In a time when there are a lot of talented candidates out looking for work, unfortunately, it becomes more important than ever for job hunters to think hard about what sets them apart from the crowd — and to promote their “personal brand” aggressively throughout the course of their job search campaign.

Not sure what I mean by this, exactly?  Or think it doesn’t really make all that much of a difference?  For evidence as to the power of this technique, one only has to look at the corporate marketing world, since almost every principle of marketing, advertising, and branding that companies have practiced for 100+ years will work for individual job hunters, as well.  There is very little difference, after all, between a consumer trying to select just the right product to buy from a sea of competitive offerings — and a hiring manager trying to select just the right candidate from a large pool of applicants!

And while the concept of personal branding is too large to cover in a single blog posting, and I’ll be sharing similar thoughts about it in future articles, I’d start by pointing out one critical item to think about, which is the notion that perception, in branding, often equals reality.

Need some examples of this principle in action?

— Is it really easier to get a quote from GEICO Insurance than from other insurance firms?  Could a caveman only manage to figure out GEICO’s system, while being hopelessly stymied by all other competing systems?  Do we really think we couldn’t get a very quick quote and excellent customer service from firms other than GEICO?

and yet, by all accounts, GEICO’s “so easy, a caveman can do it” campaign has been a tremendous success!

— Is a Volvo really that much safer these days than other modern automobiles?  If so, how do you know?  Can you cite specific engineering features that set Volvos apart from all of the other cars that brag about their crash test ratings, safetey features, and the like?

…and yet, Volvo has been pushing their “safety” angle for decades and almost everybody instantly associates the brand with this quality!

— Is Ivory Soap really more pure than other soaps?  So pure that it floats, as they claim?  So pure that their famous “99 and 44/100% pure” tagline stands up to scrutiny — and if we checked, other soaps would not reveal an equal (or greater) purity percentage?

…and yet, in a sea of soap brands that all pretty much just do one thing, get you clean, Ivory has managed to capture a great deal of market share over the years by sticking to one single characteristic: purity!

Heck, when it comes down to it, even McDonalds has demonstrated some pretty impressive branding accomplishments.  What other company, after all, would have the audacity to simply mix ketchup and mayonnaise together and then brag about this “special sauce” in commercial after commercial?

The point, obviously, is that job hunters can learn a ton from these commercial branding examples — and should realize that effective branding is not solely about figuring out the skills, strengths, and qualities that set you apart from your competition.  Of equal importance is to stick rigorously to your key branding themes in cover letter after cover letter, in networking meeting after networking meeting, and in interview after interview, so that your message takes hold and doesn’t get diluted.  Additionally, it’s important to acknowledge that branding is a game of perceptions, not reality.  Just like most consumers blindly accept the claim that Volvo cars are more safe than others, or that Ivory soap is more pure than other brands, hiring managers will tend to accept your claims, too, if you repeat them often enough with passion and conviction.

So figure out your “special sauce” as quickly as you can and start getting the word out!  Start creating the perceptions you want associated with yourself!  At the end of the day, you may NOT truly be the most detail-oriented individual a given company is interviewing, or the most creative marketeer, or the best leader of organizational turnarounds — but if you claim you are, enough times, the message will usually stick.  For better or worse, Madison Avenue has proven this principle to be true for over a century…