If you were marketing a bar of soap, would your key sales  pitch be that it cleans people?  If you were advertising a new brand of paper towels, would you brag about how people can use them to wipe up spills?  And if you were in charge with launching a brand-new cola beverage, would you entice your customers with the claim “Not only can you pour it in a glass, but you can drink it, too!”

Obviously, I’m being somewhat facetious, but the point I’m trying to get across is that commodities (products where there are many similar competing brands) can’t win the marketing game simply by bragging about their basic functionality — or the qualities they share with every other competing brand on the market.  And like it or not, with the access companies have to talent today, via the Internet and other sources, virtually all of us are “commodities” in terms of our marketability to employers.  So the idea of branding yourself has become especially important and it can pay off greatly if you take the time to isolate your differentiating strengths, qualities, and features — and then inject them consistently into every aspect of your job search, just as companies do in their marketing campaigns.

For example, I still remember a CFO networking function I attended a year or two ago where a group of 12 or so financial executives went around the room and introduced themselves.  All of these individuals were actively in career transition and were ostensibly at the meeting to make connections that could lead to employment, so they needed to really be on their game in order to stand out and make a positive impression.  To my dismay, however, virtually every introduction was essentially along the lines of “Hi, I’m Joe.  I’m a CFO and I’ve done lots of CFO kinds of things for many years.”  Time and time again, people would repeat the same list of common financial skill sets, despite the fact that their neighbor just went through the exact same list, mere moments ago.  So there was literally zero ground to be gained by repeating the same points that everybody else had previously mentioned — and that any normal person would assume that any and all CFOs would have to have in order to be successful.  The big payoff would have gone to the person who stipulated all of this basic stuff (like the fact that soap cleans people or paper towels absorb spills) and instead shared something more memorable/profound about his or her expertise, work style, or personal values.  Unfortunately, an example of this didn’t happen at this particular meeting, but there are many individuals I’ve met (and I’m sure you have, too!) who immediately grabbed my attention by citing a unique capability or distinctive point of view they had to offer.

Finding it a struggle to figure out exactly what to stress, in your own case?  Welcome to the wonderful world of marketing and the challenge of differentiating yourself from the pack!   The good news, however, is that if boring products like soap, shaving cream, and strawberry jam can do it, you can , too, since human beings have a LOT more complexities and nuances to work with.  Keep in mind, also, that you don’t necessarily need to worry about the reality that you’re better at something than all of your competitors.  Branding is a game of perceptions, so when Volvo tells us for years that they are the “safe” vehicle choice, we tend to believe them even if we don’t happen to know a shred of factual evidence that would back this belief up.  Or consider one of my favorite advertising campaigns in recent years, the one that’s been running for Foster Farms chicken.  Their ads, if you haven’t seen them, use two goofy, chain-smoking chicken characters to imply that any chicken that isn’t grown in Washington State, at the Foster Farms facility, is dirty, unsanitary, and downright hazardous to your health.  Sound crazy?  All I can say is that they’ve now made me think twice every time I go to the grocery store to pick up some drumsticks or a pack of skinless, boneless thighs… :)

At any rate, for those who might be interested in learning more about the personal branding topic, I happen to have two recent resources I’ve developed that you can grab off my website, if you’d like.  For starters, I’ve uploaded a PowerPoint presentation I delivered at a recent association meeting, which you can download in the About Us, Speaking Engagements section of my website here — although this presentation is primarily an outline, so you’ll miss out on all the witty commentary I provided during the speech itself, of course!  Additionally, I have a new Conscious Careering article on the “personal branding” subject coming out in the Puget Sound Business Journal next month, an advance copy of which you can access by clicking here.

In closing, if you haven’t given serious thought to how to differentiate yourself, and haven’t practiced wordsmithing and refining your pitch, deliberately, you’re probably not “branding” yourself to the degree required to gain a competitive advantage out there.  It takes some initial creative thought, followed by a commitment to consistency and ongoing repetition.  As we all know, however, companies have been following this process for over 100 years now, quite profitably, and the job seekers that adopt these same techniques have a lot to gain from the exercise.  It seems so awfully impersonal to think of yourself as a commodity product, I know, but that’s the game — and at the end of the day, none of us are exempt from the basic principles of advertising, marketing, and branding that rule any competitive marketplace!