I’ve been interested in this topic since discovering Tom Peter’s seminal article titled “The Brand Called You” that makes the case for self-branding.

What’s your brand?

An interesting dualism emerged from the panelists’ responses to the moderator’s questions about building (or avoiding) a personal brand. While these mostly new-to-the profession librarians want to establish a presence that could lead to professional recognition, they appear to simultaneously hold some disdain for gratuitous me-me-me self-promotion and empire building. But can one achieve the former without some degree of the latter? I got the sense they desire the attention that comes along with recognition, but want to avoid giving the appearance of conspicuously pursuing it.

The challenge is to shamelessly promote yourself while maintaining integrity. As one person commented “that stuff about how if you are good people will know it just doesn’t cut it anymore.” How are you supposed to gain recognition, along with invitations to present or contribute articles, without appearing to crave the attention of your fellow librarians like it’s an addictive drug?

Follow your beliefs

One panelist’s comment helped to put things into perspective. The term branding was personally off-putting to this individual. It suggested an effort to package oneself in an attempt to reach the greatest possible audience, and that usually required lots of intentional promotion via constant blogging, tweeting, and status updates. This panelist preferred to build bridges with those who shared similar interests and beliefs, and to engage in writing or other projects, preferably those that led to deeper explorations of topics and issues. This nicely framed the importance of starting out by first developing a personal understanding of what you believe in and what you value. All your actions and messages must emerge from those core beliefs, and they must be consistent.

One attendee said, “I want to be a blogger and I want people to read what I have to say but I don’t know what to write about.” There’s nothing wrong with those aspirations, but it will be pointless and possibly even annoying without guiding principles shaped by strong internal values. Besides having no clear and consistent message, it’s likely anything this person writes before developing such real content to share will carry the taint of insincerity while lacking what every trustworthy brand requires: authenticity.

Putting WHY before your brand

I enjoyed the conversation and hearing what my newer-to-the-profession colleagues had to say about personal branding. It also meshed nicely with the book I was reading at the time, Start with Why by Simon Sinek. If you don’t have time to read it you can get the gist of the book from Sinek’s TED Talk. The book has a simple message. Before you can build trust, authenticity, relationships, professional integrity or a following, you must first establish the WHY.

The WHY is simply what you believe and what drives your message. That’s the core, and everything follows from there. The problem for most of us is that we have a HOW and a WHAT, but no WHY. The HOW is action taken to produce something and the WHAT is the result, but without a clear sense of WHY the HOW and WHAT are uncertain and uninspired. It’s like saying you want to write a blog (the HOW) in order to get recognition (the WHAT) but you have no idea what to write about or what your point of view or message is—there’s no WHY. You have to start with WHY.

The WHY takes time

I will admit that I didn’t always understand my own WHY. I wrote about many different things and I obtained some recognition, but there was no consistent message to communicate. I had fallen into the trap of trying to achieve some limited notoriety without really understanding what I stood for. Eventually I came to the realization that it was more important and rewarding to be focused on doing things for the benefit of the community than for my own self-advancement. When my WHY evolved into “things I can do to help academic librarians become better at advancing themselves and improving their libraries”—something in which I strongly believe—it was realized in my efforts to write and present with a different and unique style (the HOW) and that translated into more meaningful tangible results (the WHAT) and greater self respect.

If you’ve yet to discover your inner WHY, don’t worry. Core beliefs aren’t light switches that get turned on and off. It may take years of reading, writing, and exploration to realize your true beliefs in a clear, concise way in which you can articulate them. While core beliefs should rarely change, a personal brand should evolve to change with the times. Look at a company like Apple. At one time its brand was all about personal computers. Today, no one thinks twice about buying a phone from Apple. What matters is that Apple is a company that has done a great job of communicating their WHY, and everything Apple does and says is consistent with that message no matter how the brand changes.

Do you need a brand?

What if you don’t buy into personal branding? Perhaps it’s just not who you are, and having no brand by which others identify you suits you perfectly well. You still might want to think about developing a brand for your academic library. If you asked your community members to describe what your library means to them—how they think of it—that would equate to your brand.

As we learned from OCLC’s Perceptions of Libraries Report, all too often the community believes our brand is books, study space, or computer access, and yet we academic librarians know we are about much more than any of those things. If we want our community to identify us in a certain way, building a brand may be the way to achieve the desired results. Where to get started? With the WHY, of course.


Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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